Fukushima and Japan’s Cultural Curtain

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Fukushima and Japan’s Cultural Curtain

To deal with disasters like Fukushima, Japan needs a more engaged civil society.

Fukushima and Japan’s Cultural Curtain
Credit: REUTERS/Tomohiro Ohsumi/Pool

When Kiyoshi Kurokawa, one of the most respected experts in international health policy, was appointed chairman of the Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission in January 2012, there was hope for Japan: Hope it would finally deep-dive into the mess of tangled causalities, related responsibilities and possible answers surrounding the disaster.

As one notable recommendation, the commission suggested the need for an independent international committee, committed to scientific principles and transparency. The newly founded International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning may be seen as a first response to the Commission’s recommendation, but results and especially a clear strategy are yet to be seen.

Committees, commissions and expert panels play an important role in Japanese culture. They are part of the traditional approach to problem solving. Whenever a situation becomes complex and difficult, a committee is set up to cope with the details.

While it is unquestionable that a committee of experts can provide valuable solutions to specific problems, in this case, as in many others, neither the investigation commission itself nor its weighty report was able to change or achieve anything concrete. The only result is another committee, packaged as a research institute.

The key question still to be answered is what exactly is needed to encourage a major shift in responding to the disaster and finally learn lessons from it?

One obvious pathway is to continue and push for concrete action plans under the supervision of independent experts. But another possible answer is closely related to the question of how we think about responsibility.

Responsibility as an ethical and social concept has often been researched and reinterpreted. When the environmental movement in Europe spurred critical thinking about our planet and its future, one of the most prominent German-born philosophers at the time, Hans Jonas, suggested expanding the imperative of responsibility beyond the present and with reference to the permanence of genuine human life.

Looking back, Hans Jonas’ arguments seem even more resonant since we learned about the possible side effects of nuclear energy. Chernobyl and other accidents have taught us that Hans Jonas was right when he wrote about “utopian dynamics of technical progress and the excessive magnitude of responsibility” back in 1984.

Long-lived radionuclides and especially the lack of knowledge and data to understand their impact on human life provide sufficient evidence that modern technology has introduced actions of such new scale that requires a new dimension of responsibility.

Learning from Hans Jonas implies that responsibility for the shattered Japanese nuclear power plant has to be defined so that not only everyday troubleshooting but also the long-range effects of the accident are properly tackled. Responsibility for Fukushima clearly requires more than the reactive responses currently demonstrated by the Japanese government; it requires proactive steps and leadership for the future of the country.

Yet another important aspect when understanding the concept of responsibility is to define the personal scope of application. Not only has the concept of responsibility to be expanded beyond the present, it also has to be expanded beyond expert driven committees.

Ironically, convening an expert committee quite often suggests delegating responsibility to someone else. While this strategy works well for some problems and especially for tasks that can be narrowly defined, it can easily lead to the assumption that those involved have been released from their responsibility. But the important point is that all issues of public interest have to be understood and engaged with by the broader public.

At the same time, engagement requires some level of activity. Passive disapproval is not sufficient.

In summary, as long as the concept of responsibility is not widely understood to require active participation, future committee or expert panels will make very little difference. As long as the common mode of thinking is driven by the invisible social contract “that the failure in the situation and myself cannot be helped,” future disasters will look the same.

While it is true that the Japanese government and TEPCO have to be called to account for their decisions, the more relevant question for Japan to ask itself is how to encourage the broader public to engage with the problem and take responsibility themselves. In other words, how can the third largest economy with a population of more than 120 million build capacity in civil society?

The question is difficult because it requires changing entrenched cultural practices. There is no clear answer on how to best change long trusted modes of thinking. Looking abroad, we can see many historical parallels between Japan and Germany but today’s life in both countries suggests one major difference: The German tendency to publicly complain about everything.  Spend a weekend in Berlin and you will most likely see the streets closed down to allow for a demonstration or protest for or against any random topic. Spend a weekend in Tokyo and you will see the streets closed to allow for a unique shopping experience.

Even if protesting that someone is to blame, or that something or other should be done or changed by the government, could end up being another way to evade responsibility, it may be a necessary first step to initiate the much needed shift in civic education.

In the end, merely complaining or expressing dissatisfaction will not solve problems, but it can help to open the door to new ways of critical thinking and taking responsibility beyond the long established trust in expert committees.

For Japan to initiate such an important first step, it seems critical to engage with the nation’s youth and identify role models for both learning and inspiration.

For future dialogue, it seems indispensible to revisit Hans Jonas and further refine the concept of responsibility so that it serves as a functioning ethical guideline for conflicts and other social issues. Active engagement and participation will have to play an essential role in any future definition of responsibility.

Dr. Catharina Maracke is a lawyer admitted to the bar in Germany. She is also an associate professor at the Graduate School for Media and Governance, Keio University.