The great kabuki actor Mitsugoro Bando VIII was a fan of fugu, or blowfish. Fugu is a rather bland, unremarkable fish except for one thing: its internal organs, particularly the liver, are highly toxic. Japanese chefs have to acquire a special certificate to prove that they know how to remove all traces of toxin before preparing the dish. Nevertheless, a couple of people die every year from eating it, which gives the fish an exotic reputation. Diners enjoy the slight tingle that fugu sushi imparts to the tongue and lips. Bando, however, wasn't satisfied with this slight tingle. A daredevil eater, he relished bowls of soup made from fugu liver and in this way built up a certain resistance to the toxin. But on January 16, 1975, Bando ate not only one bowl of this liver soup for dinner but also the three bowls that his friend wisely declined. That night he suffered respiratory failure and died.
On the outside, Japan appears to be a clean, well-ordered place. The Japanese are, stereotypically, risk-averse. According to the Japanese adage, deru kugi wa utareru: the nail that sticks out will be hammered down. This apparent preference for order and conformity helps explain the patience with which the Japanese have responded to the triple disaster – earthquake, tsunami, and the partial meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear facility – that has afflicted the country. There's probably been more panic in California as people buy up potassium iodide pills out of fear of contracting thyroid cancer from radiation drifting over the Pacific.
Beneath this façade of conformity, however, lies a more interesting reality. Like Mitsugoro Bando VIII, the Japanese have become almost inured to calamity. They've accepted – and in some cases courted – extraordinarily risky behavior.
Consider Japan's dependence on nuclear energy. No other country in the world has had a direct experience of nuclear attack. And few other countries sit atop such seismically active tectonic plates. Yet, even as earthquakes repeatedly struck the island and hundreds of thousands of hibakusha struggled with the after-effects of radiation exposure from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, Japan embarked on a massive nuclear energy program. It built 54 nuclear reactors, which generated nearly 30 percent of its electricity needs. The government planned to increase the share provided by nuclear energy to 40 percent by 2017 and 50 percent by 2030.
The reasons for this dependency were clear. Japan built a world-class economy, with huge manufacturing capacity, on an island with few natural resources and almost no indigenous supplies of energy. The country was heavily dependent on oil and natural gas imports. More recently, the government rationalized the expansion of the nuclear industry by claiming that it would reduce the country's carbon footprint. Japanese leaders consistently sold nuclear power as a safe alternative to fossil fuels.
But nuclear power was only as safe as the government claimed because the country's leading electrical utilities were lying all along. In 2002, Tokyo Electric admitted to falsifying repair reports at its nuclear facilities for two decades. Then, in 2007, it confessed again that it continued to conceal what had been going on, including six emergency stoppages at the Dai-ichi nuclear power station in Fukushima and a seven-hour-long "critical" reaction at Unit 3, one of its six reactors.
In 1997 and 1999, accidents at the reprocessing plant at Tokaimura exposed dozens of workers to radiation. Two workers died after the 1999 incident. In 2004, at the Mihama nuclear plant, steam released from a broken pipe that hadn't been checked once during its 28 years of operation killed five workers.
But perhaps worst of all, the Japanese government knowingly constructed structurally inadequate nuclear facilities. The world's largest nuclear facility, the Kashiwazaki Kariwa, sits on a fault line that generates three times the seismic activity it can withstand. Dai-ichi could withstand only a 5.7-meter tsunami, not the 7-meter wave that eventually overwhelmed it. The regulators should have known how high earthquake-generated waves could rise at that stretch of coast. In other words, Japan's nuclear facilities have always been ticking time bombs.
Embracing nuclear power isn't Japan's only risky behavior. For years, the Japanese government has boasted of a "peace constitution" that restricts the country to a defense-only posture. But this constitution hasn't prevented Japan from amassing one of the world's most powerful militaries, confronting China and Korea over disputed islands, cooperating with the United States on a missile defense system that destabilizes the region, and playing host to dozens of U.S. military bases that endanger human lives and the surrounding environment. (Even now, in the middle of a huge humanitarian crisis, the Japanese government has been building a $600,000 wall in Okinawa near where the United States wants to construct a new military base over the objections of the locals. "The United States should get out of Okinawa and hand over all those big bases to the tsunami's survivors," one elderly resident told Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Jon Mitchell in Postcard from…Henoko. "They're the ones who really need housing right now.")
Then there's Japan's economic behavior. It's common to talk about how risk-averse Japanese citizens are by noting that they kept much of their savings in post office accounts that were secure but paid virtually no interest. The Japanese government, on the other hand, wasn't so careful. Twenty-five years ago, the Japanese government and financial sector anticipated the current economic crisis by creating a bubble economy marked by unbridled speculation, unparalleled greed, and unbelievable corruption. Financial deregulation led to skyrocketing land values: at one point the land occupied by the Imperial Palace in the middle of Tokyo was reportedly worth the entire country of France. Japan has never really recovered from the pricking of this speculative bubble.
Meanwhile, during the current humanitarian crisis, Tokyo has taken unacceptable risks with those most vulnerable to the effects of radiation, argues FPIF contributor Alexis Dudden. "The Japanese government, in its effort to reassure the population, has in fact placed more people at greater risk, particularly children," she writes in Little Silver Riding Hoods. "In an era when Japan's greatest challenge is its declining population, the government should go to greater lengths to safeguard this future."
Is there somehow a contradiction between the stereotypical conformity of the average Japanese and this tendency to court disaster in the economic, military, energy, and humanitarian sectors?
When I lived in Japan in the late 1990s, it wasn't uncommon late at night to come upon office workers passed out on the street, vomiting in alleyways, or being carried home by their equally inebriated colleagues. Excessive drinking after work was part of the salaryman culture. Indeed, it could be awkward for a businessman to demur from such rituals. When such behavior becomes the norm, then engaging in risky activities becomes just another way of conforming.
Of course, it's only a sector of Japanese society that drinks to excess. Just as it's only a sector of the society that constructs nuclear plants on active fault lines, builds up a powerful and potentially aggressive military machine in a region that is still deeply suspicious of how Japan uses its power, and deregulates the economy to create a kind of pachinko capitalism that rewards the few and impoverishes the many. In this sense, an oligarchy of gamblers holds sway over the majority of cautious Japanese.
This is no time to blame the victims. The earthquake and tsunami and nuclear meltdown were all tragic surprises. But thanks to risk-takers who have taken to nuclear energy and military weaponry much as Mitsugoro Bando VIII took to fugu, Japan has been on the edge for some time now.