Hi Blog. We’re going to do a tangent now away from our regular focus of life and human rights in Japan, and talk about life and, er, human rights in Japan (except in general, not as they specifically impact on NJ). Debito.org has talked at length about the whole Fukushima Fiasco in the past (even asked fruitlessly for naysayer capitulation when our initial assertions of public corruption and coverup proved to be pretty much spot-on), but only in concentrated bursts, as it is something better discussed elsewhere. Nevertheless, Debito.org Reader MD sent me a poignant post involving “cultural ironies” that I thought deserved a wider audience, so here it is. A brief comment from me follows:
Date: July 12, 2012
I dug up the following story during the weekend while having a enlighting Twitter discussion with a NJ-journalist friend living in Tokyo.
It appears that the NAIIC (National Diet of Japan Fukushiima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission) report on Fukushima deliberately added (or left-out depending on your Japanese / English reading ability) parts in the report. (NAIIC official site here.) Specifically only the English version of the report puts the blame on some made-up cultural characteristics like:
- This was a disaster “Made in Japan”.
- Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture, i.e.,
- Our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.
Unfortunately the international media was once again quick to approve the findings of the NAIIC report, because it caters to their readers exotic orientalised idea of a strange Japan which outsiders can never fully grasp. I ran that story as an open letter to the editor (in German) on www.schnellinterkulturell.de yesterday, after some of Germany’s biggest media outlets decided to buy into NAIIC’s cultural uniqueness story.
Meanwhile lots of US-American and British newspapers followed suit and criticise the report. Even Gerald Curtis shared his thoughts on justifying the Fukushima incident by attaching some cultural myth to it. (Financial Times story here) (free registration required)
The Japanese media in turn also picked up on how the international media picked up on the story (does that make sense?). I especially like the Asahi headline “Western media: Don’t blame Fukushima on ‘culture'” and the quote from Kiyoshi Kurokawa head of the commission: When asked by reporters why the Japanese and the English version of the reports differ, Kurokawa said: “If you are Japanese, you would understand by reading the original version.” I suppose the irony of blaming the Japanese culture for the Fukushima incident, and how he used that myth to evade a straight answer was totally lost on him. (full Asahi article here: http://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/analysis/AJ201207120045)
Make of it what you will, but I call (linguistic) foul play on part of the NAIIC.
Best regards, MD
PS: So far the story in German can only found on my blog, feel free to link and use Google Translate! http://schnellinterkulturell.de/2012/07/15395/ein-offener-brief-an-martin-koelling-japan-korrespondent-handelsblatts/
Western media: Don’t blame Fukushima on ‘culture’
The Asahi Shimbun, July 12, 2012
By DAISUKE NAKAI/ Correspondent
NEW YORK–British and U.S. media are not buying the Diet’s investigation commission’s report that Japanese culture was largely to blame for last year’s nuclear disaster.
They said the finding only helps to divert attention from the true lessons of the catastrophe.
The English-language version of the final report by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, released on July 5, said: “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 program’; our groupism; and our insularity.”
U.S.-based Bloomberg ran an editorial on July 8 titled: “Japan’s Unsatisfying Nuclear Report.” The article appreciated the report’s detail and its assertion that the disaster was “profoundly man-made,” but pointed out that it “does not identify which men (and this being Japan, there probably weren’t many women) failed.”
It went on to say: “It is both a cop-out and a cliche to fall back on Japan’s ‘groupism’ and say that ‘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, a professor of political science at Columbia University who is well-versed in Japanese affairs, also lambasted the cultural labeling in his contribution to Britain’s Financial Times.
“If culture explains behavior, then no one has to take responsibility,” he said. “People have autonomy to choose. At issue are the choices they make, not the cultural context in which they make them.”
Reporting from Tokyo on July 8, the Financial Times also raised concerns about labeling the disaster as “Made in Japan.”
“That, tragically, was the kind of conclusion that Japanese policymakers and engineers came to after the world’s last big nuclear accident, at Chernobyl in 1986,” the article said. “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.”
Many of the statements at issue appear in the “Message from the Chairman” section of the English-language report written by investigation chairman Kiyoshi Kurokawa, but are found nowhere in the Japanese-language version.
Reporters asked the reasons for the differences between the Japanese and English versions during a news conference following the release of the report.
Kurokawa replied that, “If you are Japanese, you would understand by reading the original version.”
COMMENT FROM DEBITO: This linguistic prestidigitation is par for the course due to, as I have written before, the institutionalized culture of lying in Japan. Tatemae and honne — the two great ways to justify speaking differently out of two corners of one’s mouth — made clearer as never before, by having one official report on the world’s arguably worst (but definitely ongoing) nuclear disaster use the Japanese language as a code for domestic consumption, and its English translation to handle the gaijin. And true to character, as was noted by the chairman, it’s the gaijins’ fault for not understanding our Japanese…! And that’s before we get to the issues of the actual arguments being made within the report, as Gerald Curtis articulates so well below. As I’ve said before, this system is irredeemably broken. Arudou Debito
The Financial Times
Last updated: July 10, 2012 11:26 am
Stop blaming Fukushima on Japan’s culture
By Gerald Curtis
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