Foreign Policy Blogs

Common sense may have averted crisis

Common sense may have averted crisis

TEPCO officials bow in apology.

An Associated Press investigation found that Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) officials ignored glaring scientific evidence regarding the risk of a major earthquake or tsunami in constructing the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

In assessing the risk of a tsunami striking the Fukushima reactor, TEPCO officials did not account for a wave larger than 18 feet resulting from a magnitude 8.6 quake hitting the plant. Therefore it is no surprise that TEPCO was unprepared for the 46-foot wave that hit Fukushima as a result of Mar. 11’s 9.0-magnitude quake. In postulating the largest disaster the plant might face, TEPCO officials disregarded records older than 1896, disputing the validity of older records.

However, scientific analysis of sediment layers had uncovered evidence of tsunamis on the scale of the Mar. 11 wave going back as far as 3000 years. Major tsunamis had hit the region twice. Once between 910 B.C. and 670 B.C., and the other between 140 B.C. and A.D. 150.  The recurrence interval between large tsunamis was 800 to 1100 years. Given that more than 1100 years had passed since the last major tsunami, the region was over-due for the disaster, something TEPCO officials should have taken into account when building the plant.

While one might say hindsight is 20/20, a comparison to American risk-assessment methods could provide a useful yardstick.

In assessing potential threats to nuclear power plants in the U.S., officials take worst-case scenarios into account. Japanese officials, on the other hand, only take into account what has happened in the past in assessing risk. This is especially fruitless when they disregard evidence older than 115 years for geological processes that often occur over thousands of years.

TEPCO’s botched response to the disaster also illustrates how unprepared they were. TEPCO officials mistook isotopes, misread machines and reported radiation levels 100 times higher than actual, inducing panic, and sent workers into the site without proper gear, causing employees to end up in the hospital.

TEPCO officials have been apologizing repeatedly while only giving random, piecemeal updates that conflict with Japan Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency’s reports, much to the frustration of the Japanese government and public.

Japanese officials’ inability to asses risk for worst-case scenarios may stem from the Japanese school system’s emphasis on rote memorization and underemphasis on creativity and critical thinking. The Japanese government recognized the people’s inability to think critically and attempted to adjust for this shortcoming by introducing a more creative curriculum into schools. This included more critical thinking exercises in classes, coupled with a less-demanding schedule. They also imported foreign teachers through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. However, this creative curriculum was always seen as a bit of an odd experiment, which parents didn’t trust. Now that Japanese standardized tests scores are plummeting, the government seems eager to fall back on the old tried-and-true method of rote memorization.

This is not to say that there are no creative or brilliant Japanese people. Just not many of them choose to stay in Japan, where the punishment for taking a risk and failing far outweighs the rewards of conforming.

Apologizing in Japan is considered to be the ultimate humiliating experience. Once someone apologizes, they have become so humbled in the other’s eyes that further criticism would be akin to kicking someone while they’re down, even if the one apologizing hasn’t satisfactorily made amends for their wrongdoing. Also in Japan’s collectivist society, apologies from organizations like TEPCO tend to come from groups (see above photo), which spreads out the individual blame, thus making it less likely that any one person will be motivated enough to examine their own role in the mistake.

Given the impropriety in Japanese society of analyzing another’s mistake after receiving an apology and the fact that no individual will have to take all the blame, I doubt TEPCO will learn from this experience.



Dustin Dye

Dustin Dye is the author of the YAKUZA DYNASTY series, available through the Amazon Kindle.

He lived in Okayama, Japan, where he taught English at a junior high school through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program for three years. He is a graduate from the University of Kansas, where he received a bachelor's degree in anthropology.

His interest in Japan began in elementary school after seeing Godzilla fight Ghidorah, the three-headed monster. But it wasn't until he discovered Akira Kurosawa's films through their spaghetti Western remakes that he truly became fascinated in the people and culture of Japan.

He lives in Kansas with his wife, daughter and guinea pig.

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E-mail him: [email protected]