Fukushima, mon amour: Letter to the Readers of the Capitalism Saga

CapitalismCapitalism is itself an artifact, based on a fiction. Sooner or later, it runs out. Some of its plot elements are property, law, innovation, technology, obstinate individualism, entrepreneurship, growth, greed, corporate personhood, market as deus ex machina... We identify many of these as natural; in fact they have become second nature, but who's drawing this distinction anymore?

The social ordering role of grand narratives can be hardly overstated.  The Capitalism story has been so transformational a force that even a communitarian country like Japan could muster only 50 volunteers to risk their lives in limiting the scope of the fast spreading nuclear damage at Fukushima, not to mention how many weeks it had taken.*  Contrasting this to the Soviet response at Chernobyl, where 0ver 300 thousand people had been mobilized to contain the damage, is better left for the ethicist.** 

Besides filling the western world with stuff, capitalism has managed to achieve something even more remarkable, it puts the story from the opening paragraph between most and the real owners/handlers. In other words, capitalism has no customer support department, yet the few own and re-write it with legitimacy, if not impunity.  What has gone missing?  To name just one, the state as that entity greater than the sum of individuals in a country.  Indeed, where was the state after Katrina, BP oil spill, or at Fukushima, when corporate or natural disasters hit?  Please, don't confuse our political representatives for the state!  They use whatever is left out the state, i.e. the monopoly of violence, to legitimately hang on their side of POWER.  I also hope the reader won't think the state stood behind the big bank(er)s, for the same representatives put us, or the Irish, in that situation.  

To return to the main epic, a country like the US has been addressing the intrinsic limits of capitalism by hard work, of its own and then of the scores of immigrants, chance, or by externalizing its problems. We have had many an advantage at our disposal that a place like Japan or Germany could only dream of.

Japanese capitalism reached its limits a while back. Sitting on a big pile of money and running on inertia might have seemed as heroic. Then something like Fukushima happens in short sequence from the 2008 Crisis and the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Not to mention all the petro-wars.

What's the meaning of this? For each his own. While Germany interrupted the operations at several nuclear power plants, Japan has signaled that it would not increase its reliance on nuclear energy as once planned. Closer to home, I expect Obama will pass the immigration law, but am apprehensive it's going to be another political hack and not necessarily a solution to our problems. One of our solvable problems, by virtue of a redesigned immigration system, would be the math education: grant work visa to math teachers and fill our classrooms with people whose knowledge and IQ would otherwise qualify them for running... banks.

Japan, I anticipate, will be the first one to turn the page away from Capitalism. Or at least away from its ferociously anti-civilization aspects--read, consumerism, growth... As for the energy problem, it should be rephrased as opportunity: stargazing will be again possible even in a Tokyo neighborhood.


______________
* With this occasion, I've come to better understand the Japanese communitarian values, which in the west are seen mostly with indulgence.  It must have been many a natural disaster that fused this people into what it is.
** Thinking that the international community, for the past 10 years, has not come up with the estimated billion dollars needed to consolidate the leaking and fast aging cover of the Chernobyl blown up reactor is even more indicative of the values ordering our world. 



Enjoy Capitalism

31 comments:

Memi, Canada said...

What is happening in Japan is a dramatic example of how dependent we all are on an economic system that can crash at any moment. It's not only natural disasters that collapse the mightiest - witness the stock crash of 08. Has that system been fixed? Not a chance. Ask Ireland or Iceland how secure they feel now.

We all seem to think economic growth, the increase in production of goods and services make for a strong, healthy, and desirable system. Years ago, we thought this technological age would give us more leisure time than we would know what to do with. What happened to that? People work more now than ever before. The Japanese man dies young because of his committment to his job.

Japan is being forced to reconfigure its place as an economic power house. What they will discover once they adjust to this fall, is that life without the stuff of wealth is possibly more rewarding.

We are all so afraid of losing this something that actually has no "real" value. At the end of our lives, it's not the money we have made and the things we have bought that will have given our life its meaning, but the people we have loved, the roses we have smelled, and the joy we have spread to others. In truth all of the things that really matter have taken a back seat to the juggernaut of the technological age.

The darkness of Tokyo's neon isn't a sign of depression. It's a powerful acknowledgment of it's superficial and inherently disposable importance in a society ready to accept a new, and not necessarily terrible reality. We could all stand to learn those lessons ourselves.

Carol A. Victoria, BC said...

The changes that Japan must and will undergo will be interesting to watch. I have complete faith in their ability as a people and nation to completely recover and rebuild their infrastructure with something even better than before. They have demonstrated to the astonishment of the world, that their almost instinctual reaction in times of crisis, is to sacrifice for the common good, and to retain an absolute sense of order at all times. They are educated, hard working to the point of overdoing it (the Japanese word "karoshi" means death from over work), and have great personal savings despite the public debt. Much has been written about their graying population, but as I have witnessed time and time again, when they need people for a job, they bring them in, and when the job is done, they seem to suddenly vanish overnight.

Still waiting for a NBA title in SLC SLC, Utah said...

Memi - I actually think it is a little of both. Yes the people you love and the proverbial roses smelled are very important, but if I can enjoy those things and invent or build something that has a positive effect on humanity or even just my home town that is also well worth it in my book. Not to mention that technology allows us to travel(physically and mentally) to places that we likely would not have the chance to otherwise. I love exploring and experiencing new places and things. You can bet that if it become affordable to travel into space in my lifetime I will take full advantage of that opportunity. I appreciate your narrative on a need put importance on people and not work away our whole lives to acquire things. But what is needed is balance. Some of those "things" are part of what make life so enjoyable.

Memi, Canada said...

Memi
Canada

@Still Waiting: Of course it's a balance. I am noodling away on my computer after all. It's just that we really haven't fundamentally addressed the end game of a capitalist system that depends on ever increasing GDP for its survival. We are marketed to by every corporation who wants to make a buck to buy an absurd assortment of things that are supposed to make our lives happier.

I have no doubt that some of those things do make our lives easier and a lot more fun. After all, we should have some reward for working so hard, but from my observation, the happiness of aquisitions are as fleeting as the sugar rush from bad food.

My son who just barely survived the disaster in Fukushima still lives there in the shadow of the failing reactor, still in deep danger of complete meltdown. He is newly married to a Japanese woman and to this wonderful country. What he tells me of his conversations with his students is stunning in its implications for capitalism in that country, and by extention, our own.

Yes, by all means enjoy toys and spoils of our current system, but don't live your life enslaved to their lure. Therein lies the trap. Most people give over most of their lives because they believe they must have all those things. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Japanese were Japanese before they became economic powerhouses, and contrary to poster #1 who dooms the country to failure based on some ridiculous standard of Western group think, will reinvent themselves along purely Japanese lines. I can't wait to visit again. The exquisite art, the impeccable workmanship, the pragmatic approach to life, the juxtaposition of a Shinto shrine with a tin shack hovel crisscrossed with power lines, the lack of a guard rail on the sheer drop into the moat of a Samurai castle, are just some of the things that charmed me on my visit there. Capitalism, in its present guise is something they can and will shrug off a little easier than we will when our own system reaches the tipping point.

Ike Solem, CA said...

Let's consider some of the steps the Soviets took to avoid the worst possible effects at Chernobyl (April 26 1986), both during and after the immediate crisis (quotes from Richard Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly, c.2007)

1) "By Sunday May 4 Soviet Army engineer units had brought in oil-drilling equipment and had begun drilling into the soil below the reactor. Through these channels they pumped liquid nitrogen at the rate of 1,000 cubic feet per day to freeze the soil against a possible core meltdown."

2) ". . . the engineers pumped five million gallons of water out of the bubbler pool. In the coming days they used shaped-charge explosives to blow holes through the concrete foundation, laid pipe into the empty pool, and pumped in enough concrete to fill it to a solid block."

3) "'Liquidators' by the hundreds of thousands, perhaps half a million in all - 340,000 soldiers, many of them recently returned from service in Afghanistan, new draftees, minor government officials such as teachers and inspectors - were pressed into service and took their brief turn scraping away topsoil, paving over roads. . ."

4) "In November 1986, after a heroic effort, workers finished entombing Reactor Number Four within a sarcophagus made of half a million cubic yards of reinforced concrete, and only then did it cease releasing radiation into the environment."

Does Japan have these resources? Chernobyl's graphite fire was very bad, but consider that Fukushima has multiple reactors in meltdown, hot fuel rods on fire - it seems to be bigger if somewhat less intense, but even Chernobyl did not suffer a full "China syndrome" meltdown.

Furthermore, now that everyone has seen the terrible fate of all the Chernobyl first responders and liquidators - cancers, early deaths, etc. - how many will willingly volunteer for the same? The Soviet command just ordered people into action - but who will be willing to risk exposure at Fukushima on the scale needed? GE and its contractors evacuated their people immediately, didn't they?

Consider George Schultz discussing a 1988 dinner with Gorbachev in a memo: "He commented that it was a great tragedy which cost the Soviet Union billions of rubles and had only been barely overcome through the tireless efforts of an enormous number of people."

Bear in mind, each reactor contains some 150 tons of hot radioactive fuel, and steam explosions will eject that material into the atmosphere. There is also the question of all the spent fuel stored adjacent to the reactors - how many tons are there?

Refusing to prepare for the worst case scenario doesn't make it less likely.

Phil in the mountains of Kyushu Japan said...

Love seeing Memi's confidence.

One problem: the conformity pressures built into Japanese education.

The Japanese famously learn to adhere to the group. Of course -- repeat, of course -- this has its up side. It also famously means Japanese students never ask questions. They take in the info. They score well on tests measuring info intake (out-performing U.S. K-12 while at it). But in these successes all learn to defer to established authority, to bow to "gishiki" (ritual) and "jo-retsu" (the established order). This latter means a patriarchal system where old men at the top coast along, never getting questioned.

There's a materialism culture rampant across Japan, with U.S.-style, fossil-energy intensive car culture, sprawl, bix box retail, neon, and fast food and related franchises everywhere. Nice to think these may all be tempered by the arts of tea ceremony and origami -- but will anyone be able to gauge this if the Japanese in their schools continue to avoid individual thinking and more to avoid ever asking questions of whatever becomes custom?

Note: I defer, too, to the wisdom in the films of Hayao Miyazaki (all anime), which do pose the most human, most trenchant questions.

Still waiting for a NBA title in SLC SLC, Utah said...

Mimi - I don't think that their is an end game to capitalism. Ideally we grow forever expanding to other planets. If humans can't find a way to make that happen, then sooner or later capitalism in its present form probably will damage this planet enough to drastically lower the planets carrying capacity (at least for humans and most lifeforms as we currently know them, anyway).

Good for your son. I too have an emotional attachment to the Japanese and have faith that they will endure and overcome this latest disaster. I am about to celebrate my one year anniversary to my Japanese wife. We are going to Japan in October (my first time there) so I can meet the rest of her family that couldn't make it to the wedding and see the country. Best of luck to you and yours.

Julian Worrall, Tokyo said...

Through all the grief and suffering and uncertainty, there is in this disaster an historic opportunity to re-imagine Japan - who it is, what it does, and what it means to the rest of the world. I see it as a "black ship" moment (referring to the threatening American fleet that appeared in Japan's waters in 1853 to press trade) - an ominous harbinger of change that exposes the weaknesses of the old order, but which ultimately unleashes transformative energies.

Japan's history has been propelled by such shocks. The most recent one, the defeat of 1945, was sublimated into one of the most dramatic economic and social transformations the world had yet seen, with enough pep to last two generations, and which at its peak not only held claim to the second largest economy on Earth, but afforded a vision of a post-industrial, post-modern, post-West civilization of great sophistication and allure.

The drift and listlessness that has characterised recent years contains within it the seeds of a critique of the orderings that structured that late 20th-century Japan - the "salaryman" ethos; the rigidity of life "track"; vacuous consumption; products over experiences. Importantly, this critique is internal - it does not seek to replace Japanese ways with something imported from America or elsewhere. But, as in previous phases of Japanese history, without a strong external shock, such nascent alternatives invariably fail to sprout.

I fervently hope that the disaster of 3.11 is the storm that will water these seeds, from which a new Japan can grow, and once again build a vital and coherent alternate vision of human potential, not American, not European, and most certainly not Chinese.

Yoichi Funabashi, ex chief editor @ Asahi Shimbun said...

Tokyo has no option but to cleave to China


As the Fukushima nuclear reactors continue to buck efforts to bring them under control, Japan’s triple disaster holds a magnifying glass to my country’s vulnerabilities. Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), the operator of the Fukushima plant and one of Japan’s most powerful business interests, has informed my devastated nation that a further six to nine months will be needed to stabilise the facilities, increasing concerns of the risks of disruption to our energy supply.

In these trying times there are many challenges ahead for the government and many reasons for Japanese despair. Already the bond market has begun to rattle over the savagely downgraded Tepco corporate bonds. The fear now is that this will spell the collapse of the Japanese government bond. But as world history amply demonstrates, crisis can breed opportunity. At a recent dinner in Tokyo, senior business leaders posed an intriguing scenario for Japan’s recovery – if not revival: this is the moment for Japan to break with the past and move closer to China.

While talk of a new industrial revolution may sound optimistic, recall that some of Japan’s best-known companies, including Panasonic, Sharp, and Toyota, laid the foundation of their manufacturing business atop the wreckage of the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923. For a repeat, China may be the key.

As one executive at the dinner said, with his supply chain disrupted he had little choice but to expand his business and export base in China. He would also urge his parts suppliers to move to China, he added, as some of their factories had been devastated. Another chimed in: “That’s right. The uncertainty of the energy supply is really the drawback here. You have to keep your production steady to stay in business, and expanding your business in China is a way to do so – whether you like it or not.” The disruption of the supply chain caused by the sudden cut-off of output from production centres and parts-suppliers concentrated in the affected regions is indeed the pressing challenge. Both Honda and Mitsubishi Motors have found their factories in China choked by the suddenly reduced supply of semi-conductor parts from the Tohoku area, and have been forced to cut down their China operations.

This is quite a moment. With Chinese markets and factories representing an increasingly crucial element to their global business, numerous Japanese companies are seeking to diversify their parts supply-chains and, in some cases, to transfer such operations to China. Meanwhile, China makes no secret of its ambitions to catch up with, or even replace, Japan in the market by acquiring coveted technology from now-devastated Japanese parts manufacturers.

Guo Dingping, deputy director of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, pointed out that Japan’s recovery demands will be a “booster to China” and could be a “turning point in Sino-Japanese economic and trade growth”.

Yoichi Funabashi, ex chief editor @ Asahi Shimbun said...

This is not to underestimate the immense impediments that need to be overcome. There is the risk that Japan’s unstable and ineffective political leadership may once again fail to translate crisis into opportunity. Unless decisive action is taken in the opposite direction, the disaster could pave the way for a preponderance of parochial outlooks on Japan’s future. Should such a vision prevail, Japan would almost certainly marginalise itself from the global scene. This must be avoided.

The robust US-Japan alliance will continue to be central to peace and security for the Asia-Pacific region. At the same time, a more stable and trustworthy relationship between Japan and China is also essential to Japan’s rebuilding. This is the moment of truth as to whether or not Japan will remain a global power. Future decisions on budgeting for official development assistance (ODA) will represent a significant test of this resolve.

Critical for Japan will be its ability and willingness to forge strategic economic ties with emerging markets – China especially. China was quick to respond after the disaster, even offering to dispatch a naval hospital ship (an offer Japan ultimately declined). China’s attitude can be ascribed to various motivations, including commercial “booster” effects, a sense of vulnerability to a “Jasmine revolution” and inflation, and the impressive demonstration of US-Japan joint operations. Whatever the motive, China’s clear signal that it is shifting toward a better bilateral relationship should not be overlooked.

The road to deepening mutual trust between Japan and China will not be smooth; new thrusts for investment and mergers and acquisitions between the two countries could engender an anti-China backlash among Japanese people. The ban on rare earth exports to Japan last September is still fresh in Japanese minds. Mutual distrust runs deep. Top business executives are careful not to mention the “C” word (China) in describing plans to transfer production and research and development to China. One executive at the dinner cautioned they should not broadcast their thinking. “People will be upset to hear you are abandoning them when they are in deep trouble.”

Political leadership on both sides will need to muster courage to reorient the relationship. Closer ties will stabilise the region, and Japan’s new venture to tackle the challenges of nuclear safety, and green energy will contribute, too, to urgent needs within China as well as globally.

Surveying the course of history, Japan’s new tilt to China will seem not dissimilar to the trajectory of its recovery and revitalisation following the Pacific war. Then, Japan’s new economic ties with the US constituted the spark to jump-start Japan’s recovery and revitalisation. But the success of the manoeuvre hinged critically on the ability to develop political stability and mutual trust between the US and Japan. This time around, the spark must come from the China engine.

Hatoyama's vision comes true said...

http://imotion.blogspot.com/2009/09/yukio-hatoyama-new-prime-minister-of.html

fCh said...

It looks like Japan had already been in some sort of move before the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Googling "Yoichi Funabashi, I found the following:

http://www.asahi.com/english/TKY201005210394.html

The above was the view of part of the industrial elite. The recent piece by Funabashi in Financial Times indicates he may have a larger representation. This, together with the German refusal to join NATO in Libya, indicates that the US may well be... lonelier.

where's my american dream? said...

http://youtu.be/acLW1vFO-2Q

http://youtu.be/TMXvpWoHzeE said...

http://youtu.be/TMXvpWoHzeE

Anonymous said...

TOKYO — The Tokyo Electric Power Company said Saturday that the filtration system it had struggled to put into operation had broken down after just five hours, a disappointing setback in its efforts to cool the damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

The company said that the sprawling system, which is designed to siphon oil, radioactive materials and salt from the water used to cool the reactors, had been shut down because the levels of cesium recorded were similar to those requiring the changing of filters.

The filtration system was built ad hoc and rushed into service because Tokyo Electric, or Tepco, is quickly running out of space to store the tens of thousands of tons of water that have been contaminated after being poured into the reactors and spent fuel pools.

Some of the tanks, basements and other storage facilities at the power plant have inches to spare and could overflow within days. Tepco hoped to reduce the amount of contaminated water by reusing the newly filtered water. The company is also bringing in hundreds of extra tanks.

A spokesman for Tepco, Junichi Matsumoto, said that the company was working to find the cause of the problem and that it would restart the machines as soon as possible. After several delays, the filtration system began operating at 8 p.m. on Friday, Tokyo time. Tepco shut down the system at 12:54 a.m. on Saturday.

NHK, the national broadcaster, said the filters had accumulated four millisieverts of radioactive material, about as much as was expected to be collected in a one-month period.

Tepco has not discussed alternatives to its filtration strategy. But some nuclear experts believe the utility may again be forced to dump thousands of tons of low-level contaminated water into the ocean. In April, Tepco poured more than 11,000 tons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean, prompting protests from neighboring countries, environmentalists and fishermen.

Yasuko Kamiizumi contributed reporting

NORIMITSU ONISHI said...

‘Safety Myth’ Left Japan Ripe for Nuclear Crisis


SHIKA, Japan — Near a nuclear power plant facing the Sea of Japan, a series of exhibitions in a large public relations building here extols the virtues of the energy source with some help from “Alice in Wonderland.”

“It’s terrible, just terrible,” the White Rabbit says in the first exhibit. “We’re running out of energy, Alice.”

A Dodo robot figure, swiveling to address Alice and the visitors to the building, declares that there is an “ace” form of energy called nuclear power. It is clean, safe and renewable if you reprocess uranium and plutonium, the Dodo says.

“Wow, you can even do that!” Alice says of nuclear power. “You could say that it’s optimal for resource-poor Japan!”

Over several decades, Japan’s nuclear establishment has devoted vast resources to persuade the Japanese public of the safety and necessity of nuclear power. Plant operators built lavish, fantasy-filled public relations buildings that became tourist attractions. Bureaucrats spun elaborate advertising campaigns through a multitude of organizations established solely to advertise the safety of nuclear plants. Politicians pushed through the adoption of government-mandated school textbooks with friendly views of nuclear power.

The result was the widespread adoption of the belief — called the “safety myth” — that Japan’s nuclear power plants were absolutely safe. Japan single-mindedly pursued nuclear power even as Western nations distanced themselves from it.

The belief helps explains why in the only nation to have been attacked with atomic bombs, the Japanese acceptance of nuclear power was so strong that the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl barely registered. Even with the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the reaction against nuclear power has been much stronger in Europe and the United States than in Japan itself.

As the Japanese continue to search for answers to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, some are digging deep into the national psyche and examining a national propensity to embrace a belief now widely seen as irrational. Because of this widespread belief in Japanese plants’ absolute safety, plant operators and nuclear regulators failed to adopt proper safety measures and advances in technology, like emergency robots, experts and government officials acknowledge.

“In Japan, we have something called the ‘safety myth,’ ” Banri Kaieda, who runs the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which oversees the nuclear industry, said at a news conference at an International Atomic Energy Agency meeting in Vienna on Monday. “It’s a fact that there was an unreasonable overconfidence in the technology of Japan’s nuclear power generation.”

As a result, he said, the nuclear industry’s “thinking about safety had a poor foundation.”

Japan’s government has concentrated its propaganda and educational efforts on creating such national beliefs in the past, most notably during World War II. The push for nuclear power underpinned postwar Japan’s focus on economic growth and its dream of greater energy independence. But as the carefully fostered belief in nuclear safety has dissipated in the three months after the March 11 disaster, Japanese are increasingly blaming the nuclear establishment for Fukushima. In a politically apathetic country, tens of thousands have regularly held protests against nuclear power. Young Japanese have used social media to organize and publicize demonstrations that have been virtually ignored by major newspapers and television networks.

NORIMITSU ONISHI said...

Caught Unprepared

A song, “It Was Always a Lie,” has become an anthem at the protests and a vehicle for Japanese anger on the Internet. Its author, a famous singer named Kazuyoshi Saito, wrote it by changing the lyrics of a love ballad, “I Always Liked You,” that he composed last year for a commercial for Shiseido, the cosmetics giant. Mr. Saito’s performance of the song, surreptitiously uploaded on YouTube and other sites, has gone viral.

“If you walk across this country, you’ll find 54 nuclear reactors/School textbooks and commercials told us they were safe,” the song goes.

“It was always a lie, it’s been exposed after all/It was really a lie that nuclear power is safe.”

In the days after a giant tsunami knocked out Fukushima Daiichi’s cooling system, the prime minister’s office and the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, the plant’s operator, wrestled over whether to inject cooling seawater into the reactor buildings to prevent catastrophic meltdowns, and then over how to do it.

With radiation levels too high for workers to approach the reactors, the Japanese authorities floundered. They sent police trucks mounted with water cannons — equipment designed to disperse rioters — to spray water into the reactor buildings. Military helicopters flew over the buildings, dropping water that was scattered off course by strong winds, in a “performance, a kind of circus” that was aimed more at reassuring an increasingly alarmed Japanese population and American government, said Kenichi Matsumoto, an aide to Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

What became clear was that Japan lacked some of the basic hardware to respond to a nuclear crisis and, after initial resistance, had to look abroad for help. For a country proud of its technology, the low point occurred on March 31 when it had to use a 203-foot-long water pump — shipped from China, an export market for Japanese nuclear technology — to inject 90 tons of fresh water into the No. 1 reactor building. But perhaps more than anything else, the absence of one particular technology was deeply puzzling: emergency robots.

Japan, after all, is the world’s leader in robotics. It has the world’s largest force of mechanized workers. Its humanoid robots can walk and run on two feet, sing and dance, and even play the violin. But where were the emergency robots at Fukushima?

The answer is that the operators and nuclear regulators, believing that accidents would never occur, steadfastly opposed the introduction of what they regarded as unnecessary technology.

“The plant operators said that robots, which would premise an accident, were not needed,” said Hiroyuki Yoshikawa, 77, an engineer and a former president of the University of Tokyo, Japan’s most prestigious academic institution. “Instead, introducing them would inspire fear, they said. That’s why they said that robots couldn’t be introduced.”

Even before the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, Mr. Yoshikawa, a robotics expert, and other researchers began building emergency robots capable of responding to a nuclear accident, eventually producing a prototype called Mooty. The robots were resistant to high levels of radiation and capable of surmounting mounds of rubble.

NORIMITSU ONISHI said...

Entering a New Age

But the robots never made it into production, forcing Japan, in the aftermath of Fukushima, to rely on an emergency shipment of robots from iRobot, a company in Bedford, Mass., more famous for manufacturing the Roomba vacuum. On Friday, Tepco deployed the first Japanese-made robot, which was retrofitted recently to handle nuclear accidents, but workers had to retrieve it after it malfunctioned.

The rejection of robots, Mr. Yoshikawa said, was part of the industry’s overall reluctance to improve maintenance and invest in new technologies.

“That’s why the safety myth wasn’t just an empty slogan,” said Mr. Yoshikawa, now the director general of the Center for Research and Development Strategy at the Japan Science and Technology Agency. “It was a kind of mind-set that rejected progress through the introduction of new technology.”

The deliberate effort to rally Japanese behind nuclear power can be traced to the beginning of the atomic age, scholars and experts say.

In August 1945, Yasuhiro Nakasone, a young naval officer who would become one of postwar Japan’s most powerful prime ministers, was stationed in western Japan.

“I saw the nuclear mushroom cloud over Hiroshima,” Mr. Nakasone wrote in an essay in the 1960s. “At that moment, I sensed that the next age was the nuclear age.”

For many Japanese like Mr. Nakasone, nuclear power became a holy grail — a way for Japan, whose lack of oil and other natural resources had led to World War II and defeat, to become more energy independent. The mastery of nuclear power would also open the possibility of eventually developing nuclear weapons, a subject that Japan secretly studied when Mr. Nakasone was defense minister in 1970.

It was precisely because of nuclear power’s possible link to nuclear arms and its close ties to the United States that left-leaning politicians, academics and intellectuals became fierce opponents. As a countermeasure, proponents of nuclear power stressed its absolute safety, so that each side struck extreme positions, a standoff that lasts to this day.

The nuclear establishment — led by Tepco among the utilities and the Ministry of Economy — spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising and educational programs emphasizing the safety of nuclear plants. The ministry’s division responsible for nuclear power has budgeted $12 million this year for those programs, said Takanobu Sugimoto, a division spokesman. Mr. Sugimoto said he “regretted” that the ministry might have “stressed only” the plants’ safety.

The government and the utilities encouraged the creation of many organizations that propagated the message of safety. One of the oldest, the Japan Atomic Energy Relations Organization, receives 40 percent of its financing from two ministries that oversee nuclear power and 60 percent from Japan’s plant operators. In addition to producing information promoting nuclear power, the organization sends nuclear power experts to speak at secondary schools and colleges, at no cost.

Mitsuhiro Yokote, 67, the executive managing director of the organization and a former nuclear engineer at the Kansai Electric Power Company, acknowledged that the experts conveyed the message that nuclear plants were absolutely safe. Mr. Yokote said he “regretted” that his organization had contributed to the safety myth.

In a country where people tend to reflexively trust the government, assurances about the safety of Japan’s plants were enough to reassure even those at greatest risk. In Oma, a fishing town in northern Japan where a plant is currently under construction, Chernobyl made no impression on local residents considering the plant back in the 1980s.

“What could we do but believe what the government told us?” said Masaru Takahashi, 67, a member of a fishing union in Oma. “We were told that they were absolutely safe.”

NORIMITSU ONISHI said...

A Public Relations Drive

After Chernobyl, the nuclear establishment made sure that Japanese kept believing in safety.

The plant operators built or renovated the public relations buildings — called “P.R. buildings” — attached to their plants. Before Chernobyl, the buildings were simple facilities intended to appeal to “adult men interested in technical matters,” said Noriya Sumihara, an anthropologist at Tenri University who has researched the facilities. Male guides wearing industrial uniforms took visitors around exhibits consisting mostly of wall panels.

But after Chernobyl, the facilities were transformed into elaborate theme parks geared toward young mothers, the group that research showed was most worried about nuclear plants and radiation, Mr. Sumihara said. Women of childbearing age, whose presence alone was meant to reassure the visitors, were hired as guides.

In Higashidori, a town in northern Japan, one of the country’s newest P.R. buildings is built on the theme of Tonttu, a forest with resident dwarfs. The buildings also holds events with anime characters to attract children and young parents, said Yoshiki Oikawa, a spokesman for the Tohoku Electric Power Company, which manages the site with Tepco.

Here in Shika, more than 100,000 guests last year visited the P.R. building where Alice discovers the wonders of nuclear power. The Caterpillar reassures Alice about radiation and the Cheshire Cat helps her learn about the energy source. Instead of going down a rabbit hole, Alice shrinks after eating a candy and enters a 1:25 scale model of the Shika nuclear plant nearby.

Since the Fukushima disaster, visitors have started questioning the safety of nuclear power, said Asuka Honda, 27, a guide here. Many were pregnant women worried about the effects of radiation on their unborn children. But the presence of Ms. Honda and other guides, mostly women in their late 20s, seemed to reassure them.

The nuclear establishment also made sure that government-mandated school textbooks underemphasized information that could cast doubt on the safety of nuclear power. In Parliament, the campaign was led by Tokio Kano, a Tepco vice president who became a lawmaker in 1998. Mr. Kano, who declined to be interviewed for this article, returned to Tepco as an adviser after retiring from Parliament last year.

In 2004, under the influence of Mr. Kano and other proponents of nuclear power, education officials ordered revisions to textbooks before endorsing them. In one junior high school social studies textbook, a reference to the growing antinuclear movement in Europe was deleted. In another, a reference to Chernobyl was relegated to a footnote.

The effect could be seen in opinion polls that even after Fukushima have indicated that young Japanese are the strongest proponents of nuclear power.

The nuclear establishment itself came to believe its own safety myth and “became entangled in its own net,” said Hitoshi Yoshioka, an author of a book on the history of Japan’s nuclear power and a member of a panel established by the prime minister to investigate the causes of the Fukushima disaster.

He said that helped explain why, at Fukushima, Tepco failed to carry out emergency measures in case of a complete loss of power, which is what happened when the tsunami hit in March. Others have said that the nuclear establishment’s embrace of the safety myth also makes it possible to understand what, in hindsight, was the most glaring hole in the safety measures at Japan’s nuclear plants. In the country that gave the world the word tsunami, few measures were taken at Fukushima Daiichi or elsewhere to protect plants against the giant waves. Neither the Dodo nor the Caterpillar makes any mention of tsunamis to Alice.

Kantaro Suzuki contributed reporting.

Anonymous said...

This Time, Japan’s Gloom Runs Deeper
By KEN BELSON

TOKYO

TRADERS here are fond of joking that no one has lost money betting against Japan since the collapse of the bubble economy of the 1980s.

More than two decades later, the Nikkei 225 stock index is still three-quarters off of its peak. And the economy has been hit by blow after blow, from sagging property prices to mounting debts and intensifying competition from China.

Add an aging population, a lack of jobs for college graduates and persistent deflation and you can see why Japan’s so-called lost decade is a misnomer. Japan has lost decades — plural, not singular.

Natural disasters could be added to the list of economic shocks, notably the earthquake that leveled Kobe in 1995, and, in March, the earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan and the nuclear crisis in Fukushima that followed.

In a perverse way, after suppressing growth initially, Japan’s catastrophes have repeatedly jump-started the economy. But such good times generally have not lasted. Japan’s economy rebounded in late 1995 and 1996, for example, before tax increases and the Asian financial crisis plunged the country back into recession, a roller-coaster ride that I covered as a reporter here.

Four months since the triple disasters, there are early signs of another rebound. Carmakers are resuming production, gasoline shortages have disappeared and roads and homes are being rebuilt. Many economists say they expect a “V-shaped” recovery; indeed, the Nikkei 225 index has risen 18 percent since March 15, four days after the earthquake.

But since I returned to Japan in March, it has seemed that the impact of these disasters is far more profound than that of the 1990s quake — a difference that investors in Japan-related mutual funds may want to consider. As a whole, Japan stock funds gained 2.4 percent in the second quarter, and more than 15 percent over the last 12 months, according to Morningstar. Those numbers aren’t bad at all — but the recovery clearly has much further to go.

While the damaged reactors provided electricity to the Tokyo region, fears about the safety of the nuclear industry have led to the shutting of many other reactors, prompting utilities across Japan to ask customers — including the largest manufacturers — to use less electricity. If the reactors are not restarted, shortages could persist into next year.

“This story isn’t over like the Kobe earthquake,” said R. Taggart Murphy, who teaches in the M.B.A. program in international business at the Tokyo campus of the University of Tsukuba. “Once you get inside and see the short-term consequences, things will be pretty bad. You can’t replace that power right away.”

The size and scope of the current disaster are also much larger than those of the Kobe earthquake. The costs to rebuild Tohoku — the northeast region hardest hit by the quake — and to clean up Fukushima are expected to be so large that lawmakers are planning to double the national sales tax, to 10 percent, a move that might send the economy into a tailspin.

Having lived here for a dozen years, I am accustomed to hearing gloomy predictions. Some specialists have predicted that Japan’s economy will be swallowed by China’s. Others say Japan is the next Switzerland, a stable country with a shrinking role in the global economy. For a while, it was even in vogue to compare Japan to Zimbabwe, another country with a large debt burden.

THESE analogies all exaggerate conditions here to one degree or another. But, for the moment, the clouds that hover over the country seem even darker than usual, and the silver lining is harder to find because of the effects of the triple disasters.

Government estimates peg the reconstruction costs at as much as 25 trillion yen ($312 billion), a figure that private specialists say is conservative. Japanese investors buy a vast majority of government bonds, so lawmakers do not have to worry about a Greek-style financing crisis set off by the fears of foreign bondholders.

Anonymous said...

Nonetheless, relying mainly on debt financing would add to fiscal risks stemming from an already high level of public debt, which at more than 220 percent of gross domestic product in gross terms is the highest among advanced economies. Japan will face mounting pressure to cut spending and raise taxes to keep interest payments from overwhelming its budget.

Optimists note that Japan still has an ample trade surplus and foreign-exchange reserves, and a high savings rate that can be harnessed to pay for the transformation of the economy into, say, a leader in renewable energy.

But some of the money will almost certainly be used to import more foreign oil and natural gas to offset the loss of nuclear power. The government may also nationalize all or part of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which owns the crippled reactors in Fukushima. The loss of faith in Japan’s nuclear industry may also hurt Hitachi, Toshiba and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, major companies that hoped to win lucrative deals to build reactors overseas.

Meaningfully, all the money and time spent rebuilding the country will mean less money and time spent addressing Japan’s other problems, including the burden of its demographics, the stagnant job market for young people and its declining economic competitiveness.

In some ways, the gloom reminds me of a New Year’s party hosted by the Long-Term Credit Bank in 1998 during the height of the banking crisis here. At the bank’s headquarters in Tokyo, hostesses in white satin blouses and red velvet skirts, in grand bubble-era style, ushered me into a room of bank executives and other journalists. But instead of engaging in the raucous backslapping common at parties during good times, this group was more subdued, and for good reason. By the end of that year, the bank, the once-proud financier of Japan’s postwar revival, would be nationalized and thousands of its jobs would be lost.

That night, I met Shoichiro Koike, who long worked in foreign exchange for the bank. Over lunch recently, he shared his prognosis for the economy, no doubt informed by his experience at his former employer.

“I’m telling my clients to think the unthinkable,” said Mr. Koike, now a certified financial planner and author.

If the government keeps borrowing heavily, he said, it will ultimately have to look overseas for money, and foreigners are unlikely to be as forgiving as Japanese insurers and banks that hold the bulk of its debt. The best Japanese companies will move yet more operations overseas, he added. And individual Japanese investors will hoard more cash rather than spend it on homes, cars and other big-ticket items.

Anonymous said...

MR. KOIKE and others are careful to distinguish between the broader economy and Japan’s many first-class companies, which may be strong enough to justify investing in a Japan-focused fund.

Taizo Ishida is lead manager of the Matthews Japan fund, which gained 3.8 percent in the quarter and more than 26 percent in the last 12 months. He noted that companies like Nidec Motor Corporation, a maker of small motors, has most of its production outside Japan and is in a niche that, for now, has not been tapped by rivals in China, South Korea and Taiwan.

And while the yen is near an all-time high against the dollar, you do not hear the protests from exporters anymore because “practically every company is talking about cost-cutting,” Mr. Ishida said. “Eighty yen today is not the same as 80 yen in 1994.”

He cited cost-cutting and production’s moving offshore as why he expected pretax corporate profits in Japan to grow about 30 percent in the fiscal year that begins in April 2012, after declining about 5 percent this year.

Home builders, truck and machinery makers and manufacturers of solar panels like Sharp and Sanyo may also get a lift from the government’s reconstruction efforts, others said.

Still, eliminating jobs and closing factories is unlikely to provide much hope in a country that craves stability. Nor do lawmakers seem capable of finding creative solutions to these and many of Japan’s other problems, Mr. Ishida said. That, he added, “is bad news for the economy.”

crescent said...

Yes! Capitalism is a parody of its self, particularly "High Capitalism" that whinges emotion/intuition between objectivity and "non-subjectivity" or that, that can be (mis)construed to be measurable....

As contradictive and self-eroding as Capitalim is, ultimately objections to Capitalism are ethical and therefore subversive to the essence and effects of Capitalism. Heed the atrophy; new technologies appear to aid global economies and a hyper real (supra-real(?)) Capitalism. Of course, this stretching of a few childish ideas may prove to be the end of Capitalism? We shall see....

fCh said...

A NYTimes Room for Debate centers on the following question:

Are economists right to fear that the United States might follow the Japanese into stagnation?

Robert R. Locke is emeritus professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. J.-C. Spender is a visiting professor at Lund University's School of Economics and Management and at ESADE (Universitat Ramon Llull). They are the authors of "Confronting Managerialism: How the Business Elite and Their Schools Threw Our Lives Out of Balance." Their answer is:


Earn More to Spend More

Economists themselves are partly responsible for this lack of savings among Americans because Western neoclassical economic thought, like that of Adam Smith, legitimized the acquisition of wealth and freed acquisitiveness from ethical and political constraints, fueling the limitless desire for accumulation that subtends commodity-intensive societies. Neoclassical economics has helped us confuse “finiteness” with scarcity; scarcity is not caused by the unavailability of things but by an unfettered desire or demand that is insatiable because our legitimate needs have metastasized into endless wants. This mentality is permeated by a pathology of want that economists have helped build into our lives. It will not be extirpated easily.

The U.S. economy stagnated when indebtedness hit the limits of borrowing to sustain excessive consumption.
If the question is rephrased from “will Americans change their habits of insatiable consumption” to “should they,” the answer is probably yes. Endless consumption cannot be sustained for multiple reasons: resource finiteness, environmental degradation, the diminishing of quality of life, etc. If Americans are to become more judicious consumers and savers there must be a complete rethinking of economics and change in our producer and consumer mentality than we have managed so far.

Besides, mainstream economists’ fears that greater savings would lead to stagnation are misplaced. The U.S. economy stagnated as exploding private indebtedness hit the limits to borrowing to sustain excessive consumption as the nation’s wealth was radically redistributed between 1979 and 2007 (while 1percent of the top earners had 7 percent of national income in 1979, they had 17 percent of it by 2007). The way forward is for us to earn more, not save more of what we earn. With more judicious habits of consumption and more money in our pockets, the rest of us would no longer borrow to stagnation but spend to recovery.

fCh said...

ZA
Michigan

Sorry, I have a phd but not in economics so perhaps that's why I find Mr. Locke and Spender's review of the situation perplexing. As I understood them, we should earn more not spend less. Please tell me to which one of them I should provide my banking numbers for direct deposit. I figure about $50k more per year should suffice for my family. In return, I promise to spend a little more each month. (?)

andrew
nyc


To ZA in Michigan: Your confusion comes from your desire for a principle for individual action. There is no action we can take as individuals to solve this problem. It is a macroeconomic problem, not one of individual disposition. Locke and Spender are not saying that everyone SHOULD engage in needless consumption, they're saying that they WILL do so, because Americans have largely always done so in recent times, unless forced not to by economic circumstances.

Other than that, everything they say is judicious and on the mark. Classical and modern economics needs to move beyond the neo-liberal paradigm. This is a BIG problem, and there are not going to be any quick solutions. That's one of the reasons OWS is not articulating any specific demands - there's nothing singular that could be done. A whole economic system, one that is all we've known for the past 40+ years, is falling apart, whether we like it or not, regardless of which leader or party we elect. The time for soundbyte solutions is long past. Reconstituting the American economy and middle class is not going to be the work of a year or even four, but will take decades, and even then it has no guarantee of success.

fCh said...

steve from virginia
virginia


Sorry, but our economic 'idea' is defective because consumers are nothing more than cogs in a enormous machine that puts capital into a landfill for nothing.

Great economic idea, Boss!

Not doing this is 'bad'. More landfilling -- ever faster -- is best! Happy days are here again!

The old idea has to jump into the landfill behind its 'goods' and a new idea built around conservation erected in its place. Out with the defective notion of 'hierarchy of (cheap, Chinese consumer) goods' and fashion. In with getting rich by improving capital rather than annihilating it. This idea has nothing to do with 20th century Japan but more with 19th century Tokugawa Japan which was an autarky with a fully functioning civilization that provided useful activities (not consumer goods) for its citizens.

Right now America exists to service the wealth needs of Chinese property racketeers and Middle East oil tycoons. How 'Adam Smith-y' can that possibly be?


mjl
Chicago, IL


Once again, we have blind men describing an elephant.

"Consumption" includes services and need not be constrained by anything except our imagination. Once our material needs (food, clothing and shelter) are satisfied we consume medical health services, education services, entertainment services, travel and transportation services, public safety services (including military spending) and so forth.

Figuring out how to count government spending has always been a problem and we do not have a clear government capital account. That is, we do not have a measure of the investment in and depreciation of roads, bridges and so forth. We would have trouble counting military hardware.

The age structure of our population (and Japan's) must be considered. To maintain consumer spending we need some way to transfer purchasing power from workers (who receive pay checks) to retirees. This takes the form of direct government transfers of money (social security) and payments for services (medicare) used by retirees. It also includes private pensions which transfer claims on corporate receipts to former employees. It includes public pensions which transfer claims on taxpayers to former public employees (at federal, state and local levels). Finally, it includes liquidating assets (private and pension claims on stocks and bonds and real estate) and living off of income from assets (interest and dividends).

In brief, you must tax and transfer or you must liquidate and transfer. Liquidate means workers must buy the stocks, bonds, and houses from retirees. Economists refer to this as "life cycle saving". When the population is growing smoothly the transfer mechanism is not a big deal. When population age structure has big bulges and contractions (like "baby booms") I think these mechanisms require more attention. This is not a one cause explanation of anything. I just think that an asset bubble popping will be exacerbated by these age structure problems.

fCh said...

Takatoshi Ito is a professor at the Graduate School of Economics and the Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Tokyo. He is an author of many books, including "The Japanese Economy," "The Political Economy of the Japanese Monetary Policy" and "Financial Policy and Central Banking in Japan." His answer to the question raised in the NYTimes Room for Debate is:


Don’t Look to Japan as a Model

Japan cannot be held up as a positive role model for post-bubble years. Its stagnation brought high unemployment among the young, a sharp decline in tax revenue and mounting debt, as well as a reinforcing spiral of declining prices and low growth.

How can the United States avoid the repeat of Japanese stagflation? It should certainly not put its faith in growth based on consumption, since the household sector has been indebted in the housing crisis, and a rise of savings is certainly desirable. The problem is that this should be balanced with a rise in investment, other than housing investment, and exports.

Based on the Japanese experience, it takes many years to resolve the problems associated with over-built real estate. The adjustment would be faster if the nonperforming assets are taken off balance sheets quickly, either by foreclosure or bulk sale. That was the lesson the United States taught Japan based on the experience of the American savings and loan crisis. The crisis has come full circle.

This transition from excess consumption to more sustainable demand requires external as well as internal adjustment, including action by major countries on their exchange rates. This would be easier if the rest of the world was growing strongly, which is not the case right now.

The role of monetary policy is to ensure that inflation stays under control. But right now, the risk is more on the downside. If post-bubble economies produce deflationary pressure, monetary policy should counter the pressure with zero interest rate policy and, beyond that, quantitative easing. The Bank of Japan failed to take such decisive action.

Unfortunately, post-bubble "Japanization" in the 21st century is something to be avoided with both conventional and unconventional monetary and fiscal policies.

Gerald Curtis, professor at Columbia University Reader said...

Stop blaming Fukushima on Japan’s culture

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 Investigation Commission, released this month. Its sobering conclusion is that this was not a natural disaster but “a profoundly man-made
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”, which 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.”

Gerald Curtis, professor at Columbia University Reader said...

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 also lambasts authority, anything but an example of reflexive obedience? The culture argument is specious.

Prime minister Yoshihiko 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 have been 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 man-made causes of and responses to Fukushima, and the “culture” that
led to the financial meltdown in the US after the Lehman Brothers collapse – which continues to resist meaningful reform – and the pinning of responsibility for this man-made disaster on specific individuals.

The Fukushima commission report “found an organisation-driven mindset that prioritised benefits to the organisation at the expense of the public”. Well, if that is Japanese culture, then we are all Japanese.

Mure Dickie said...

Kiyoshi Kurokawa, chairman of an 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 cooperative – and sometimes highly productive – alliance of big business and bureaucracy. Many Japanese readers and viewers would also agree that the 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. But Mr Kurokawa’s harshest criticism of his
home nation was only published in the English version of his 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.

Mure Dickie said...

Mr Kurokawa dismissed criticism of this dichotomy, saying it was reasonable to tailor the report’s message to different audiences. However, he has long believed that outside pressure, can help push change in Japan. Speaking to 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.

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: bullet trains have run since 1964 without a fatal collision.

Focusing too heavily on culture could merely shift responsibility from the institutions and individuals that 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 are all too common around the world. 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 happen only in
Japan. That, tragically, was the kind of conclusion that Japanese policy makers and engineers came to after 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.

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