The one ray of light that can emerge from Japan's tragedy is the realisation that its government young, democratic agenda made institutions more responsive in the aftermath of the tsunami.
From Japan's disaster gloom to a new political order
Rarely - indeed, perhaps not since before World War II - have the Japanese had such good press abroad. Even South Korean newspapers have been full of praise for the self-discipline of ordinary Japanese in dire circumstances. And coming from Koreans, not usually Japan's biggest fans, that is no small thing.
When it comes to Japanese officials, however, matters are a little different. There has been much complaining from foreign observers, aid teams, reporters and government spokesmen about the lack of clarity, not to mention reliability, of official Japanese statements about the various disasters following the massive earthquake that struck northeastern Japan on March 11. Serious problems appeared to be skirted, deliberately hidden or played down.
Worse still, few people had any understanding of who was responsible for what. Sometimes it looked very much as if the Japanese government itself was kept in the dark by officials from the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), owners of the nuclear power plants that are leaking radiation into land, sea and sky. Prime Minister Naoto Kan had to ask Tepco executives at one point, "What the hell is going on?" If Kan didn't know, how could anyone else?
Indeed, Japan's powerful bureaucrats, normally assumed to know what they are doing, appeared to be as helpless as elected politicians.
Outside Japan, it is widely believed that everything works differently there, owing to the country's exotic culture. This perception is not entirely false.
An important aspect of culture is the use of language. Often Japanese officials' utterances are deliberately vague, to avoid having to take responsibility if things go wrong - a fairly universal trait among the powerful. But some utterances may get lost in translation. When a Japanese official says that he will take something "into serious consideration," he means "no". This is not always properly understood.
In the case of Japan's official response to the earthquake and tsunami-related disasters, however, cultural exoticism is not an adequate explanation. In fact, the Japanese themselves have been as critical as any foreigner, if not more so, of their politicians' apparent haplessness, and of Tepco officials' evasions and obfuscations.
Some people are even leaving the relative safety of Tokyo, having lost trust in the government and Tepco, which has a history of covering up dangerous flaws in its nuclear facilities. An investigation in 2002 revealed that Tepco had submitted false data to the government, concealed accidents and literally hid cracks.
The breakdown of public trust in Japanese officialdom would be worrying were it to lead to a democratic breakdown. But it might also lead to necessary changes. Even though systems of government may have certain traditional components, Japan's problems are systemic, not cultural.
Japanese government was always paternalistic, and the chain of command complex and vague. During the war, the emperor was omnipotent in theory, but relatively powerless in fact. But there was never a dictator, either. Decisions emerged from murky negotiations and hidden rivalries between bureaucrats, imperial courtiers, politicians, and military officials, often pushed this way or that by various domestic and foreign pressures, some of them violent.
The post-war political order, though no longer belligerent, was just as murky, with bureaucrats acting as the puppeteers of underfunded and ill-informed politicians, who operated regional pork-barrel operations together with big business, which in turn worked in cahoots with the bureaucrats. So long as Japan was playing catch-up with the West, and government and industrial resources were concentrated on economic growth, the system worked quite well.
Indeed, it was the envy of many westerners, who were fed up with self-interested lobbying, pesky labour unions and meddling politicians. Such westerners are now often just as enamoured of China's paternalistic - and equally opaque and impenetrable - political system.
But it was this system that produced the problems now associated with Tepco. Tight-knit cliques of bureaucrats and corporate officials made sure that a utility company vital for economic growth would never be hindered by strict regulation or political oversight. The cosy relationships between government officials and the corporate world - and not just in the case of Tepco - was reflected in the large number of retired bureaucrats who took jobs on the boards of companies that they had supposedly regulated.
Many Japanese are aware of these problems, which is why they voted for Mr Kan's Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in 2009, breaking the virtual political monopoly exercised for a half-century by the conservative Liberal Democrats. One of the DPJ government's stated goals was to increase the political system's transparency: less hidden authority for bureaucrats, more responsibility for elected politicians.
The aftermath of the earthquake is thus a potential watershed. If Japan's relatively inexperienced government is blamed for everything that goes wrong, people might wish to retreat to the old ways of murky paternalism. If, on the other hand, enough people realise that the old ways are the problem, rather than the solution, democratic reforms will still have a fighting chance. That would cast at least one ray of light on the gloom that envelops Japan today.
Ian Buruma is the author of, among other books, A Japanese Mirror, Inventing Japan, and The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan.
© Project Syndicate, 2011