Last week the government of Japan released a major report on the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. The Official Report of the The National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission(NAIIC) was reported in the major media worldwide, and the general interpretation was that it was a shockingly brutal indictment. There was a feeling that now, finally, Japanese officialdom is facing up to the nation’s deep deficiencies.
This was my initial reaction, too, but as I read the executive summary of the report, I started to get a sinking feeling that this panel of independent experts was still way off the mark. Although they declared it was a man made disaster rather than an accident, this really wasn't news to anyone who has been paying attention. The report made me wonder if it, too, is just another set piece in the elaborate kabuki dance in which problems are things to kick around rather than solve.
The first failing is that the report "catalogues a multitude of errors and willful negligence" but it makes no suggestion that criminal prosecutions, or even a truth and reconciliation tribunal, are necessary. The chairman wrote, "...the goal is not and should not be to lay blame," but this begs the question, "Why not?" The commission preferred to find that the "…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."
In other words, no one is to blame and everyone is to blame, so let’s just whip ourselves for a while, think about changing, then move on. Self-flagellation is pretty amazing to watch for a couple minutes – it has a good "wow" factor, but in the end, it doesn’t count for much in the way of concrete solutions.
The report’s conclusion overlooks the historical record of millions of Japanese who fought against the nuclear industry in Japan, sometimes fighting long, fruitless legal battles against a corrupt judiciary that backed the interests of governments and utilities every time. Had these people been in charge, or just been listened to, I would say, no, the result would not have been the same. It is a notable failing that the commission, as it admits to the gross deficiencies of the nuclear industry, had nothing to say about how this important branch of government failed for years to protect the interests of the citizens who tried to warn society about the disaster that came. And what is it doing now to prosecute those whom the commission finds to be guilty of negligence?
Another curious part of the report is the comment that Japan had a “disregard for anything not invented here.” This alludes to the well-known pride that the Japanese have in their technology, as well as to their isolationism. However, to say this about nuclear technology shows a lack of knowledge about how it came to Japan. The Fukushima Daiichi reactors were made by General Electric, and all the early technology for splitting atoms was American. The decision to adopt the GE lightwater reactors, instead of safer heavy water reactors, was due to American pressure to correct the trade imbalance. I suppose that the Japanese don’t want to appear to be blaming foreigners, but it is not right that the global nuclear industry should escape liability here.
Blaming this disaster on culture is a cop-out in other important ways. Granted, we have to admit that the Japanese bureaucracy-government-industry complex took corruption, complacency, hubris, incompetence and isolationism to astounding heights, but these faults extended to the IAEA which also calmly watched Japan’s nuclear industry fall apart in repeated scandals and outrageous safety lapses during the twenty years previous to 2011. It would be a mistake to not see the commonalities with all cases of regulatory capture. The study of one case provides lessons on any other. This is about human universals more than cultural variation.
In previous posts I wrote about the global financial crises with regard to how they bear uncanny similarities to environmental disasters, with many of their metaphors even borrowed from nuclear disasters. We can see the universality of regulatory failures, and also see the various options for dealing with them - in any culture. These options are not obscure, sensitive adaptations to specific cultures. They are political and policy decisions that are applicable generally, with perhaps only a few necessary localizations.
Consider for example the way that Iceland reacted to its economic meltdown in 2008. It took a heterodox approach that was rejected by Western Europe and the US, and it is now recovering while the places that took the orthodox approach are still in danger of further crises, and financial crimes (i.e. the LIBOR crimes) are still rampant.
Iceland employed the measures in the column on the left. The column on the right lists corresponding measures that could have been followed after the nuclear disaster. Unfortunately, in Japan, blind adherence to orthodoxy and unimaginative, laughable solutions ruled the day.

let the banks go bankrupt
let TEPCO go bankrupt, nationalize it
have your own currency and central bank
don’t be tied to the opinions of international organizations – the situation is probably worse than they think, but they don’t have to live with it
currency depreciation
let land and asset depreciation hit bottom, don’t waste time propping up the value of land that has been rendered unsafe by radioactive fallout
conduct criminal prosecutions
conduct criminal prosecutions – the people will appreciate the sense of justice and be able to move on and trust their government again, future potential miscreants will be deterred
provide relief to debtors, not creditors
compensate the victims and rank and file employees, not the stockholders and executives, put money in people’s pockets so that they can move away
let foreign creditors, not tax payers, take the hit
TEPCO creditors made a bad bet, let them fail
do not repeat past mistakes
get out of nuclear – this is an earthquake zone – what were you thinking???
control on capital flight
force private and public resources to be devoted to the crisis
delay austerity measures, increase social spending during the emergency
invest quickly in a massive effort to stabilize the Fukushima Daiichi site, mobilize the self-defense forces, direct aid to victims to help them relocate, give up on top-down stimulus measures that are a vain attempt to bring economic revival to contaminated regions
be creative – to deter real estate speculation, a home owner’s loan principal rises with inflation??!!  drastic, but maybe it works!
invest big time in alternative energy and conservation

NOTE: A similar analysis was published by Greg Levine in Capitoilette, July 13, 2012: Made in Japan? Fukushima Crisis Is Nuclear, Not Cultural

THE EARTHQUAKE AND TSUNAMI of March 11, 2011 were natural disasters of a magnitude that shocked the entire world. Although triggered by these cataclysmic events, the subsequent accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant cannot be regarded as a natural disaster. It was a profoundly man made disaster that could and should have been foreseen and prevented. And its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response.
How could such an accident occur in Japan, a nation that takes such great pride in its global reputation for excellence in engineering and technology? This Commission believes the Japanese people and the global community deserve a full, honest and transparent answer to this question. Our report catalogues a multitude of errors and willful negligence that left the Fukushima plant unprepared for the events of March 11. And it examines serious deficiencies in the response to the accident by TEPCO, regulators and the government.
For all the extensive detail it provides, what this report cannot fully convey especially to a global audience is the mindset that supported the negligence behind this disaster.
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.
Following the 1970s oil shocks, Japan accelerated the development of nuclear power in an effort to achieve national energy security. As such, it was embraced as a policy goal by government and business alike, and pursued with the same single-minded determination that drove Japan’s postwar economic miracle.
With such a powerful mandate, nuclear power became an unstoppable force, immune to scrutiny by civil society. Its regulation was entrusted to the same government bureaucracy responsible for its promotion. At a time when Japan’s self-confidence was soaring, a tightly-knit elite with enormous financial resources had diminishing regard for anything not invented here.
This conceit was reinforced by the collective mindset of Japanese bureaucracy, by which the first duty of any individual bureaucrat is to defend the interests of his organization. Carried to an extreme, this led bureaucrats to put organizational interests ahead of their paramount duty to protect public safety. Only by grasping this mindset can one understand how Japan’s nuclear industry managed to avoid absorbing the critical lessons learned from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl; and how it became accepted practice to resist regulatory pressure and cover up small-scale accidents.
It was this mindset that led to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant.
This report singles out numerous individuals and organizations for harsh criticism, but the goal is not and should not be to lay blame. The goal must be to learn from this disaster, and reflect deeply on its fundamental causes, in order to ensure that it is never repeated.
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.
As the first investigative commission to be empowered by the legislature and independent of the bureaucracy, we hope this initiative can contribute to the development of Japan’s civil society.
Above all, we have endeavored to produce a report that meets the highest standard of transparency.The people of Fukushima, the people of Japan and the global community deserve nothing less.

Chairman Kiyoshi Kurokawa

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