Monday, July 16, 2012

Was Fukushima Caused by "Japanese Culture"?

The official Diet-commissioned report on the Fukushima disaster was released about a week or so, and a fascinating catch was made by one Richard Katz on the Social Science Japan mailing list. The report is mostly a very specific account of communication failures and lapses in responsibility, but it seems that the English-language version of the report's executive summary lades on some generalizations condemning the root cause of the disaster as Japanese culture itself:

"[The disaster's] fundamental causes are 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."

Katz and others have focused on the discrepancy between the English and Japanese versions of the report, with the reasonable assumption that the English version is specifically conceived as playing to foreign expectations.  But I'm more interested in the fundamental questions raised by the mere idea: how do these claims seem to define "Japanese culture," its limits and boundaries relative to other spheres of culture, and the way culture affects individual behavior?  The points made above seem focused on very local interpersonal behavior, relative to, say, a boss.  This is an important distinction from, for example, 'culture' in the more mediated sense, where it may be more difficult to make an argument for any such thing as a uniquely Japanese culture in an era of globalization.

Relevant sources at:

Asahi Shimbun
National Diet of Japan
Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford

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