Cultural Strengths and Weaknesses on Display in Japan — Fukushima Daiichi’s Radiation Leaks

© 2011 Peter Free


17 March 2011



The balance, from an American perspective, arguably goes the wrong way


Crisis has a way of showing what one is made of.


On the one hand, the quiet uncomplaining post-earthquake/tsunami strength of the Japanese citizenry is inspiring.


On the other, the incompetent action and evasive circumlocution of the Japanese government in regard to Fukushima Daiichi’s radiation leaks is not.


Both are intertwined aspects of Japan’s culture of indirection that, on the whole, I’m glad Americans don’t share.


If our nuclear plants are going to crash, I’d much rather deal with straight talk, over-the-top acrimony, and fighting in the streets, than with deliberate obfuscation, quiet resignation, and a peaceful communal sinking beneath radioactive plumes.



The New York Times summed the situation




Foreign nuclear experts, the Japanese press and an increasingly angry and rattled Japanese public are frustrated by government and power company officials’ failure to communicate clearly and promptly about the nuclear crisis.


Pointing to conflicting reports, ambiguous language and a constant refusal to confirm the most basic facts, they suspect officials of withholding or fudging crucial information about the risks posed by the ravaged Daiichi plant.


Never has postwar Japan needed strong, assertive leadership more — and never has its weak, rudderless system of governing been so clearly exposed.


Politicians are almost completely reliant on Tokyo Electric Power, which is known as Tepco, for information, and have been left to report what they are told, often in unconvincing fashion.


The less-than-straight talk is rooted in a conflict-averse culture that avoids direct references to unpleasantness. Until recently, it was standard practice not to tell cancer patients about their diagnoses, ostensibly to protect them from distress.


© 2011 Hiroko Tabuchi, Ken Belson and Norimitsu Onishi, Dearth of Candor from Japan's Leadership, New York Times (16 March 2011) (paragraph split)



Japanese political culture shares one trait with our reprehensible own


Reporters Tabuchi, Belson, and Onishi continued:


The close links between politicians and business executives have further complicated the management of the nuclear crisis.


Powerful bureaucrats retire to better-paid jobs in the very industries they once oversaw, in a practice known as “amakudari.”


© 2011 Hiroko Tabuchi, Ken Belson and Norimitsu Onishi, Dearth of Candor from Japan's Leadership, New York Times (16 March 2011)


Sound familiar?



Follow the money, find the wrongs


Japanese and American cultures are similar in this greed regard.


Tokyo Electric Power Company built Fukushima Daiichi to house six reactors in a powerful earthquake zone, where they (and their diesel back-up cooling pumps) were foreseeably subject to tsunami impacts.  The plant’s design also continued to use what has subsequently been known to be unsafely positioned spent-fuel cooling pools.


Why did Tokyo Electric do this?  Robert Reich said the obvious:


Can we please agree that in the real world corporations exist for one purpose, and one purpose only: to make as much money as possible, which means cutting costs as much as possible?


Reasonable precaution means spending as much on safety as the probability of a particular disaster occurring, multiplied by its likely harm to human beings and the environment if it does occur.


Profit-making corporations have every incentive to underestimate these probabilities and lowball the likely harms.


This is why it's necessary to have such things as government regulators, why regulators must be independent of the industries they regulate, and why regulators need enough resources to enforce the regulations.


It's also why the public in every nation is endangered if the political clout of its biggest corporations -- BP, Halliburton, Massey, G.E., or TEPCO -- grows too large.


© 2011 Robert Reich, Safety on the Cheap, Huffington Post (15 March 2011)


The moral?


Money blinds us to obvious stupidities.  It saps our personal and community ethics.


That’s why humanity has spiritual traditions.  And it is also why so many of us ignore their teachings.