Why Didn’t Japan Expect the Worst?

Japan is used to earthquakes. Japanese children grow up practicing earthquake drills in school; building codes are among the strictest in the world. It goes without saying that in another time or place, the 9.0-magnitude earthquake which struck on the afternoon of the 11th of March could have been much, much worse. Yet media reports of the tsunami which breached seawalls, washing entire neighborhoods away, and the escalating nuclear crisis at the Fukushima power plant make it abundantly clear that no matter how well-prepared Japanese society was for this sort of natural disaster, it was not prepared enough.

It may be true that we live in a risk society, a world where modernity goes hand-in-hand with the proliferation of new and greater hazards. However, Beck’s theory cannot fully account for what is now happening in Japan. Despite being the only nation on the planet that has experienced the human catastrophe of the atom bomb, an article in the Wednesday New York Times notes, ‘[G]overnment officials and executives at the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which runs the nuclear power plants in Fukushima, have offered conflicting reports and often declined to answer hypothetical questions or discuss worst-case scenarios’. One suspects that the reason they obfuscate is because they don’t have any good answers. So why, in a place that ought to understand best the double-edged blade of atomic energy, didn’t they do a better job at expecting the worst?

In Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst (Chicago, 2006), Rutgers sociologist Karen A. Cerulo theorizes that human cognition and cultural practice are mutually-reinforcing and can prevent societies from fully evaluating worst possible outcomes. She calls this phenomenon ‘positive asymmetry’ and concludes that the United States with its brand of optimism has a surfeit of it. Indeed, her argument seems peculiarly wedded to a point in recent American history, the first decade of the twenty-first century, when traumatic events such as 9/11 and the NASA Columbia shuttle crash seemed to threaten some of the most potent symbols of what the United States believes about itself as a nation. Does her theory apply equally to the Japanese?

The Japanese, by contrast, are reported to be one of the most uniquely pessimistic of modern societies. The Cabinet Office in Japan conducts annual polls asking people about how they view their future prospects. In 1970, when times were good, 37.4 percent of respondents believed that their life in the future would be better. Only 5.9 percent believed that it would be worse. Pessimism overtook optimism in 1994, and by 2009, the results had flipped; 32.3 percent expected the future to be worse than the present, while only 6.6 percent believed that it will become better. These statistics are well-known among the general population, so it would be hard to think on the face of things that positive asymmetry is Japan’s problem.

I do not presume to fully understand the source of Japan’s troubles. However, I would argue that we must not reduce this crisis to a freak act of nature on the one hand or the fault of particular individuals and/or agencies on the other. Like the tree falling in the forest that nobody hears, the earthquake that nobody feels matters little in our everyday lives. Thus is a ‘natural disaster’ like this one actually a socially- and culturally-mediated event, caused by a confluence of geological processes and societal realities. I hope that in the years to follow—after the region has rebuilt and recovered—that we look carefully at the interaction between cognition and culture as we formulate a nuanced sociological account of what actually happened…and how to prevent this tragedy from ever happening again.

Casey Brienza is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Cambridge and Sociological Imagination’s Mediated Matters columnist.

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