Friday, June 3, 2011

The Fukushima disaster and Japan Disincorporated

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.

福島第一原子力発電所の大災害が、原子力発電は本質的に危険だ、とくに地震多発国の日本では危ない、と世界を説得するために利用されている。だが今回の日本の地震地域に面している他の二つの発電所 福島第二と女川 は、今回の地震がそれらの発電所建設時の想定地震強度のレベルをかなり超えていたにもかかわらず、大きな損傷がなく持ちこたえた。

福島第一原発の災害はほぼ全面的に、信じられないほどの愚かな人的行為から起こった。 歴史的にそう遠くない昔に2ケタ台の津波に襲われた地域で、わずか5.7メートルの海岸防壁に守られた海岸に原発と、さらに非常用発電とポンプ設備までいっしょに置いたことだ。

発電所が主としてアメリカのGE(ゼネラル・エレクトリック株式会社)によってデザインされたことから、彼らが日本のパートナーほどには津波に対する意識が強くなかったことは考えられる。だが、どうして日本側は、その時またその後でも、何も言わない、あるいは何もしなかったのか。 津波の危険性についてたびたび警告を受け、最近では今回の致命的事故のわずか3年前にも警告が出されたというのに。


たしかに、細かい技術の面では、日本の関係企業は他の大半の国と同じ程度に、適正な安全性を保ちつつ稼動する発電所の建設を進めてきたと思われる。だが、ほとんど認識されていないと思われることは、この災害が、二つの重大な日本の文化的弱点から生まれた可能性があるということだ。一つは、日本の厳しいグループ主義意識が、必要なアイディアやアドバイスを外部から受け入れるのを妨げている点だ。東京電力(関東や周辺一帯の電力生産と供給に独占権をもつ会社)は、日本の他の多くの会社や産業グループと同じで、自分自身とその産業を一つのと考えることを誇りにしてきた。 自給自足でき、うぬぼれ強い、そして外部者の侵入は全て跳ね返す力を持つ村。

結果は、危険な自己満足で、それは私が数年間にいくつかの原子力産業安全委員会に参加していて、非常な危機感を持って目にしたことだった。菅直人首相がズバリ言った核の安全神話である。もう一つの文化的弱点は、日本が危機想定プランニング 考えうる最悪の事態を予想し、それを防ぐための計画を立てること を執拗に忌避していることだ。

日本の指導的経済新聞日本経済新聞の記事の中で、シニア論説委員太田泰彦はある経済産業省高官の発言を引用している: 「施設の安全に対し責任ある会社として、最悪の事態が発生する可能性があると想定すること自体、反モラルとみなされる。なぜそういう事態を想定しなければならないのかと批判される。」

21世紀の現代社会においてこれは異常ともいえる情況だ。 最悪を想定すればなぜか最悪が訪れるという、原始的な、超自然的な、縁起かつぎ的心配だ。弱さを認めることは反核ロビーを勢いづかせることになるというこの産業界の怖れを考慮に入れたとしても、この心配は明らかに原子力産業の場にはあるまじき思考である。








今日、政府、大企業、そしてその歴史学教授も、災害復興努力へ資金を注入する上で、公的債務問題が障害になっていると悩んでいる。これまた、日本人の思考が、今やってこようとしている財政津波の前で立ち往生している図である。彼らが提案できるのは、ただ税金を値上げすることだけ。 それによってさらに消費者支出が減り経済の減速が進む。 それによって税収が減りそれがさらに、小泉時代にやったように、縮小させるはずの公的債務を増大させることになる。


私は最近ある記者会見に参加して、経済財政政策担当大臣与謝野馨に日本はなぜ、インフレ  マネタイゼーションにはつきものとされる が起こりそうもない経済において、マネタイゼーションをやれないのか、と質問する機会があった。彼の答えは、日銀、官僚、大企業のドグマ、つまりインフレは起こる可能性があり、それは通貨価値を下げることになる、を繰り返すばかりだった。ところが、外国のエキスパートの大多数は軽いインフレと若干の通貨価値の下げは、正に日本が恒常的な経済困難を抜け出すために必要としているものだという点で一致できると思う。

何がまちがってしまったのか。以前、評論家たちは好んで日本株式会社といっていた。 よく訓練されたモチベーションの高い官僚と、世界制覇に意欲を燃やす切れ者ビジネスマンの合体によって力をつけた経済の絶対神である。その当時は日本はそれを行う人間とエネルギーを持っていたようだ。戦後の復興の努力の中で人々は、グループの的利益よりも国の利益がよりいっそう大事だと考えるようになった。