4 September 2012

Japan’s culture: Culprit of the nuclear accident?

Toshihiro Higuchi

Toshihiro Higuchi

Higuchi is an American Council of Learned Societies New Faculty Fellow in the history of science at the...

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On July 5, an independent investigative commission established by the Japanese Diet issued its final report on the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Hailed as the definitive word on the subject thus far, the report points to what it calls the "fundamental causes" of the disaster, all of them cultural. The chairman's message in the report assails "the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to 'sticking with the program'; our groupism; and our insularity." The nuclear disaster, in short, was "a disaster 'Made in Japan.'" News media around the world characterized the report's damning indictment of Japanese culture as unusually candid for the nation known to do anything to save face.

The commission's willingness to expose a painful truth is admirable. But if Japan blames its idiosyncratic national culture for the Fukushima accident, it must not be forgotten that Japan once celebrated these same cultural traits as the secret to what it had boasted of as an exceptional nuclear safety record.

In the wake of the Chernobyl accident, the International Atomic Energy Agency condemned the culture of the Soviet Union as one of the primary reasons for the structural and operational problems that led to the meltdown. In response, Japan's nuclear power operators and regulators alike reassured an anxious public that Japan's reactor designs and operations were fully committed to a "safety first" culture. In the aftermath of Chernobyl, the very traits later blamed for the Fukushima incident were celebrated as positive features unique to Japan. What the Diet report has recently called obedience, groupism, and narrow-mindedness were previously widely acclaimed as self-discipline, harmony, and professionalism.

Spreading the responsibility. That Japan points to its national culture to explain both its successes and its failures is a well-established pattern beyond the nuclear field. For example, after the Pacific War, leaders in Japan quickly laid the responsibility for the devastating war on the nation's culture. In its first postwar education guideline issued in May 1946, the Ministry of Education listed various shortcomings in what it called "Japanese ways of thinking": a lack of respect for individuality; a lack of a critical, rational, and scientific spirit; and a lack of open-mindedness to different opinions. Past leaders in Japan made mistakes, the guideline declared, because "the people of Japan as a whole have these shortcomings … In this sense, the entire people of Japan should bear the responsibility for the war, and we must apologize to the world for our sin." As Japan grew to an economic superpower by the 1980s, however, the cultural attitudes once regarded as a root of the disastrous war were quickly repackaged as a source of the economic miracle.

Time and again, cultural arguments have served as a rhetorical device to reaffirm and reinforce Japan's sense of uniqueness in the face of numerous crises -- nuclear and non-nuclear -- in its turbulent modern history. In bad times, condemning culture spreads the blame for failure across the nation. In good times, praising culture likewise spreads the credit for success. But because the accountability always lies with society at large, rather than with individuals, Japan's leaders remain in power and continue "business as usual," thus evading moral responsibility for the past and obligation for sweeping reform in the future.

Of course, culture is not irrelevant to understanding the Fukushima disaster. But given Japan's past record, cultural arguments should not be abused to mystify real and tangible causes of this manmade disaster. Fukushima is not a cultural mishap requiring a spiritual revolution that will never come, but rather a structural problem of nuclear regulation that can be fixed. While the commission's report notes the so-called "nuclear village" collusion among the promoters of nuclear power, it rarely discusses the opposite problem: the structure of nuclear regulation in Japan has been evolving in such a manner -- including the latest "reform" following the Fukushima accident -- that it simply increases the number of players who can hamstring or veto proposed changes in regulation, while failing to clarify the responsibilities among them. Under such circumstances, nuclear power operators such as the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) can continue to ignore what appears to be a truly catastrophic but extremely unlikely scenario.

Stakeholders by default. If Japanese society at large is to blame for the nuclear disaster, it is not society's cultural disposition in general but rather its refusal to take a hard look at who had a stake in promoting nuclear reactors before the accident happened. The magic of nuclear reactors is that all Japanese people have successfully been turned into stakeholders by default: reactors provide strength to the state, profit to corporations, knowledge to scientists, wages to workers, and electricity to consumers. If there is any tacit collusion that led to the Fukushima accident, it is the unwillingness of each individual to critically reevaluate his or her own default stake in the use of nuclear power.

While critics of the Japanese Diet report have attacked its unusual emphasis on culture and called for the criminal punishment of individual culprits, this action is not the best alternative. Prosecuting the so-called "war criminals," as was done in the former Axis Powers, will address neither the structural flaws in nuclear regulation nor the individual default stakes that allowed a disastrous accident to happen in the first place. What we need most is not to spread or concentrate the share of blame but to build consensus for long-lasting reform in both nuclear regulation and energy choices.