Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Japanese Culture to Blame for Fukushima Disaster?

As is procedure after most major disasters, the Diet put together a non-partisan commission -- the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC) -- to find the true cause of the Fukushima disaster, and provide policy and procedure recommendations to both the government and nuclear industry. The commission released the English version of the report today. In their findings, NAIIC stated that the Fukushima disaster was indeed “man made,” which Japanese citizens and the international community already largely believed. But the most interesting part of the commission’s report was their finding that the Fukushima incident was a disaster “made in Japan. “

The report states  that the fundamental causes for the disaster “are found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: [its] reflexive obedience; [its] reluctance to question authority; [its] devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.” It continues, “Had other Japanese been in the shoes of those who bear responsibility for this accident, the result may well have been the same.” The report finds that it wasn’t necessarily the individual people who were at fault, but actually their adherence to ingrained Japanese cultural traits that inadvertently led to the Fukushima incident.

That means that under the same circumstances, non-Japanese nuclear reactor operators and government regulators would likely have been prepared for and avoided the nuclear disaster altogether. NAIIC’s assertion is quite bold and should be explored further, but at this point I think it is important to look at what Japan can do to fix this cultural dilemma.

Dr. Charles Ferguson, President of the Federation of American Scientists, believes that the Japanese cultural trait of reluctance towards questioning authority should and will change over the short-term. Using the Three Mile Island incident as an example, he stating that after the accident, an investigation committee commissioned by Congress -- similar to NAIIC -- also found that American workers were unwilling to question authority. As a result of this report’s findings, American nuclear operators established programs that protect whistle-blowers, and adopted a culture of -- graciously -- questioning authority. Dr. Ferguson believes that the Fukushima disaster has rocked Japanese culture to the core and that these strict cultural traits will naturally dissolve as authority figures in the nuclear industry adopt new rules and regulations.  

I am not as hopeful as Dr. Ferguson. I do not believe Japan’s culture of obedience and the idea of groupism will be changing anytime soon, even if there are whistleblower programs in place. America has a long cultural history that revolved around the individual, but Japanese culture is deeply rooted in the group, and even a nuclear disaster will not shake that trait.

Instead of hoping for the culture to change, I think the government can take a more pragmatic approach towards enforcing rules and regulations that take into account the unique facets of Japanese culture. NAIIC recommends creating a regulatory organization that is independent from the government chain of command, nuclear operators and political pressure. The NAIIC laid out the following conditions for such a regulatory organization: 

  1. Transparent: (i) The decision-making process should exclude the involvement of electric power operator stakeholders. (ii) Disclosure of the decision-making process to the  National Diet is a must. (iii) The committee must keep minutes of all other negotiations and meetings with promotional organizations, operators and other political organizations and disclose them to the public. (iv) The National Diet shall make the final selection of the commissioners after receiving third-party advice.
  2. Professional: (i) The personnel must meet global standards. Exchange programs  with overseas regulatory bodies must be promoted, and interaction and exchange of  human resources must be increased. (ii) An advisory organization including knowledgeable personnel must be established. (iii) The no-return rule should be applied  without exception.
  3. Consolidated: The functions of the organizations, especially emergency communications, decision-making and control, should be consolidated.
  4. Proactive: The organizations should keep up with the latest knowledge and technology, and undergo continuous reform activities under the supervision of the Diet.

NAIIC offered a number of different recommendations, but this one seemed like it could do the most to assure safety in Japan’s nuclear industry, despite Japan’s cultural shortcomings. Transparency and independence will allow the regulatory organization to act without feeling constrained by being part of the government or business sector’s “group.”

NAIIC’s assertion that the Fukushima disaster was “made in Japan” may be an overstatement and a tad harsh, but it is important to find a way to fix the regulator-business relationship so that a future disaster can be stopped. Japanese culture is one of the many different variables policymakers must keep in mind when formulating nuclear industry rules and regulations. Overcoming simple cultural deficiencies will not instantly make the industry safe, but it is a good start to a frank discussion the government and business community must initiate.

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