Monday, July 09, 2012

Culturalism: Fukushima Edition

The Korean has long been an advocate against culturalism -- the instinctive response to blame culture to explain any and all behavior. In today's Financial Times, an excellent op-ed by Prof. Gerald Curtis shows the falsehood of culturalism in the context of Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster:
[T]he commission concludes, “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 programme’; 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.”

I beg to differ. Had [Prime Minister] Kan not stormed into Tepco headquarters and tried to exercise some authority over the company’s executives, the situation might have been far worse. . . . People matter: one of the heroes in the Fukushima story was Tepco’s Masao Yoshida, the plant manager who disobeyed orders not to use saltwater to cool the reactors.

. . .

Those inside the Japanese nuclear village do share a particular culture but it is hardly uniquely Japanese. What jumps out from this report are the 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.

The Fukushima Commission report “found an organisation-driven mind-set that prioritised benefits to the organisation at the expense of the public.” Well, if that is Japanese culture, then we are all Japanese.
Stop blaming Fukushima on Japan’s culture [Financial Times]

Here is one additional wrinkle about culturalism with respect to the Fukushima disaster:  beware of self-stereotypes. It is notable that in this particular example of culturalism, it was the Japanese government's official report that engaged in a culturalist self-critique. But that does not make the culturalist explanation any truer. If nothing else, we should be even more skeptical of the self-caricaturing of one's own culture, if only because of our tendency to place too much confidence on such caricatures.

Regardless of the report's ultimate conclusion about Japan's culture, the content of the report states the opposite. Masao Yoshida, the heroic plant manager who defied the management's orders, was hardly the caricature of Japanese culture that the Fukushima Commission Report painted. In fact, the existence of the report itself goes against the culturalist explanation, as Prof. Curtis put it: "If obedience to authority is such an ingrained trait in Japan, how then is it possible for a group of Japanese to write a report that not only questions but lambasts authority, anything but an example of reflexive obedience?"

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  1. "In fact, the existence of the report itself goes against the culturalist explanation."

    No, criticism happened because of an instinctive reaction against an obvious case of incompetence. Japan, by the virtue of having free speech, can criticize authority. It feels weird even having to point this out.

    The whole Japan = obedience and deference angle is slightly skewed. It's so overused when it misses the point. Reality is probably closer to this.


    In Korean, it would translate to 일본인은 융통성이 없다. 融通/융통성 is the key word here, the term for which I cannot think of a good English equivalent.*
    Especially evident at administrative levels, Japan lacks 융통성. This is often the cause of stereotypical Japanese traits like deference to authority, but the two are not quite the same. The measures (and the lack there of) were inadequate partially because people who lack 융통성 by definition respond poorly to emergencies, pressure and time constraints.

    Masao Yoshida obviously did not have this problem and this is why he is heralded as a hero.

    *In fact, this unavailability of a good translation for 융통성 shows, at least on a micro level, the problems with giving full credit to Prof. Curtis. That, or my shortcomings.

    1. "... Reality is probably closer to this. 「日本人は融通がきかない。」..."
      C'mon dude...
      The Korean: "... beware of self-stereotypes ..."

      "... Masao Yoshida obviously did not have this problem ..."
      Seems having "stereotypical Japanese traits" is a problem now...
      Whether such things as "stereotypical Japanese traits" exist or not, clearly, HEROES DON'T HAVE THEM.

      So, that's must be why The Last Samurai had a white guy as The Hero.

    2. I have no idea what it is that you're trying to say.

      I never said I agree with what thr Korean is advocating. To me, applying his original conclusion regarding culturalism to this is slightly misfitting.

      Stereotypes in and of themselves are not bad, or good; they just "are." Only after applying them to specific cases do we get any indication of good/bad, and all the shades of grey in between. Bad does not have to equal offensive. It also does not mean inaccurate.

      Again, your reply is so unclear that I haven't the slightest clue what you're trying to say.

    3. The closest English word that I can think of to 융통성 would be "adaptability."

  2. As far as I know, there were, and maybe still are, large masses of people protesting in Japan, demanding a complete evacuation of Fukushima.
    It's the authorities that don't listen to its people, they listen to their pockets, wallets and bank accounts instead. It's not like the people are obedient sheeps. I mean, there are many people like this too, but let's not ignore the protesters.

    Also, there is a very interesting blog called Aluminium Studios, where the author posts real documentaries on Japan and the nuclear disaster's "cultural" things. It's obvious it's the government's fault.


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