|Kiyoshi Kurokawa chaired the official Japanese commission investigating the Fukushima disaster. |
His report asserts that the disaster was entirely man-made, a product of the rigidity of Japanese culture.
(photo source here)
Hierarchy, inequality, and discrimination is woven into the fabric of many Asian cultures. In East Asia the hierarchy is shaped by the legacy of Confucianism, which divides society into subordinate ranks based on age. Older people are assumed to always be wiser than younger people, and therefore more deserving of power. Wise male patriarchs sit at the top of the food chain.
Korea is sometimes described as the “most Confucian” of nations. Though that Confucian heritage has been contorted and emphasized in different ways in both North and South to suit the whims of rulers and corporate oligarchs.
I’ve written before about the rigid, hierarchical nature of Korean organizations. Younger people must always defer to their elders, and strive to exhibit the values of obedience, loyalty, and diligence. Following orders is usually valued much than producing good results, or questioning whether good decisions are being made at the top. This is why Korea’s economy grew so much so quickly. It’s also the reason that South Korea has the longest and least efficient workweek of any developed nation. Also, probably why the nation leads the world in things like undiagnosed depression.
The importance of subordination and hierarchy appear in almost every facet of Korean life. In schools younger students must subjugate themselves to superior status of older students. At work younger employees must acquiesce to the power of those with more seniority. I constantly see problems created by this extreme Confucianism-on-the-job mentality at my job writing EFL material in Seoul. The younger employees in my office speak much better English, because the schools have gotten better over the years. However, the older employees have all the power, expressed in a complex hierarchy of formal titles within the office. So they make all the decisions about what we will do, and how we will do it. Their decisions are often made emotionally and with little planning. Those venerated "seniors" make a lot of mistakes that no one can point out. Like not being able to recognize that a sentence in English cannot exist without a verb - an example I saw a few days ago. The resulting inefficiency and low quality is a constant source of frustration to the Westerners in my office.
Here’s a legendary story about the power of acquiescence and Confucianism in Korea. In the 90’s Korean Air was crashing more planes than any other airline on earth. It was really scaring the world. Canada told Korean Air they were considering revoking their landing privileges. The US military forbade enlisted personnel from flying on their planes. Most of the crashes were preventable. What was the problem? In a nutshell, the culture.
In a Korean workplace younger employees cannot question the decisions [read: authority] of their “seniors.” Therefore, Korean Air’s junior pilots were crashing knowingly to deaths - rather than do something taboo like telling the senior pilot they were fucking up. At the time Korean Air was mostly recruiting pilots who had military backgrounds, and the Korean military is even more hierarchical and rigid than most Korean employers (which have ample amounts of both).
Here’s what was happening, as explained by Comradde RisottoProffe:
“Analysis of cockpit voice recorder data from a number of Korean plane crashes revealed that the god-like status of captains and the relative subordination of their second officers frequently led to situations where the captain was fucking up, the second officer was clearly aware of the fuckup, but the second officer was either unwilling or unable to communicate to the captain the fact that he was fucking up.
In one horrifying case, the transcript reveals that just before their plane plowed into the side of a hill, the second officer was saying something to the captain like, “sometimes it is not so easy in bad weather at this airport to see the runway,” when it was clear that he knew they were headed for the hill and should have been shouting, “Dude! Pull up!!! We’re about to crash into the motherfucking hill!! PULL UP!!!”
I can totally imagine this happening. I see situations like this being played out constantly in Korea, especially at work.
Last year a massive earthquake struck Japan, and around 24 hours later the nuclear reactor at Fukushima suffered a meltdown, poisoning the air and water in much of the surrounding area, The event created a national crisis the likes of which Japan had not suffered for generations. It was scary enough to push much of the world away from nuclear power.
The official commission into the incident just released a report that claims the nuclear meltdown had much less to do with the inherent dangers of nuclear power than with the culture and psychology of the people running the plant:
“Its 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."
I’m pretty sure that most people living in Japan think the government has been lying through its teeth about the severity of the radiation leak ever since this story started. Just like how almost no Koreans in Seoul believe their metropolitan government when it insists that the tap water here is safe to drink.
The ever-thought-provoking You Offend Me, You Offend My Family blog discussed the book that first published the cultural explanation for the Korean Air disasters. And they said they thought it was rather biased and flawed.
Perhaps my understanding of East Asian cultural psychology is not as nuanced as the authors of Y.O.M.Y.O.M.F. I never claimed to be a dazzled admirer of Korea's stifling and highly inegalitarian ways of organizing human relationships. And, admittedly, I am writing this in part because working in a Korean company can be endlessly frustrating. I’ve never seen anything less efficient or effective in my life. We could run our office with half the staff - if we worked smarter instead of harder. But no one can criticize the management, or offer useful suggestions. To do so would be seen as incredibly disrespectful to authority, and somewhat immoral.
My understanding is that Japanese culture is the closest to Korea’s by far - and that Korea inherited much of its organizational culture from occupation by pre-WWII Japan. Based on this knowledge and my experiences working in Korea, I would totally believe the commission's accusations. How could people working at the Fukushima plant not know that a meltdown was imminent? How much money you wanna bet they were just scared to tell some grey-haired high muckety-muck that was supposed to be running the show? (Especially given that he probably got the job through powerful personal connections...)
Imagine a team of terrified Japanese nuclear engineers trying desperately, but totally ineffectively, to get the message across. “Uhhh...Excuse me, sir. If it’s not too much trouble...Sorry to disturb your nap...We think that possibly there could maybe be a chance that something could go wrong....like...ummm...perhaps with the reactor...and how radiation can sometimes be rather dangerous in certain situations...”
And then DOOOOOM!!!!!!!!
Can’t you picture all this? I certainly can.