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Last updated: July 10, 2012 11:26 am
More than a year has passed since tragedy struck the Tohoku region of Japan. A huge earthquake and tsunami left 20,000 people dead and missing, hundreds of thousands homeless, and resulted in a nuclear accident at Fukushima that ranks with Chernobyl among the worst ever.
The tragedy cried out for a rapid policy response: the government failed to meet this challenge. The authorities’ incompetence is chronicled in the report of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Commission released this month. Its sobering conclusion is that this was not a natural disaster but “a profoundly manmade disaster – that could and should have been foreseen and prevented. Its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response.”
The report documents the failings of Tepco, the power company that ran the Fukushima plant, the bureaucracy with regulatory responsibility for the nuclear industry and the government of prime minister Naoto Kan. It describes a culture of collusion inside Japan’s “nuclear village” that put the interests of power producers ahead of public safety and wilfully ignored the risks of a major nuclear accident in an earthquake prone country.
But one searches in vain through these pages for anyone to blame. It “singles out numerous individuals and organisations for harsh criticism, but the goal is not to lay blame”. Why not? Because, the commission concludes, “this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan.’ Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the programme’; our groupism; and our insularity. Had other Japanese been in the shoes of those who bear responsibility for this accident, the result may well have been the same.”
I beg to differ. Had Mr Kan not stormed into Tepco headquarters and tried to exercise some authority over the company’s executives, the situation might have been far worse. If Tepco had had a more competent president, its communications with the prime minister’s office would have been better. People matter: one of the heroes in the Fukushima story was Tepco’s Masao Yoshida, the plant manager who disobeyed orders not to use saltwater to cool the reactors. Incredibly, Tepco’s management initially clung to the hope the reactors might one day be brought back to operation, something that would be impossible once saltwater was injected into them.
To pin the blame on culture is the ultimate cop-out. If culture explains behaviour, then no one has to take responsibility. This is indeed what the report concludes when it says that the results would have been the same even with others in charge.
Culture does not explain Fukushima. People have autonomy to choose; at issue are the choices they make, not the cultural context in which they make them. If obedience to authority is such an ingrained trait in Japan, how then is it possible for a group of Japanese to write a report that not only questions but lambasts authority, anything but an example of reflexive obedience? The culture argument is specious.
Prime Minister Noda promised to have a new independent nuclear regulatory commission up and running by April of this year. The parliament’s lower house finally passed a bill to do that just last week. The government has decided to go ahead and restart two nuclear reactors at a plant that services Osaka and surrounding areas despite widespread public opposition. But it is unlikely that any of Japan’s other 51 nuclear power reactors will be brought online until after the commission is established and new safety standards announced. Culture does not explain this painfully slow response; politics do.
Those inside the Japanese nuclear village do share a particular culture but it is hardly uniquely Japanese. What jumps out from this report are the parallels between the manmade causes of and responses to Fukushima and the “culture” that led to the financial meltdown in the US after the Lehman Brothers collapse and that continues to resist meaningful reform and the pinning of responsibility for this manmade disaster on specific individuals.
The Fukushima Commission report “found an organisation-driven mind-set that prioritised benefits to the organisation at the expense of the public.” Well, if that is Japanese culture, then we are all Japanese.
The writer is a professor at Columbia university
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