Rising Up in the Land of the Rising Sun

After its defeat in the second World War, Japan’s culture and society underwent fundamental change. But as the 2011 earthquake and tsunami – and the ensuing nuclear calamity – revealed, this change was not sufficient to preclude decision making that was deeply flawed.

In the 1970s and ’80s Japan was an economic powerhouse, rivaled only by the U. S. Since then it suffered slight decline, though compared to most of the rest of the world the Japanese economy remains impressive.

The same cannot be said of the Japanese government, which for decades has suffered from a “parade of prime ministers” – from a continuing circumstance in which no single prime minister has been able to hold on to power long enough to provide a stable and secure government. Japan’s political system is, in other words, fragmented and fractions to the point of dysfunction. (Such dysfunction is not, of course, peculiar to Japan.)

All this became crystal clear in the wake of the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima, during which, to its credit, the Japanese government did some serious soul searching. Parliament set up the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, charged with uncovering why the country failed so egregiously to handle the disaster swiftly and sanely. Concluded Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the commission’s chairman, “It was a profoundly man-made disaster – that could and should have been foreseen and prevented.”

Predictably, the commission’s report placed blame on the usual suspects: faulty planning, weak regulation, likely malfeasance, and a breakdown in communications. Unpredictably, Kurokawa reserved his most damning criticism for Japanese culture, which he implied was reminiscent of the traditional authoritarian mindset that characterized Japan during its long (pre World War II) history. In his introduction to the English version of the report, the chairman wrote that the fundamental causes of the disaster were to be found in the “ingrained conventions of Japanese culture; our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the “program;’ our groupism; and our insularity,.” In other words, the commission found that the Japanese people were stuck in a rut – stuck in a world in which people in positions of authority controlled the action, while followers conformed, meekly towing the line.

Whether the report – released earlier this month – will have an impact over the long term remains obviously to be seen. But it is clear even now that Japan’s political elite is finally facing what in many other countries has become a familiar 21st century sight: widespread public protest. Tens of thousand of protesters now gather each week in front of the prime minister’s residence, shouting anti-nuclear slogans. It’s conceivable, then, that the crippling public distrust that followed Fukushima will spark the sort of change that Japan has long needed – in which ordinary people actively participate in determining their future.

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