Though the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is far from resolved, life in northern Japan has mostly returned to its former tranquillity. You wouldn’t know what happened, until you go too close to the shoreline or feel an aftershock.
The aftermath of the disasters of 11 March is still with us every day, but the importance of wa, social harmony, has reasserted itself. The West knows that Japan is a society governed on the principle of consensus, but misunderstands that as meaning there must be universal agreement on every decision, and how it is implemented. Wa in this case means that dissent, when it happens, takes place within strict boundaries of social propriety. Dissent is articulated as part of a social drama with acts previously agreed on (1). This tacit agreement holds. Haruki Murakami often writes of the student demonstrations of the 1960s in Tokyo, and says their disturbance of wa was minimal, symbolic and impotent.
We can understand the muted popular response to the recent disasters. The government’s initial response was openly criticised, as it was after the Kobe earthquake in the 1990s (Japan’s last major natural disaster, though not as big as 11 March). This created resentment in northern Japan, and led to losses in recent prefectural elections. Prime minister Naoto Kan now faces anger even within his own ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), though he survived a vote of no confidence. But only for the moment: members of the Japanese Diet thought it too drastic for Kan to go now, although he had already signalled his intention to step down in favour of “a younger generation”. The crisis at Fukushima Daiichi is just his stay of execution.
The Japanese have much to be angry about. Consider the record of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) and the government in their commitment to safety and transparency. On 29 August 2002 the government revealed that Tepco was guilty of false reporting in its routine inspection of nuclear plants and systematic concealment of plant safety incidents (2). As a result, all 17 of its reactors were shut down for inspection. Tepco’s chairman Hiroshi Araki, president Nobuya Minami, vice president Toshiaki Enomoto, as well as advisers Sho Nasu and Gaishi Hiraiwa, stepped down within a month. They admitted to “200 occasions over more than two decades, between 1977 and 2002, involving the submission of false technical data to authorities”.
This year, on 28 February, Tepco submitted a report to the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (Nisa) about the Fukushima plant, admitting that it had submitted fake inspection and repair reports (3). Tepco had failed to inspect more than 30 technical components of the six reactors, including power boards for the reactor’s temperature control valves, as well as components of cooling systems such as water pump motors and emergency power diesel generators. These generators were knocked out by the tsunami, leading to the crisis with the cooling system.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had warned Japan in 2008 that the Fukushima plant was built to outdated safety guidelines, which could be a “serious problem” during a major earthquake. An IAEA mission this May-June (4) found that besides the failure to review or approve improved defences, accident plans at the time of the disaster could not cope with multiple plant failures. The risk of hydrogen explosions was also underestimated, sites had no seismic resistant buildings to shelter emergency teams, and instruments essential to monitoring reactors were not adequately protected against accidents. Since there were at least three core meltdowns in the days after the tsunami, it was only through luck and the dedication of the plant’s workers that the nuclear fallout didn’t result in greater contamination. That there have been no deaths from radiation exposure is a small miracle, but the long-term effects are still worrying.
This worry is very much alive in Japanese hearts and minds, and if the reaction against the government and Tepco’s handling of the situation has not been more visible, that may be down to wa. Most people in Tohoku (northeastern Japan) are fearful, and anger burns hard in their hearts.
Demonstrations so far have been small and muted. Asked why they don’t go out on the streets en masse, most people (no matter how outspoken in private) say they “can’t get the time off work”. Given the centrality of work to most Japanese, this is unsurprising. But the truth is deeper — it is not how things are done. You see the signs of fear and anger everywhere, hidden under a veneer of calm. At a concert last weekend, one singer sang his original protest song; the chorus went “All I wanna do is eat some local spinach, and see a level of absolute zero-zero-zero microsieverts”. A newly married couple, Kyo and Haruka Yamashita, spoke of their desire to have children; but with the reactors still smouldering only 100km away, that is “not an option — not even a thought”.
A pregnant woman, Mari Naganuma, said she was steadily more frightened with the passing months. She had taken every precaution — powdered milk, no leafy greens. But after the release of tera-becquerels of radioactive material into the atmosphere, she couldn’t escape the fear that “this could never be enough” to protect her unborn child. She expected to deliver in mid-July.
Rónán MacDubhghaill is a writer and research consultant with Eranos, Paris, and is currently based in Sendai.
1) This concept is outlined in the seminal (if now outdated) book by Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture.
(2) CNN, 2 September 2002; http://archives.cnn.com/2002/BUSINE…
(3) “Operator of Fukushima nuke plant admitted to faking repair records”, Herald Sun.
(4) IAEA International Fact Finding Expert Mission report, 24 May-2 June 2011.
This article appears in the May, English language edition of the monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, to be found at mondediplo.com. This text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.