Fukushima disaster due to Japan’s culture? Ruth Benedict would have said so

By Daniele Pestilli on July 13, 2012
Date Masamune, a feudal lord from Sendai, near Fukushima. Image credits: jpellgen (CC)

An article published on July 12th in the Japanese daily, Asahi Shinbun, entitled “Nuclear power plant incident - a cultural fault? Government report faces criticism from abroad” explains that the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission released an English report this month regarding the failings of TEPCO, the power company that ran the Fukushima plant. The 641-page paper’s conclusion: “This was a disaster 'Made in Japan.'“ Fault lies on “Japan’s customs and culture.”

After 900 hours of hearings and 1,167 interviews, the Commission deemed the disaster’s “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.”

Asahi news quotes Gerald Curtis, professor of Political Science at Columbia University and visiting professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University, who contributes to the opinion page of the Financial Times: “To pin the blame on culture is the ultimate cop-out. If culture explains behavior, then no one has to take responsibility. This is indeed what the report concludes when it says that the results would have been the same even with others in charge.”

Prof. Curtis' argument is that someone is to blame, that someone must bear responsibility for the disaster. He claims culture should not be used as a justification to avoid blame. Yet this makes one wonder whether the professor’s words themselves are influenced by his own culture: eagerness to seek a culprit, and the possibility of succeeding in such an endeavor, requires a society of equals. It requires a culture where the person at the bottom can admonish the person at the top without suffering harsh consequences. It requires a society that allows a superior to lose face. Moreover, it requires equality and liberty of judgement and speech – a very Western ideal.

But as the mythical Japanese tale of the 47 masterless Samurai suggests, letting one's leader save face is of paramount importance in Japanese culture. According to legend, these vagrant samurai went as far as murdering a man and committing ritual suicide thereafter, all in the name of their master's honor. Preserving his status was more important to them than life itself. In such a social framework, it is not hard to see why blaming culture is indeed preferable to blaming one's superiors.

Essentialy, in a society where “common people who behaved unbecomingly to the samurai or who [did] not show respect to their superiors may be cut down on the spot,” as Ruth Benedict observed about the Tokugawa period, copping-out is an understandable solution. It is a solution, as it were, that is 'Made in Japan.'

The Book of Ruth

In June 1944, a year before the end of World War II, American anthropologist and cultural relativist Ruth Benedict was commissioned by the U.S. government to write an analysis of the Japanese, a “remote and largely unknown people” as Ian Buruma remarks in the foreword to Benedict’s book.

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, as the volume came to be known, is so-called to denote the duality of the East Asian country, both aggressive and passive, both rigid”Ruth and pliable. As the author articulates, “When [one] writes a book on a nation with a popular cult of aestheticism which gives high honor to actors and to artists and lavishes art upon the cultivation of chrysanthemums, that book does not ordinarily have to be supplemented by another which is devoted to the cult of the sword and the top prestige of the warrior.”

Ruth Benedict’s research was not a critique of Japanese society, but an attempt to construct a framework of cultural understanding by which Americans could decipher Japanese conduct and thought, and decide a course of action based on such a blueprint. It was seminal works like hers that fashioned the American understanding of Japaneseness following World War II. In fact, many of her observations seem to also hold true today.

One of the questions the article in Asahi news implicitly raises is, do the Japanese truly avoid liability? Was action postponed and unresponsive because it is embedded in the Japanese culture to do so?

An entire chapter of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword is dedicated to this very phenomenon. Ruth Benedict writes:

Any attempt to understand the Japanese must begin with their version of what it means to ‘take one’s proper station.’ … Their international documents have constantly stated the weight they attach to it. The preamble to the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy which Japan signed in 1940 reads: ‘The Governments of Japan, Germany and Italy consider it as the condition precedent to any lasting peace that all nations of the world be given each its proper station...’

The Imperial Rescript given on the signing of the Pact reiterated, “The task of enabling each nation to find its proper place and all individuals to live in peace and security is of the greatest magnitude.”

The American anthropologist observed, “Every Japanese learns the habit of hierarchy first in the bosom of his family and what he learns there he applies in wider fields of economic life and of government. He learns that a person gives all deference to those who outrank him in assigned ‘proper place,’ no matter whether or not they are the really dominant persons in the group.”

In fact, the Investigation Commission’s English report pointed out that the Japanese executive machinery became paralyzed by Japan's hierarchical structure, not allowing subordinates to work freely with their superiors, let alone take immediate action.

Benedict continues,

There is a popular riddle in Japan which might be translated into our conundrum form: ‘Why is a son who wants to offer advice to his parents like a Buddhist priest who wants to have hair on top of his head?’ (Buddhist priests had a tonsure.) The answer is, ‘However much he wants to do it, he can’t.’

This riddle offers an answer to Professor Curtis' skepticism.

However much a culprit may want to be sought out for the Fukushima disaster, this cannot be done. Shouldering the burden in favor of the country's leaders is the Japanese way.

Eyes of the world

Asahi's article placed emphasis on what foreigners thought of Japan, citing the reactions of “British and U.S. media.” The title of the article itself highlights this insecurity.

Sensitivity to foreign judgement was explained to be a cultural feature by Ruth Benedict: “they continually spoke of how ‘the eyes of the world were upon them.’ … It mattered what account they gave of themselves to the world. And their concern with this point also was a concern deeply embedded in Japanese culture.”

Asahi’s article quotes the Commission's report regarding Japan’s “deficiency in preparation for the worst case scenario.” Again, Benedict captured this cultural aspect: she explains that a similar unpreparedness manifested itself with Japan’s imperial army. “Unlike Western soldiers, these prisoners had not been instructed about what to say and what to keep silent about when captured and their responses on all subjects were strikingly unregimented. This failure to indoctrinate was of course due to Japan’s no-surrender policy. It was not reminded until the last months of the war, and even then only in certain armies or local units.”

The eyes of the world were upon them. What would foreigners think of Japan's leaders if they had surrendered?

Supporting this insight was Italian anthropologist and writer, Fosco Maraini – who had not only lived in Japan, but had also been held in a Japanese concentration camp during the war. He wrote:

[During the War] the populace suffered untellable atrocities for the lack of conscience of its government. Unwilling to admit that the war was going awry, that the enemy advanced, with the excuse that the people should not be uselessly alarmed, families were evacuated with extreme sluggishness. Only after the infernal night of March 10 were evacuation measures taken. But how many innocent people, how many children, how many poor old men and women died carbonized, squashed, torn, fried, boiled, tortured in the most atrocious manners, uselessly?

The choice of how to react was in the hands of the ruling authorities. Yet in Japanese culture, life manifests itself at its best through self-discipline (shūyō) and self-sacrifice (jiko-gisei), even when that sacrifice is a human life. Creating the illusion of order and control through severe hardships to save face has never been uncommon in Japan. It is what Ruth Benedict refers to as giri: maintaining one's reputation by showing stoicism in pain.

Fukushima’s slow evacuation, in fact, followed an uncannily similar pattern.

If you were Japanese, you would understand

“Imagine, for a moment,” an article on ForeignPolicy.com beckons its readers, “that 9/11 Commission Report Chairman Thomas Kean had begun his group's historic 2004 report by blaming the country’s inability to prevent the attack on the ‘ingrained conventions of American culture.’”

Not only is such a scenario quixotic, it is almost a cultural impossibility.

Prof. Curtis’ view is that culture does not explain Fukushima because people have autonomy to choose.

Yet many of those small, everyday choices we all make are heavily influenced by our culture: our expressions, our etiquette, our wording, our gestures and our reactions.

What must be understood is whether blaming Japanese culture is itself a cultural choice, whether slow decision-making is characteristic of the Japanese, whether this inefficiency should be addressed and improved, whether people should be taught to swiftly take action rather than be paralyzed by an invisible hierarchy of superiors. What is under scrutiny is whether Japan conceals sensitive information of imminent catastrophes to save face and preserve a facade of order. Because in the end, it is only by knowing where a problem lies that a solution may be sought.


In its conclusion, Asahi news punctiliously underlines: “The majority of these troubling statements are included in the English version of the report by Chairman Kiyoshi Kurokawa, but are omitted from the Japanese version. After the official announcement interview, doubtful voices arose asking ‘why are the Japanese and English versions different?’”

When reporters inquired about the reasons for the differences between the two documents during a news conference, Mr. Kurokawa replied, “If you are Japanese, you would understand by reading the original version.”

Paradoxically, this very sentence is omitted in Asahi news’s Japanese paper – only appearing in the English version.