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Japan's governance problems
Monday, 09 July 2012 16:57

As countries develop, the role of government must evolve too.  In this regard, the report of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission demonstrates clearly how Japan's government is in desperate need of modernization and upgrading.

But all countries can learn from Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster.  We all have governance shortcomings.     

First, the basics.

The primary role of government in a poor country should be to build physical infrastructure, provide its population with a basic education, open up markets and provide coordination for major private sector investments.  As a country progresses towards advanced status, the priority should move to providing the institutions and policies to manage and regulate a sophisticated market economy.  The complexity of advanced economies also requires a plurality of voices from different institutions, democratic politics, civil society organizations and the media to contribute to understanding such complexity and providing checks-and-balances.   
In this regard, the report of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission highlights the deep and systemic governance problems of Japan.  The Commission concluded that the Fukushima nuclear accident cannot be regarded as a natural disaster.  Rather, it was a profoundly manmade disaster – that could and should have been foreseen and prevented. And its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response.
The first point that the Commission emphasized was Japanese culture:

"... this was a disaster “Made in Japan”.  Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity. Had other Japanese been in the shoes of those who bear responsibility for this accident, the result may well have been the same."
Japan's nuclear energy was developed behind closed doors, without open democratic scrutiny:

"Following the 1970s “oil shocks,” Japan accelerated the development of nuclear power in an effort to achieve national energy security. As such, it was embraced as a policy goal by government and business alike, and pursued with the same single-minded determination that drove Japan’s postwar economic miracle.  With such a powerful mandate, nuclear power became an unstoppable force, immune to scrutiny by civil society. Its regulation was entrusted to the same government bureaucracy responsible for its promotion."

Japan did not take interest in or learn from the experiences of other countries:

"At a time when Japan’s self-confidence was soaring, a tightly knit elite with enormous financial resources had diminishing regard for anything ‘not invented here.’ ... Only by grasping this mindset can one understand how Japan’s nuclear industry managed to avoid absorbing the critical lessons learned from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl; and how it became accepted practice to resist regulatory pressure and cover up small-scale accidents. It was this mindset that led to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant."

The first responsibility of Japanese bureaucrats is to his ministry, rather than the nation:

"This conceit was reinforced by the collective mindset of Japanese bureaucracy, by which the first duty of any individual bureaucrat is to defend the interests of his organization.  Carried to an extreme, this led bureaucrats to put organizational interests ahead of their paramount duty to protect public safety."

Since this mindset can be found across Japan, this tragic event has lessons for all Japanese citizens:

"... each and every Japanese citizen should reflect very deeply ... on our responsibility as individuals in a democratic society ... we hope this initiative (report) can contribute to the development of Japan’s civil society."

Some of the more specific conclusions are set out below:

"The TEPCO Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties."

"Had there been a higher level of knowledge, training, and equipment inspection related to severe accidents, and had there been specific instructions given to the on-site workers concerning the state of emergency within the necessary time frame, a more effective accident response would have been possible."

"Japan’s regulators need to shed the insular attitude of ignoring international safety standards and transform themselves into a globally trusted entity."

"TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) did not fulfil its responsibilities as a private corporation, instead obeying and relying upon the government bureaucracy of METI, the government agency driving nuclear policy. At the same time, through the auspices of the FEPC, it manipulated the cozy relationship with the regulators to take the teeth out of regulations."

Some comments

The conclusions of this report are obviously very harsh and devastating.  And while the analysis may seem plausible, many governance problems like this have occurred elsewhere.  The issues involved are not all uniquely Japanese.

For example, the US government's incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina, the regulatory failures and complacency in the lead-up to the Lehman shock, the recent alleged fraud and corruption at JP Morgan and Barclays, the Penn State University scandal and so on. 

But what is worrying is that the potential for governance failures are greater in oligarchic societies which are either non-democratic or weakly democratic -- and it is in these types of countries, such as China, where a massive growth in nuclear power installations is planned in the coming decades.

Watch out for more disasters on the way.

The official report of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission


This report has provoked a wave of reactions by Western commentators on the NBR Japan Forum.

Columbia University's Gerald Curtis argues that "to pin the blame on culture is the ultimate cop-out. If culture explains behaviour, then no one has to take responsibility".  For Curtis, the reasons why the government failed to meet the challenge of a rapid policy response were people and politics.  "People have autonomy to choose; at issue are the choices they make, not the cultural context in which they make them." 

For Curtis, Culture does not explain this painfully slow response in setting up a new independent nuclear regulatory authority, "politics do".  He sees parallels between the manmade causes of and responses to Fukushima and the “culture” that led to the financial meltdown in the US after the Lehman Brothers collapse and that continues to resist meaningful reform and the pinning of responsibility for this manmade disaster on specific individuals.

Gregory Clark, former president Tama University, former vice-president Akita International University, responded to Curtis that much of the cause of the Fukushima disaster was culture. 

"Is there anywhere else in the world where a large-scale nuclear plant  could be built on a virtually unprotected sea shore flanked by a 9000  meter deep tectonic trench with an historical record of mammoth  tsunami going back hundreds of years? And would those responsible  remain deaf to clear warnings of possible future tsunami, the last  being delivered (and ignored) just four years before the disaster?"

For Clark, "some things very unusual in the Japanese mentality were needed to create this situation..."

"1. Narrow vision mentality. All Japanese organisations focus so intently on their own existence, members and welfare (much more than  foreign organisations) that they do not have the time or energy to focus on what is going on around them. Groupism it is called. At times  this is a plus, and in the past a reason for Japan's economic success. But in the nuclear power industry it is a clear negative.  The Japanese admit this when they talk of their 'takotsubo' (octopus  pot) or 'silo' mentality.


2. Closed shop mentality (related to the above). The group focus  aims not only on self-welfare; it also tries to keep all others outside. For example, Japan's nuclear industry badly needed outside  independent opinions. The 'nuclear village' made sure they were kept at bay. In committee meetings I tried hard to counter their 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 go out of their way to offer open house to informed anti-nuclear activists so they could enter plants freely and look for problems that may have been overlooked. In the process they might not only get some good advice; they would also help avert the one real danger they faced, namely that Japan would develop an anti-nuclear movement of the strength found in Germany.


3. A dislike of contingency planning. 'Sotei-gai' (beyond expectations, and therefore to be ignored) was the cliched response to most efforts to encourage disaster planning, including the tsunami
warnings. True the suthorities are now trying to have use of the word prohibited - but only after the tsunami disaster.

4. Amakudari ignorance and arrogance. In meeting after meeting I was confronted by these people, sitting high on their pedestals, rejecting all criticisms and happy constantly to do no more than repeat the mantras of nuclear safety confidence. True, in some of the sub-committees we could feel we were dealing with people who knew their subject. But it was the amakudari incompetents who ruled. And most of them got to be where they were simply by virtue of that gilded law degree from Tokyo University. No background in nuclear power, or even technology, needed..."

What's the conclusion?  In short, the jury is still out ...

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