Fukushima disaster report: relevance of cultural traits

July 6, 2012

(The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of Reuters)

The first report of the three major investigations commissioned by the Japanese government into the Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 2011 was released in Tokyo on Thursday. The findings of the investigation, chaired by Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa challenged the dominant assumption that this tragedy unfolded due to a confluence of natural calamities of tectonic proportion — namely a tsunami and an earthquake — and concluded that Fukushima was alas, ‘man-made’ and occurred due to “a multitude of errors and wilful negligence” that implicated the government, safety regulators and the operator of the nuclear plant.

While the Kurokawa report will no doubt be debated and contested widely within Japan and beyond, the sub-text of the findings also make reference to deeply ingrained cultural traits as being part of the causal cluster.

The observations add of the disaster: “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.”

While this degree of self-reflection and candour is to be commended, it must be noted that the same cultural traits came to the fore in the response to the Fukushima disaster and the manner in which the victims and those providing succour rose to the occasion will be long remembered as a shining example of distinctive Japanese fortitude and dignity in the face of unprecedented adversity.

Japan’s extreme politeness in personal interactions, their deeply ingrained insularity and remarkably calm exterior visage are some of the characteristics associated with the populace of the prosperous island nation. I personally recall a visit to a Japanese nuclear plant outside of Tokyo, where the certitude with which the plant officials addressed the safety issue was striking. The impression conveyed was that in Japan, the template for nuclear safety is zero-error. Period.

The Kurokawa report will no doubt encourage a review of this misplaced certitude and the credibility associated with the whole edifice of government, regulators and plant operators responsible for ensuring national security and well-being while managing hazardous radioactive material — and the lessons learnt will have global relevance.

By extension, the reference to deeply ingrained cultural traits and the collective response when faced with a national security challenge has multiple relevance for Asia — and India and China in particular.

India’s cultural traits include an abiding reactive response to national security challenges — and a tenacious inability to comprehensively integrate the multitudinous, highly insular, stove-pipes that constitute the tentacles of the state.

The October 1962 war with China, the May 1999 Kargil war to ward off nuclear adventurism by a feckless Pakistan and the Mumbai terror attack of November 2008 are illustrative.

China’s certitude about its ordained place under the sun and the righteous nationalism that frames most national security issues — be it the South China Sea or Beijing’s covert nuclear-missile track record are a case in point.

The Kurokawa report has many detailed technical and safety regulation issues that will need objective debate and deliberation in the months ahead — but the cultural trait reference is invaluable. Policy makers in India and China — among other capitals — would be well-advised to review and recognise their deeply ingrained cultural DNA and related traits and the distortions and inadequacies this inevitably leads to when dealing with major national security matters.


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I read this as an American acutely aware of what I call “American dominant cultural perspectives” – widely held unexamined mores that create “blindness”, that prevent Americans from greater analytical and critical clarity with regards to policies and practices here in the US.

Human tendency to deny “extreme realities” that need immediate attention to address current and future deep problems is easy to understand. But government people are caught in the same behaviors – perhaps more so. Calling them and one another to task, (literally – putting out a call to task), is essential!

Whistle-blowers and those who raise criticisms are mocked, marginalized, may lose employment, or even be prosecuted. As we turn from those who speak out – we like to claim we do so because of our “reasonableness”. The real truth is we operate somewhat mindlessly. We ‘sense’ the disruptive potential of the whistle-blower’s revelations, and we don’t like the ‘feeling’.

As Bhaskar’s points out – each national character has some unique behavioral characteristics of behavior that are rooted in the nation’s historical, philosophical, “patterns of consensus.”

This is not to say that these often cherished characteristics have no value! They most certainly do! Americans could take a page from Japanese extreme politeness to great national benefit!

But when the characteristics prevent us from “shaking ourselves awake” in order that we might apply best intelligence to correct otherwise disastrous unfoldings, such that citizens do not insist governments also behave with intelligent stewardship for earth, life, and humanity – then we collectively, nation by nation, contribute to unspeakably unfortunate outcomes. Wars, earth degradation, and extreme suffering continue.

I hope the underlying theme raised by Uday Bhaskar becomes part of global-wide “awakening”. I wish the conversation had begun several years back.

Posted by MaggieMP | Report as abusive

(I also wish there were an ‘edit’ option!

“As Bhaskar points out – each national character has some unique behavioral characteristics that are rooted in the nation’s historical, philosophical, “patterns of consensus.””

But it is a trivial complaint given the theme.)

Posted by MaggieMP | Report as abusive

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