Amid rumors that Shimizu had fled the country, checked into a hospital or committed suicide, company officials said Monday that their boss had suffered an unspecified “small illness” because of overwork after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake sent a tsunami crashing onto his company’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
After a short break to recuperate, they said, Shimizu, 66, is back at work directing an emergency command center on the second floor of Tepco’s central Tokyo headquarters.
Still, company officials are vague about whether they have actually seen their boss: “I’ll have to check on that,” said spokesman Ryo Shimitsu. Another staffer, Hiro Hasegawa, said he’d seen the president regularly but couldn’t provide details.
Vanishing in times of crisis is something of a tradition among Japan’s industrial and political elite. During Toyota’s recall debacle last year, the carmaker’s chief also went AWOL. “It is very, very sad, but this is normal in Japan,” said Yasushi Hirai, the chief editor of Shyukan Kinyobi, a weekly news magazine.
But the huge scale of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi and mounting anger at Tepco’s obfuscations have put unprecedented strain on the Japanese establishment’s preference for invisible crisis management. And the Internet has helped erode Japan’s deferential norms and given voice to those who want more than a contrite bow.
Shimizu’s vanishing act “is not so much extremely strange as inexcusable,” said Takeo Nishioka, the chairman of the upper house of Japan’s Diet, or parliament. Speaking to reporters, Nishioka described as “mysterious” Shimizu’s refusal to join the head of the nuclear safety agency at a briefing on the crisis for parliament. “I cannot understand this,” Nishioka fumed.
Shimizu last appeared in public at a late-night news conference March 13, two days after the worst earthquake on record in Japan. The tsunami triggered by the quake, said Shimizu, dressed in a blue company uniform instead of his normal business suit, “exceeded our expectations.”
Since then, the Daiichi plant has gone berserk, releasing radiation into the air, contaminating the sea and spreading alarm across Japan and beyond. Shimizu’s public response: an arid message on the company’s Web site expressing “deep apologies for the concerns and inconveniences caused due to the incident.”
Tepco’s contrition brought an angry blast from the governor of Fukushima prefecture, a region that has borne the brunt of the crisis. Residents of Fukushima, governor Yuhei Sato told Japanese television, are “not in a position to accept apologies because their anger and anxiety are extreme.”