Skip to content

Post-Conference Synopsis of 4S Sessions

Synopsis of the Sessions and Papers on the 2011 Fukushima / East Japan Disaster, 4S/EASST Annual Meeting

Copenhagen Business School

17-20 October 2012

Hi Everyone,

So this is the second installation in the promised two-part summary of the 2011 Fukushima / East Japan disaster related events held during the recent 2012 SHOT / 4S annual meetings in Copenhagen. Part I focused on the more broadly cast SHOT workshop, while this synopsis focuses on the papers presented at the 4S/EASST joint meeting (17-20 October 2012). As I noted previously, we consider both events to be preliminary to the inaugural meeting of the “STS Forum on the 2011 Fukushima / East Japan Disaster” to be held at the University of California Berkeley on 12-14 May 2013, with NSF Sponsorship. (See Appendix II for the cal for papers.)

Let me start by saying that the original intent was to have the focus of both meetings on the 2011 East Japan disaster, with a somewhat more historical focus at SHOT and a more contemporary focus at 4S. However, given the disaster was a contemporary event, the two events split topically, with the added twist most of the scholars traveling from Japan chose to attend the 4S sessions. There was some irony to this, given that our goal was to bring together the broader discussions about disasters with the more recent studies of the East Japan disaster. One of the reasons for writing these synopses is to introduce the conversations that took place at one event to those who attended the other, with the hope that this integration can continue at the Berkeley meeting. Let me also reiterate again that these are but personal reflections—more so given that this synopsis is a review of conference papers in an area where I have limited expertise, as opposed to recording the collective wisdom of the intricate conversations that emerged from an all-day, pre-circulated papers workshop.

Altogether there were five full sessions and a handful of additional papers related to the 2011 Fukushima / East Japan disaster at 4S/EASST—quite an impressive showing. Four of the sessions were organized by Scott Knowles and Ryuma Shineha as part of our broader effort to develop the STS Forum on the Fukushima / East Japan Disaster. These four sessions were organized topically through a focus on a) expert authority and risk assessment; b) citizen science; c) post-disaster discourses; and d) societal structures and responses. In addition, there was one (originally two) sessions organized by Fabienne Crettaz von Roten and Niels Mejlgaard working through the EASST network, and three papers embedded into other sessions during the conference. Because of a schedule conflict, I was not able to attend this session organized by Von Roten and Mejlgaard—I was giving a paper simultaneously. I therefore invite someone to write-up of those papers so they can be added to this synopsis. The full list of papers is provided as Appendix I.

Overall, the papers at the 4S/EASST meeting paralleled quite closely to the identified themes from the SHOT workshop. This included a focus on expert authority and regimes of trust; ruptures and responses; and the media environment. Cultural framing remained an implicit focus throughout the sessions, although the engineering dimensions of the crisis, and matters of resilience, recovery, and local knowledge were less prominent. Even in recognizing that the broad conceptual similarity between the two events is partially an artifice of the fact that I attended the 4S sessions prior to writing the earlier synopsis, this congruence points, both for better and for worse, to the rough consensus that exists with regards to what scholars regard to be the most salient features of the disaster. I revisit this point in the reflexive analysis at the end of this essay.

The “Opening” Session on Experts

Rather than speaking in terms of generalities, with this synopsis I’d like to move much more quickly to a substantive conversation about the specific papers, owing in part to the strength of the first session organized by Knowles and Shineha, namely on expertise. Other papers will be cited along the way as appropriate. The first session included Fujigaki’s retrospective and partially reflexive analysis of the role of experts at the height of the 3.11 crisis; Knowles’ account of the recent history of the 3.11 disaster investigation; Matsumoto’s sociological analysis of “structural failures” not only within the governing institutions and bureaucracies, but the disaster investigations themselves; and Shineha’s examination of asymmetries in the media environment, and how this helps account for the discursive shift from concerns about radiation exposure in the affected regions to low-dose exposure in the Tokyo metropolitan region.

Some of the most exciting aspects of the session, as heavily anchored by Hecht’s prepared remarks, resulted from the conversations and analyses that cut across the individual papers. Hecht noted, for instance, that the papers as a whole appeared to reference quotidian things, in revealing what are ultimately very ordinary social problems—problems with bureaucratic function and authority; interested actors; and the political asymmetry between metropolitan and rural regions. In Hecht’ analysis, nuclear exceptionalism—the disproportionate attention to the nuclear dimensions of the crisis—have served in a way to drown out quotidian concerns, producing a machinery for producing invisibilities, for gaps in our knowledge. It was noted by one of the audience members that disaster discourses operate within fields of power, with attendant ethical obligations for those who analyze disasters; we need to remain cognizant of our own ignorance, and bring agnotology into science studies.

Paralleling the SHOT workshop’s emphasis on regimes of trust, the papers, not only in the first session but across all sessions, produced discussions about the specific instruments and actions used to maintain social order and the social acceptability of risk. Hecht raised the question, “what does it mean for disaster investigations to be effective?” Of clear relevance here was Knowles’ study of the Japanese disaster investigations, which covered both the initial, limited investigation as well as the more critical Kuroda investigation. The latter provided evidence both of the democratizing potential of investigations—as well as their vulnerability to political influence: Knowles noted that it took exactly six days to reverse the results of a national referendum that promised to shutter all Japanese nuclear facilities by 2040. Fujigaki’s presentation echoed this point, while also discussing the broader, ethical responsibilities of engineers and experts entrusted with the public’s trust. Matsumoto meanwhile, in stressing structural failures such as the symmetry between the pre- and post-disaster makeup of those carrying out the initial investigation, pointed to documentable patterns of institutional resilience. (Several other papers, including those by Ylönen, Ito, and Amir are also relevant to this discussion, and are discussed separately below.) In her remarks, Hecht also encouraged scholars to take note of the performative dimensions of disaster investigations in the manner theorized by cultural anthropologists, namely to pay close attention to the societal rituals that are invoked in an effort to establish and reestablish (and on occasion, reconfigure) social order.

The first session also introduced a discussion about the “ontological” entities that are brought into being through disasters and disaster investigations. If Chernobyl brought forth arguments about distinct cultural culpabilities and pathologies that constituted a retrospective analytic construction of the Communist “Other,” surely a similar process occurred via the technoscientific Orientalization of Japanese bureaucrats and corporatist practices. Here the familiar phrase, “Japan as #1,” took on a new and darker connotation as Fukushima Dai-Ichi was cast, at least in the media, as a uniquely Japanese disaster, a disaster “Made in Japan.” In subsequent sessions, this segued into broader discussions about Orientalism, including Ito’s quip that the Japanese, or at least the Japanese media, is wont to practice self-Orientalization. Orientalism in this form does have distinctly positive connotations as embedded in a sense of national pride. Orientalism evinced with regards to the Fukushima nuclear disaster ought to be contrasted against the equally racialized images associated with Hurricane Katrina, which instead pointed to the helplessness (and dependency) of underprivileged black residents, and their purported reliance on the state.

This set of remarks also brings us back to imaginaries. Clearly, many of the papers across the session drew upon and contributed to the notion of technoscientific imaginaries as applied to nuclear energy and national capacities (or incapacities) for handling a crisis. I should also note that three of the four papers in the session organized by Von Roten and Mejlgaard had to do with post-Fukushima reconstructions of nuclear imaginaries: these consisted of Kronberger’s paper on Austrian responses to Fukushima; Ueno’s paper on the Japanese reconsideration of modern rationalism and technological versatility; and Von Roten’s survey of Swiss media coverage, opinion polls, and electoral behavior.

Of particular interest to me was a conversation about the imaginaries associated with the phrase, “nuclear village” (genpatsu mura). This apparently was, and remains, a phrase bandied about in the Japanese press, one with rather different connotations in English as opposed to Japanese—we, for instance, might instead use the phrase “nuclear fraternity” to evoke the corporatist association intended in the Japanese use of the term; think also of how the phrase echoes with the notion of “nuclear family” in English. In conversations held in between sessions, the Japanese scholars present suggested to me that the phrase operates on both its positive and negative connotations: first, there is the nostalgic ideal, related to the ie (house) construct that plays a significant part in Japanese imaginaries of a progressive corporation where familiarity, local knowledge, and paternalistic loyalties give rise to an alternative and successful industrial model (e.g. consider the nuclear workers—the heroic 50—who worked keep the nuclear reactors under control); and second, its intentional reversal, in the context of the disaster, in pointing to the absurdity and substantial fiction associated with the assumption that a “backwards” form of social order could successfully control a complex technoscientfic plant like Fukushima Dai-Ichi (so note the same heroic 50, who in reality was also a contingent workforce subject to routine violations of radiological safety as described by Jobin). This discussion echoed our reference to the more complex ways in which imaginaries can operate, especially as emotions and socioeconomic realities are laid bare and brought to the foreground of public consciousness by a disaster

Themes from the Other Sessions

Maintaining and reconstituting social order was a theme that continued into the subsequent sessions. Hirakawa and Shirabe’s paired presentations, “Politics of Risk Discourse,” and “Reality Marginalized,” focused on the discursive strategies employed by experts to argue for a return to normalcy. Their presentations focused on providing sound evidence of how the arguments made by Japanese risk experts, as reproduced in official statements by the state, were predicated on the deficit model of the public understanding of science and placed the burden of proof on the critics in a quite predictable way. The arguments presented were reductive (typically relying on a narrowed conceptualization of risk), employed “bad science” (quite typically results driven inquiry), and not only bordered, but clearly crossed the threshold of propaganda. Their final examples focused on the government’s use of female anime characters to stamp out “harmful rumors,” while with the Food Action Nippon campaign they used Japanese male idols to encourage the consumption of radiation contaminated foods as an act of national and regional loyalty. This material probably warrants comparison with the corporate brownwashing and the anti-science campaigns associated with, for example, fracking and climate change.

The focus on the reductionist tendencies among scientific experts was also present in a number of other papers. Included in this set would be Ito’s analysis of post 3.11 commentaries by the pro-nuclear physicist, Arima Akito. In a careful study of what he refers to as “epistemological resilience,” Ito looks at the specific rhetorical strategies Arima used to limit the scope of risk analysis and to severely constrain the economic analysis of other energy alternatives. Ito took note of the apparent generational difference in Arima’s position, which expressed uncompromising faith that scientific knowledge and new technological systems would emerge to solve the problem of nuclear safety. Ylönen, in a paper in Session 086 of the 4S meeting, meanwhile outlines the very similar, reductive practices exhibited during the post-Fukushima reform of Japan’s nuclear regulatory body. Ylönen’s talk echoes Matsumoto’s focus on structural failures in the investigative versus regulatory bodies; Ylönen finds in the regulatory reform a narrow technocratic response that replicates in many ways the original safety regime. In his presentation, Amir offered the outlines of a more general study of technoscientific institutions’ resilience to nuclear accidents.

Conversely, Juraku documented the history of regulatory capture leading up to the point of the rupture in trust. Of special interest in his presentation was a history and of the nuclear siting decisions in Japan, where nuclear accidents and protests, and entanglements between regional interests, regulatory politics, and national priorities produced Japan’s uniquely concentrated nuclear power facilities that arguably amplified the magnitude of the disaster. Implied in Juraku’s presentation was the view that the multiple failures at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi facility, as they unfolded so visibly in the national and international media, produced a sustained spectacle that thoroughly undermined the image of Japan’s “successful” nuclear program.

This last point also brings us to an explicit focus on the media environment. From the second session, Kuroda’s paper described the Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center (CNIC), a pre-existing anti-nuclear, anti-establishment organization that had both the knowledge and communicative capacity to review government data, and to quickly voice their dissent to the government’s portrayal of the situation. However, the marginalization of CNIC and its statements, and its pickup through new media channels merit further study. Both Tanaka an Kimura, in 4S Session 028, pay direct attention to social media. In his paper, Tanaka documented the use of Twitter as a medium for populist discourse, and the discursive evolution of its traffic from the early efforts to obtain additional facts about the accident and the risk of exposure, to the vociferous castigation of authoritative experts through slogans such as those that labeled them “lap dogs of the government.” Kimura, by contrast, describes the more collaborative position taken by a British biologist in Japan, who used the Twitter platform to launch a temporary Google Maps site for the purpose of recording radioactive measurements. The site attained 3.9 million hits by March 21st. In echoing Abe’s assessment of the Safecast organization at the SHOT workshop, while such a system was instrumental in propelling the government towards increased accountability and transparency, the effort was cast within established patterns of scientific authority and precluded deeper critique. The system itself was suspended on March 18th, after it was deemed that sufficiently accurate data was by then available through official sources.

Collectively these papers raise the question introduced by one of the participants, namely: given changes in the media environment, who has the upper hand? Two papers offered put this to test. Kinsella and Ionescu used cluster analysis of key terms collected using a Bing search engine to assess the public’s understanding of the scientific and technical foundations of nuclear risk, regulation, and safety. While it was noted that mixed-mode analysis (i.e. interpretative as well as quantitative analysis of the data) might yield further insights, the Kinsella and Ionescu’s data documents how the new media environment was shaping public discussion and understanding about disasters. Lehtonen meanwhile used the Prospero software to document the French and British responses to the Fukushima nuclear disaster as found through qualitative and quantitative analyses of popular journals from these countries. In terms of who had the upper hand, the results were mixed, with the British journals exhibiting a more definite pro-nuclear, pro-corporate orientation, while the French sources exhibited a more distinctly anti-nuclear response. (While the methods are different, this work seem to parallel Kalmbach’s paper from the SHOT workshop.)

Revisiting the Voids

I saved for last the two presentations that for many present “stood out” from the rest in ways that invite reflection. These were Yamaki’s paper on a do-it-yourself (DIY) radiation monitoring initiative organized among high school science classrooms in the Fukusima region; and Jobin’s account of the contingent, contract labor force in Japan’s nuclear power facilities. (Vaughn’s paper on participatory recovery planning in the Tohoku region, as presented during Von Roten and Mejlgaard’s session, should also be reviewed here.) I believe what made these talks stand out was the asymmetric emphasis on expert knowledge, authority, and even technoscientific imaginaries, at the expense of a focus on the affected populations and the victims of disaster.

This is the reason I noted, at the outset, that it was both for better and for worse that there appeared to be substantial consensus in the intellectual agenda surrounding the crisis. There are known reasons, rooted in our own scholarly traditions and historiography, why those in STS would focus on expert authority, political protest, public debates, and the projected images surrounding a controversial technology. However, there are no grounds for believing that matters of resilience and recovery,  how rural communities deal with health crises and “displacement”—a major theme of this year’s annual meeting—and the natural and built environments that prefigure into disasters are any less an appropriate subject for science and technology studies; it must certainly be reflected in our approach to disaster studies.

Those of us planning the Berkeley workshop have been discussing these issues. Reflected in our own casual references to “Fukushima” is a tendency to focus on the nuclear phase of what most scholars from Japan, and those in Japan more generally, refer to as a “triple disaster.” As Shineha politely but pointedly reminded us during his presentation, the tsunami had a significantly greater consequence in terms of lives lost and people displaced by the disaster; 16,000 lives were lost and 250,000 people evacuated during the tsunami, as opposed to the 100,000 people evacuated because of the risks of radiation exposure. Others have echoed this concern, and it is our intent to develop a robust and balanced program that examines the complex interdependencies of the triple disaster, including how interactions at the institutional as well as physical level between the different aspects of the disaster contributed the unfolding of events.

Nevertheless some have also expressed the view that we must not lose sight of intense reactions to the nuclear aspects of the event. As it was put by one member of our program committee,

In relatively short order a (triple) disaster launched a crisis in the state, among experts, and in private industry.  The struggle to regain normalcy has been extremely local (and frustrated by the reality of radiation), national (launching major investigations), and international (some nations have pledged to shutter their nuclear power facilities). In this incident we see some of the deeper structures of modern capitalism/globalization, technoscience, and democracy revealed—structures that have evolved over time to present themselves as safe, inevitable, and sustainable.

As suggested by one of our program committee members, nuclear power and nuclear policy have been deeply embedded into the post WW II political order, certainly in Japan, but also the rest of the industrialized world. It was suggested that some of the post-3.11 discourse and the associated process of renormalization may have dulled the sense of crisis in the days following the disaster when a full core meltdown and explosion remained imminent possibilities. This remains important to capture in our conversations.

The program committee for the Berkeley workshop will continue to weigh these issues. For those planning on attending the event, we invite your own thoughts regarding the proper emphasis for this event.

Best wishes,

– Atsushi

(As an ‘observer’ at the 4S/EASST Fukushima/East Japan sessions.)

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: