Culturalism: Fukushima Edition

The Korean has long been an advocate against culturalism -- the instinctive response to blame culture to explain any and all behavior. In today's Financial Times, an excellent op-ed by Prof. Gerald Curtis shows the falsehood of culturalism in the context of Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster:
[T]he commission concludes, “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 programme’; 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.”

I beg to differ. Had [Prime Minister] Kan not stormed into Tepco headquarters and tried to exercise some authority over the company’s executives, the situation might have been far worse. . . . People matter: one of the heroes in the Fukushima story was Tepco’s Masao Yoshida, the plant manager who disobeyed orders not to use saltwater to cool the reactors.

. . .

Those inside the Japanese nuclear village do share a particular culture but it is hardly uniquely Japanese. What jumps out from this report are the parallels between the manmade causes of and responses to Fukushima and the “culture” that led to the financial meltdown in the US after the Lehman Brothers collapse and that continues to resist meaningful reform and the pinning of responsibility for this manmade disaster on specific individuals.

The Fukushima Commission report “found an organisation-driven mind-set that prioritised benefits to the organisation at the expense of the public.” Well, if that is Japanese culture, then we are all Japanese.
Stop blaming Fukushima on Japan’s culture [Financial Times]

Here is one additional wrinkle about culturalism with respect to the Fukushima disaster:  beware of self-stereotypes. It is notable that in this particular example of culturalism, it was the Japanese government's official report that engaged in a culturalist self-critique. But that does not make the culturalist explanation any truer. If nothing else, we should be even more skeptical of the self-caricaturing of one's own culture, if only because of our tendency to place too much confidence on such caricatures.

Regardless of the report's ultimate conclusion about Japan's culture, the content of the report states the opposite. Masao Yoshida, the heroic plant manager who defied the management's orders, was hardly the caricature of Japanese culture that the Fukushima Commission Report painted. In fact, the existence of the report itself goes against the culturalist explanation, as Prof. Curtis put it: "If obedience to authority is such an ingrained trait in Japan, how then is it possible for a group of Japanese to write a report that not only questions but lambasts authority, anything but an example of reflexive obedience?"

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