Beware post-crisis ‘Made in Japan’ labels
By Mure Dickie in Tokyo, Financial Times, July 8, 2012
Kiyoshi Kurokawa, chairman of a major investigation into the failure of the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi atomic plant, believes that the fundamental causes of the crisis lie in shortcomings of Japanese culture. Is he right?
The answer is of global importance. The reactor meltdowns in Fukushima last March marked the world’s worst nuclear crisis in a quarter of a century. Understanding why Daiichi proved so vulnerable could be vital to preventing future accidents at atomic plants everywhere.
Mr Kurokawa, a medical doctor and former president of Japan’s Science Council, is certainly not short of ammunition for his claim that this was a disaster “Made in Japan”.
The final report of the parliament-commissioned investigation that he led blasts regulators and industry for working together to set soft safety standards and to wave aside warnings about the threat from earthquakes and tsunami. Such cosy collusion was the flip side of Japan Inc’s famously co-operative—and sometimes highly productive—alliance of big business and bureaucracy.
Many Japanese readers and viewers would also agree that the nation’s mainstream media are guilty of “reluctance to challenge authority”, which Mr Kurokawa sees as one of the “ingrained conventions of Japanese culture” that caused the crisis.
And it is easy to find symptoms of other cultural failings he identifies—including “reflexive obedience”, “groupism” and “insularity”—in the lack of effective disaster planning and in the abject failure of regulators and executives at utility Tokyo Electric Power to respond effectively when it hit.
It is to their credit that Diet leaders were willing to appoint to lead its commission as independent a figure as Mr Kurokawa, who lived for 15 years in the US and has been a trenchant critic of business and educational culture since his return in the 1980s.
But Mr Kurokawa’s harshest criticism of his home nation was only published in the English version of his commission’s report. The Japanese version of his preface was much more measured, blaming the crisis on the mindset created by such phenomena as seniority systems and lifetime employment rather than the culture as a whole.
Mr Kurokawa on Friday dismissed criticism of this dichotomy, saying it was reasonable to tailor the report’s message to different audiences. However, he has long believed that gai-atsu, outside pressure, can help push change in Japan—and clearly hopes his verdict will help to heighten foreign scrutiny.
Speaking to members of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, he said there had been a strange lack of anger among Japan’s public and media over such government irresponsibility as the failure to take notes of key crisis meetings.
“If the rest of the world becomes angry, Japanese may become a bit more angry,” he said.
Yet there are real risks to explaining the Fukushima Daiichi crisis in cultural terms, not least since even describing or defining a national culture is a hard task.
Japanese culture after all did not preclude many Japanese from opposing nuclear energy. Nor are Japanese companies and regulators inherently incapable of running complex technological systems safely: Shinkansen bullet trains have run since 1964 without a single fatal collision or derailment.
Focusing too heavily on culture could merely shift responsibility from the institutions and individuals that actually took the decisions that led to disaster.
Foreign observers should be particularly wary of the “Made in Japan” label.
Many of the problems Mr Kurokawa’s commission identified—institutional inability to plan for worst-case scenarios, the co-option of industry regulators and a lack of independent media oversight—are all too common around the world.
Indeed, they are particularly prevalent in the developing nations where most of the 61 atomic reactors under construction are located. China, where corruption is rife and media subject to Communist party censorship, plans to build dozens of plants.
For policy makers in Beijing, New Delhi or elsewhere, the most dangerous lesson to draw from Fukushima Daiichi would be that such a thing could only happen in Japan.
That, tragically, was the kind of conclusion that Japanese policy makers and engineers came to after the world’s last big nuclear accident, at Chernobyl in 1986. It was easier to blame Chernobyl on Soviet shortcomings of design and operation, rather than to truly question the safety of Japanese plants.
Other nations should not repeat the mistake. The best way to prevent future nuclear accidents will be to see Fukushima Daiichi as a reminder of the need to constantly review assumptions and refine institutions. This crisis may have been made in Japan, but the next one will probably be made somewhere else.