The Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant disaster is being used to convince the world that nuclear energy generation is inherently dangerous, especially in earthquake-prone Japan.

But the two other nuclear plants facing the Japan quake area — Fukushima No. 2 and Onagawa — came though fairly unscathed even though the force of the quake well exceeded the level they had been built to withstand.

The disaster at Fukushima No. 1 was due almost entirely to an act of unbelievable stupidity — placing a nuclear plant with its emergency power and pumping equipment on a coastline protected by a mere 5.7-meter sea wall in an area with a far-from-distant history of double-digit-size tsunamis.

Admittedly the plant had been designed mainly by the U.S. General Electric Co., which, one assumes, would not have been quite as tsunami-conscious as its Japanese partners. But why did the Japanese side say or do nothing either then or later — despite frequent warnings of tsunami vulnerability, one reportedly only three years before the fatal accident?

Instead of looking at the mysterious dangers of nuclear power, we should be looking at the mysterious, and now it seems dangerous, workings of the Japanese mentality and bureaucracy.

True, when it came to the nuts and bolts of nuclear power generation the Japanese industry seems to have done as well as most in building plants that can operate with reasonable safety records. What few seemed to realize was the damage that could result from two serious cultural flaws. One is the way Japan’s tight groupist consciousness prevents the inflow of needed ideas and advice from outside. Tokyo Electric Power Co. (the firm holding the monopoly for electricity production and supply in the Kanto and neighboring areas) was, like quite a few other firms and industry groups in Japan, proud to think of itself and its industry as a mura (village) — self-contained, self-sufficient and able to fight off any intrusion by outsiders.

The result was the dangerous complacency that I saw so alarmingly in my several years on several nuclear industry committees, and that Prime Minister Naoto Kan correctly described as the “myth of nuclear safety.”

The other cultural flaw is Japan’s ingrained aversion to contingency planning — thinking about the worst that can happen and planning to avoid it.

Writing in Japan’s leading economic newspaper, Nihon Keizai, senior staff writer Yasuhiko Ota quotes a top METI official as saying: “It is regarded as immoral for a company responsible for the safety of a facility to assume that the worst could happen. People tend to criticize such companies by questioning why they would contemplate such possibilities.”

This is an extraordinary situation in a modern 21st-century society — a primitive, preternatural, bad joss fear that thinking about the worst will somehow create the worst. Obviously it should have no place in the nuclear industry, even allowing for the industry fear that any admission of weaknesses would strengthen the anti-nuclear lobby.

Admittedly, the nuclear power industry has also had to contend with an environment lobby determined to keep the coastline free of concrete barriers.

The Hamaoka nuclear plant in Shizuoka has had to be closed down mainly because it too lacks adequate tsunami barriers along its attractive beach front.

The anti-public works lobby add to the drumbeat with the slogan “welfare before concrete.” (What are they saying now when they discover that the lack of concrete to protect Japan’s fishing ports has done very severe damage to the welfare of the many good people in some of those ports?) In the case of Fukushima, they did not need much more concrete anyway. All the Tepco people had to do was move emergency equipment to higher land away from the ocean front. The refusal to do this, or even think about it, verges on the criminal.

The Fukushima disaster should be forcing a lot more people in Japan to think a lot more deeply about the way their society operates.

When the crisis hit, those well-paid, elite-educated Tepco semi-bureaucrats (the company was notorious for its close links to the government) could do little more than make constant ritual bows of apology; they left everything to their dedicated subordinates to handle.

The Tepco president, in effect, went to bed for some weeks; he could not stand the strain. The one thing they all seemed able to get right was the angle of their bows and the placement of hands along impeccable trouser creases. The government has now appointed a committee headed by a Japanese history professor to advise on cleanup and plans for the future.

I discovered what the professor knows about disaster relief as a member of his 1995 post-Kobe earthquake committee, where I was told that if helicopters had been used to drop water on the house fires threatening to engulf the entire city, the people trapped below might have been crushed by the weight of the water. The primitive logic seemed to be that it’s better to be burned alive by fate than be hurt by a deliberate act of officialdom.

Today, the government, big business and the history professor fret over the official debt problem as an obstacle to funding disaster recovery efforts. Here, too, Japanese “village” thinking seems quite unable to cope with the fiscal tsunami about to arrive. All they can propose is raising taxes — thus further cutting spending and slowing the economy — and slashing tax revenues, which will, as in the Koizumi years, add to the very debt that is supposed to be cut.

Meanwhile, the conservative, stuck-in-the-mud planners refuse even to consider the simple solution to the official debt problem recommended by some competent outsiders, monetization, by which either the Bank of Japan buys noninterest-bearing government bonds or Tokyo issues its own currency, as Japan did so brilliantly in the past when it pulled itself out of the 1930s’ Great Depression well ahead of others.

I recently attended a news conference and had a chance to ask Economy and Fiscal Policy Minister Kaoru Yosano why Japan could not do this in an economy where inflation — the usual problem with monetization — seemed unlikely. All he could do was recite the BOJ, bureaucratic and big business dogmas, namely that inflation WAS likely and it would depreciate the currency. Yet most foreign experts would agree that mild inflation and some currency depreciation are just what Japan needs to get out of its chronic economic woes.

What has gone wrong? The critics used to talk about Japan Incorporated — an economic juggernaut powered by a nexus of well-trained, motivated bureaucrats and sharp businessmen keen to take over the world. At the time, Japan seemed to have the people and energy to do that. Postwar reconstruction efforts made them think more about the national rather than the group mura interest.

Today’s Japan looks more like Japan Disincorporated. Or as they put it in Japanese, shoeki (ministry interest) has become more important than the kokueki (national interest). Attitudes have become more tribal, and not just in nuclear energy.

Whether it is political factions, pensions, public works, the economy in general, foreign policy (toward North Korea and Russia especially), the Okinawa base problem, the justice system, the education system or even public safety (Kan once had to fight a lonely battle simply to get the bureaucrats to admit to the dangers of importing untreated AIDS-tainted blood), Japan today seems quite unable to find the will or the means to solve immediate national problems.

On almost every front it is being overtaken by the China it once used to ignore, patronize or look down upon. Decades of complacent “Japan as No. 1” self-satisfaction and a grossly distorted elitist education system have produced a leadership unable even to realize self-destruction when they see it.

Today’s global pity for Japan’s nuclear and tsunami woes could easily turn into global contempt.

Gregory Clark, a longtime Japan resident, is involved with education problems and is a commentator on economic and foreign affairs. He is author of “The Japanese Tribe” (1978) in Japanese. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.