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Changing Japan’s system to handle the ‘unexpected’

by Hiromi Murakami

Special To The Japan Times

Faced with an unprecedented crisis that was triggered by the combined disasters of the recent earthquake and tsunami, Japan is continuing to struggle with the radiation leak and sealing of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

The world witnessed the astonishing resilience of the Japanese people and praised the brave ground workers who risked their lives to try to get the nuclear power plant situation under control.

At the same time, these crises also revealed vulnerability in the fundamental system that the Japanese have long relied upon; a flaw that no one had the courage to address even while knowing something was wrong.

While there were many willing and committed people on the ground, it was a disappointment for Japanese people to see the fragile chain of command in crisis management as well as an indecisive political/industrial leadership.

Furthermore, Japanese people are furious that the very system built to protect them has instead allowed the manipulation of safety standards and tolerated the existence of collusive relationship among politics, bureaucracy, industry, and academia, which was embraced and encouraged by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) campaign money and its propaganda.

It is true that Japan faces tremendous challenges in economic reconstruction, re-creation of the supply chain and infrastructure recovery in various areas, including production, distribution and employment.

However, the most critical issue to be dealt with is the system itself; and this can only be done if Japan is truly willing to depart from a comfortable, long-embraced system that is rotting from the inside out.

This pervasive system exists in various areas in Japanese society because powerful, vested interest groups fortified their position as the majority by the granting of inappropriate incentives by pressuring others to bend to their values.

Powerful lobbyists often discourage people from voicing their concerns by informally threatening them with retaliation or intimidating them with nasty, negative campaigns.

Now that it has come this far, it is clear the cost we pay for not having acted is very high.

Dominated by the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) half-century rule by closely knit industry leaders holding on to the memory of past success, this system has continued to thrive until today even though the Democratic Party of Japan replaced the administration. This is because it has long been actively or passively embraced by the media, along with the bureaucracy, industries, and academia.

For example, Tepco-funded LDP politicians created a dependent system by making local authorities dependent on nuclear power plant subsidies. A cozy government-Tepco relationship was reinforced by Tepco’s acceptance of retired officials in a process known as amakudari (“descent from heaven”) from the ministry supervising Tepco or public corporations chiefly funded by Tepco, and Tepco-funded academics provide technical information for safety discussions at government committees.

Using the position as a significant sponsor in the media, Tepco has effectively wiped out advocates of anti-nuclear energy by damaging their reputation or credibility.

Once in, the elites in this system get very comfortable, and they are always protected by the system as long as it exists. Therefore,people within the system soon become strong guardians for self-fulfilling purposes and are set to an automatic no-rethinking mind-set.

“Unexpected” is a term repeated over and over again by Tepco representatives, but “unexpected” is exactly what should be anticipated in a flawed system in a risk-averse society. Resilience is tested in crisis, and we can now easily see commentators who have lost credibility as Twitter revealed their dark connections with Tepco.

This is not just an issue with Tepco; the mind-set of the system has spread throughout Japanese society. It discourages outliers or risk-takers and kicks out those who challenge existing institutions.

As a result, companies, schools and the bureaucracy are motivated to mass-produce brain-dead elites who spread like cancer cells. Ignoring globalization and resisting domestic reforms, Japanese society has primarily been governed by risk-averse and unenthusiastic leaders, irresponsible critics, and apathetic bystanders who never take action.

Slow and hesitant decision-making is a typical reflection of an inability to make critical decisions under pressure. Such social norms and values have prevented risk-takers from penetrating the core of the system; and as a result, weak elites don’t know what to do when they are faced with such crises.

Even more disturbing, though the crises have exposed vulnerability in the system, is that many still desire to continue and calmly wait until the crises is over so that they can go back to their comfortable norms instead of dealing with the issues at the root of the problem.

This crisis has given us a window of opportunity to be reborn, and we Japanese should act now to do away with this rotten system once and for all, especially as this national emergency calls for the right people in the right places. Such an overhaul is long overdue.

We need to get rid of the prioritizing inner-circle and legacy of past success; now, Japanese society needs to place “right” incentives on rewarding risk-takers and non-discriminatory values where those individuals can be promoted into the core of the system.

Unless ordinary Japanese people stand up and take action now to change this defective system, there will be no true recovery and no hope for the future.

Japan’s strength comes from those anonymous Japanese people who try their best to overcome the hardships they face, and it is clear now what is needed to bring new hope.

Hiromi Murakami is an assistant professor at National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, specializing in industrial policy and state-industry relations.