Red tape hampers tunnel rescue

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For the last week, Japan has been fixated by a single scene, relayed for several hours each day on all the national news channels.

It shows an obscure corner of Hokkaido, the remotest and most northerly of the country's main islands. Hundreds of men in anoraks swarm over piles of rock at the mouth of a dark tunnel, supported by snow-caked tractors, cranes and earth-moving diggers. A few yards in front are the vans and power generators of the media and beside them is another group of buses sheltering groups of relatives who emerge occasionally to stand forlorn amid the snow and noise.

The central characters in this drama are invisible, although their images too have been widely circulated, smiling happily from snapshots and school photographs. Last Saturday - one in a car, the rest in a local bus - they were driving through the 1,000-yard Toyohama tunnel beneath a mountain dividing two small towns on Hokkaido's frozen west coast. Just after 8am a piece of rock slid down from the cliff, sliced through the tunnel, and came to a rest on top of the two vehicles. The tear-shaped slab, the product of a volcanic eruption millennia ago, was the size of a block of flats and weighed perhaps 50,000 tons.

By yesterday, the rock had been reduced to fragments by a series of controlled explosions, and the first of the 20 victims, the body of the car-driver, had been found. There are 19 others, eight of them teenagers; none but the most optimistic of their waiting relatives still believes that they can be alive. But the fact that, a week later, nobody knows for sure adds to a suspicion that has been growing for more than a year: that Japan, for all its massive wealth and technological expertise, is a bad place to be in a disaster.

The problem can be summed up in one word: bureaucracy. As commentators and experts have been pointing out all week, Japan is a "vertically structured society". Power, concentrated in the ministries in Tokyo, is filtered through a network of local town and prefectural governments. In many ways, the model is feudal: for nearly 300 years up to the late 19th century Japan was governed by local barons who owed fealty to the ruling shogun. In happy times, the system ensures remarkable equality between the regions; despite its size and geographical variety, Japan suffers from none of the divisive regional inequalities which afflict Britain or Italy. But when decisions have to be made quickly, the vast number of small independent fiefdoms often find it impossible to co-ordinate theirduties.

These inadequacies showed most absurdly after the Kobe earthquake last January. The government took hours to react: firemen, rescue units and the Self-Defence Forces (SDF) were left champing at the bit, unable to mobilise without orders from the top. After the Aum Shinri Kyo cult released nerve gas on the Tokyo subway it became clear that police in different parts of the country had harboured suspicions about their activities for months.

Japan has no centrally organised team of disaster specialists. Responsibility for the tunnel disaster fell to the Hokkaido Development Agency, because it built the tunnel in the first place. It was eight hours before the governor of Hokkaido summoned the SDF, and three days before experts from Tokyo arrived.

Toshiyuki Shikata, a university professor and former SDF officer, asks: "Why shouldn't the SDF be called in immediately? The Japanese government is like a control tower, with no one at the controls."