Fukushima vs. Chernobyl – Public compliance and democratic control

American anthropologist Ruth Benedict put it like this: While the Judeo-Christian civilisation of the United States and Europe is based on guilt, the Japanese value system is based on a culture of shame (The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, 1946). This thesis is contested today, but does come to mind when looking at the behaviour of Japanese officials and responsible authorities concerning the Fukushima case.

Two years ago, an earthquake and resulting tsunami caused the cooling system of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to fail, which lead to a meltdown in three of its six reactors. To this day, the Tokyo Electronic Power Company (Tepco) in charge of the Fukushima plant has to permanently cool the reactor in order to prevent a widespread release of radioactive waste. The water used for this process gets into contact with damaged nuclear fuel and absorbs dangerous radioactive nuclides. It eventually has to be pumped into tanks for storage. The problem is that these tanks, set up in haste during the imminent crisis of March 2011, are starting to leak. In early September, Tepco admitted that 300 tonnes of contaminated water flowed into the ocean. Critics believe it to be far more. In addition, Japan’s nuclear regulation authority reported that radiation levels near the storage tanks had increased to 2,200 millisieverts per hour – the highest reading so far.

Immediately after the reactor meltdowns in 2011, neighbouring states like South Korea banned imports of Japanese fish, agricultural products and even that of manufactures, such as cars. In light of the recent development, this ban is unlikely to be lifted any time soon.

What ecological consequences the spill of contaminated water may have is still unclear, but Tepco and the Japanese government are working hard to maintain domestic and international harmony – apparently by trying to cover up the issue and trivialising it.

The released information and official statements have been contradictory at best, which does little to convince of Japan’s – and especially Tepco’s – ability to adequately deal with the problem.

The Fukushima disaster reminds me of another nuclear catastrophe – Chernobyl. Not only can parallels be found in regards to the severity of the situation, but also in the way information is handled and how the public is treated. In the Chernobyl case the population wasn’t immediately informed about the reactor explosion, and the nearby town of Pripyat was only evacuated two days later.

Being compared to the Soviet Union when it comes to information policy and levels of democratic control is not flattering to any country, but Japan does lack a strong executive and a culture of protest.

After World War II, Japan set out to become a powerful industrial and technological nation. Large private corporations and their interests came to play key roles in politics and society, and they assumed essentially public responsibilities, such as the provision of welfare. The pursuit of independence and internal social harmony, as well as the primacy of the producer over the consumer appear to be fundamental compounds of the Japanese brand of capitalism – and explain Tepco’s course of action.

Today, the Chernobyl disaster is quoted as an initial reason for the collapse of the USSR. People began to see the restrictive control of their government as unacceptable, and a culture of protest started to form, along with political movements that clearly departed from the line of the ruling Communist Party. The Fukushima triple meltdown caused not only an environmental catastrophe, but posed a very significant financial burden on the state, both in form of repair costs and trade losses.

The Japanese feel abandoned by their government, who failed to act in crucial moments, and by Tepco, one of the corporations that was supposed to provide for them. While older people still apparently display disinterest and have little notion of the effects radioactivity can have, the younger generation started to voice its opinion on the governments attempts to save the reputation of nuclear energy. Protest marches in Japan’s largest cities against officials and Tepco are taking place. People are less accepting of artificial social harmony, especially if it comes at the price of their health.

Nobody ever said the Fukushima clean-up would be easy, or quick. However, a new organisation comprising of international specialists will have to be formed to replace Tepco, which has proved to be incompetent. The Japanese weariness of outsiders and their interference will have to subside.

Regardless if its based on shame, guilt or something entirely different, the country will have to open up. Like Chernobyl, Fukushima has the potential to initiate institutional change – something long overdue in Japan. That is, if citizens, along with the global public, stay on the ball and don’t wait for the first long-term effects to appear.