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“Made in Japan” Fukushima Nuclear Accident: A Critical Review for Accident Investigation Activities in Japan

Kohta Juraku
Tokyo Denki University

Introduction: Outline of Four Major Investigation Activities for the Fukushima Accident in Japan

It is common understanding that deliberate, comprehensive and careful investigation for terrible accident is essentially important and must be done officially. For example, the major two accident investigation in the USA; the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Miles Island (so-called Kemeny Commission) and the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident are often acknowledged as the milestones of the accident investigation activity and its report.

This understanding seems to be well-shared in Japan, too. Already around the end of March 2011, the discussion about the establishment had been started in Japan, as Yoichi Funabashi, who became the chair of the Independent Investigation Commission of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident (hereafter referred to as Independent Commission), mentioned his message included in their accident report.

In Fact, on May 24, 2012, two and half month after the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident (hereafter referred to as Fukushima Accident) happened, Japanese Cabinet decided to establish an official accident investigation committee. This committee was formally established as the Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations (ICANPS, hereafter referred to as Government Committee) and held its first meeting on June 7, 2012. Government Committee was chaired by Prof. Yotaro Hatamura, professor emeritus on mechanical engineering at the University of Tokyo and a leading advocate of “Failure Studies,” and consisted of other nine commissioners and two technical advisors. They had carried out their investigation until July, 2012, had 13 meetings and published their interim report on December 26, 2011 and final report on July 23, 2012.

After the establishment of this Government Committee, three other major accident investigation commission (or committee) established.

The most official counterpart to the Government Committee was the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC, hereafter referred to as Diet Committee). This Diet Committee was established on December 8, 2012, with the legal basis by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission Act, executed on October 30, 2011. It has stronger legal power than the Government Committee, because they could invoke administrative investigation right, the supreme power in Japanese governing structure given by Japanese National Constitution. They conducted 19 meetings during their term until July 2012. Their investigation report was transmitted to the Chairmans of Upper and Lower House of the National Diet, on July 5, 2012. The Chair of the Diet Committee was Prof. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, professor emeritus in medicine at the University of Tokyo and former President of the Science Council of Japan (SCJ). The Committee consisted nine commissioners and three advisors.

In parallel with those ‘official’ investigation efforts by public bodies, an independent, NPO-based accident investigation commission was formed by the initiative of Yoichi Funabashi, former chief editor of Asahi Shimbun newspaper, and some other academic/non-academic experts. This was the Independent Commission, which was shortly mentioned above. Their activity had already started on April 2011 informally, and established as formal commission by seven commissioners and chaired by Prof. Koichi Kitazawa, professor emeritus in material science at the University of Tokyo and former President of the Japan Science and Technology Agency, one of the biggest public funding agency for academic research. They published their investigation report on March, 11, 2012, the first anniversary of the Fukushima Disaster. This was the first publication of final report by four major investigation committees.

Finally, it should be counted as one of the major investigations that Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO)’s own accident investigation. Needless to say, TEPCO is the owner and operator of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. They established internal “Fukushima Nuclear Accident Investigation Committee” chaired by Masao Yamazaki, Vice President of TEPCO and consisted of other seven TEPCO executives on June, 2011. They published its interim report on December 2, 2011 and the final report on June 20, 2012.

As descried above, all of them published their final report by the mid of 2012. We can now have them on the web and/or as printed matter, and some of them have already translated into English, for non-Japanese readers.

However, this fact, “publication of the final report,” does not necessarily mean we now have sufficient data and explanations to understand the processes, causes, backgrounds and impacts of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident totally from its root cause. Rather, some “fascinating” words, concepts or explanations suggested by those accident reports seem to be circulated, amplified and sometimes even exaggerated in mass communication process and to make readers and citizens misunderstood as if they now could know the cause of this accident fully and could identify the “criminals” of this horrible disaster.

In fact, nuclear policy did not become the issue in the national general election in December 2012 at all, though it was the first nation-level election since 3.11 disaster and we have seen strong public protest campaign which have called for immediate nuclear phase-out since then. Now, Abe LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) Administration is swiftly making a course correction for Japanese energy policy – revival of nuclear utilization program – without not so big obstacles than we had expected.

Also, reformation of Japanese nuclear safety regulation and implementation of additional safety measures have not necessarily discussed and carried out responding to the analysis and recommendations of those investigation reports.

Why have such very curious and strange combinations among different social effects co-existed in post-Fukushima Japan? Why have Japanese society not gone to the direction on which reflect the lessons suggested by those reports on the changes in technology itself, conducts of research, roles and behaviors of academic/non-academic experts, institutional systems, energy/nuclear policy and so on more directly?

In the following section, author would take a point made by the Diet Committee’s report as a symbolic case of such misleading effect of the Post-Fukushima “accident investigation” activities in Japan.

Fukushima Accident as a “Manmade” Disaster: Obscurantism by the Diet Commission

It was well acknowledged by journalism regardless of its media major diagnosis and recommendations suggested by those four investigation reports. The outlines of their reports – to be more exact, eye-catching things shown by those documents – were highlighted by TV news program, newspapers and on-line communications repeatedly. Those perspectives have always attracted public attention so much and triggered public debates on right and wrong of those illustration.

Among those provoking diagnosis by investigation reports, there were two most attention-getting keywords: “manmade” and “Made in Japan” disaster theory suggested by the Diet Commission.

The first one, “Manmade” disaster theory was suggested at the beginnings of the accident report by the Diet Commission – in the “Preface” page written by Chairman Kurokawa.

THE EARTHQUAKE AND TSUNAMI of March 11, 2011 were natural disasters of a magnitude that shocked the entire world. Although triggered by these cataclysmic events, the subsequent accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant cannot be regarded as a natural disaster. It was a profoundly manmade disaster – that could and should have been foreseen and prevented. And its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response.

(NAIIC 2012a:9)

The word “manmade” attracted rapid and public attention mainly in Japanese domestic public opinion and most of them gave positive evaluation for this theory. It is long-standing controversy in accident investigation field in Japan that Japanese society tends to seek criminal responsibility of and societal punishment against victimizer when large-scale accident happens, and this cultural background is a big obstacle to pursue comprehensive and lesson-learning oriented accident investigation separated and independent from criminal prosecution process (See Ikeda 1995, SCJ 2005, for example). This time, again, Japanese public opinion put stronger emphasis on the identification of the “responsible actor” for this worst disaster.

In this point, “manmade” seemed to be interpreted that this accident was triggered or caused by so-called human-factors, in the context of Japanese public opinion. Rather, some blaming narratives in the Diet Commission’s report seemed to be highly appreciated by society. For example, the following sentence is an example of blaming narrative found in their description.

The TEPCO Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties. They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents. Therefore, we conclude that the accident was clearly “manmade.” We believe that the root causes were the organizational and regulatory systems that supported faulty rationales for decisions and actions, rather than issues relating to the competency of any specific individual.

(NAIIC 2012a:16)

Obviously, the words such as “collusion,” “effectively betrayed the nation’s right” or “faulty rationale” gave the impression of the existence of intentional mistakes and conspiracy in the pre-Fukushima nuclear regulation. Such wording of the most authoritative Diet Commission’s report seemed to function as a judgment of conviction for the Government and TEPCO in the society, though the later part of this paragraph mentions about the perspective of organizational theory and denies individual’s direct responsibility for that.

This highly critical conclusion with the word “manmade” seemed to encourage public outrage: strong criticism and blame against those actors’ fault, rather than public discussions on analysis and improvements responding to the accident. Of course, the consequences of this accident is huge and to be strongly criticized in terms of social justice. However, it seems to be something contradictive from Diet Commission’s stance declared by themselves. They had set their “expectations” as follows:

The investigation is to be conducted thoroughly by experts from a logical, objective and scientific perspective, without bias for or against nuclear power.

The investigation should result in recommendations to benefit the nation’s future, and provide an opportunity for strengthening the legislative body of the nation.

(NAIIC 2012a:10-11)

It is not clear that the reason why the Diet Commission used a little bit emotional expressions while their own policy requested “a logical, objective and scientific perspective” and to seek proactive application of their outputs. However, it seems that this “manmade” theory and blaming expressions have an effect to lead public discussion not to the lesson-learning from the accident but to pursuing ethical and legal responsibility of stakeholders.

Furthermore, Diet Commission’s report does not include the identification of front-line officers while it identified the names of organization, top-executives and politicians. This means that the description of the report is not so helpful both for microscopic organizational analysis and criminal prosecution, actually. The description could help for readers to grasp rough (and sometimes exciting) story of the chain of faults which led the Fukushima accident, but never help to understand the causal relationships of the facts in detail. However, the blaming narrative of “manmade” disaster theory seemed to be succeeded in satisfying public willingness to recover and maintain social justice after the big horrible and unreasonable event. It can be argued that the “manmade” disaster theory is not substantially helpful analysis on the background mechanism of the Fukushima, but is socially justifiable explanation which represented the feeling of unreasonableness shared in Japanese society. Rather, their explanation might obscure the public understanding of this accident by such socially powerful story. This obscurantism hypothesis should be analyzed more empirically in the following study.

“Made in Japan” Theory and Self-Orientalism: the Second Problem of the Diet Commission’s Report

The second problem of the Diet Commission’s report here triggered a discussion not in Japan domestically, but in international journalism. It is the “Made in Japan” disaster theory on the root cause of the Fukushima Accident.

“For all the extensive detail it provides, what this report cannot fully convey – especially to a global audience – is the mindset that supported the negligence behind this disaster.

What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster “Made in Japan.”
Its 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.

Had other Japanese been in the shoes of those who bear responsibility for this accident, the result may well have been the same.

 (NAIIC 2012a:9)

            Exactly speaking, this may not be a part of the Diet Commission’s “official” statement, because these sentences are cited from “Message from the Chairman” page of the executive summery of their final report, not of the full text of it. Also, these sentences are original text in English version of the report and no direct counterpart in Japanese version of it.

However, regardless of the formal position of this statement, this “Made in Japan” or “Japanese Culture” theory by Chairman Kurokawa was spread all over the world very quickly after the publication of the report and attracted strong reactions in the international journalism. There were many negative responses from foreign journalists. Bloomberg distributed their criticism against Kurokawa’s perspective in their editorial “Japan’s Unsatisfying Nuclear Report” on July 9, 2012 (Bloomberg 2012). Mure Dickie of The Financial Times also published an article on this issue “Beware post-crisis ‘Made in Japan’ labels” on July 8 (Mure Dickie 2012). Both of these articles criticized Kurokawa’s theory as obscurantist perspective on the accident.

Kenji Ito suggested a concept of “self-orientalism” in his comment at the series session on the Fukushima Disaster in the 4S (Society for Social Studies of Science) 2012 Annual Meeting as a possible explanation on Kurokawa’s different explanations. He defined the meaning of “self-orientalism” in his twitter on December 27, 2012. “It seems to be too rough to explain a social phenomenon by Japanese specific culture. Some Japanese people use such perspective on Japan when they explain something for foreign media because they should appreciate it. I call it “self-orientalism”” (Ito 2012). This concept is intended to conceptualize the  cultural-essentialistic mental mechanism of Japanese people to particularize ourselves and events in our society distinguished from any other society.

Needless to say, cultural-essentialism is very powerful and convincing at the level of popular story. It definitely fits well to people’s naïve-theory and common sense domestically. However, it should also be true that such explanation often spoils more substantial understanding by (academically) systematic investigation. Self-orientalism is another way of obscurantism in Fukushima Accident investigation in Japan.

Chairman Kurokawa is an outstanding scholar in medicine and has a great deal of international experience. It can be assumed that he understand well about negative international implications of such cultural-essentialistic explanation. It is also reasonably believable that he understood this kind of official document should be directly translated. However, he purposely wrote different preface for English version of the Commission’s report. Why did he take such unusual and something tricky approach in his chairmanship?

As the principle of accident investigation, we should shed light on this problem not from the approach of prosecution against individual, but from the perspective of more “objective and scientific” explanation. The background context which made him take such behavior should be studied to clarify the mechanism of obscurantism in Japanese accident investigation.

Concluding Remark: To Beyond the Obscurantism

The Diet Commission was the first investigation commission established by Japanese National Diet in Japan’s history of constitutional politics since Meiji era. We can find many signs of the commission’s enthusiasm to realize high-quality investigation report which is competitive to the TMI Kemny Commission’s report. Chairman Kurokawa used the word of “mindset” in his preface, which was used in that report and attracted strong public attention at that time. It copied the table of contents such as “The Commission’s Mandate,” “What we did,”  “What we did not do,” “The accident” and so on. They seemed to try to inherit the legacy of ancestors in the accident investigation tradition.

However, it seems that they failed to succeed some important elements of such tradition and rather tolerate the weak-points of their predecessors. For example, the word “mindset” has often been cited since then, but it appeared in the Kemney Commission’s report only three times and not the only important lessons learnt from their investigation. There are many differences between the popular understanding of the story by the report and actual description of it. Unfortunately, Kurokawa Commission seemed to trace even such problems of accident investigation precisely, too.

The issues discussed in this paper remind us the gap among the ideally expected missions of the accident investigation, task recognition of commission members and actual social function of its outputs. If we still believe that accident investigation has any positive meaning as a post-disaster social activity, we should study more about the reality of it more, find the problems in it and mechanism of them and suggest ways of improvement with evidences.


Bloomberg (2012) “Japan’s Unsatisfying Nuclear Report” July 9, 2012.

<; Accessed April 12, 2013.

Dickie, Moore (2012) “Beware post-crisis ‘Made in Japan’ labels” The Financial Times, July 8 , 2012.

<; (accessible only for FT subscribed members) Accessed April 12, 2013

Ikeda, Yoshihiko (1995) “Problems on Criminal Negligence and Aircraft Accidents” The Bulletin of School of High-Technology for Human Welfare Tokai University, Vol.4, pp. 81-91, 1995

Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Nuclear Accident (2012) “Chousa houkoku-syo” [Report of Investigation] Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation (RJIF) (in Japanese).

Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations (ICANPS) (2011) “Interim Report” December 26, 2011.

<; Accessed April 12, 2013.

Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations (ICANPS) (2012) “Final Report” July 23, 2012.

<; Accessed April 12, 2013.

Ito, Kenji (2012) @Kenjiitojp “日本の社会現象を説明するのに、日本固有の文化みたいなものでやろうとするのは雑すぎる。そういう日本固有の文化見たいなものを持ち出すと外国メディアにはうける、というので日本人自らがそういう視点で日本について語ることを私は「セルフ・オリエンタリズム」と呼ぶことにしている。”

<; Accessed April 12, 2013

The National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC) (2012a) “Executive Summery of The Official Report of Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission” July 5, 2012.


Accessed April 12, 2013.

The National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC) (2012b) “The Official Report of Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission” July 5, 2012.


Accessed April 12, 2013.

The President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Miles Island (1979) “Report of the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island” October 30, 1979

The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident (1986) “Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident” June 6, 1986

Tokyo Electric Power Company, Inc. (2011) “Fukushima Nuclear Accident Analysis Report (Interm Report)” December 2, 2011


Tokyo Electric Power Company, Inc. (2012) “Fukushima Nuclear Accident Analysis Report” June 20, 2012


Science Council of Japan (2005) “Ningen to Kougaku Kenkyu Renraku Iinkai Anzen Kougaku Senmon Iinkai Houkoku: Jiko-Chousa no Arikata ni kansuru Teigen” [Report of the Safety Engineering Expert Committee, Committee of Human and Engineering: Recommendations on Practice of Accident Investigation] Science Council of Japan, June 23, 2005.


Kohta Juraku is Assistant Professor at Tokyo Denki University, Japan. He has worked on the sociological study of social decision-making process centering on nuclear utilization, and published articles including “The Failure of Japan’s ‘Successful’ Nuclear Program: Structural Problems Revealed by the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident” in Hindmarsh, R.(ed.) Nuclear Disaster at Fukushima Daiichi: Social, Political and Environmental Issues, (Routledge, 2013). He also works on the interdisciplinary educational program development of social literacy for engineering students.

  1. Nicolas Sternsdorff permalink

    The question of whether this accident was “manmade” or the result of a freak act of nature is quite an interesting one. Oliver-Smith argued that disasters have to be seen as part and parcel of human existence, and not as one-time events. Ryan Sayre’s work on earthquake preparedness in Japan points in the same direction; events such as 3.11 should be expected in Japan.

    Tepco argued that it could not protect against a one-in-one-thousand years event, and this is where the report of the diet was controversial in that it placed the blame back on Tepco and its cozy relationship with the government. What I find interesting about this controversy is that these reports are supposed to be apolitical and fact-centered, but I wonder if it is possible or even desirable for these commissions to aspire to that. It would be interesting to discuss further what being a-political does to these reports, and what happens when politics creeps back into the narrative, such as in the remarks of the chairman (and in spite of all of their findings, the diet report i think was specifically told not to assign blame).

    • Kohta Juraku permalink

      Thank you for your comments, Nicolas. I think this accident was “manmade” AND triggered by the natural disaster, at the same time. It seems to be quite obvious that its cause is complex and cannot be explained by any single reason. This view could easily be imagined and shared even BEFORE any accident investigation was started.

      However, in my opinion, Japanese society still seeks to settle down the controversy – “manmade” OR “nature”. This social atmosphere have seemed to be contextualize the mission and the goal of the accident investigations as unconfirtable combination of Western-origin practical learning process for prevention of future failure and retributive prosecution to recover social justice.

      I think this hybridized nature of Japanese accident investigation might make it difficult to be apolitical. I would discuss the difference and/or relationship between political/apolitical axis and that practical learning/retributive prosecution axis at our upcoming session at Berkeley.

  2. Scott Frickel permalink

    The question of the political uses of formal post-disaster investigation reports is very interesting. As Scott Knowles notes in the conference paper he has posted (Immediately following this one), such reports tend to function as legitimacy projects for governments — a way to demonstrate state responsibility in regaining control of the situation and regaining popular trust. I suspect a much deeper story lies behind these reports, involving the selection of the investigation teams and then, as Diane Vaughan has shown in her study of the Challenger Launch Decision, how the investigation process itself was deeply shaped by the organizational cultures, whether at NASA and its contractors, or at Tepco etc. This raises a question of method and data: what is the possibility that the Japanese government will make the documents internal to these investigations and/or testimony regarding the investigation available to scholars? The choke-hold that governments often have on the kinds of data that STS researchers typically need, invokes yet another level of the “politics of understanding” in the context of disaster.

    • Kohta Juraku permalink

      Scott, thanks for your note. I agree that we should explore and analyze more about the deep background of those investigation processes. I would also note that difference of common-understanding on the (at least official) purpose and mission of the accident investigation between Japan and other countries. I don’t want to adopt cultural essentialism as the explanation for that difference, but I still believe there are many (big) gaps among them.

      Those differences should also be observed as a difference of political intentions, motivations and actual interventions for each accident investigation process and post-investigation data disclosure.

  3. Kath Weston permalink

    An important move, to study the “accident” investigation and the way that its findings circulate rather than simply the accident itself. I especially appreciate your attention to the executive summary, since that is the only document that many journalists and policymakers read. (In the climate change debates over the IPCC report, the matter of whether errors appeared in the exec summary or the full report was at the heart of the controversy.) I wonder if it is possible to distinguish so clearly between the emotional and rational implications of the reports-on-reports. For example, emotional appeals sometimes help gain funding for careful scientific investigation, and emotional language can draw attention to a topic in order to get people to think about it. That much said, the discussion of blaming narrative and responsible actors is quite intriguing. It seems crucial to consider whether such emotional appeals keep the conversation “contained” on moral ground. (Even in the U.S., Arnie Gundersen at Fairewinds has played with the “Made in Japan” conclusion by calling the accident “Made in America,” with reference to the American design of the reactors.) One small point: Is “man-made” in these reports a translation of 人工? If that is so, I wonder if there is a gender-neutral phrase that could be used in English for the analytic discussion, since the Japanese itself is gender neutral? “Manufactured,” “of human origin,” something like that? Of course, it is the phrase “man-made” that gets picked up globally in English language media, so that would have to stay, but the gendering introduced by translation might be worth marking.

    • Bill Kinsella permalink

      For a gender-neutral term, maybe “anthropogenic,” as in climate change? There may be a whole class of sociotechnical disasters that fit this descriptor.

      • Kohta Juraku permalink

        Kath, thanks for your note. I agree that the critical point is not whether the narrative is emotional or not, but “whether such emotional appeals keep the conversation “contained” on moral ground.” That’s is so helpful clarification for my argument.

        Regarding the translation of “manmade,” I think it should be appropriate to translate the word “manmade disaster” to “人災.” “人工” usually translate to “artificial” in English. “人工” imply the existence of intention of human, but “人災” means just “manmade” regardless of the existence of human intention. As you point out the character “人” is gender neutral; it should be translated to “human,” not “man,” though still majority of Japanese native are not so gender bias conscious (and I think Dr. Kurokawa is also not so conscious about of such nuance). And Bill, thanks for your complemental comment!

    • Hi Kath,

      Two thoughts on your post: The first is that Scott Knowles is among those who does a scholarly study of accident investiations, so his insights here may be helpful. His entry of course follows.

      Also I think “natural” vs “anthropogenic” is generally what we use, isn’t it? Doesn’t communicate as well with a popular audience, however. But “human-made” I guess is the closest that we can get.

  4. Jen Schneider permalink

    I also applaud the choice of study here, and the interrogation of the way the reports frame the disaster. I too am interested in the notion of blame, and wonder if that could be a way to focus the paper moving forward. How is responsibility constructed, and by whom, and to what end? With an accident as complex as this one, such a project (placing blame) becomes practically (pragmatically) impossible, and so blaming becomes almost more of a ritual than anything. Yet in the service of what? Perhaps thinking more broadly about the purposes of such reports, as Scott suggests, would be useful.

    • Kohta Juraku permalink

      Jen, I totally agree with your perspectives. You describe my motive of this study well! I am also curious about the “real” purpose of accident investigation for Japanese society, not just “it is common worldwide” or “Western countries have this tradition” and so on.

      The conflicts between criminal prosecution and accident investigation have been longstanding controversy in transportation field (aviation and railway, in particular) in Japan, but few people had cared about it when the investigation committees had been established. The reason of this unnoticed contradiction would also be a hint to think about this issue, I think.

  5. Daniel Aldrich permalink

    I found this an interesting look into the official investigation reports on the 3/11 nuclear disaster. I would very much like to see more in the comparative vein – that is, a side-by-side comparison of past accident investigations (such as Three Mile Island, the Challenger disaster, and so on) to better see how the authors in Japan borrowed and/or departed from these past studies.

  6. Scott Knowles permalink

    Fantastic paper Kohta, incredibly rich material. I was also very struck by Kurokawa’s “self-Orientalism.” It’s an interesting way to approach this topic–taking it out of the technocratic mode and putting it right into the middle of the messy world of culture. When I read his statement I wondered if rather than dismissing it outright, we might think about what it reveals about him, and about the purposes of the investigation at a cultural level? As you point out, reaching definitive evidence for criminal prosecution hasn’t been possible–so we find a broader socio-cultural prosecution–the supposed “crime” is Japanese cultural acceptance of authority. How has this resonated in japan, if at all? I know it made major news outside Japan (as you cite).

    I can’t help but compare this to Hurricane Katrina, and the investigation that found a failure of “initiative” at the heart of the failure of the levee system. It was a way of blaming all government for very specific lapses of oversight–this is not out of step in the US today, a broad, overarching critique of government as the enemy no matter what.

  7. Laura Beltz Imaoka permalink

    I was particularly interested in your discussion of the international journalists’ reaction to Chairman Kurokawa’s “Made in Japan” theory, specifically the rejection of it by Bloomberg and The Financial Times as being obscurantism of the investigation. You note that cultural essentialism, in this case “self-orientalism,” is a convincing and popular means to fit into domestic common sense and a mental mechanism to relay messages internationally. I did notice that at the same time international journalists were indeed “orientalizing” the disaster in certain representations (such as comments on the Japanese group mentality in their orderly response to the disaster), perhaps providing a similar social function for local understanding. It would be interesting to follow this narrative in other international news sources, and whether the self-orientalism was also unquestioningly accepted by some of them.

    • Bill Kinsella permalink

      Literary critic Kenneth Burke has a lot to say about how transgressions are manged through two kinds or narratives. One is scapegoating, where the blame is fixed on an external party. The other is mortification, in which blame is fixed on oneself. There seems to be a negotiation between these two modes of repair at play in the discourses Khota has examined.

  8. Monamie Bhadra permalink

    Thanks for this rich and insightful paper! In comparative STS work on national regulatory institutions, many of the divergences seen between how nations apprehend, debate, and decide on particular sociotechnological trajectories, is often attributed to how culture and history influences epistemic choices. So, at first blush, the fact that Made in Japan was such a powerful metaphor that resonated with the wider Japanese public, as well as some in the international community, makes sense. But what I really like about this paper is that itchallenges the easy, over-generalizing cultural assumptions, and implicitly does not let technology off the hook. At the same time, it would be interesting to analyze what role culture does play, and comparative work would help here, like Daniel mentions. The idea of self-orientalism certainly resonates with what is going in the anti-nuclear protests in India. Activists claim that in a country like India, so animated by the concept of “jugaad” ( which is this idea of last-minute, creative technogical bricolage and making do,even with high risks) nuclear reactors are bound to have accidents, because the nuclear establishment and the workers in plants are just too lazy, arrogant, and not well trained enough to contain a disaster.If that isn’t self-orientalism, I don’t know what is!

  9. Bill Kinsella permalink

    Khota, thank you for this astute and provocative analysis. So much to comment on, but I’ll try to choose just a few points that intrigued me.

    * A general critique of “systems” is that they have an immense capacity to absorb critique. In this case, there is a genre of investigative reports that sociotechnical systems can turn to when things go badly. To the examples mentioned by you and others I’d add the US Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. Wherever the root causes, blame, shaming (see Jen’s paper), or other aspects are placed, the ritual provides (at least partial) closure so the system can keep on keeping on.

    * Karl Weick uses the term “retrospective sensemaking” to describe the kind of activity you’re examining, and writes about processes of “enactment” (identifying particular aspects of a case), “selection” (focusing on some of those aspects), and “retention” (maintaining conclusions reached, in institutional memory). This framework could be useful for further analysis of the Fukushima case and for cross-case comparisons.

    * Kath mentioned Gunderson’s “made in America” alternative to “made in Japan.” I’d say there’s more than just the fact that the reactors are GE products — there was also the entire “Atoms for Peace” campaign that sought to bring nuclear power to nations across the globe. That program had at least three effects: legitimated or rehabilitated nuclear energy by obscuring its military roots, established a global market for US nuclear products, and of course. forged international connections and positioned the US strategically versus the USSR in the Cold War context.

    * So “made in global, political-economic technoscientific society and culture” may be a more accurate (albeit really cumbersome) term.

    * Final point for now — it always troubles me that these things are called “accidents.” Perrow tried to address this issue by calling them “normal accidents,” but for me that still doesn’t do it. Linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf famously wrote about how when workers referred to “empty gasoline drums” they were actually referring to drums that still contained gasoline vapor — an even more combustible and hazardous material than liquid gasoline. The point is that words frame our expectations, memories, and choices. When writing or talking about Fukushima I try to avoid the term “accident” — I prefer “disaster” or “failure,” or even the more neutral “event.” “Accident” seems to let actants, whether they be operators, regulators, designers, policy makers, or technologies themselves, off the hook too easily.

  10. The issue of specifically Japanese cultural elements in the creation and response to the nuclear dimension of 3-11 is particularly important.

    First, both external pre-dispositions (“I need a quick understanding of Japan”) and internal pre-dispositions (1868, “We need to think of Japan as one people to be strong and resist Western territorial threats;” post-war, especially, “What makes Japanese unique?”) lead to gross culturalist oversimplifications that reinforce each other: Japanese are homogeneous (external, primarily) and “we Japanese” (internal, often in the education system, pre-collegiate); Japanese are “group-oriented” (with the presumption of denial of individuality), just to note quickly some examples.

    The nature of official record-keeping and documentation generally also reinforces some of these stereotypes, e.g., the failure of reports on Fukushima to identify individual responsibility is part of a broader pattern in which documents speak “corporately,” reinforce a sense of “groupism,” and mask decision-making dynamics Going back to the 17th century and earlier, official documents announce final decisions without recording deliberative processes. Clearly there were discussions and disputes, but those are not for public consumption and we are therefore denied the opportunity to see how individual and bureaucratic internal politics created splits, what interests were encompassed within particular positions, and how resolutions were reached.

    Often, in my experience with Japanese groups, mostly professional conferences, public criticisms and comments will be very muted, but in private conversations, e.g., after an academic presentation at a conference, during the “wet” hours of schmoozing, people can be quite open in expressing their concerns. Especially in American contexts which emphasize “open access” and “sunshine” provisions, leaving criticism to the private realm may seem untoward, and I sense that this is also increasingly the case in Japan, but as scholars we should bear in mind that there are alternative ways for people to act and still accomplish the critical work that is required. (I might also note that despite American “frankness” and “individual responsibility” we still have very few people singled out as responsible for the financial collapse from which we are now recovering.)

    Second, my own observations of people in Japan suggests that people can be extraordinarily bull-headed, and even absent that, people maintain a strong sense of individuality and self-worth. “Groupism” does not, as many Americans presume, subsume a strong sense of individuality and independent self-worth. This may be operationalized differently in the US (former Chrysler Chair, Lee Iacocca, was never shy about his accomplishments) than in Japan (Sony’s late founder and Chair, Akio Morita, always introduced himself as “just an ordinary businessman”), but both society’s have ways to recognize individual input and accomplishment.

    To me, this suggests that we need to re-frame our questions about the relationship between individual and group in Japan: under what circumstances are individuals likely to speak out in unusual ways (group pressure to conform is always present to some degree in any society) ways, especially in relationship to issues of risk and safety? Is there a difference in the way that divergent opinions regarding risk and safety get handled by those involved in nuclear power plant siting and development as opposed to Toyota’s quality control circles?

    Third, and a question, just how much expertise do government bureaucrats have that they can bring to bear on evaluating and checking on experts from the nuclear power industry? My sense is that government agencies have limited numbers of people with appropriate training in physics and other relevant subjects, and that many in the regulatory arm are more likely to be administrative and legal experts with limited understanding of the technical issues presented by nuclear power, flood engineering, and other technical fields. Certainly this kind of issue was prominent in the field of banking as Japan faced its own bad debt issues in the mid-1990s.

  11. Tamiyo Kondo permalink

    I think the research question, the author set, is really important to pursue
    the problem structure of attitude to learn from disaster experience in Japanese society.
    I have one question.
    Is there any similarities between Japanese commissions for natural and non-natural disaster in terms of their
    attitude,analysis and explaination for the lesson learnt by disaster?
    After 3.11, Japanese government set “Central Disaster Management Council
    – Committee for Policy Planning on Disaster Management ”
    What is similarities and difference between investigation commissions for Fukushima Nuclear accident and
    Committee for Policy Planning on Disaster Management?

  12. Ryuma Shineha permalink

    Thanks for your interesting paper, Juraku-san. And I would like to suggest and share two questions for thinking about the Diet Commission issue.

    First related to self-orientalism. Is there similar tendencies in other scientific committees or other cases? Are there any self-orientalism like explanation can be seen in other context such as policy-making, academic discussion, and so on? So I wonder if why some people tried to explain social phenomenon by self-orientalism like direction.

    Second is the structural treatment of the committee and chairman. If we hope to establish more consistent governance system on scientific committee (advisory board) which are not so influenced by the chairman’s personal character, what kind of architectures and norms is needed?

  13. Aya Okada permalink

    I really appreciated your perspective of understanding the Fukushima accident from how investigation reports (or more so the authors of these reports) contributed in framing how the Japanese public as well as the media interpreted, understood, and made sense (thank you Bill for bringing in Karl Weick, I agree that it’s an appropriate framework to bring in) of the incident. Would I be overstating to say that such framing had an effect on how policymakers think? Following the post-Fukushima policy debates from such understanding would be an interesting research agenda.

  14. Reiko Hasegawa permalink

    An extremely interesting and insightful analysis of the post-accident investigation report. As rightly mentioned by Kohta, the ‘Made in Japan’ aspect of the conclusion was widely reported in Europe. In my opinion, it helped some European countries with nuclear energy to reassure their populations on the safety of their installations, by saying that ‘The Fukushima accident occurred not only due to an extra-ordinary natural phenomenon, the tsunami, but also because of the Japanese specific culture – thus it would be difficult to have an similar accident on our soil’. What I have been hearing in France after the accident, especially from nuclear industry and authorities, is that such a tsunami would never hit France, that the French nuclear reactors have different designs than the one installed in Fukushima, and that they are under control. It is interesting to see that the reactions of these countries after the Chernobyl accident are replicated after the Fukushima disaster, though they are in a slight different form. The concluding remark such as ‘Made in Japan’ by Mr Kurokawa does not help indeed the real lesson learning process.

    The interesting point about self-orientalism. I often notice this trend among the immediate post-war generation in Japan. Is it a generational issue?

  15. Karena Kalmbach permalink

    Just a little follow-up-comment to the earlier calls for applying a comparative perspective. In this regard, I think it could be particularly fruitful to compare the Diet Commission report and its explanatory concepts to the Soviet post-Chernobyl report and the ways in which blame was officially attributed in this case.

  16. Hi Everyone,

    So these commentaries have been truly fantastic, and I hope a valuable permanent record of conversations not only for the author but the larger disaster studies community. (I’m also just now getting around to posting comments, given the beind-the-scenes logistical work for the workshop; everyone, please relay your thanks to Diana at the CHSTM when you see her!)

    So regarding your paper, Kohta, I too appreciated the detailed empirical grounding here.

    For me, one of the interesting points that this article raised, along with others (and especially Murillo and Schneider) was the matter of how objectivity is structured/constructed in each instance. Schneider, through the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Murillo through the Tokyo Hacker Space, document the different ways in which technical-objective discourse is intentionaly cordoned off, even as the discourse spilled over into a policy/nomative space in specifically describable ways. The Kurokawa report seems interesting, as you point out (and several people above emphasized), because the boundary in this instance seems to be between the body of the report and the cover letter as produced by the chair of the committee (with Western audiences in mind). The issue in each case is not whether a report (or data, or blog posts are objective, but rather how objectivity is mobilized to support normative claims–and what those normative claims and objectives are at their foundation.

    This relates to the self-orientalizing phenoenon that your describe. On the one hand, this kind of self-blame seems to play to a longstanding tradition among Japanese institutions to hold a person-in-charge accountable for any major disaster or “scandal.” This perhaps indicates a society that chooses to considerable trust in the state and in bureauratic organizations (if forced, in the sense of “shikata-ga-nai”), where a ritualized tradition of publish shaming remains one of the few vehicles for holding institutions accountable to the public interest (and ultimately justifies the trust). This is not to say that there everyone agrees to this practice, but the practice nevertheless helps to maintain a certain kind of social order despite internal differences within the public sphere.

    But it also occurred to me that Kurokawa’s presentation of the “Made-in-Japan” thesis specificaly to an external/foreign audience shoud be understood in terms of the hermeneutic loop associated with the long history of this particular phrase. After all, in this act of (self?)-orientalization, Kurokawa is appropriating a phrase developed by US pundits who were both critical and lauditory of Japan’s economic “success” during the 1980s (and an older dialogue related to quality control preceding that), and involves a whole history of trade relations and international politics going back to the Japanese government’s evolving relationship with the United States. These are perhaps old habits embodied by the generation represented by Kurokawa and his colleagues, but perhaps its no accident that the phrase functions as a public apology amids international interest in an Nuclear renaissance. Perhaps it also functions as an assertion of Japan’s autonomy in asserting that this is an internal matter/disaster that they need to attend to themselves.

  17. Juraku-san, this is a fascinating comparative analysis of “official” investigative reports, which raises a number of important issues about culture, politics, responsibility, and knowledge.

    I agree with Bill’s flagging of the word “accident,” because it does presuppose certain assumptions about an event being anthropogenic, divorced from nature, exceptional, and, in principle, preventable. Indeed, the mea culpa of declaring the disaster “man-made” or even “made in Japan” implies a certain measure of control over the safety of nuclear power. Paradoxically, such a conclusion could be used to support government and nuclear industry claims that nuclear risk is manageable, and that disasters can be averted provided that proper measures are implemented.

    One thing that I only occasionally hear talked about in the context of Fukushima is the case of the the nuclear reactor in Onagawa, which apparently is elevated just enough (14 meters) that it just barely escaped any serious damage. Was its siting and elevation due to the foresight of design engineers, or perhaps the wisdom of multi-stakeholder deliberations? Although I have read accounts to this effect in the media, the stories that I have heard “on the ground” suggest that it was only located on that site because a few relatively stubborn local landowners had successfully resisted Tohoku Electric’s original plans to locate it elsewhere, at sea level. This is just hearsay, and I don’t know what actually happened, but I wonder whether Onagawa might be worth investigating and discussing, as a counterpoint to Fukushima.

    Like Atsushi, I interpreted the “made in Japan” comments written in English for foreign audiences to be part of the tradition of saving face and reestablishing trust by expressing in-group responsibility for a failure when communicating with members of out-groups. Reiko’s note about how this was used to reassure Europeans about the safety of their own reactors is interesting, as I recall seeing a number of comments in American media along the lines of, “if even the *Japanese* can’t keep their nuclear reactors safe, what chances do *we* have?” Obviously playing upon standard portrayals of Japanese people as impeccably detailed-oriented masters of technological engineering, and so on (as well as playing on the increasingly popular sense among many Americans that the days of “can-do” American competence are long gone).

  18. Hi Juraku, thank you for this stimulating paper!

    I agree with you about the wrong effects of self-orientalism, and you could also develop that argument with the critical literature on “nihonjinron” 日本人論.

    Of course, scapegoating does not help to capture the structural and historical roots of the disaster.
    Regarding responsibility however, don’t you think that some actors do bear a heavier weight?
    I have in mind the criminal charges that have been launched by a large group of citizens from Fukushima prefecture against TEPCO and NISA executives as well as experts like Yamashita Sun’ichi. I think it raises interesting questions.
    This is of course a difficult question that might bring us back to former historical tragedies, for example the unachieved Trial of Tokyo after WW2, etc. From a philosophical point of view, we might learn from the work of Takahashi Tetsuya 高橋哲哉 on 戦後報償, Karl Jaspers and others.

    A little bit easier question: do you have any idea why Yoichi Funabashi was chosen for the so-called “Independent Commission”?
    A suggestion: he’s a figure of the “Media” = the mediator, the one in between various groups of interests.
    Kitazawa = Todai + JSPS, 2 symbols of God-Science (科学の神様). So logically, they should have taken someone from Yomiuri shinbun, number one newspaper. But despite resonant reports between the four big newspapers (as analyzed by Ryuma and Mikihito), Yomiuri has a heavy historical load with promoting the nuclear industry since the 1950s (and this was made popular by a series of articles in Asashi in August 2011).
    Is that consistent or do you see any more important reason?

    A little critic: your using the term “obscurantism” could drive you to look at actors from beyond, while I think STS’ strength is to follow how actors, whoever they are, saints or villains or the no-where man, build their argumentation.

    • 寿楽さん、すみません、英語なら、Hi Kohtaと書くはずでした。失礼しました。

    • Kohta Juraku permalink

      Paul, thanks for your insightful comments!

      I agree that the issue of responsibility is critically important. I wanted to raise here in this paper is that the investigation reports (at least the Diet’s one) could not play sufficient role to identify both of the locus of the responsibility and root cause of this accident in our society.

      Rather, the superficially strong “blame” by the report even have had an effect to diminish the efforts to figure out such important factors to recover social justice and to prevent another failure in society. This hypothesis should be verified by my further study with empirical evidences, but I have such impression on the consequences of post-Fukushima investigation in Japan and it’s the motive of this research project for me.

      Regarding the Funabashi’s position, I understand that he was not “chosen” as a chair of the independent committee, but he was the initiator of it. He should had his own interest (of course, the meaning of this word here is a little bit broader sense than usual). It’s quite obvious that Yomiuri has very particular relationship with nuclear utilization historically, as you pointed out, but Asahi do has own interest also, and it’s not just “the one in between various groups of interests.”

      Also, Kitazawa has been very critical against nuclear utilization and the mainstream of nuclear experts since the accident happened. His stance has been very consistent. I think his stance on nuclear is contrary to the Yomiuri’s one and even more critical than Funabashi and other his colleagues in the independent commission. So, it doesn’t seems to be so strange on Funabashi-Kitazawa combination at the independent commission.

      Finally, I don’t think that the positioning of mine appeared in the word “obscurantism” is inappropriate, though I am not sure whether it is appropriate or not as English translation of my thinking. Investigation commissions analyzed here have some “authority” in society, and they themselves “look at actors from beyond,” in my sense. Those are not the works by victimized people or ordinary citizen. They contextualize the things centering on the accident and give some “orthodox” understandings on the cause of the accident, though their conclusions are sometimes different in each commission. I never use such paternalistic wording against the actors who should be followed by us academic researchers, especially by STS’s ones in my paper. I challenge against the authoritative power of those reports in our society here.

      However, it doesn’t mean that I would persist to keep to use this word, because I am not so confident whether this word is appropriate to express my intention or not as English wording. I would like to have your and other colleagues advices in this regard.

      Thanks a lot!

  19. Kohta Juraku permalink

    Hi Everyone,

    Thanks for a lot of insightful and encouraging comments. I could not catch up with the rush of those replies, unfortunately. I am trying to respond the points you’ve raised now. I hope that I could leave responses for them before the meeting starts.

    I am looking forward to have discussions with you in person soon.

  20. Comments: Kohta Juraku, “Made in Japan”
    Juraku reviews the process of official investigation of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident. He examines specifically two criticisms: 1) that the accident was “manmade,” that is, it was the result of human error and could – and should – have been prevented; i.e. was the result of human negligence; and 2) that the accident was “Made in Japan,” that it was specifically the result of Japanese cultural characteristics; reluctance to question authority; insularity, reluctance to admit error.

    Juraku contrasts the official Japanese investigations with other investigations of major accidents, e.g. the federal investigations of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Accident and the Challenger explosion. While he cites these investigations as examples, he does not specifically identify the criteria for evaluating investigations, although he implies that the investigations should be scientific, free from bias, and constitute a systematic search into the causes of the accidents so that they provide opportunities for learning and create more informed practice that would not repeat the accidents.

    Juraku raises interesting questions in challenging the two main criticisms that resulted from the investigative reports, but I miss any clear assessment of the impact of the reports on policy. His assessment implies that the reports essentially are ignored….and are not likely to change policy. This would be a serious failing of the investigative process..

    • Kohta Juraku permalink

      Loise, Thanks for pointed out the week points of my paper – yes, I should add my own criteria clearly and assessment of impact of reports.

      I recognize the need of the later part and have a rough plan to pursue it, but I am wondering to set the first factor (criteria). If you let me say my intention with some excuse, I don’t think that “the investigations should be scientific, free from bias, and constitute a systematic search into the causes of the accidents” so naively.

      I wanted to ask here is, rather, that those beliefs are supposed to be shared by investigator themselves, but the narratives of the reports seem not to be so consistent with such ideas. More frankly speaking, I suspect that the purpose, mission, and goal of the “accident investigation” in Japan are not so clear than people assume.

      The idea, concept and practical way of “accident investigation” were not invented and developed in Japan, of course. It should have particular context in its origin and history of evolution (Comet crash, TMI, Challenger and so on). Whether have such backgrounds accepted and absorbed or not before and after Fukushima? It might be more fundamental question if we think about that.

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