Monday, July 9, 2012

Fukushima: Cultural Explanations Aren't the Whole Story

On July 5th, the Japanese parliament (Diet) released the English version of a report by an independent investigative committee into the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster.  The setting up of an independent investigative committee by the Diet was itself precedent breaking in Japan.

Surprisingly, the report was highly critical of certain aspects of Japanese culture.  The Commission’s chairman – Kiyoshi Kurokawa – said at a news conference at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Tokyo on July 6th that “reflexive obedience, reluctance to question authority, devotion to ‘sticking to the program,’ groupism and insularity” were root causes.  This cultural self-criticism is remarkable for its openness.  As Kurokawa san said at the press conference:

“We owe the world an explanation on how could this happen in Japan . . . The truth is very painful for us to admit, but it is difficult to grasp without intimate understanding of how our society works. That is why I am making an effort to explain this to the global community.”

He went on to explain that the “collective mind-set” that led to the Fukushima disaster wasn’t unique to the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) or involved government agencies, but is also in workplaces throughout Japan.

One lesson from Fukushima is that we should develop greater awareness of how our own cultural orientations can become dysfunctional.  Every cultural orientation can be a positive force or negative force; they typically become negative when they are pushed to their extremes, are unquestioned, and are applied rigidly regardless of context.

Another lesson we should take from the Fukushima report is that though ‘culture’ is a deep and powerful force, we should not be satisfied with a purely cultural explanation of events.  We have to consider the role of other factors. For example:

Structural/Institutional Issues: The same agency that was tasked with promoting the use of nuclear power was also the agency regulating the safety of nuclear reactors. There were overlapping interests between the regulators and the industry.  The regulators also had no authority to implement any changes. What should have been a productive collaboration between government and industry - in the interests of the public - became a collusive relationship which prevented real oversight.  Regulators did set a deadline of 2009 for a safety evaluation based on new seismic standards, but TEPCO decided made the decision internally and unilaterally to push the deadline to January 2016.

Economic Interests: A number of systems failed because improvements were not made to the plant.  The plant was run for a profit, and retrofitting systems to meet new seismic standards was low on the priority list.

Political Interests: Japan has little in the way of its own energy resources and so after the oil crises in the 1970s, Japan decided to drive for greater energy independence.  Nuclear power was chosen to fulfill that goal. Bureaucrats and politicians had committed themselves to the view that nuclear plants were safe and became resistant to actively creating new regulations.

All I’m trying to say here – in too many words – is that situations tend to be complex, and any analysis should respect that complexity.  There are typically many forces at work, and while culture might influence how these forces manifest themselves, they are forces in their own right. I often hear ‘culture’ used in all-encompassing way - blaming or praising culture for everything under the sun. regardless of what structural, economic, political, and even psychological factors are at work.  I am not accusing Kurokawa san of making such a mistake.  His commission has done an excellent job of teasing out the many variables in the Fukushima disaster and revealing its complexity.  Culture is a tool to aid understanding, but it is only one tool among many.  The bad decisions taken before, during, and after the earthquake and tsunami cannot all be laid at the feet of culture – economic, structural, political, and  psychological factors must be given their due.

1 comment:

Louisette said...

Interresting articles in blog, greeting from Belgium