Natural disasters are a fact of life in Japan. Even so, the Japanese have faced the terrible damage wrought by the earthquake and tsunami on March 11 with a stoicism that has been admired by media around the world.
There has, however, been a profound sense of dismay over the nuclear incident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. How could this have happened in Japan, a seemingly organised society whose technological prowess is famed across the globe? Shouldn’t Japan have been better prepared, so it could have avoided a Chernobyl-scale accident? And surely Japan should have been better placed than the Soviet Union, with its creaky and inefficient communist infrastructure?
While the full details of what happened in March and since at the plant are still trickling out, the evidence suggests that a series of all-too-familiar human errors contributed to the accident: design faults and oversights in the preparation for dealing with a disaster of this scale. No wonder, then, that many Japanese are calling the chain of events at Fukushima a ‘manmade disaster.’
Human errors are, unfortunately, universal. Yet this reality seems to have slipped the minds of many commentators, who have instead attributed the nuclear disaster to cultural factors unique to Japan. Jacques Attali, founding president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, for instance, chastised Japan’s ‘pride and arrogance – along with a penchant for secrecy and lack of transparency’ which supposedly ‘led the public and private authorities in Japan to refuse international aid while hiding the scope of the disaster, both from their own people and from the international community.’
The fallout from the nuclear meltdown in Japan has been made worse, such pundits argue, by another cultural shortcoming that many see as peculiar to Japan – extreme deference to authority. The Economist wasn’t alone in chiming in with the sentiment that ‘Japan has a political system so set in its ways that it has trouble adapting to creeping change, let alone emergencies on a biblical scale. Too often, the flipside of Japan’s deference is an establishment able to blunder on without fear of protest and social strife.’
These views were echoed by Attali, who claimed that ‘Japanese officials are merely asked in their own polite etiquette what the real facts are. No one insists when they refuse outside help in order not to spread panic, and to salvage their costly investment.’
Why are these culturalist arguments such a problem? First, by attributing the causes of a manmade disaster to national culture (itself a debatable term), it reduces that event to something in some way unique to that nation. Followed to its logical conclusion, such an argument seems to be suggesting that certain disasters could only happen in a particular country because of its ‘culture,’ and so by extension they could never happen in other countries.
Second, the classification of certain national cultures as in some ways ‘bad’ necessarily leads to the assumption that ‘better’ national cultures exist. This creates a hierarchy of cultures, and can lead to paternalistic thinking that the ‘superior’ cultures should guide and teach those deemed lacking. It’s no surprise, then, that Attali concludes that there is ‘an urgent need to establish a global consortium of nations and experts with the competence to intervene to stem the damage,’ and that the Japanese ‘must accept such intervention as quickly as possible without feeling offended or humiliated by our insistence.’
Yet, the United States, Britain, France, and Russia have all had their share of nuclear accidents and other scandals. Indeed, history is littered with stories of how disasters have stemmed from human error, complacency, or corruption, which would suggest that the cause of Japan’s nuclear accident lies in more universal factors.
The problem with culturalist arguments is that they breed a false sense of cultural superiority (or ‘pride and arrogance,’ as Attali accuses the Japanese of), which should be anathema in an age of equality among states, cultures and peoples. Correspondingly, there’s also a danger in the flipside of the post-Fukushima coin, with many commentators praising Japanese resilience in the face of adversity. Does that mean that those states that have been slower to recover from disaster are in some way inferior?
Worst of all, though, culturalist arguments generate dangerous and self-satisfied complacency among certain nations and their commentators. It would hardly be surprising if, after Chernobyl, many Japanese had been tempted to suggest that such a thing could never happen in Japan. But those who did have found that, much to their chagrin, there was nothing unique about the disaster that befell their Russian neighbours.
And neither is there anything unique about Japan. No country is immune from human error, corruption or complacency. With this in mind, and before we start painting with broad culturalist brushstrokes, other nations should examine their own nuclear safety management – and indeed management of all potentially dangerous technologies – to try to ensure that the mistakes in not-so-unique Japan aren’t repeated. That would be a useful lesson to draw for any culture.
Shogo Suzuki is a lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester, England.