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K.T. Hiraoka

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Containing Fukushima: Saving Japan from Itself (Part III)

Posted: 03/ 7/2012 3:27 pm

Earlier in this series, the discussion focused on how decision-making during the Fukushima crisis prioritized maintaining close "nakama" ties over doing what was in the public's best interest (parts I and II). In this segment, I take a deeper look at the how a lack of decisive leadership works to the detriment of Japanese society.

In conflict-avoidant Japan, achieving and sustaining smooth relations with inner circle players is a high priority. Strong ties foster loyalty and trust within and among groups which allows established processes and systems to continue uninhibited. If everyone is "on board" and no one rocks the boat, then those inside the system continue to benefit from the status quo. This can clearly be seen with top-level bureaucrats whose long-established ties to industry create industry-friendly policies that deepen relations and often result in jobs inside these institutions upon government retirement. A harmonious family is formed. This is known as "amakudari" or "descent from heaven". It is frowned upon in Japan but remains widely practiced.

While this may be not radically differ from nations or organizations in other parts of the world, how "the system" in Japan perpetuates itself communicatively is unique. It can be argued that harmonious relations act as a preventative agent to change in many places outside Japan, too. Yet to understand the power of harmony in Japan, one must observe how harmony is expressed in communicative terms.

Faced with contentious discussions where opposing views may lead to conflict, many Japanese will reply with "Sho ga nai" and "Gaman shiyoo" to deflect making a decision, thereby delaying an outcome. Sho ga nai means "It can't be helped" while Gaman shiyoo translates as "Let's grin and bear it." In other words, "Since it can't be helped, let's grin and bear it" or "Let's grin and bear it since it can't be helped." Sounds simple enough (and it is). Yet these two cultural phenomena feed off of one another and permit individuals inside a system to either not deal with a specific issue in a timely manner or, in some cases, pretend the problem does not exist altogether by not addressing it.

Sho ga nai and Gaman shiyoo permeate established systems and processes which have become institutionalized. This can be clearly seen when doing the right thing comes head-to-head with protecting individual and institutional relations. As a result, during a crisis in Japan, those willing to practice honest, transparent and timely leadership are sometimes hard to find.

We can see this when looking at progress based on decision-making to repair damaged areas from the March 11, 2011 earthquake so that people can return to their cities, towns and villages to regain a life of normalcy. The Red Cross of Japan just came out with a report claiming that "an entire year has been lost in rebuilding tsunami-ravaged areas of the country because the central government and local authorities had failed to agree on a "master plan."

I would wager that this is largely due to a lack of leadership, protecting one's turf, and avoiding change. Sho ga nai and Gaman shiyoo are in the mix, too.

The case involving TEPCO, its regulators, and policy-makers is another example. These players knew that the Daiichi nuclear facility was not only going to be built on an active earthquake fault, they also know that every 1,000 years or so a magnitude 9 earthquake could be anticipated.

And in the months leading to the March 11th quake, they had been warned of an impending disaster. Where was the decisive-leadership to do the right thing for the people of Japan?

Additionally, one might ask, "Does it make sense to build a nuclear plant here?" or "What are the consequences of a nuclear meltdown should back up cooling systems fail due to a huge tsunami?" or even "How smart is it to put backup electrical generation in the basement of the plant if a large tsunami inundated the plant?" When you live in a place where "a nail that sticks up gets hammered down" in order to not ruffle any feathers, doing the right thing becomes a challenge.

In a recently released report conducted by an independent task force, it was found that "in the darkest moments of the nuclear disaster, Japanese leaders did not know the actual extent of damage at the plant and secretly considered the possibility of evacuating Tokyo, even as they tried to play down the risks in public". The report describes how Japan's response was hindered at times by a debilitating breakdown in trust between nakama leaders.

My point is not that Japanese cultural traits should change or even that there is something inherently wrong with them. Indeed, Sho ga nai and Gaman shiyoo are as important a part of Japanese culture as group-orientation and collective decision-making. Rather, it is to say that rapid and effective decision-making will help Japan to maintain an upper edge not only during a crisis, but also in terms of competitiveness and innovation.

Japan is at a disadvantage when competing with nations and institutions that not only do things differently but more efficiently than many Japanese organizations do. Toyota and Sony, two bellwether companies, increasingly find it difficult to win and maintain market share. So it is not hard to imagine that Japan will continue to fall behind in its effort to sustain global competitiveness. Therefore, creating a decision-making system that promotes transparency, honesty, and one that is focused on what is best for the people of Japan should be the target.

Inklings of change are appearing. Japanese "activist investors" are increasingly standing up to demand transparency, the application of the law, and compensation for wrongdoing. Earlier this month, TEPCO investors launched an effort to recoup \5.5 trillion in loses from TEPCO management for failing to take adequate precautions in anticipation of a massive earthquake and tsunami. A similar effort has started in the infamous Olympus scandal in which top management hid massive loses for decades from investors. This is important for Japan's future. After all, who wants to work for a firm or policy-making entity that only does what is right for insiders?

Although it may be true that if something is not broken fixing it may not be necessary, the decision-making system in Japan would benefit from reform. Even so, needed change is not happening at a pace that will permit Japan to sustain itself in the future. Japan's historical dependence on outside pressure to institute change may ultimately allow Japanese to themselves stand up for doing what is in the best interests of the people of Japan. Yet as has been consistently proposed in this series, this is not happening sufficiently to guarantee Japan's future will be a prosperous one.

K. T. Hiraoka is a pseudonym for the writer whose name was changed to allow for honest and open expression in order to better decipher the puzzle surrounding decision-making related to the Fukushima disaster.