This past July, the Chair of the Diet’s Fukushima Accident Investigative Committee, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, said that the “ingrained conventions” of Japanese culture were at least partly to blame for the Fukushima accident. To be precise, his preface to the NAIIC report said, “One could say the true cause of the accident lurked in the ‘Mindset’ that has been developed within our Japanese social structure. It is time for us to face reality and adapt our way of thinking toward a new Japan, with humility, for the sake of our children who are tasked with creating the future.” Dr. Kurokawa was subsequently chastised in the popular Press, both inside and outside Japan, for his opinion. There is no doubt that the tsunami-spawned accident at F. Daiichi could have been avoided if the utility (Tepco) and the government watchdog (NISA) had implemented emergency power reliability upgrades strongly suggested by the international community more than a decade before 3/11/11. Both parties felt “rare-but-not-impossible” tsunamis were too unlikely to invest money into the upgrades. The Press focused on this conflict of interest almost exclusively, so when Kurokawa posted his stunning opinion in the NAIIC report’s preface, it was speculated that he may have been trying to deflect accident culpability away from those already condemned and blame Japan-itself for the accident.
This past week, another startling revelation has come to light which may show that Kurokawa was on to something profound. The Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office (CAO) ran a survey of more than 11,000 Iwate, Fukushima and Miyagi Prefecture residents who were impacted by the tsunami. The CAO found that 43% did not believe a tsunami was coming after the earthquake of 3/11/11, and did not try to evacuate. Nearly half admitted they decided to not evacuate because there had been no tsunamis following earthquakes of the past. Some others who did not immediately evacuate said it was because they did not know of the tsunami warning due to the electrical blackout that struck the eastern Tohoku region because of the earthquake-itself. The question we should now ask is this – how many of those who died because of the 3/11/11 tsunami made no attempt to flee, and further how many of them would be alive today if they had fled?
Clearly, the CAO survey shows there was a mindset at work with respect to those who did not flee before the tsunami hit. No doubt, many non-evacuators had the “it never happened before” or “I live high enough above sea level” mentality, but another more insidious social paradigm may well-have exacerbated the situation. Japan is a nation of frequent earthquakes. On the whole, it may be the most earthquake-prone country on Earth. Japan has long-prided itself as having the most earthquake-and-tsunami protected population in the world. Great buildings were constructed over many decades to handle severe temblors, and major sea-walls were built to protect towns and cities from giant waves. The consensus opinion was that several-meters-high sea walls were sufficient shields against the worst water surges imaginable, and anyone living more than 20 feet above sea level were absolutely safe. This mindset was dashed to ashes on 3/11/11. For many locations along the Tohoku coast, existing tsunami sea-walls were quite adequate: e.g. the ones at the F. Daini and Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear stations. But others were woefully inadequate, such as the several meters-high sea-walls around Sendai City and the one that collapsed at F. Daiichi. Yes, two men were drowned by the tsunami at F. Daiichi, but thousands died at Sendai due to insufficient tsunami prevention. How many of Sendai’s dead decided to not evacuate? How many would be alive today had they heeded the tsunami warnings?
Many decades of strong earthquakes and a few several-meter-high tsunamis along the Japanese coast demonstrated that Japan’s protective measures against the reasonably anticipatable were more than adequate. This necessarily engendered a sense of security that cannot be over-stated…a cultural mindset that may well have caused thousands of needless deaths on March 11, 2011. The words of Dr. Kurokawa flooded through my mind as soon as I read the CAO survey results. Unquestionably, there was a cultural false sense of security that permeated Tohoku’s coastal society relative to tsunamis, and thousands died unnecessarily as a result. This does not in any way diminish Tepco’s and the government’s culpability for the F. Daiichi accident. Their lack of fore-sight made the nuclear accident possible. Yet, we should not cavalierly dismiss Dr. Kurokawa’s “cultural mindset” notion. It surely contributed to the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi. More importantly, it contributed to the massive death toll all along the Tohoku coast due to a “rare-but-not-impossible” tsunami.