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.
Gambling in Libya
And thanks to the air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces, the Libyan resistance movement has gained back most of the ground it lost in recent weeks. They’re even planning on resuming oil exports from the refineries and ports they control. But the gains are fragile, and the United States is considering sending arms to the rebels.
Disputes continue over the legitimacy of the multilateral effort to establish a no-fly zone. Bruce Ackerman asserts that President Obama has acted unconstitutionally. FPIF contributor Phyllis Bennis worries that the war will stretch into the indefinite future. “The UN itself acknowledged that this could be the beginning of a very long war,” she writes in Attack on Libya May Unleash a Long War. “The resolution asks the secretary-general to report on military developments in Libya ‘within seven days and every month thereafter.’ So much for ‘days, not weeks,'” as President Obama promised.
Other progressives have come out in favor of the intervention. Tom Matzzie, formerly of MoveOn, supported the U.S. policy in order to prevent Benghazi turning into “another Srebrenica,” the massacre site in Bosnia. Middle East analyst Juan Cole is “unabashedly cheering the liberation movement on.” The scrambling of the political spectrum has led Russ Wellen, our blogmeister at Focal Points, to conclude that the “extent to which Libya has rendered the concept of political correctness irrelevant on not only the left, but the right, is breathtaking.” I’ll devote a future issue of World Beat to this continuing debate over humanitarian intervention.
FPIF columnist Hannah Gurman, meanwhile, reports on migrant labor in Libya, an issue that the media has had difficulty getting a handle on.” Since the start of the fighting, close to 300,000 migrant workers have crossed from Libya into Tunisia and Egypt,” she writes in Migrant Workers in Libya. “Most are from poor countries that did not provide means for their citizens to return to their home countries. Most of the refugees arrived at the camps with little but the shirt on their backs, having been robbed by Libyan officials on their way out of the country.
The Virtues and Limits of Technology
The U.S. and European press has covered the attempts by repressive regimes in the Middle East to restrict Internet access and squelch popular uprisings. Less covered has been the involvement of U.S. and European firms in helping those governments do their dirty work.
“Cisco Systems, a leading manufacturer of Deep Packet Inspection systems, a content-filtering technology that allows network managers to inspect, track, and target content from users of the Internet and mobile phones, is a major partner in Bahrain,” write FPIF contributors Timothy Karr and Clothilde Le Coz in Corporations and the Arab Net Crackdown. “In 2009, the San Jose, California-based company joined with the kingdom to open an Internet Data Center in Bahrain’s capital ‘as an essential component in the drive to improve government services to the populace.'”
For young Palestinian photographers, on the other hand, technology has been liberating, thanks to the work of Zakira, a non-profit dedicated to civic photography: “Over the course of 18 months, between November 2006 and March 2008, Zakira members and volunteers worked in each of Lebanon’s dozen Palestinian refugee camps with 500 children aged five to 12, teaching them the basics of photography and equipping them with disposable cameras. The aim of the project was to give a voice to these children, to stimulate their creative imaginations and raise awareness of their plight.” To read more about this amazing initiative and see the results, check out The Refugee Child Photographers by FPIF contributor Noah Gimbel.
During the initial unfolding of the Libya intervention, Obama was in Latin America. The president was eager to emphasize that the Libya operation was not big enough to justify canceling his trip. But he should have used the trip to push the restart button on U.S.-Latin American relations. Instead, “what might have been a high-profile trip heralding a new U.S. partnership with Latin America based on equity and mutual interests turned out to confirm the same old top-down approach to north-south relations,” writes FPIF contributor Manuel Perez-Rocha in Obama in Latin America.
Finally, in our special focus on Islamophobia, former U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands Cynthia Schneider talks about her new job addressing stereotypes about Muslims in U.S. films and television. Here she talks about how the producer of the show 24, Howard Gordon, began to rethink the narrative trajectory of main character Jack Bauer.
Gordon “wanted to send Jack Bauer to Africa to help orphans,” Schneider recalls. “But in the end, he couldn’t do it. Bauer was rebelling. The character didn’t want to be in Africa helping orphans all season long. So Howard compromised. They did a two-hour prequel with Bauer in Africa, and then he comes back to the United States to face the music in the Senate about all the torture he did. Bauer then renounced torture for the rest of the series (with a relapse in the last two seasons). There’s a moment when Bauer almost dies, and the imam he was about to falsely arrest comes to give him a blessing. I think that’s a very significant moment.”
This is the ninth interview in FPIF’s special focus on Islamophobia. Earlier interviews were with John Esposito, Juan Cole, the Islamic Human Rights Commission, Phyllis Bennis, Arun Kundnani, Raed Jarrar and Niki Akhavan, Wajahat Ali, and Farid Panjwani.