Nuclear reactor crisis
Maybe Canadians living in Canada could not see it, but from my perspective in Tokyo the Japanese reaction to and handling of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant crisis following the Great Tohoku-Kanto Earthquake of March 11th were typically Japanese, and culturally specific, chock full of precedents from Japanese culture and history.
Every day throughout the reactor crisis they demonstrated illogical hope that the current stopgap measure would be the saving solution.
To start with, everyone should understand that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) which operates the reactor has a long history of mismanagement, accidents and even blatant safety report falsification. Issuing only vague rebukes, one government after another cooperated with these shenanigans out of service to the fictions of social harmony corporate “sincerity.” While imaginary harmony and faux sincerity constitute a valuable currency in Japanese culture, don’t forget that every culture operates according to its own set of fictions. Next, it was quickly observed that foreign media coverage leaned heavily towards alarmism, sensationalism, fear-mongering and in-your-face inaccurate reporting. Most people are prone to fear in this regard because we do not understand the physics of nuclear power, nor the mechanics of a nuclear power plant. Simultaneously the Japanese media leaned towards under-statement and acquiescence to the government spokesmen, company spokesmen, and Japanese Nuclear Safety Agency spokesmen who threw out statistics and data during news conferences that failed to explain the full story. These are characteristic failings by both media, and those of us in the thick of it understood that the truth was somewhere in the vague middle.
The Japanese reaction demonstrated their disposition simply to muddle through disaster rather than forge a grand, overall strategy. In fact, there was no overall nuclear safety strategy at all, perhaps eminently demonstrated by the inappropriate positioning of the plant’s back-up generators (above ground and near a beachhead known to be vulnerable to tsunami) and the failure to install doubly redundant back-up power systems (as had previously been recommended) in the first place. Every day throughout the reactor crisis they demonstrated illogical hope that the current stopgap measure would be the saving solution, and that the Japanese spirit of “ganbaru,” or perseverance would help them prevail. The entire episode was a string of one stopgap measure after another and the idea of disastrous failure simply flew by most people - especially those in authority who are responsible for presenting and protecting the fictions of Japanese culture to the public and the world. It was like 1945 all over again. Suffering defeat toAmericaon all fronts, faced with the possibility of imminent invasion of the home islands, and presented with a demand for unconditional surrender - in other words, total disaster - Japanese at that time trusted in pointed sticks, kamikaze pilots and a dull determination to persevere. They simply could not comprehend defeat even when defeat was at their doorstep. Throughout much of the war hardline militarists believed that the Japanese spirit alone would lead them to prevail over foreign devils, despite the facts: men, equipment, munitions, fuel, food, everything necessary for wartime capability.
What we saw in the Japanese handling of the FukushimaDai-ichi reactor crisis was a comparable incomprehension of the ultimate failure, and faith in some divine wind that would save the day. Although we might say that Japanese are hampered by some features of their own culture, we ought to admit that the same is true of all cultures. And although one might describe these features as a handicap in a crisis they also constitute the grounds of Japanese strength and success.