By Paolo von Schirach
July 6, 2012
WASHINGTON – Well, it would appear that it was not just the unprecedented combination of a major earthquake and a gigantic tsunami that caused the Fukushima nuclear plant failure in Japan, with consequent explosions and release of radioactivity in the atmosphere. A group of experts asserted that a a dominant and unchallenged culture of cozy relationships between industry and government leading to relaxed regulations and thus poor safeguards at Fukushima is the primary culprit.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster is about bad system upheld because of a culture of conformity
The Diet Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Committee chaired by Kiyoshi Kurokawa candidly stated that the lack of adequate safeguards at Fukushima was really due to: “our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with program’; our groupism; and our insularity”. This was “a made in Japan” disaster because of a shared and unchallenged attitude encouraging all players to hide problems and minimize issues. In Japan the guiding principle is not to do the right thing; but to do whatever pleases authorities. Above all avoid embarrassment.
The report’s gloomy conclusion is that this unprecedented disaster is not about a set of individuals in charge who made fateful mistakes. No, the problem is systemic. “Had other Japanese been in the shoes of those who bear responsibility for this accident, the result [might] well have been the same”.
While the report makes also other considerations about the way controls and accountability have been set up and managed, this strong and candid indictment is interesting precisely because it is so non-Japanese to air such sweeping self-criticism in the open.
Will this report trigger a debate?
This powerful indictment, assuming its accuracy, should invite the opening of a national conversation in Japan on the limits and indeed liabilities created by a culture that reflexively imposes uniformity and strict compliance with authority, at the same time punishing or at least discouraging dissent.
In practice the report says that had anybody come out denouncing the inadequacy of safeguards and safety procedures at Fukushina prior to the disaster he would have been immediately eliminated and quickly forgotten about. No whistle blowers in Japan.
If this is indeed how most organizations are managed in Japan, then the Japanese people only hope is to be blessed with excellent managers, because the system is impervious to analysis, scrutiny and corrections.
Defenders of the system will fight change
While a deeper reflection on what this report asserts should be welcome, I am quite skeptical about how far this self-scrutiny –assuming that it even started– can actually go. It is easy to explain this whole matter away. The defenders of the status quo will claim that Fukushima is an unprecedented disaster which occurred in the wake of a historic natural catastrophe. Easy enough to convince the general public that whatever happened there was due to specific circumstances and that generalizations would be most unwise.
Forget about cultural renewal
And therefore we may as well forget about the beginning of a cultural transformation that would result in a more open Japanese society; a society in which a Western-style spirit of inquiry coupled with a healthy principle of personal accountability would supersede the established tenets of subservience to authority, group think and the entrenched principle whereby lies and misrepresentations are alright –in fact noble– in the pursuit of the worthy cause of saving the reputation of the organization one belongs to.
Japan is an old and sclerotic society. Holding on to cherished principles that force conformity and the preservation of relationships, even when these work against the public good, is not going to help modernization and rejuvenation.