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Is it a copout to blame Japanese culture for the Fukushima disaster?

Imagine, for a moment, that 9/11 Commission Report Chairman Thomas Kean had begun his group’s historic 2004 report by blaming the country’s inability to prevent the attack on the "ingrained conventions of American culture" — perhaps on the arrogance of American exceptionalism or fear of government regulation. At the very least it would have provoked ...

YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images
YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images

Imagine, for a moment, that 9/11 Commission Report Chairman Thomas Kean had begun his group’s historic 2004 report by blaming the country’s inability to prevent the attack on the "ingrained conventions of American culture" — perhaps on the arrogance of American exceptionalism or fear of government regulation. At the very least it would have provoked a serious media backlash if not yet another investigation.

That’s essentially what Japanese government science advisor Kiyoshi Kurokawa did in his preface to the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission Report, released late last week. He writes: 

What must be admitted – very painfully – is that 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.

Had other Japanese been in the shoes of those who bear responsibility for this accident, the result may well have been the same. […]

Many of the lessons relate to policies and procedures, but the most important is one upon
which each and every Japanese citizen should reflect very deeply.

The consequences of negligence at Fukushima stand out as catastrophic, but the mindset
that supported it can be found across Japan. In recognizing that fact, each of us should reflect on our responsibility as individuals in a democratic society.

Parts of the report are quite damning, particularly on the cozy relationship between government nuclear regulators and the plant operators. But Kurokawa’s lament about Japan’s culture of conformity is provoking something of a backlash — at least from international observers. A Bloomberg editorial describes it as "both a copout and a cliche" noting that "notwithstanding the commission’s lament about the Japanese “reluctance to question authority,” many citizens did repeatedly express their concerns about the safety of Tepco’s Fukushima reactors, including legislators from Japan’s Communist Party. Their warnings were brushed aside by those in power." FT Tokyo correspondent Mure Dickie worries that turning Fukushima into a specifically Japanese failure risks making other countries complacent, just as regulators were too quick to bruch aside the Chernobyl meltdown as a typical case of Soviet sloppiness that could never repeat itself in Japan’s more technologically and bureaucratically advanced system. 

These are good points, though it also seems worth pointing out that Kurokawa’s "any Japanese person could have made the same mistakes" argument is itself a kind of groupism. Ironically, a report urging Japan to reflect on the lack of accountability in its bureaucratic culture seems to strive not to hold anyone in particular accountable.

 Twitter: @joshuakeating
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