Fukushima and the right to responsible government

Colin P. A. Jones argues that everyone must act to fix the ongoing nuclear crisis


Reprinted dozens of times since it was first published in 1967, “The Legal Consciousness of the Japanese People” by the late Takeyoshi Kawashima is arguably the most influential book on Japanese law ever written.

One of Kawashima’s theories is that traditional Japanese society lacked a strong consciousness of rights. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when the government started translating Western legal codes to use for Japanese laws, there wasn’t even a Japanese term that could be used to express the concept of a “right,” so a new one had to be invented. With this cultural foundation, notwithstanding the introduction of Western-style courts and legal codes, the notion of using the former to assert rights under the latter never really took root.

Non-litigiousness remains an integral part of the “Japan is different” canon that Japanese people recount to foreigners and each other. While Kawashima’s explanation has been influential and merits attention, it is due some skepticism as well. I consider it noteworthy that just a few years after the Meiji Restoration, the new government created a statute of limitations. This suggests that whether or not the average Japanese person thought about asserting their rights, from a very early stage the nation’s leaders saw a need to restrict their ability to do so.

Interestingly, a subject that Kawashima barely mentions is that of responsibility. This is odd, since to recognize a right also implies a responsibility — on the part of a court or other government actor — to define and enforce that right. Kawashima posited that because of a culture of “wa” (harmony), Japanese people avoid “black and white” resolutions to disputes, preferring mediated compromises. From the standpoint of the court or other government authorities charged with resolving a dispute, mediated results have the benefit of leaving them free of responsibility for the substantive outcome. Cultural notions of wa can thus be recast as a mechanism by which government officials can exercise authority while minimizing the responsibility associated with doing so.

This is perfectly rational behavior: Most people, given the choice, would probably maximize their authority while minimizing their responsibility for its exercise, particularly if the rewards for taking more responsibility than necessary and succeeding were nil while the punishments for failure were significant.

Japanese bureaucratic organizations are said to base their personnel evaluations on a system of gentenshugi, meaning that advancement in the civil service is generally done in lock-step, with officials losing points for failures rather than gaining them for successes. Full marks are given for doing nothing wrong, or perhaps doing nothing at all.

In the Japan of yore, responsibility could hurt — seppuku is the traditional archetype of atonement for official failure. The first national penal code enacted by the Meiji government was based on models taken from Imperial China and derived from Confucian legal principles (the current penal code is based on German models but was not adopted until 1907). Under these early laws a judge who sentenced someone improperly was subject to the same punishment as they had wrongly meted out, including execution! There quickly developed a practice of judges pre-clearing their judgments with the central government so that somebody else could share responsibility.

Avoiding and obfuscating responsibility seems to have become a very basic feature of Japanese governance. Given that bureaucrats actually draft most of the laws that they end up administering, it is unsurprising that the resulting rules often make it hard to pin down who is actually responsible for anything. And while the Constitution vests in the Japanese people the power to remove public servants, the laws governing the public service make it almost impossible to do so in practice.

This fuzziness extends to the top of government. Even when the locus of responsibility seems clear, practices have developed that either obfuscate it or render it symbolic. We could start with the Emperor, who promulgates laws and performs other official acts but only in a symbolic capacity, and always in accordance with the advice and consent of the Cabinet, which in turn theoretically always acts based on unanimous decisions. Even laws empowering the prime minister to act alone have been interpreted as requiring Cabinet approval. Elected politicians circulate through Cabinet posts like plates of cheap sushi, rarely staying long enough to accomplish let alone be responsible for anything. Most legislation is drafted by bureaucrats, submitted by the Cabinet and passed by the Diet. Who is responsible for the end product? Good question!

In any event, it is almost impossible to challenge the laws or hold the people who make and administer them to account since the courts are exceptionally deferential to the legislative and executive branches. Judges are kept safely anonymous through frequent transfers in the lower courts and frequent turnover at the Supreme Court. Most elite bureaucrats are also transferred among posts so often that they are almost impossible to link to any particular policy or project.

Yet it would be wrong to just brand Japanese government institutions as completely irresponsible. Rather, the means of holding a member responsible for bad judgments are internalized as part of the rules and discipline governing the hierarchy to which they belong, with mechanisms for outsiders to assert responsibility — to assert rights — being minimized and neutralized whenever possible. For example, the Constitution provides for the impeachment of judges, but most of the few impeachments that have occurred were cases in which a complaint was brought by … the Supreme Court.

This brings us to Tokyo Electric Co. (Tepco).

When reporting on events at the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, the Japanese media dutifully refers to it as a Tepco facility, reinforcing the notion that only the troubled utility is to blame. But any normal company in the same situation would have been rendered insolvent ages ago, leaving the whole mess for the government to fix. This would have been a perfectly logical result — Tepco was merely operating the plant in accordance with the government’s energy strategy and supposedly rigorous set of safety regulations.

Whether Tepco was ever a normal company, it certainly isn’t now that it is majority-owned by the Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund, a quasi-governmental entity created shortly after the Great East Japan Earthquake, ostensibly to help resolve damage claims arising from the Fukushima meltdown. It has done so by propping up Tepco financially, with critics suggesting that this Fund’s real agenda is to limit claims — the corporate form does, after all, exist for the specific purpose of limiting liability. And this is the Tepco whose lawyers famously argued in court that since it did not own the radioactive fallout strewn across people’s land, it was not responsible for the resulting damages. Although the Fund is supposed to act as an additional source of compensation funding, the arrangement still puts a buffer between the disaster and the public purse.

Compensation is “just” a matter of money. However, considering that it is also the Fund’s statutory mandate, its controlling interest in Tepco does not bode well for the prospects of Tepco being managed in a way that prioritizes actually fixing the stricken Fukushima plant — as opposed to being kept alive in a zombie-like state as an entity whose ability to compensate anyone will necessarily be limited by its cash flow. Perhaps that is convenient, too — kept alive, Tepco provides a useful, non-governmental blame nexus for everything bad that has happened to date and may happen in the all-too-near future.

If anything called for a nation’s government to quickly intervene actively on a massive scale and assume direct responsibility for a situation, it would be the crisis that continues to unfold 200 km from Tokyo. That a financially crippled, demoralized company bleeding talented employees is clearly not up to the task of remediating what could still prove to be the worst nuclear disaster in history should by now be obvious. Could anyone in a position of authority ever have responsibly expected otherwise?

Yet here we are 2½ years later, learning highly radioactive water has been leaking into the groundwater and the ocean and that storage tanks full of even more radioactive water are starting to fail. Surely it is a basic fact of life in nuclear power that fuel rods need to be kept cool whether sitting in a containment pool or melted through the reactor floor? The accumulation of radioactive water at the Fukushima plant was an utterly predictable problem almost from the day things first started to explode.

Tepco gets a failing grade here for sure, but what about the people expecting a single company to deal with a problem of such unprecedented magnitude in the first place? If there is still money for things such as bullet trains — and now, Olympic swimming pools — surely fixing Fukushima would be an infrastructure project of similar magnitude worthy of pursuing as a matter of national urgency.

Recently the government finally announced that it will intervene directly in resolving the water problem, supposedly by turning the earth near the plant into a giant popsicle (and where will the power needed to keep the ground frozen come from again?). Such assertiveness on Fukushima by the government is long overdue, yet the amounts involved seem small given the scope and potential impact of the disaster — the yen equivalent of just a few hundred million dollars. Furthermore, the government probably had to act because the leakage had clearly become a crisis — one ranked a 3 by the International Atomic Energy Agency on its 1-7 scale — just as the International Olympic Committee was making its decision on the 2020 Games.

While almost nobody looks forward to crises, they do have the merits of both requiring action and restricting options in a way that naturally limits responsibility for the results, because “what else could we do? It was an emergency.” Of course, few likely think this way in advance, but a crisis like water leakage at Fukushima certainly smacks of being a byproduct of the prolonged avoidance of responsible decision-making.

Don’t be surprised if Tepco continues to remain the primary scapegoat for most of what happens at Fukushima and if further crises develop, despite seeming predictable in hindsight.

For example, does Japan have an endless supply of workers willing to toil in dangerous conditions, and who have not already received the maximum dosage of radiation permitted by law? Chernobyl was contained by a Soviet leadership that drafted vast numbers of people — pilots, soldiers, engineers, miners — as part of a concentrated national response. Is it realistic to expect Tepco to fix Fukushima armed only with employment contracts and a powerful incentive to sacrifice compliance with those agreements and worker safety?

A great irony of the current political situation may be that fixing Fukushima is a concrete example of a crisis where many Japanese people might actually agree that the government should be able to exercise broad emergency powers of the type the Liberal Democratic Party wants to enshrine in a new constitution. Indeed, the absence of such powers may be one reason why the government seems so frustratingly passive.

However, to recognize Fukushima as a greater threat would entail admitting responsibility for the failed nuclear policies of the past, and make it that much harder to bring other plants back online, not to mention sullying Tokyo’s winning Olympic bid. So while Tepco keeps trying to patch radioactive holes that render parts of the Japanese mainland uninhabitable, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeks support for his authoritarian new constitution by emphasizing territorial disputes involving islands that were barely (if ever) inhabited in the first place.

It will probably take an imminent crisis for the government to resolve any of the serious problems facing the nation today — not just Fukushima, but the national debt, declining global competitiveness, the shrinking population and growing demographic imbalance.

Unfortunately, the historical precedents are not great. It took a double atom-bombing and (by some accounts) two separate admonitions by Emperor Hirohito for Japan’s “leaders” to finally accept the Potsdam Declaration and end World War II. Of course, being constitutionally “sacred and inviolable,” the Emperor could not be held responsible for anything.

We can’t expect similar Deus ex Machina resolutions to Fukushima or anything else. Japan is supposedly a democracy, so in theory a responsibility-shirking government is ultimately the people’s problem — and responsibility — just as much as the nuclear disaster and all the nation’s other problems are. Of course, the people have a plentiful supply of other targets to blame until enough of them come to that realization.

Colin P. A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto. Send comments and ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp .

  • jack Work

    As I understand it, the nuclear industry in Japan was established by the U.S. dept. of defense (in concert with Westinghouse) to create a source for fissile material for bombs and a source of revenue for shareholders. If this is the case then the real responsibility lies with them. For building in the first place on a geology of porous and unstable sandstone, for building in a seismically active area, for turning it over to be run by corporate types rather than people skilled in the field of nuclear energy. The blame also lies with the “masses” everywhere who have never bothered to get academic about anything, who have never called a congressman or even know who their congressman is. They deserve what they get. And even more complicit are those who have educated themselves to some degree on these matters and yet share their views only by commenting to one and other on forums such as this one.

    • Ron NJ

      … did you seriously just try to twist it around and place the responsibility for that on America? The occupation ended in 1952 – power having already begun being devolved from the occupation forces to the Japanese government as early as 1949 – and Japan began their own, native, nuclear research program in 1954. If you’re going to suggest something as bonkers as the post-occupation Japanese government being literal puppets of the American government to such a degree that a matter as serious as nuclear power, research, and development was under the majority purview of not just a foreign power, but a singular department thereof (in concert, to use your turn of phrase, with an American corporation), for what I can only assume to be an extended amount of time given the gravity of the issues involved, then you really need to cite some serious, well-documented sources to back up that claim.
      I think, rather, that you do a great disservice to the Japanese people by suggesting that all those decades having passed, they are some sort of a gigantic marionette for American government entities to play with as they choose, with no input from, nor self-determination had by, the Japanese people, as would be necessary for something along the lines of what you have claimed to have occurred.

      • kilianmuster

        >The occupation ended in 1952

        Theoretically. Practically Okinawa begs to differ.

      • Ron NJ

        The occupation of Okinawa did not grant the United States ultimate government or policy making power for the nation of Japan, which – splitting of hairs aside – is what was being spoken of.

  • Ben Morse

    Great article. Would love to read Kawashima’s book, but cannot find an English translation. Anyone know if an English version is out there?

  • Yoko Martha Otake

    The basic problem of this irresponsibility among leaders and intellectuals, I believe, caused from our insufficient ability to discuss logically and critically even in Japanese, our native language. We used to live in homogeneous society with rigid social code, where you are expected to act similarly and wear similarly; for example school uniform and recruit suits. When you act differently, you may get yellow cards stamped rebellious. Many people avoid confrontation and are afraid of failure. This attitude won’t work anymore in the global communities in and out of Japanese soil. We have to learn how to live with people from different cultural and ideological backgrounds. There are many things to learn such as tolerance and understanding in others shoes. But here I started talking about logical thinking. What we need today is to empower logical thinking skill in our native language, Japanese. We have a beautiful language but beauty is not enough. Already Japanese Ministry of Education is well aware of this issue and now adopting the program in our school curriculum, which I heard from an official from the Ministry. I hope our young generations are better equipped than our older ones to think clearly and discuss wisely to solve problems facing us, humanity. In the meantime, I keep saying NO to the nuclear power plant operation here in Tomari, Hokkaido.

    • Mark Makino

      Step one is to stop stereotyping your nationality with these negative traits. If obsequiousness and passivity are seen as part of the Japanese identity, a lot of people will see changing them as giving up Japaneseness itself.

      • Yoko Martha Otake

        We don’t have to give up our ‘Japanese-ness ‘ in order to gain logical and critical thinking. Ideally some harmonious community which value the ‘wa’ spirit may be formed even if it is made up by heterogeneous members from different cultural back grounds. Give us time, we are working on it. In this sense, educating young generation is very important.

      • Mark Makino

        Japan has always comprised a heterogeneous population. The supposed homogeneity you speak of as a roadblock to liberal society is itself an ideology which you reinforce when you make normative statements about the Japanese national character. It’s unproductive to wax idealistic about instilling critical thought in the next generation while continuing to talk as if obedience and passivity should come naturally to them.

      • Yoko Martha Otake

        I can’t go in detail, but we have been trying to make a small heterogeneous community here; it’s been a long way but thank God, it’s working at last!

      • Toolonggone

        I know there’s a moot point in describing Japanese culture for argument’s sake. It is true that Japan has witnessed culture of others based on class, race and ethnicity, although miniscule, on its national soil. But that does not mean that the Japanese public accepted various perspectives. Most ethnic/cultural minorities were subject to discrimination and their needs and concerns were neglected. Despite the presence of indigenous tribes(i.e., Ainu, Okinawans, Buraku), the Japanese government has insisted nation’s cultural homogeneity until recently. We’ve just heard the news about national funding of Ainu museum by 2020, which could make or break with national attitude toward race and cultural diversity within its society.

      • Toolonggone

        No. You don’t have to compromise ‘Japanese-ness’ because of critical and analytical thinking skills set. The latter does not affect the former. Obsequiousness and passivity are picked up as negative characteristics of Japanese identity, resulting in unnecessary stigma, thanks to the history of bad decision-making choices national leaders and political elites made to lead its detrimental consequence.

    • 思德

      If there is one thing- one thing I can be grateful for regarding my American public education, it is that, particularly in English class, I was expected to write essays on my views and justify them with reason and evidence. Critical thinking is vitally important. I wish it were the direct, explicit focus of public education systems. If Japan is indeed developing logic and critical thinking skills in their public school curricula (no small task), I applaud it. It may be a bit late, but late is better than never.

      • Yoko Martha Otake

        I have been working with many young people in NGOs and I’m happy to tell you that there are good signs among them. Also here and there discussion groups are being formed. As a matter of fact, a friend of mine’s husband is a coach for the debating classes. But we need more good teachers at our public schools.

    • When you have a cozy relationship between corporation and state, where the state assumes the role of “enforcing safety protocols”, it creates a dangerous incentive.

      The incentive is that both sides can now blame the other if anything bad happens. In such a situation, rules intended to keep people safe, actually do the opposite. They create “moral hazards”, which causes both parties to take risks that they otherwise would not take. The cartoon in this article indicates this situation. The “intention” to protect, and rules that exist to protect, are often far different from what actually will keep people safe.

      As for school, while the Minister of Education may well be aware of this issue, the very nature of public school equates to a “one-size-fits-all” education, and it inherently breeds this kind of conformity and group-think. There is no policy change that can change this, besides to offer taxpayers a way out of the public school system, so non well-to-do families don’t have the impossible task of paying twice to educate their children at private schools.

      Ultimately, it is not in the interest of the state to encourage active minds. Active minds tend to question and change the status quo. Changing the status quo might result in new ideas and increased productivity, potentially making many government functions redundant, decreasing their power and scope. Thus, concerned citizens must be wary in their appeals to government to “change policies”. Engaging in behavior of that kind only enables politicians to further filibuster, delaying having to face the reality of their so-called public “solutions”. Participating in that kind of a ruse does not benefit you or future generations, it only helps continue the illusion that cultural problems can be solved by passing more laws or spending more money (i.e., creating more debt).

      Cultural problems can only be solved by opposing ideas. And the most radical idea that Japan needs is to embrace is a belief in the benevolence of human beings — that, when the state is removed from forcing everyone to provide welfare and social services, that social problems will be reduced, not increased.

      Only in a laissez-faire marketplace can you avoid these “he said, she said” safety situations, and have a vibrant and safe energy sector that reflects the values of the individuals who pay for them. Only in a laissez-faire marketplace for education can you break the cultural stranglehold that the zen duty-ethic holds over the Japanese spirit, resulting in schools with varied specialization that reflect the values and interests of the families and students that finance them. But to reach that point requires a willingness to face a deeply entrenched fear, the fear that if we are not compelled to help one another, no one will give a damn.

      • Yoko Martha Otake

        The cozy relationship corporate/community and state has being broken by the foreign (political )pressures since Meiji restorations and this tendency seems to be seen in this Fukushima situation as well. The funny thing is that even the Governor of Tokyo admitted a few days ago that the situation at Fukushima is not under control and it was the hopeful gesture/hope that PM Abe made at the IOC meeting at Buenos Aires.

        Another soft pressure from foreign cultures came through Educational institutes by missionaries/Christianity in the form of mission schools. Normally these schools are private but Hokkaido University, though it is government run, had strong influence from Protestant professors such as Dr William Clark.

        Last week, I attended lectures in Sapporo, titled ‘From the Encounter between East and West to the World of Globalization,’ with the speakers from Sophia Univ., my Alma Mater. Sophia, a Jesuit school, is a fore-runner of globalization and I thought it a several steps ahead of other Japanese educational institutions.

        In Japan there is at least one place where heterogeneous community is found and it is inside Catholic Church. Roman Catholics are minor group here, only 440,000 faithfuls nationwide but today non-Japanese Catholics exceed us Japanese. So again it is foreigners to break the inward-ness and closed-ness of Japanese Catholics. Today we cerebrated the International Day at our Sapporo Cathedral, and our International community are from every continent; Asia, Europe, Africa, Oceania, North and South America, some of them married Japanese with kids. There’s no boundary from the eyes of our Lord and we are working on to realize the Kingdom of Heaven in this small community in Sapporo Dioceses.

  • NoFixedID

    Credit to Colin Jones and Japan Times. This is one of the most insightful and informative articles I’ve read on the Fukushima crisis.

  • itoshima2012

    Very good article! I couldn’t believe my eyes when Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Olympics, with all the money and attention needed to “fix” Fukushima!! Another smokescreen for Abe and his cohorts….

  • 思德

    Honestly, the difficulty is not hard to spot. I took a basic Japanese history course in my senior year of college. I had already studied Chinese history extensively. As soon as I found out Japanese high society had happily adopted the “Mandate of Heaven” concept without the clause that the ruled are well within their rights to have an uprising, kill the leader and put a new one in place… well, a thousand years later, here we are, aren’t we? Say what you want about the Chinese; they are ignorant and not very good at critical thinking either (decades of repression will do that to you), but at least they make a lot of noise and occasionally kill their leaders and drag their corpses through the mud. Bo Xilai’s dad said something to the effect of, “You must stay one step ahead of the people; if you are trampled by a billion people, you will not get back up again.” Perhaps his intentions in saying such were not very nice (“be more corrupt than people can catch on to”); but it serves to illustrate the point that governments should fear their people.

    If a leader can’t be held accountable at all, even to ancient superstition related to natural disasters, let alone actual failures of leadership, these kinds of freely bleeding wounds are bound to develop.

    The question is when Japanese people are going to give up on a little “wa” so they can have a lot of accountability and efficiency in their society. At the rate things have been going, a lot of “wa” may need to be let go of, at least for the present time. Maybe after a third nuclear disaster, Japanese people will be fed up. You know what they say- “The third times’ the charm.” I hope for the sake of Japan they don’t have their own version that says, “The sixth’s time’s the charm” or something like that, because I’m not sure how many disasters of this scale they can afford.

    • Yoko Martha Otake

      I agree now is not the time to stick to a little ‘wa’ in order to gain the accountability and efficiency in our society; as we are in the state of emergency and time to change. As for me, I had never joined any demonstration even the time of campus riot, but since 311 I have been marching for the demolishing nuclear power plants and being involved in peace walk and lectures and discussions.

  • El Anon

    Nice article, and one of the few that actually makes us think about what is happening out there. So much of reporting these days is regurgitation of hackneyed cliches and assumptions that aren’t even valid. This article offers insights. More by this writer please

  • Enkidu

    Colin, Generally a good article. Just a few thoughts:

    That a financially crippled, demoralized company bleeding talented employees is clearly not up to the task of remediating what could still prove to be the worst nuclear disaster in history should by now be obvious.

    This could not still prove to be the worst nuclear disaster in history. The releases now are many, many orders of magnitude below what was released in the initial days. Plus, the fuel has simply been cooling for too long at this point for any new major releases.

    Yet here we are 2½ years later, learning highly radioactive water has been leaking into the groundwater and the ocean…

    Actually, we knew this when we figured out that the basements were leaking like a sieve. This wasn’t immediate, but it was evident within the first month or two.

    The accumulation of radioactive water at the Fukushima plant was an utterly predictable problem almost from the day things first started to explode.

    Not quite true (even with your use of “almost”) as we only figured this out once it became clear that the basements were leaking. (see above)

    Such assertiveness on Fukushima by the government is long overdue, yet the amounts involved seem small given the scope and potential impact of the disaster — the yen equivalent of just a few hundred million dollars.

    Perhaps you could describe what you think the scope and potential impact of the
    disaster would be? Personally, I think that the focus on the leaking water is overblown. It is dissipating quickly in the ocean and the contamination levels seen even close to the plant are very low. This doesn’t mean that this is a problem we should let persist, mind you, but it isn’t the end of the world that many people are making it out to be.

    Furthermore, the government probably had to act because the leakage had clearly become a crisis — one ranked a 3 by the International Atomic Energy Agency on its 1-7 scale …

    Note that this wasn’t even classified as a “accident with local consequences”, which would be a 4 on the IAEA scale.

    Chernobyl was contained by a Soviet leadership that drafted vast numbers of people — pilots, soldiers, engineers, miners —

    Actually, the Japanese leadership also used all of those (pilots, soldiers, engineers, firefighters, etc.) with the exception of miners (which aren’t really
    applicable here).

  • Estim8z

    Good commentary! I am seeing a glint of hope on this very long road. I hope the Japanese that are in the know are discipleing.