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REFLECTIONS: The Rise and Fall of Ethics and Work Spirit in Japan

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By Masahiko Komura*

TOKYO - In the aftermath of the Great East Asia Earthquake, with all its disastrous consequences still being felt, former director of the United States National Economic Council, Laurence Summers, commented that the situation in Japan was as if it were rolling down a slope and sliding into "a poor country" status.

I have no idea on what ground Summers came to such a conclusion but I totally disagree with him. In fact I am convinced that, like the sun that rises again, Japan will recover from this calamity.

Sixty-six years ago, Japan lost the Second World War in which three million people were killed. Almost all major cities throughout Japan were reduced to rubble. I was a child then. But I remember people saying that Japan had become "a fourth class nation". Like many in the world they felt that Japan was in a hopeless situation. But Japan undertook reconstruction in a splendid way.

I believe that Japan is tough when the going gets rough. Right or wrong, the Japanese people tend to run in the same direction. As we have to start running from one of the worst situations at a time of adversity, I presume that everyone will run towards a good direction.

About one hundred years ago, Max Weber said, capitalism cannot be realized just as a result of accumulation of capital and technological renovations. It requires the 'Spirit of Capitalism'. If one tries to implement Capitalism in a place where spirit of capitalism does not exist, its market would turn out to be a gamble place.

Capitalism Without Christianity

What is that Spirit of Capitalism? Max Weber described it "as a spirit of Protestantism which advocates that working honestly and diligently is god's will."

You may ask why Capitalism succeeded in Japan – without a spirit of capitalism (=Protestantism). I submit that Japan had its own version of a spirit of capitalism. This was manifested in a work ethics called "Shonin-do" – meaning "way of merchant" – that is said to have come into existence by the early Edo era (1603-1867). The Shonin-do spirit regards "work by itself a precious deed"; profit not being the first priority.

With Shonin-do as a spiritual backbone, equivalent to a spirit of capitalism, Japan succeeded in realizing capitalism for the first time outside of Christian civilization and made the nation world's second largest economy within 23 years after the defeat of WWII.

However, once successful, something changed in the Japanese society. Before we realized, the Shonin-do work spirit faded away and instead "profit" became the sole objective. In those days, some people described Japan as "a nation flourishing with goods but perishing in spirit."

When profit became an ultimate objective, people came to think that it would be easier to make quick profit by moving money from right to left rather than making goods by toiling. As a result, finance which was intended to a serve industry made industry its slave.

A case of profit replacing ethics was the use of "less reinforcing steels at the expense of safety of a building" and "fraudulent claims that a product originates from a particular area or country" exemplary for quality.

When you are faced with such frauds, you have no choice but to tighten regulations, which in turn adversely affects market mechanisms and impedes the functioning of capitalism. Consequently, when spirit dies, goods alone cannot sustain prosperity. We have been witness to such scandals in recent years. Then the great earthquake hit Japan.

But Japan will definitely stand up again. People around the world have been surprised to learn that earthquake victims are helping each other; no fight has taken place over food and they are acting in order. Even in China and South Korea, we hear voices such as "we should learn from the Japanese."


This does not mean that I have no concern. My concern is not about Japanese people but Japanese politics. If someone tells me that "You are a Japanese politician so you are responsible for the current political problem", he/she is right. However, it would be an uphill task to deal with this problem.

Naoto Kan (who has resigned as prime minister on August 26), is on record having stated that "To become a Minister (of one of the central ministries) is to watch those bureaucratic organizations on behalf of the general public and to be sure that they do not do bad things."

A political problem surfaced when a severe earthquake hit Japan. For example, I have had many occasions to meet foreign diplomats. In the aftermath of the earthquake, many offered their support to the Japanese government. Some of them recalled that they had made similar offers at the time of Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, when LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) was the ruling party and the Japanese government responded to respective offers within two to three days.

This time, they complained that even after three to four weeks, the Japanese government (headed by Democratic Party of Japan's Naoto) had not responded. Naturally, they blamed bureaucrats who were windows on this matter.

Those bureaucrats responded that "We listed up all offers and submitted these to politicians above us but we have not received any response from them." Foreign diplomatic staff suggested that "Instead of just submitting a list, why don't you prioritize what is requited, since you are specialists. It would accelerate the procedure." The bureaucrats replied that "If we prioritize, we are afraid politicians would scold us saying that we were doing what we were not expected to do."

In the aftermath of the earthquake/Tsunami, a logistical problem arose: lack of gasoline at gas stands in affected areas made it difficult for survivors with cars to obtain food and for relief teams from outside to deliver food to survivors. Therefore, how to bring gasoline to gas stands in affected areas became a big concern for the petroleum industry. However, most of the roads were cut up with debris and tank lorries could not move in and they came to a conclusion that only small cars loaded with drum cans could reach gas stations in affected area.

With this conclusion, they visited Prime Minister's office to obtain permission. Under the current regulation, gasoline cannot be transported in drum cans. They pleaded for special permission in this extraordinary case. However, the Prime Minister's office replied that they cannot do so because it is against the regulation.

A couple of days later, they could not still find out any other ways to deliver gasoline to gas stations in affected areas so they decided to visit Prime Minister's office again. This time, an executive of the petroleum industry said that he would "take a responsibility if an accident happens." The reply from Prime Minister's office was: "So you are taking the entire responsibility of this operation. If so, go ahead with your plan." That was more or less how the conversation took place at the Prime Minister's office.

The Naoto Kan administration has created 20 councils and task forces for reconstruction measures after the Great East Japan Earthquake. When you create as many as 20 councils, it becomes difficult to identify jurisdiction and roles. I heard that individuals who are not in a government service are invited as committee members; hold a meeting for 90 to 120 minutes and nothing is decided.

Proliferating Bureaucracy

Kan administration and Tokyo Electric Power Corporation (TEPCO) established a 'Joint Countermeasure Headquarters'. When it came to a "working plan (to contain Fukushima Nuclear accident)", instead of announcing it at the Joint Countermeasure Headquarters, TEPCO held a press conference and announced that it had worked out a plan.

When it was announced that "a purification devise will be created to take care of radioactive contaminated water at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear plant", it was a TEPCO staff again who gave concrete explanations; a Prime Minister's assistant, who is the secretary general of this joint countermeasure headquarters, was also present at the press conference. I thought the secretary general was going to say that "the government will jointly take a responsibility with TEPCO" but instead he remained silent and at the end of the press conference he only said that "This is something the government strongly demanded of TEPCO."

Much worse is the story surrounding a decision to pour into the nuclear facility sea water at the early stage after the accident. The truth remains out of sight. It is said that TEPCO poured sea water in the nuclear facility but the pouring process was interrupted later. It remains unclear if the pouring process was stopped because of an order by Prime Minister Kan or such an order came from TEPCO headquarters which conjectured that the Prime minister was against that decision.

But it is clear now that information provided by the government turned out to be absolutely false. The government claimed that TEPCO, as a profit seeking company had been reluctant to pour sea water into nuclear facilities for fear of damaging the reactor. Prime Minister Kan took a strong leadership in this regard and made TEPCO pour sea water into the facility.”

TEPCO can be easily made a villain of the piece because of many problems that came up in the aftermath of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. However, it is not right for the government to make announcements like this. The relationship between the government and TEPCO is such that even if the government puts all the blame on TEPCO, it cannot afford to deny those accusations.

*Masahiko Komura is a former Foreign Minister of Japan. This article is based on a talk by him at Seikei Konwa-kai (Ozaki Public Policy Study Meeting) on May 26, 2011. It is the first in a series as part of a joint project with IPS Japan and Ozaki Yukio Memorial Foundation. [Global Perspectives]








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