The Pope’s Letter: Neoliberalism and Fukushima

Japan’s Social Disintegration

Japanese sociologist and Tokyo Metropolitan University professor, Shinji Miyadai argues that European nations progressed from the communal self-governance of food to the communal self-governance of energy after World War II. Miyadai compares Europe’s post-war developments with those of post-war Japan in his article entitled ‘Pitfalls of the Nuclear Power Reduction Movement’. His contention is simple: As opposed to Europe, Japan had actually “accelerated its dependence on the market through trade liberalization and deregulation…”

Post-war economic indenture was exactly what the United States wanted from Japan. Moreover, the US was able to procure Japanese market dependence through discussions on the trade liberalization of agricultural goods (and later, the US-Japan Structural Impediments Initiative talks). Miyadai claims that the hollowing effects of these US-sponsored neoliberal adjustments would exact their toll on Japanese communities in the 1980s and 1990s.

Neoliberalism’s averse effects climaxed when the 1997 recession – induced by the Asian currency crisis – washed over Japan. Miyadai recalls the serious outcomes of a barely functioning Japanese economy, which then finally ceased to function. Among the consequences were: Japan’s heightened rate of suicide (four times that of the UK and twice that of the US); the scandal of the missing or long-dead elderly; ubiquitous infant and child abuse or neglect; and a third of Japan’s dead, cremated without funeral.

Indeed, as Miyadai laments, “Well before the Great East Japan Earthquake, Japanese society had already begun to disintegrate.”

Distorting Japan’s Foreign Policy

After WWII, the US meddled in Japan’s foreign policy. Miyadai offers the Kuril Islands dispute as evidence of this. The dispute actually begins with something Miyadai labels as Japan’s “castration experience.” This “castration” entails America’s dropping of atomic bombs, Japan’s US-written post-war constitution, and the US-Japan Security Treaty signed under Washington’s persistence.

In addition to the “castration experience,” the Kuril Islands dispute has its origins in the Yalta treaty and the San Francisco Peace Treaty (1952). Under political pressure from the US, Japan’s then-Southern Kuril Islands were deserted. However, when Japan attempted to conclude a peace treaty with the Soviet Union in 1955, US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles threatened not to return Okinawa should Japan fail to insist that the Soviets relinquish the islands.

Miyadai calls Dulles’ ultimatum “impossible.” Never mind that the two Asian powers nearly reached a resolution on their own, or that the Soviets already knew that Japan had ditched the islands under strict US direction. The US interfered with Japan’s internal matters precisely to pressure the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to succumb to its will. Ultimately, Washington was content to threaten Japan over relinquishing the islands just to create a rift in Japan-Soviet relations.

Compensation for the “Castration Experience”

Miyadai asserts that the “origin of nuclear power development in Japan” – which includes the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station – “is the compensation for its ‘castration experience’.” Importantly, nuclear development in Japan has depended on Japanese citizens to different extents. Matsutarō Shōriki, for one, played a pivotal role.

Shōriki worked under Japan’s former Prime Minister Ichirō Hatoyama, who sought to secure independence from the US and the “castration experience” nightmare. In 1956, Shōriki was appointed chairman of a recently established Japanese Atomic Energy Commission. Later that year he was tasked with heading Japan’s also new Science and Technology Agency. These institutions fell under the Hatoyama cabinet and enjoyed background support from the US Central Intelligence Agency.

Shōriki spearheaded Japan’s introduction of a British-made nuclear power reactor despite ostensible pushback from the US. And due to concerns about the possibility of growing Japan-Soviet relations, which nuclear power plants equipped with other-than-American technology might have facilitated, Washington decided to change its approach. The US up and offered Japan its nuclear light-water reactor (LWR) technology. Since, only LWRs that utilize enriched uranium have been built in Japan.

Behind the scenes of Japan’s “US-dependent power policies,” Miyadai states that the “rise of anti-US, anti-capitalist sentiment in Japan” surely lurked.

Fukushima and Complex Hybrid Entities

In ‘Learning from Fukushima’, Pfotenhauer, Jones, Saha, and Jasanoff collectively argue that “it is impossible to separate the social and technical features in a complex operation such as [Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station].” Moreover, given the many “irreducible linkages” present amongst reactors, other technologies, risk models, and mechanisms for safety, it seems impossible to explain “what went wrong” at Fukushima without considering “that all aspects of sociotechnical systems are intertwined…”

It is important to note that nuclear energy is not simply a utility. As Pfotenhauer et al. advise, nuclear power is best understood as a “thoroughly hybrid entity.” Its social and technological components cannot be discerned simply for the purposes of policy and/or analysis.

Sara Pritchard recognizes how two sociotechnical features like political and economic power shape nuclear facilities, or complex hybrid entities, in times of normal operation and disaster. In her article ‘An Envirotechnical Disaster: Nature, Technology, and Politics at Fukushima’, Pritchard reports that a Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) engineer confessed to falsifying records of containment vessels and design decisions that “may have prioritized convenience and economy over safety” at Fukushima.

The TEPCO employee’s actions constitute one example that suggests economics were a contributing factor to the Fukushima disaster. And in conjunction with economics, politics helped establish the intersection between Fukushima’s various natural and technological elements. Pritchard observes that “particular groups and institutions pushed to link nature and technology in specific ways, both in situations of normalcy and those of crisis.”

The New Papal Encyclical

Treatments of the Fukushima disaster might now come to include what Pope Francis calls “the new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology” in his new encyclical, Laudato Si. Such “powers” contribute to the propagation of different forms of pollution whose effects are global. This includes all that yet emanates out of the Fukushima aftermath.

Francis states, “Technology, which linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving [pollution] problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relationships between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.” Pritchard makes a corroborating observation: During mitigation at Fukushima, many problems were created in the process of engendering solutions to the onset of a “cascade of accumulating problems.” For instance, consider the employment of Pacific seawater and its exacerbation issues of pressure, cooling, and pollution.

Along with pollution, Francis invokes the inseparable bond “between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and inner peace.” Be it climate change or some other human-abetted disaster, Francis is right to conclude that there are “grave implications” for the “environmental, social, economic, political, and for the distribution of goods.” He is also right to assert that the “worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries,” where many of the world’s poor live, and whose subsistence depends chiefly on “natural reserves and economic systemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry”—because they lack “other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters…”

To be sure, what Francis calls “access to social services protection” is something not only limited for the poor (despite whatever benefits they may receive from nuclear energy), but also, it is a luxury that remains well beyond their reach.

Francis’ commentary is relevant wherever economic and political interest threaten ecology and oppress the poor. Hell, the two often go together! For example, consider the Act on the Promotion of Energy Development, which passed under Japan’s Kakuei Tanaka in 1974. The act enabled Japanese towns and villages that housed nuclear power plants to receive ample subsidy remunerations. The impoverished rural local governments were seduced; they opened up to receive the construction of nuclear power plants despite a lack of debate about nuclear power safety.

This, writes Miyadai, marks the beginning of the poor’s “life with nuclear power plants” in Japan.

The Half-Life of Oppression

Nuclear facilities and their existences are not mere entities with a few, easily discernable parts. A nuclear facility like Fukushima poses a complex, sociocultural, sociotechnical, economic, and political configuration. This doubtless includes nature.

The Fukushima disaster involved an earthquake, nuclear reactors, delayed injections, a tsunami, backup generator problems, probabilistic or outmoded thinking, relentless radioactive decay, spent fuel ponds, weak government oversight of industry—the list continues. Moreover, to investigate “what went wrong” at Fukushima – or some similar query – does not necessitate that one look for a lynchpin or smoking gun. The entire event is much larger and much more multifaceted than one thing alone, which also suggests that the holistic truth about the catastrophe rests not in any sort of neat and tidy reduction.

Visible in the post-war nuclear developments of Japan is the fact that an energy as complex as nuclear simply does not exist without a history unto itself, or the people involved in its adoption and maintenance. The global history, the economic ruin wrought on Japanese society by neoliberalism, and the current impacts that environmental degradation and catastrophe has on the poor all matter. The impacts of a pollution with global effects hits the poor the hardest, which is why ecological manifestos like Laudato Si are so relevant.

When negative public reactions to Japan’s installation of nuclear power plants surfaced, poor local residents would respond, “Don’t criticizes us; it’s our lives!” Prichard asks if there are any “lessons” to be learned from the Fukushima disaster and the effects it has, and has had, on the poor. She concludes, “It is not just any bodies that are being exposed to increased rates of radiation in japan before and after Fukushima.” Instead, she argues that “some of the poorest, most economically-vulnerable people in Japan are more likely to be affected (and affected more significantly) by the merging of the biological and the atomic.”

Unless the history, politics, economics, and ecological elements of nuclear energy and entities like Fukushima all garner attention, there is no way of telling what the resultant half-life of the poor’s oppression will be.

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Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel.


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