Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 19:00 | SYDNEY
Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 19:00 | SYDNEY

The Japan disaster: Why all the warnings?

21 March 2011 11:52

Peter McCawley is the former dean of the Asian Development Bank Institute in Japan.

Once again, a stack of foreign ministers have urged us all to hide under our beds.

In the wake of the current problems in Japan, there has been a quite remarkable series of recommendations from the Tokyo embassies of France, UK, Australia and others, urging citizens to avoid travel to Japan and to consider leaving Japan. This business of urging citizens to flee seems to be becoming part of the standard response for publicity-seeking foreign ministers around the world. The ministers need to get a grasp on reality. We don't need their advice.

This game of playing on local hysteria has been going on for quite some time. I was posted in Jakarta when the terrible Bali bombing event occurred in October 2002. As a dutiful Australian citizen, I was registered with the Australian Embassy. But following the bombings, I was bombarded with an emotional set of emails virtually every day from the Jakarta embassy urging me, basically, to flee.

At the time, the warnings made no sense at all. The streets in Jakarta were quiet. The main effect of the official Australian warnings was to make my own life much more difficult. And to frighten people back in Australia. I had to file lots of paperwork back to nervous officials in Canberra explaining why Jakarta was safe.

More recently, I lived in Tokyo for four years until 2007. All 12 million of us living in Tokyo knew that we were exposed to the risk of the 'big one' following the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923. We didn't need any ambassador from any nanny state to tell us that the region is geologically unstable. We knew, for heavens' sake. No warnings from any foreign minister in some distant country can add to the vast amount of information which is already available from a myriad of other public sources.

So what should Western foreign ministers and embassies do in these situations'  First, they should minimise the harm they do, by saying as little as possible. There is no need for ministers and ambassadors to exacerbate difficult situations by issuing alarmist statements. If they cannot provide supportive statements to Japan in time of great need, it is best that they at least remain silent. 

Second, they should only issue alarmist warnings which destabilise the situation when the local situation is indeed very serious. Otherwise, their statements should echo those of local governments such as the Japanese Government, which is that the public interest would be best served if everybody remained as calm as possible. It would be helpful if the Australian Foreign Minister, and Australian ambassadors around the region, took note of this sensible advice. 

I am glad to say that I ignored the frightened advice from the various Western embassies after the Bali bombings to flee Jakarta. A few weeks later, one of Indonesia's most senior policy-makers and a great friend of Australia, Professor Mohammad Sadli, was talking to me about the exodus of foreigners from Indonesia. 'It does not help us when people leave', he said. 'Thank you for staying'.

Photo by Flickr user cromacom.