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Bedfellows of those ‘lax,’ ‘insular’ Japanese

by Hiroaki Sato

Are some of those who write for The New York Times utterly unaware of the rest of the world — including the United States?

Take the article last month, “Culture of Complicity Tied to Stricken Nuclear Plant” (April 21, 2011). “Given the fierce insularity of Japan’s nuclear industry,” the article by Norimitsu Onishi and Ken Belson triumphantly began, “it was perhaps fitting that an outsider exposed the most serious safety coverup in the history of Japanese nuclear power.”

Onishi and Belson went on to detail how the regulators “colluded” with the regulated not to reveal the possible flaw pointed out by “an outsider,” a Japanese-American inspector working for General Electric — without mentioning that GE was the designer of the troubled nuclear reactors. For that matter, they did not refer to the March 15 ABC News article, “Fukushima: Mark 1 Nuclear Reactor Design Caused GE Scientist to Quit in Protest.” The protest and resignation happened 35 years ago.

The rest of the Onishi-Belson story was predictable. The disaster was a result of the regulatory laxity created by “politicians, bureaucrats and industry executives” — and scientists, too — who are “single-mindedly focused on expanding nuclear power.” These people form “the nuclear power village” where they work in a network of backslappers and backscratchers, rewarding one another with “lucrative positions” and such while ostracizing those who disagree with them.

“Just as in any Japanese village,” the reporting duo did not forget to add, as if the inhabitants of a village of any other country would act any different.

Actually there’s no need to bring in the urban-rural split prevalent in every part of the world. The “village” could be a town, a gated community, a co-op building. But Onishi and Belson had to show off their awareness of anthropological peculiarities long ascribed to Japan.

Is complicity, along with collusion, one distinguishing trait of Japanese “culture”? It definitely is not. Remember the torrents of news articles on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill last year?

On April 20, 2010, BP’s giant oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, killing 11 people. BP estimated the resultant oil leak occurring 1.5 km below on the sea floor at a rate far below what would later become an accepted figure.

Outside scientists protested at once, but no matter. The U.S. government went along with the BP estimate. They said they had no independent means of measuring it. The rest, as they say, is history.

Onishi and Belson, let alone their editors, surely knew all this when the news came out that the earthquake and tsunami damaged the Fukushima nuclear reactors. Just glancing at the Internet for headlines, you at once come up with the following:

• “U.S. exempted BP’s Gulf of Mexico drilling from environmental impact study” (The Washington Post, May 5, 2010).

• “Gulf oil spill: Is MMS so corrupt it must be abolished?” (The Christian Science Monitor, May 7, 2010).

• “The Spill, The Scandal and the President” (RollingStone, June 8, 2010).

• “Barton BP Apology Spurs Rebuke From Other Republicans” (Businessweek, June 17, 2010).

Complicity? Collusion? Backscratching? Single-minded focus on energy development? It was all there.

“MMS” in the Christian Science Monitor headline is Minerals Management Service, the government agency responsible for oil drilling and other resources development.

The article from Rolling Stone went on to say: “According to reports by Interior’s inspector general, MMS staffers were both literally and figuratively in bed with the oil industry. When agency staffers weren’t joining industry employees for coke parties or trips to corporate ski chalets, they were having sex with oil-company officials.”

I don’t know if coke or sex was involved in “the nuclear power village.”

“Interior” is the Interior Department, the overseer of the MMS, just as Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the promoter of nuclear energy, is of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

The U.S. government’s report that came out in January, “Deep Water: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling,” characterized MMS’ mission as “conflicted” by “oversight — and oversights.” This outcome was inevitable or “mandated.”

The agency was tasked, the report said, to “awkwardly” combine “two priorities, as a series of congresses, presidents, and secretaries of the interior — responding to competing constituencies in explicitly political ways — sought to reconcile the sometimes conflicting goals of environmental protection, energy independence, and revenue generation.”

“Barton BP Apology” in the Businessweek headline referred to the infamous incident after President Barack Obama worked out a financial deal with the British oil company to pay for the damages of the oil spill.

During a subsequent hearing by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Texas Republican Joe Barton accused Obama of perpetrating a “shakedown” on the company and “apologized” to its CEO, Tony Hayward. This was too much even for Republican stalwarts, and they forced Barton to “apologize.”

Did Barton’s act change anything?

No, sir. The House lawmaker went on to easily win his 13th term in the 2010 midterm election. Not only that, House Republicans were able to “shellack” Obama.

On May 10, another pair of New York Times reporters gave an interesting twist to the matter with the headline: “Lag in Closing a Japanese Nuclear Plant Reflects Erosion of a Culture of Consensus.” But that’s another story.

To go back to Onishi and Belson, “insularity” is one of the half-dozen words with which foreigners have long delighted in saying the Japanese are a race apart — since Ruth Benedict’s “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.”

And many Japanese, lest they disappoint them, have aped them.

“Insularity,” in fact, was among the reasons Edward Seidensticker gave in declaring he was leaving Japan for good, back in the 1980s. The famed scholar of Japanese literature announced his decision to divorce Japan, as it were, in his foreword to Jared Taylor’s “Shadows of the Rising Sun.”

Seidensticker, however, went back to Japan, and died there. Taylor, who grew up in Japan and stated in his book that his Japanese is so good most Japanese took him to be a native Japanese over the phone, went on to gain prominence as a white supremacist.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist.