Photographer: Robert Gilhooly/Bloomberg
Photographer: Robert Gilhooly/Bloomberg

It’s fitting that Japan chose a medical doctor to diagnose what happened on 3/11, the shorthand used to describe last year’s earthquake and cataclysmic tsunami.

Lawmakers didn’t tap a physicist to run a panel charged with explaining why the world almost lost Tokyo 16 months ago. They didn’t go with an engineer to investigate radiation leaks at the Fukushima power plants. No former Supreme Court justices were summoned to make sense of the madness of March 11, 2011, when events conspired to change the way we view nuclear power.

Instead, officialdom entrusted the investigation to Tokyo University professor emeritus Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a man without significant ties to the energy industry. One can safely assume that bigwigs in Tokyo now regret that decision. Kurokawa has a lot to say about Japan’s many failures, and the good doctor is pointing fingers at people who had hoped for a whitewash.

Kurokawa’s findings -- that the Fukushima meltdown was a preventable, man-made disaster stemming from the worst conformist tendencies of Japanese culture -- are a fresh start. They are the first sign that a break with the errant ways of the past might be afoot.

Why is that? The first step to fixing a problem is identifying what the problem is, something Japan’s government has stubbornly refused to do. Until now, scant attention was paid to how government-industry collusion placed so much of Japan’s population in danger, as did a reluctance to question authority and a reflexive obedience to process.

Nuclear Village

Yes, much of blame lies with the arrogance and incompetence of Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns the Fukushima reactors now referenced in history books next to Chernobyl. But it takes an insidious and toxic culture to cultivate such a corrupt and dangerous system.

The reason Tepco is still in business and hasn’t been nationalized is Japan’s omnipotent “nuclear village.” The nexus of power companies and pro-nuclear regulators, bureaucrats and researchers that champions the industry came in for particular, and well-deserved, scorn in the 641-page Kurokawa report.

One of its most explosive suggestions touched on a widespread belief in Japan that it wasn’t the tsunami that damaged the reactors and safety equipment, but the earthquake itself. It undermines Tepco’s claims that the disaster was some act of God that it couldn’t have foreseen or avoided.

Kurokawa’s six-month investigation was a Japanese first. It had wide-ranging subpoena powers and held public hearings at which Naoto Kan, the prime minister during the nuclear crisis, and then Tepco President Masataka Shimizu gave vastly conflicting accounts of the disaster response. Whereas three previous government-led inquiries went easy on the nuclear village, last week’s report highlighted its complicity.

“What must be admitted, very painfully, is that this was a disaster ’Made in Japan,”’ Kurokawa wrote. “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.”

Kurokawa might as well have been talking about the economy 20 years after Japan’s asset bubble burst. Here we are in 2012 and Japan still thinks the key to prosperity is a weaker yen, more aggressive central-bank action, limited immigration and excluding women from the corporate and political power structure. Talk about a world view that’s stuck in time.

Doctor’s Diagnosis

The question, of course, is what the patient does with the doctor’s diagnosis. Does Japan’s government return to the unhealthy ways that brought us the world’s worst nuclear fiasco since 1986? Or does it take the Kurokawa report to heart and realize a different path is needed? While the history of the last two decades supports the former course, the latter one is becoming harder for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to avoid.

Fans of reactors are quick to point out that the science of nuclear power is sound. That’s true. Where trouble starts is when the most potent power source the world has ever known is put in the hands of fallible humans without checks and balances. Let’s remember, it was the managers at Tepco who put all of the plant’s backup generators underground in a nation wildly prone to earthquakes and tsunamis. Human error also was to blame for the 1999 Tokaimura nuclear accident caused by workers mixing radioactive materials in buckets.

Nuclear enthusiasts point out that atomic power isn’t just safe, but cheap. Tell that to the devastated towns in northeastern Japan now facing extinction -- or the more than 100,000 people still living in temporary shelters. Until utility operators can elevate reactors on huge shock absorbers or construct them from rubber, Japan’s people will fear them.

There’s a brilliant aspect to the Kurokawa report. It issues a variety of warnings to head off Japan’s tendency toward cosmetic solutions, such as replacing senior officials at regulatory agencies and power companies or changing their names. It highlights the difficulty that panel members had getting documents from regulators. It speaks to the dangers of lobbying.

Noda won the battle last month when he allowed two reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Ohi nuclear plant to reopen, but he’s unlikely to win the bigger war over public support. Kurokawa’s bold report is a significant setback to Noda’s campaign. It may be a victory for the Japanese people.

(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: William Pesek in Tokyo at wpesek@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net