More than a year after a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami struck Japan on March 11, 2011, the Fukushima nuclear accident independent investigation commission released an 88-page report this week delivering the indictment that Fukushima could not be considered a natural disaster but a “profoundly man-made disaster.”
It went on to state 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 programme’; and our ‘insularity’.”
At first glance, the opening message from the commission’s chairman, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, reads like an apology to the global community for Japan’s mishandling of the Fukushima nuclear disaster: a mea culpa for it going so terribly pear-shaped for the Japanese — and the world as a whole. It is striking that it is explained to the global community as a peculiarly “Japanese” problem. As there has been much culturally couched coverage of the earthquake and tsunami victims as being “stoic,” “resilient” and so on, the official explanation reaffirms cultural stereotypes of Japan and the Japanese.
The Japan label
The appeal of the “made in Japan” explanation remains powerful. For much of its modern history, Japan has been categorised as unique and enigmatic. More than 100 years ago, Inazo Nitobe, a Japanese Quaker, attempted to explain the spiritual backbone of the Japanese that had propelled the country’s break-neck modernisation, by writing — in English — the highly influential book, Bushido (The Way of the Samurai), which argued for samurai values to be the model for a code of ethics governing the Japanese people. Even H.G. Wells got into the spirit of things and named the elite class of people in his 1905 novel, A Modern Utopia , the “samurai.”
Of course, this was not simply a two-way conversation between Japan and the west, and the concept was even more enthusiastically taken up in the non-western world, including by illustrious thinkers such as India’s Rabindranath Tagore (though he became disillusioned by Japanese imperialism rather quickly).
Fast-forward to the post-war economic miracle of Japan in the 1950s and 60s, when the Japanese people became intensely preoccupied with their identity. This led to a flood of pseudo—cultural analysis of why the Japanese people were unique (largely to explain their economic success) — a huge body of popular literature known as the Nihonjinron (discourse on Japaneseness).
It seems only yesterday that Japan Inc ruled the Wall Streets of the world, and all and sundry were trying out Japanese business practices in order to emulate Japanese success. Japanese essentialism has an appeal not only to the Japanese but also to the outside world, because it enables both sides to hide behind the “cultural curtain” and refrain from probing deeper.
Tellingly, there is no mention of the “made in Japan” explanation in the Japanese original of Thursday’s report. Instead, it explains the disaster in terms of “regulatory capture” — that is, that the relationship between the regulators and the regulated was much too close, enabling the regulated to subject the regulators to undue pressure and influence. By referring to regulatory capture, the Japanese report points the finger of blame at the complex entanglement of political, bureaucratic, and financial interests dating back to the heyday of high economic growth, a thinly veiled criticism of the one-party Liberal Democratic party rule that has dominated Japan’s politico-industrial world for much of the post-1945 era. In the English edition, regulatory capture appears in the main report but not in the chairman’s message.
Bringing out the “made in Japan” argument is not helpful. It panders to the uniqueness idea and does not explain, but rather reinforces, existing stereotypes. Moreover, the supposedly Japanese qualities that the report outlines, such as obedience, reluctance to question authority, “sticking with the programme” and insularity, are not at all unique to Japan, but are universal qualities in all societies.
Putting a cultural gloss on the critical investigative report sends a confusing message to the global community — particularly when it comes from a country that is a world leader in technological sophistication. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2012