Masataka Shimizu, president of Tokyo Electric Power Co., hasn’t been seen at his tony Tokyo high-rise for weeks. Rumors are spreading that Shimizu, whose scandal-plagued company operates the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, has either checked into a hospital or committed suicide. Company officials said yesterday that he suffered a “small illness” due to overwork, but that after a break for recuperating, Shimizu was back directing the emergency command center at Tepco’s Tokyo headquarters. Staffers assured the Washington Post that they had seen him, but somehow weren’t able to track him down.
Disappearing acts during a crisis have become commonplace among Japanese elite (Toyota’s chief executive went AWOL during last year’s recall). And Japan’s mainstream media has gone easier on Shimizu than, say, Tony Hayward during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. But given the scope of the tragedy, politicians have called Shimizu’s disappearance, especially at briefings on nuclear safety, “inexcusable.” On the company’s website, Shimizu expressed “deep apologies for the concerns and inconveniences caused due to the incident.” It is Japanese custom to accept corporate penitence. However, Fukushima governor Yuhei Sato told Japanese television that residents are “not in a position to accept apologies because their anger and anxiety are extreme.”
In light of low levels of plutonium found in soil samples — the strongest indication yet of a partial meltdown in one or more of the plant’s reactor cores — Shimizu’s vanishing act looks even more craven. Meanwhile, personal e-mails uncovered by The Wall Street Journal between Tepco workers at the plant and those back at Tokyo headquarters reveal the wrenching struggle to contain the plant. In one correspondence, the Fukushima worker wrote: