The Enigma of Japan’s Nuclear Power.
By Chris Rowthorn, Kyoto
18 October 2011 – The nuclear crisis at Fukushima has created an obvious danger and, in turn, to government promises to improve the safety of this technology, if not eliminate it altogether. But can Japan’s nuclear power ever be safe?
Most critics of nuclear power in Japan argue that the country has too many earthquakes and tsunami to operate nuclear power plants safely. Needless to say, these critics are right: building nuclear plants in such a seismically unstable place is a bad idea, especially when one takes into account the population density and small size of the country. However, the most important reasons that nuclear power cannot be safely utilized in Japan are human, not geological. Foremost among these human factors is Japan’s peculiar industrial-bureaucratic partnership, which, in turn, influences the country’s educational system and its media.
These human factors guarantee that when nuclear plants are built, they will not be built to the necessary safety standards. They guarantee that, once built, plants will not be properly inspected, regulated or maintained. Finally, they guarantee that when accidents occur, they will not be resolved in a timely and effective manner. Of course, all of this was brought into stark relief by the crisis at Fukushima Dai-Ichi, but it was also evident in previous accidents at Tokaimura and Monju.
Before I explain why I believe Japan is unsuited to managing nuclear power, let me be clear about my biases: I am against nuclear power, full stop. Until a method is devised to safely store nuclear waste or render it harmless, I do not think nuclear power plants should be built anywhere. However, I do believe that there are countries where nuclear power plants can be operated with a higher degree of true regulation than in Japan, with a correspondingly greater degree of public safety.
To be fair, the situation in Japan is not unique. Due to the huge amount of capital that is involved in nuclear power, the industry almost invariably seeks a huge influence on the political system wherever it exists. However, Japan is unique in organizing itself so that, rather than having to seek power through various semi-legal or illegal means, generally known as regulatory capture, the nuclear power industry in Japan holds sway over government by design. By looking closely at this situation, we gain insight into the political-economic structure of Japan as a whole.
The following is a brief list of reasons why nuclear power plants cannot be operated safely in Japan.
Amakudari: Japan’s system of amakudari (literally, ‘descent from heaven’), in which bureaucrats retire from their ministries to take up lucrative positions in the companies they formerly regulated, means that there is no real distinction between regulator and regulated in Japan. Indeed, it’s probably fair to say that certain powerful industries actually regulate the ministries that are tasked with regulating them. There is a simple reason for this, which anyone who has ever lived in Japan will immediately understand: in Japan, sempai [Ed.: seniority in Japanese ranking system due to age, social/business status] is for life. Keep in mind that the retired bureaucrats who have become industry executives remain sempai to the younger bureaucrats who remain in the ministries (their former kohai). It is unthinkable that these kohai [Ed.: subordinates in Japanese ranking system] could effectively regulate their former sempai — for it would involve an inversion of one of the most fundamental relationships in Japanese life. Perhaps no industry is as rife with amakudari as the nuclear industry. Tepco is typical, with four company vicepresidents between 1959 and 2010 coming from Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Commission, the main ministry tasked with overseeing the nuclear industry.
Capitalist-Development State Structure: On its face, amakudari seems like a perversion of the proper relationship between ministries and industries, but it’s important to realize that Japan’s ministries were never intended to regulate industry, rather, they were intended to promote industry. This is an aspect of what Japanologists like Karel van Wolferen and Chalmers Johnson call the capitalist development state, in which the state actively fosters the growth of selected industries through a partnership between industry and bureaucracy (ministries). In this relationship, regulation is seen an impediment to the growth of industry and is, therefore, performed as a charade, if it is performed at all.
Once again, Japan’s nuclear industry is a perfect example of how this plays out in practice. The electrical power companies that operate Japan’s nuclear power stations, including Tepco, are under the control of two ministries in Japan, the most important of which is the Nuclear Industry and Safety Commission, which itself is under the Ministry of Trade, Economy and Industry (METI). The explicit goal of METI is to promote industrial growth and nuclear power, which makes it unthinkable that METI would ever force the power companies to build safer plants or to perform rigorous and costly maintenance and upgrades. But the ministries’ role goes far beyond a simple laissez-faire approach to the nuclear industry. This year alone, the Nuclear Safety and Trade Commission budgeted US$12 million for a campaign to sell the public on the safety of nuclear power. More alarmingly, a former official at this same ministry recently admitted pressuring power companies to send employees to public symposiums on nuclear power to ask questions and make statements favorable to nuclear power.
Lack of Decisive Government: In his book The Enigma of Japanese Power (Vintage Books, 1990), Karel van Wolferen observed that Japan “has no steering wheel” (hence, the real governing power in Japan is an enigma). Van Wolferen argued that power is dispersed among so many different entities and agencies that no one person or agency can actually govern the country. In the days following the Great East Japan Earthquake, as the situation at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant spiraled out of control, this lack of effective leadership was made painfully clear. For three days following the accident, Prime Minister Kan left the handling of the nuclear emergency to Tepco and only intervened when there was a catastrophic explosion at the unit 3 reactor (the one containing MOX fuel). Still, it wasn’t until six days after the earthquake that representatives from the ministries tasked with overseeing nuclear power met with officials from the Prime Minister’s office and the heads of Tepco. Astonishingly, this meeting only took place at the urging of American officials, who were appalled at Japan’s disorganized and lethargic response.
Culture of Secrecy and Internal Loyalty: Perhaps no society on earth values group loyalty as highly as the Japanese do. This means that very few Japanese people are willing to betray their group to act as whistleblowers. In the event that some brave individual does dare to break the code of silence of his or her company or organization, he or she is often treated with contempt by the establishment. A classic example is sep 2011 | kansaiscene.com FEATURE 7 the story of Kei Sugaoka, an American Nisei employed by General Electric to work at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant. In 2000, Sugaoka reported problems at the Dai-Ichi plant to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, who, rather than acting on his tips, promptly informed Tepco, which blackballed Sugaoka from working in the Japanese nuclear industry. As I have noted above, Japanese industries and ministries work together in partnership; in this case, the bureaucrats put their loyalty to their industry partners above their legal obligations to protect the identity of whistleblowers, not to mention their responsibility to ensure the safety of Japan’s nuclear power plants.
Contempt for Democratic Process and the Public’s Right to Know: Japan’s culture of secrecy and internal loyalty is a marked contempt for democratic process and the public’s right to know. This is perfectly illustrated by the way the Japanese government and Tepco have dealt with informing the public about the disaster: information has been withheld, doctored or released too late to do any good. For example, within a few days of the tsunami, Tepco and the Japanese government knew that at least two of the reactors at Fukushima had melted down. However, this information was only released to the public in late May and early June, shortly before the International Atomic Energy Agency was due to visit Japan. An official from that agency said, “It is extremely regrettable that this sort of important information was not released to the public until three months after the fact, and only then in materials for a conference overseas.”
No Free Press: Japan’s media suffers from a variety of forms of censorship, both internally applied (self-censorship) and externally applied (through intimidation by the yakuza and the uyoku or right wing). The press in Japan has long been loathe to print articles critical of the nuclear industry, and, since the disaster, they have generally followed the government’s line when reporting on the disaster. As a result, the Japanese public is woefully underinformed about the risks of nuclear power.
Corrupted Academics: The Japanese nuclear industry has a long history of giving financial support to academic institutions and individual professors in order to influence their research and views on nuclear power. Tokyo University (Todai), the incubator of Japan’s political and executive class, has benefited more than any other institution from the nuclear industry’s largesse: an astonishing number of Todai professors and administrators leave the university to take up positions at Tepco (a form of academic amakudari), including the former president of Todai, Komiyama Hiroshi, who now holds the position of auditor at Tepco. Furthermore, it is alleged that Todai receives up to US$5 million annually in contributions from Tepco. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that two Todai professors recently appeared on national TV in Japan to declare that plutonium is no more dangerous than table salt.
Passive Population: Japan’s present-day population is famously passive and unwilling to challenge the powers that be. An interesting example of this can be seen in the public’s response to the actions of Yamamoto Taro, an actor-turned-activist, who led a march on the Saga Prefectural Office to protest that government’s sending of fake emails to curry favor for nuclear power. A popular video of his group storming the office received about 60 percent dislikes on YouTube Japan, and the most common reason given for disliking the video was that “Yamamoto-san did not make an appointment.” This sort of reaction evinces an astonishing degree of deeply conditioned obedience to authority that must be the envy of dictators the world over. Because the majority of the population is unwilling to challenge the existing power structure in Japan, that very same power structure feels no need to look out for the safety of the population.
Given all of the above, it is absurd to believe that nuclear power plants can be operated safely in Japan. Of course, since the disaster struck in March, the government of Japan has come under pressure to reevaluate its nuclear policy. Most recently, Prime Minister Naoto Kan floated the idea of a nuclear-free Japan. However, this proposal is likely to whither in the face of the deeply entrenched pro-nuclear interests that form a structural element of the Japanese government. Indeed, it is hard to imagine ridding the country of nuclear power without having to redesign the entire social system. The tentacles of Japan’s nuclear village have corrupted the culture from top to bottom, as surely as radiation from Fukushima Dai-Ichi has been dispersed from Hokkaido to Kyushu and beyond.
Chris Rowthorn was born in the UK, raised in the US and has been living in Kyoto since 1992. He is regional correspondent for The Japan Times, a national English-language newspaper published in Tokyo. Since 1996 he has been writing for Lonely Planet Guidebooks, working on 21 guidebooks to Kyoto, Japan, Tokyo, Malaysia, South-East Asia and Victoria (Australia).
This article was originally published on the online editions of Kansai Scene and The Japan Times.
> Chris Rowthorn’s website
> Kansai Scene, Kyoto
> The Japan Times Online
> Taro Yamamoto discusses the Anti-Nuclear Movement on YouTube
The new 2012 Karo Diaries are here.
27 September 2011 – The White Cliffs of Dover form part of the British coastline which faces the Strait of Dover and France. The cliff face, which reaches up to 107 metres (351 feet), owes its striking façade to its composition of chalk (pure white calcium carbonate) accentuated by streaks of black flint. On the other side of the channel, the Cliffs of Étretat include three natural arches and a pointed needle. The arches were not formed from crashing waves, but rather from a river that used to run parallel to the present day coastline. Both cliffs are seismic sisters: once upon a time together, now apart but brought together again this year in the 2012 Karo Diary.
> Look at the photos
Paper Diaries vs. Digital Devices.
31 July 2011 – With the growth in popularity of iPhones and other smart devices the question arises: How much longer will there be a market for paper diaries? In today’s online edition of the New York Times, there is an article on The Calendar War – paper diaries opposed to electronic time management systems. Basically, it is a question of personal preference, but we have put together a short list of the positive aspects of using paper diaries and digital devices.
The pros of electronic devices:
1. You can instantly update your entries.
2. You can sync with other devices and users.
3. You can seamlessly integrate personal and professional information into one, breaking down the boundaries between the different parts of your life.
4. Birthday and anniversaries can be programmed to be updated automatically every year.
5. Appointments can be programmed to be prompted by single or multiple alarms.
The pros of paper diaries:
1. It is quicker to pencil in an appointment than tapping it in on an electronic device, logging-in and downloading it.
2. Paper diaries are more durable if you drop them or if they get wet.
3. You can doodle and make personal notes in a paper diary.
4. You enter the information in your own calendar, thus knowing what you have scheduled for yourself. The act of physically writing things down helps you remember them.
5. Cancelled events are crossed off, which leaves a paper trail. Making the distinction between cancelled and never-scheduled events can be an important reason for keeping a paper diary.
6. The graffiti aspect of paper diaries can be advantageous over digital devices. Handwritten makes for a freer, more creative form of making notes – one can use codes and symbols, and it is possible to circle, highlight and check-off specific information.
7. Holidays and other local event details can be printed in paper diaries.
8. Paper diaries are a good way to keep the private things in your life private.
9. There is no peer pressure in using shared calendar systems for scheduling.
10. Paper diaries support rich layout and typography possibilities, promoting visual and tactile stimulation.
11. A paper diary may serve as a journal, which you can easily refer to at later dates, and may even become a valuable family keepsake for generations to come.
12. The Karo Diary offers something new every year, whether it be improved practicality functions, eclectic subject matter, beautiful photographs printed on specialty papers which enhance the pleasure of keeping a paper diary.
Maybe we are biased, but we believe that paper calendars will not disappear from use. They offer endless useful functions which are difficult to replace by technology. The 18th Edition of the Karo Diary is currently in production. Due to our own personal opinions on practicality, the Desk Diary will revert back to its original spiralbound version. Please check back here for further details.
> The New York Times, 31 July 2011 online edition: A Paper Calendar? It’s 2011
> Virginia Tech, 2008: An Exploratory Study of Personal Calendar Use
3 June 2011 – When it comes to art, we are pretty fortunate in Basel. Instead of travelling all over the world to see great works, we can just sit back and let the art come to us. At the moment, the Schaulager is squatting at the Haus zum Kirschgarten, a beautiful mansion turned museum, right in downtown Basel. Francis Alÿs (b. 1959 in Antwerp, lives in Mexico City) is not a newcomer to the Schaulager – in 2006 we had the pleasure of seeing his exhibition Sign Painting Project.
Fabiola is Alÿs’ private collection of over 370 interpretations of Jean-Jacques Henner’s 1885 portrait of St. Fabiola. (Henner himself was an Alsacian from Bernwiler, just 55 kilometers – a stone’s throw – from Basel.) Most of the pieces are done by amateurs and range from paintings on canvas to needlepoint, or small, scurrile objects and jewelry, collected from flea markets, junk shops and estates.
The exhibition ends on August 28, so don’t miss it.
> Haus zum Kirschgarten, Elisabethenstrasse 27, Basel
The Japan Crisis.
18 March 2011 – As you well know, on March 11 at 2:46pm JST a massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake occurred near the northeastern coast of Japan, creating extremely destructive tsunami waves which hit Japan just minutes after the earthquake, and triggering evacuations and warnings across the Pacific Ocean. The earthquake and tsunami have caused extensive and severe damage in Northeastern Japan, leaving thousands of people confirmed dead, injured or missing, and millions more affected by lack of electricity, water and transportation.
You may make a donation to support disaster relief efforts, find missing persons or read the latest news bulletins.
> Google Crisis Response Japan
Basel School of Design Reunion.
20 February 2011 – A reunion of the Advanced Class for (Weiterbildungsklasse für Grafik) is being planned on July 10–13, 2011. All students who attended this program at the Basel School of Design between 1968 and 1999 are invited to attend. Further details coming soon.
1 January 2011 – After months of research, planning and development, Karo Graphic Design & Publishing is pleased to announce the relaunch of its website, www.karografik.ch. The new website delivers well-organized information to it’s diverse, local as well as global audience.
We have added a number of new features including a fresh design which offers easier navigation. There is a new column called News which offers timely updates and periodic news blurbs.
In the next weeks and months, we will continue to improve our website and invite you to come back often to check out the latest developments. We hope you enjoy our new website and find it useful and informative.
Your suggestions and ideas are always welcome – please feel free to contact us.