My time in Japan’s closed nuclear village

Financial Times: July 16, 2012

There has been a heated debate as to whether cultural, “only in Japan” factors were behind last year’s Fukushima nuclear disaster. As a foreigner who spent three years as a member of Japan’s nuclear safety committees in the decade before the accident, I think I have some idea of what was involved.

First and foremost was an overweening confidence. I could accept claims as to the technical quality of the plants and their ability to withstand earthquakes (as seems largely to have been the case at Fukushima). But the made-in-Japan complacency was appalling. We were told repeatedly that nations such as the US and the USSR, which lacked Japan’s thoroughness and attention to quality, may have had their serious accidents. But nothing like that could ever happen in Japan.

Then there was the closed-shop mentality. In committee meetings, I tried to counter an obsessive hatred of the anti-nuclear movement by suggesting that, at the very least, they should try to get a dialogue going. Ideally they should invite informed anti-nuclear activists to enter plants freely and look for possible problems, I said. In the process, the industry could perhaps avert the one real danger it faced, that Japan would develop an anti-nuclear movement of German strength.

That idea was quickly laughed out of court. I had run head-on into not just the complacency but also the nuclear “village” mentality. Most large Japanese groups are bound by a tight, almost tribal togetherness that does not brook outside interference. Terms such as “‘village” or “family” are common.

I met a similar rebuffal for my other main effort, which was to suggest to the committee that it should encourage whistleblowers, with financial rewards at times. “Mr Clark,” I was told by the acting chairman, “do you not realise that it is quite contrary to Japanese culture to encourage disloyalty to the organisation, let alone reward it?”

I had a reason for my warnings. Cover-ups (inpei kosaku) are rife in Japan, where survival of one’s organisation is an imperative. However, as we saw in the Olympus scandal, this can be very destructive. The need for independent, outside views is even greater than elsewhere. On a visit to the Monju fast-breeder reactor plant, where a notorious cover-up accident had closed operations down for more than a decade, I found yet another typically closed-shop, all-male outfit (even the reception counters had to be staffed by men, perhaps because of a Japanese superstition about women bringing bad luck to dangerous construction sites), where everyone lived, ate and played together.

Outsiders on the nuclear safety committees I attended were mainly what the Japanese call go-yo senmonka – experts close to the industry who could be trusted not to rock the boat. As a minority of one, there was little I could do.

But I suspect another factor was also at work – a cultural dislike of contingency planning. To some extent this is reasonable – Japanese people like things to develop naturally and handle problems as they arise. Indeed, the Japanese intense focus on the work at hand is one reason for their manufacturing quality. But that was no excuse for ignoring vulnerabilities in plant location. Warnings of possible tsunami risks – the plants were next to one of the world’s deepest tectonic trenches, with a history of huge tsunami – were dismissed as “sotei-gai” (beyond expectations). The bureaucrats have now decreed this word not be used again in response to warnings. But why not earlier?

A brief report in the Nikkei Weekly after the disaster quoted an industry ministry official as saying what amounted to ‘in Japan we believe that if we plan for contingencies that increases the risk that they will happen’.

We can live with lingering superstitions of Japan as a divine nation. But in the nuclear industry?

The final nail in the coffin, as others have pointed out, was the dominance of elite university graduates in the top bureaucratic, ex-bureaucratic (amakudari) and Tepco leadership positions running or supervising the show, many with no technical qualifications at all. Over three years I got to see many of these people close up. Their arrogance matched only their incompetence. The contrast with the technicians below them was large.

The protesters call for abolishing nuclear power. I would call for abolishing Japan’s elitist education system. As for the culture, try to keep what is good and junk the rest.

The writer is a former Australian diplomat and former president of Tama University, Tokyo