Encyclopedia of Complexity and Systems Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Robert A. Meyers

Fukushima Catastrophe: The Challenge of Complexity (Collective Reflexivity, Adaptive Knowledge, Political Innovation)

  • Alain-Marc RieuEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-27737-5_621-1


Complexity Catastrophe Reflexivity Risk Epistemic disruption Political innovation 

Fukushima: A Systemic Event, a “Black Swan”

More than 3 years after the catastrophe, the initial shock is integrated in our daily lives, memories, and practices. Nothing is forgotten, but a collective and adaptive learning process is at work. From the beginning, the experience of this event opened an intense collective inquiry and learning process. This wave keeps growing. As an event, Fukushima is constantly evolving, reshaping our bodies, minds, and societies, even when we behave as if nothing had happened. In this collective learning process, the time has come to debate Fukushima’s historical meaning. This disaster cannot be reduced to an unpredictable earthquake and tsunami. Because of the size of the disaster, it is impossible to take the full measure of the event. The world has changed. Fukushima is the name of a turning point in world history: relations between technology, politics, industry, society, and ecology are forever transformed. Its long-term impact is unpredictable and impossible to repress: wherever they live in this world, people will never see and understand nuclear energy and nuclear industries as they did before. We are learning to question the energy policies and the industries, which are exploiting our biophysical environment and producing the milieu in which we live. Many studies, reports, and debates have poured over the victims, the dead, the missing, and the displaced, on all Japanese, on the contaminated land and sea, on institutions, politicians, journalists, professors and experts, bureaucrats, managers, and industrial companies (Japan focus 2013). From day one, one thing was clear: the Fukushima catastrophe was an appeal for new knowledge about technology, society, democracy, and about knowledge itself. This is not an unprecedented situation: it is very similar to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which created debates throughout Europe and changed the conceptions of man, society, nature, god and providence, morality, science, and politics.

This entry intends to analyze how the tsunami turned into a nuclear catastrophe, which turned into an event of a level of complexity, which is still expanding. As an event, Fukushima includes also the experience, the learning process it created, its systemic impact on institutions, and established knowledge. This explains why it is impossible to think after Fukushima as we did before. This event overwhelms the institutions managing the consequences of the catastrophe and the conceptual complex in which it is interpreted. This conceptual complex associates discourses, theories, and policies gravitating around the notions of risk, trust, care, and high-tech society. To criticize this conceptual complex is to explore how to rethink after Fukushima the relations between technology, politics, industry, and society.

Disruptive Event

A French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan (1966), introduced in the 1950s a difference between reality and what is real. What is commonly called “reality” covers the objects studied and explained by science, produced by technology, and bought and used by consumers, by all of us. Reality is what makes propositions true, what common language seems to be talking about. Reality seems glued to our uses of language, to our minds, bodies, habits, and customs. Reality is the immersive constant flow of news, images, and comments in which we live, think, and communicate. Reality is what the media are showing and talking about. They build the news by commenting them. It is our common experience and its phenomenology, its description according to established interpretive frames.

An event such as Fukushima shows another side of reality: it shows what is real. What is real is not common reality: it is what erupts or simply happens and what punctures and deconstructs daily routines and established knowledge. It is not hidden like a secret in conspiracy theory: we just don’t know how to see it and we pretend we don’t see or understand. The real is what overflows our discourses and disciplines. Fukushima is an eruption and overflow. But the real is not something hidden, which suddenly appears: it has always been there in the open but unseen, unnoticed because too obvious. The Fukushima catastrophe is showing what is real in the case of Japan. But the shock of discovering the real spreads like a virus: it is a desire to find out and to know everywhere else. No country, government, or individual is immune. What is real always has a local answer, and it always is a question for everyone. To learn from Fukushima is to learn everywhere else. Fukushima does not belong to Japan alone.

What really happened in Fukushima has been expressed first by the despair and suffering of the survivors and displaced, of all victims. It has also been documented, reported, researched, and debated. The Japanese population immediately understood the catastrophe as an investigation of its causes, responsibilities, and consequences. Testimonies were a search for explanations and explanations are also testimonies. The testimony, the reporting, and the analyses participate in the common expression and construction of Fukushima body of experience. This experience has been put online, partly translated into English and many other languages, made available, and debated worldwide. By becoming our common experience, the historical meaning of the Fukushima catastrophe is still under construction, and it will find its place in world history. More than three years after, the event does not fade. On contrary it remains a wave still rising in the horizon and flowing. It will flow as long as we are capable of making sense of Fukushima. If it would not flow, it would still rise like a ghost over Japan and over all of us.

This is why it is vital to continue exploring and constructing the meaning of the Fukushima catastrophe. Knowledge is the only way to emancipate from such a ghost and overcome a catastrophe. It is for Japan a historical trauma, but it is not destiny: it did not have to happen and it does not have to happen again in the future. How are the Japanese people going through this traumatic memory and experience? To pretend that life can continue as it was before is a temptation. But denial and repression are impossible: the trauma is deep and wide, a collective black hole, which is still absorbing and transforming Japanese minds. This cannot be repressed: a society cannot live long in denial. In the end, the only rational solution is to investigate and debate what has really happened, to search for the historical meaning of the catastrophe, and to accept the consequences and change. This is true in Japan, but it is also true for all those concerned in the world. This is why Fukushima is the name of a disruptive event, which has changed the course of world history by becoming a common ground for debate and research. To use a notion developed by Ulrich Beck, Fukushima is a “reflexive” event (Beck et al. 1994). Reflexivity is the collective process through which the evolution of a social system, the constraints and events changing the course of its evolution, generated the knowledge teaching individuals and groups how to criticize and reform this social system. This reflexive process characterizes modern societies and the various steps of their evolution. From this point of view, the body of experience being built by Japanese civil society since March 2011 is questioning presuppositions, concepts, ideology, and theories at the core of all industrial societies. (This corpus includes the official report of the Fukushima nuclear accident-independent investigation commission (2012).) By doing so this transnational collective work transforms these societies and leads them to another stage of their evolution.

What Did We Learn?

How a body of experience is transformed into a body of knowledge? What sort of event is Fukushima? The answer is found in the Fukushima body of experience. The catastrophe was caused neither by the earthquake nor by the resulting tsunami: they were just the deadly trigger of a systemic catastrophe, all at once human, social, political, technological, and industrial. According to available knowledge, the networks of power, which decided where to build this nuclear plant and its six reactors, were the cause of the catastrophe (Nishioka 2011; Hindmarsh 2013). This power structure selected the technology; it decided the standards for the plant’s construction, for its maintenance and backup systems, for the security of nearby population, and for protecting also the environment, the land, and the ocean (Crowell 2011; Koide 2011). Other nuclear plants have been built in highly seismic regions. Collective investigation established that the dangers and mistakes made were known and information was available to the media, politicians, administrators, researchers, and other experts. This comment is not an accusation but just a summary of investigation on what happened at Fukushima.

Since March 2011, collective inquiry, including various Japanese media, has uncovered the different networks power involved and their connections (Samuels 2013). What really happened at Fukushima is a public exhibition of the power structure controlling and managing Japanese society and economy. This power structure (“the deep state”) is now naked. This power network associates various departments in the two powerful and competing ministries in charge of technological research and energy supply, the METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) and the MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology). It associates also the nuclear industry, utilities companies, and the industries depending on these utilities companies: the electronic and mechanical industries (mainly the car industry), chemical and metallurgical industries (including pharmaceutical and health industries), construction companies, and transportation industries. This power network associates all the industries of Japan’s first and second industrial revolution, those who rebuilt Japan after 1945 and further developed Japan in the 1980s. In fact this power network owns and controls all the infrastructures of the Japanese economy and society. They are heavy and hardware industries: as such they manage the population and the territory. (These industries constitute the core of the Keidanren. Their power and role explain Japan’s relative weakness in software, why Japan was late in developing online industries and services.) Because of their size, the range of their activities, and their accumulated wealth, these companies constitute a network of interests, which includes various factions in all political parties, which they support and finance. One proof of this is the high instability of political life caught between these power networks, social and cultural evolutions, and the geopolitical situation. (Tenkô (turnaround, Takeuchi 2004) is a recurrent feature in Japanese history; it is often explained and justified by personal weakness and reduced to a change of mind, when it is in fact the result of extreme pressure on individuals, groups, and even society, the result of a power struggle. “Conversion may resemble tenkô on the outside, but its direction is the reverse. If tenkô is a movement toward the outside, conversion is a movement toward the inside. Conversion takes place by preserving the self, whereas tenkô occurs by abandoning the self,” Takeuchi (1959) 2004, p. 75.) Finally, this power network includes the media, which are largely financed and influenced by utilities companies. In summary, this power structure created what John Kingston (2012) called “Japan’s nuclear village.” The problem is that a closely knitted village tends to become a “Galapagos of power” (DeWit 2012a, b). In the end, such a “village” becomes counterproductive: it generates a level of risk, which in the long-term no society can bear and no economy can afford. France is in the same situation.

This power structure emerged in the mid-1950s. By the early 1980s, it has accumulated the financial means, the expertise, and political influence to transform its aggregated power into a nationwide nuclear industry, to build nuclear plants according to their interests, to maintain these plants according to their safety and profitability standards, to distribute energy, and to manage all the population and activities depending on electricity. Nuclear energy was the perfect match for a strong and coherent power structure (Shiokura 2011). Only a power structure can decide to develop an industry supplying nearly one third of the national consumption of electricity: when all the long-term costs and risks are taken into account, no private company would consider such an investment rational.

In accordance with political theory and government studies, sovereignty is the name given to various technologies associating ideological constructions, political institutions, and tacit practices implemented by a group in power in order to control a population on a territory. From this point of view, nuclear energy and related industries have a sovereign function as well as the various groups associated through this technology and industries. These interest groups develop their own international relations, and through their political and administrative influence, they even have their own foreign policy. Therefore, because of its scale, complexity, and impact on the whole economy and society, its level of investment, and its intrinsic danger, nuclear power should be named a sovereign technology. In the world and in each country, utilities companies should also be called sovereign industries because they produce and distribute energy to the whole population and economy.

The problem therefore is not nuclear energy by itself but the institutional environment in which this technology is embedded, in which it was developed and is still developing. Science and Technology Studies (STS) have proven for years that the institutional environment shapes a technology. Today, more than 2 years after the catastrophe, the nuclear industry has not renounced its objectives: nuclear energy is still promoted as the best and the more rational and economical core energy support for Japan. Since the formation of a new LDP government last January 2013, Prime Minister Abe expressed his will to restart Japan’s nuclear plants. This industry now justifies its role and explains its mission as managing the long-term transition between a fossil fuel energy system and the next, green, one. This strategy is similar to the European situation, in Germany, France, or Switzerland. But after Fukushima, the divide (the loss of trust) between the population, the energy-based industrial complex, and government (both the political system and the state apparatus), the people rejects this policy and strategy as well as the existing power networks behind. The problem is not that this policy is the right one or not. This divide, the public anxiety and mistrust, the shattered lives, and the contamination of land and sea are here to stay, and this anticipated “energy transition” might be constantly delayed.

For the Japanese public, according to the Fukushima body of knowledge, the real danger is the institutional environment, the power of sovereign industries controlling a sovereign technology built in the administration as a power structure. The problem we learn from the Japanese situation is all at once political, social, economic, and technological. This systemic problem is at the core of each industrial society, today in Japan but also in Western Europe (In France in particular) and tomorrow in the USA, China, Russia, and elsewhere. Japan is dramatically in advance. It is a concentrate of all the problems advanced industrial societies face today or in their future, problems also we need to understand if we want to avoid or overcome them.

Fukushima is a unique body of knowledge opening cases of investigation and debate all over the world. This body of knowledge is highly disruptive for established political systems in modern democracies. The information, explanations, justifications, and reports produced and distributed by utilities companies, by ministries, newspapers, and other media all those years proved to be biased, partial or simply false and wrong, and sheer propaganda. People decided to believe them because they needed the jobs or simply because they were not asked (or were pressured) by central and local governments if these industries could build their plants in their neighborhoods. Secondly, we understand since March 2011 that sovereign industries are ready to compete with the government’s power. Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), owner and manager of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, has knowingly taken decisions against public safety. It is ready to defend and protect its interests against public interest and public will. As the outset of the accident, it did not inform adequately the government of the situation at Fukushima, of all dangers for the nearby population and for the power plant employees. It defied the elected government by not complying with all security and information requirements. It should be openly admitted that Fukushima is a catastrophe for modern political institutions. The catastrophe went so deep that the power structure is naked in the open, even if not yet dismantled. Beyond the tsunami, Fukushima could (it has) have happened everywhere. Some interest groups left the network in which they had collaborated because the risk for them had become too high. The press and other media chose to step with their public and took the side of the victims. Political parties were ambiguous and divided. The LPD seems in the end to stand with utilities companies and the energy industrial complex. But the former power network is not reconstituted and will probably never be. Prime Minister Abe might sound provocative by asking to restart the nuclear plants proven secure, but he does not seem ready to confront Japanese public opinion and media and public opinion. The Fukushima body of knowledge seems to have transformed the institutional system and the power structure.

Disruptive Knowledge

What do we learn from the Fukushima catastrophe? It proved forever the limitations of our present democratic institutions and conception of democracy. They do not extend to those sovereign technologies and industries, which are shaping and managing the economy and society. (Other sovereign technologies and industries coming to mind concern the Internet (for instance, Google), banks, and other financial institutions. This problem concerns also ministries and the state apparatus itself, the so-called bureaucracy.) Contemporary democratic institutions do not touch the level of the power networks. But we have learned we always knew: democracy is a political technology designed to control social violence by transforming social conflicts into political oppositions negotiating within a specific institution, an “assembly” or parliament, with the goal to build evolving consensus and to reach decisions (rules, laws, etc.) imposed by a government on a population living in a territory within a nation state. Available political theories do not provide the concepts, problems, and methods able to analyze power networks and their impact of the long-term evolution of societies. These networks are the social infrastructures managing technological and economic structures of each industrial society. Metaphorically, power networks are the “dark matter” of social sciences as well as the “black boxes” of our societies. (Social sciences do not perceive them adequately because power networks are situated and acting in the interstices of their demarcations into various disciplines.) Corruption is the notion commonly used to characterize shared interests and reciprocal supports. But corruption is a moral judgment on individual members of a power network: it does not explain how a power network is organized, how it functions, and its impact at the level of the infrastructure of a nation. (There are several misconceptions. First a power network is the contrary of what “mafia” means. It is typical of advanced industries societies, distributed and not centralized, based on capital, competence, and a shared vision of a society. Power networks might generate specific risks, but they are not criminal networks. They are not hidden, but we don’t fully know how to analyze them. Second to criticize the “bureaucracy” like in Japan or the “state” like in France is misleading: these two criticisms hide the right problem instead of pointing at it. I derive the notion of “power networks” from the notion of “technostructure”.) Sociology studies indeed such networks but without offering effective political innovation.

Since 11 March 2011, the world (all of us) learned that such ignorance is a high risk and that a disruptive event like Fukushima requires and opens new knowledge. It is still difficult to imagine what type of institutional innovation is required. But a case is made and a window is opened: in response to such destructive event, civil society needs to continue its collective inquiry, but it needs also to be relayed by similar civil inquiry in each advanced industrial nation. Knowledge outcome is already remarkable. The initial inquiry has distinguished several dimensions or layers, all connected and reinforcing each other. The first dimension concerns the sovereign task of government, the basic legitimacy of all institutions managing populations on a territory: they are in charge of the victims and of their needs and wishes. They are also in charge of the territory (land and sea) where this population is living or was living: their sovereign duty is to decontaminate the land, to close any source of danger for the population, and to rebuild the economic structures for these populations to develop the means to sustain their lives. When power networks control and manage society, the sovereign duty of government and state apparatus is not guaranteed to the people. The Fukushima event brings a further proof that Japan is not really governed by its government, but managed by power networks (van Wolferen 1989; Johnson 1995). It enforced the idea that weakness of Japanese political system is a major obstacle in time of crisis and disruption. The same observation needs to be made and proven in most advanced industrial societies: established democratic institutions are not capable to withstand the level of complexity and systemic risk of our societies.

A second dimension concerns the interaction between civil inquiry and innovative research in human and social sciences. The goal of such research is to translate this disruptive event into disruptive knowledge. The objective is to produce a body of knowledge establishing a benchmark for innovative political debates. This is my present concern. Researchers in these disciplines are mainly working in universities, but they are closely related to intellectuals working in the media. Researchers and intellectuals are fully embedded in civil society by their students and readers. They are also directly connected to various power networks in the institutions and companies they are working for. The problem is not to take side or to support anyone as individuals but to assert the meaning and responsibility of their work in the situation opened by Fukushima. Their function is to explore what really happened, and this function makes them part of civil society. In this social and epistemic context, political parties would also have to respond and choose their side. It is hard to believe (but possible [In his article “Power politics: Japan’s resilient nuclear village,” Jeff Kinston (2012a, b) studies how in a typical case of tenkô the Noda government operated under pressure from pronuclear lobbyists a “marginalization of public opinion (…) in three significant policy developments”; the most significant of them was to shift the responsibility to restart nuclear plants to the Nuclear Regulatory Authority outside civil control.]) that political parties would choose to be in opposition to the majority of the population and to find themselves in an authoritarian position and even despotic situation. The media are in a similar situation: they have to choose between their patrons and their customers. To oppose this societal evolution and new role of civil society is to risk losing their legitimacy and their clients. Business communities would quickly adapt one after the other to this new context. In a fact, the knowledge generated by the Fukushima is disruptive because it has already driven our societies beyond their established conceptual and institutional frames.

In summary, Fukushima did not create a crisis. It opened a systemic transition, which is in fact already far advanced, even if still reversible. All Japan, individuals and groups, civil society, business firms and political institutions, researchers in university, and intellectuals in the media, are shifting within the former social system, transforming their relations with each other, and changing their conception of their role and this role itself. Japan is moving toward another configuration. This transition started long ago, at the end of the 1980s. (Probably in 1985 and the first endaka (rise of the Yen, of the exchange rate of the Yen with the American dollar). It was a fatal blow to Japanese postwar competitiveness. The Japanese economy never fully recovered.) The Fukushima catastrophe has accelerated the transition, and it also gives this transition a direction and focus. For the moment this new reconfiguration seems to revolve around Japan’s civil society, not only the victims of the tsunami and nuclear accident but the Japanese people who felt and understood they were betrayed by the power networks controlling their economy and society. The transition is not achieved and the direction is not set, but the tilting point is the knowledge produced on all these parameters.

The issue is to transform the event into knowledge and to share the knowledge of what happened throughout society. Such disruptive knowledge, effectively describing and explaining complex processes and intricate situations, cannot be reduced to established philosophical doctrines or patterns. It cannot be deducted from any transcendental idea, principle or universal values because these interpretations do not bite into power networks but simply judge from outside some of their effects. Interpretations are endless object of debate in the media. The knowledge extracted from the Fukushima event shows how knowledge interferes and interacts with the institutional system by analyzing processes and situations.

Far from falling into oblivion (See Takahashi Genichiro, “Resisting the force of oblivion” (The Asahi Shimbun online, 27 April 2013 <http://ajw.asahi.com/article/views/column/AJ201304270009>) and other articles concerned by a receding interest for Fukushima.), the Fukushima disaster has turned into a world event. At its core, remains the unique experience and body of knowledge constituted in Japan and still under construction. According to my assessment of the present conjuncture, in this spring 2014, the knowledge translating the experience into concepts, problems, and theories is still at an early stage of its construction. Still the problems being raised are converging toward a long-term prospect (not yet a program), which could already be debated:
  • The first issue is to build a detailed knowledge of the power networks structuring and managing an advanced industrial society.

  • The second issue is to build on this knowledge a conception of democracy fit to this level of the collective experience.

  • The third issue is opening the prospect of alternative or new political institutions.

  • The fourth issue is a version of the second one. The consequence of this prospect is a democratic construction of an alternative energy policy.

This prospect is not a utopia. It is borne out of what really happened in Fukushima, which means in this world. Nobody knows the road to reach this goal. But we have some ideas, even a method, about how to start building this road.

First, in the mid-1970s Michel Foucault introduced a new concept of power in political and social theory. He criticized reducing the problem of power to an expression of state sovereignty, to its institutions of control and domination. Foucault’s goal was to reach beyond ideological constructions and underneath political institutions the processes at work within a society, which are shaping collective attitudes and behaviors. The political question became as follows: what makes a population governable? What makes a society? The notion of governmentality requires an analysis of power with the goal to study the aggregation of shared interests and local power nodes giving to this aggregate the capacity to negotiate a common policy and to implement this policy (Foucault 1976, 2004). What interested Foucault was the power to negotiate and perform a policy, to lead, to organize, and to shape individuals and groups into a manageable society.

The second problem concerns democratic theory and democratic institutions adapted to the level of power networks. It is an extension and progress toward a new democratic frontier adapted to our societies and economy driven by large-scale science and technology policies. In Japan, the project of a technological democracy has a strong history and is part of a potential response to Fukushima (Kobayashi 2012). (On Kobayashi Tadashi’s method, see Callon et al. (2001), prologue.) Kamisato Tatsuhiro (2012) tries to find in the work of Kobayashi Tadashi a method for a democratic construction of an energy policy. The debate over distributed versus centralized energy production is a conflict about the control of energy production and distribution over the economy (DeWit 2012a, b). Since January 2013, the Abe government seems to have frozen these experiments in the hope of restoring the former role of utilities companies in keeping the cost and availability of energy at the level before Fukushima. In fact the situation is stalled. The Japanese industry and society have learned to live without nuclear energy.

The method to answer these two problems is to advance without referring anymore to the pre-Fukushima situation (Iida 2012) and without referring to transcendental principles and values. There are no alternatives. It is vain to project oneself beyond the present situation: there is no other solution than to think and debate within the present situation, to continue civil investigation and collective debate, and to build disruptive knowledge. In my opinion, a method to progress is to analyze and criticize the conceptual matrices, in which the Fukushima event has been interpreted, described, and explained until now. These conceptual matrices intersect various disciplines and connect them into interdisciplinary frames. Interestingly they constitute a level deeper than established disciplines in social sciences, and these interdisciplinary frames are already a major progress in describing and explaining a disruptive event like the Fukushima catastrophe. From the beginning, the Fukushima body of experience has exceeded established social sciences. These conceptual matrices have been filters in which the Fukushima experience has been translated into a body of knowledge.

The Fukushima body of knowledge is structured according to four conceptual matrices: the ethics of care; a discourse on risk, one on trust; and the idea of high-tech or value-added society. These matrices acts as referentials in data mining. I will not study here the first interpretive matrix, the ethics of care. This conceptual matrix is clearly the most common because of its emotional intensity and practical value. It focuses on the victims of the tsunami and nuclear contamination, on the dead, the suffering of those who survived, and of the displaced. It focuses also on the inadequate response of the central administrative and political authorities and on the solutions or lack of solutions to help the victims to cope with the disaster. The victims were and still are of course the most urgent problem. I certainly do not underestimate this frame of interpretation. But each conceptual frame responds to practical issues at a given level of the Fukushima body of experience. As a conceptual frame, the care perspective is often manipulated to put in second place other issues, to reduce a renewed and reinforced civil society to a civil society of victims.

The goal here is different. The goal is to transform a disruptive event into collective experience and to translate this experience into disruptive knowledge in order to express and construct the historical meaning of the event. The Fukushima catastrophe overwhelms the three conceptual matrices, which have been constantly projected on the event and which are reducing its level of complexity. These interdisciplinary matrices intersecting existing social sciences are all we have at our disposal to grasp the full measure of this event. The only solution is to enter inside these three matrices and analyze their presuppositions in order to extract the concepts and problems leading to epistemic innovation. It is a typical Schumpeterian process of creative destruction. Clearly these four matrices emerged and were conceptualized well before Fukushima, in the 1980s and early 1990s, including Michel Foucault’s concept of power.

For all these reasons, what really happened at Fukushima Daiichi is not an internal Japanese affair. A powerful conceptual complex replicated in all advanced industrial nations was torn apart like the buildings covering the nuclear reactors. This complex manages, explains, and justifies the interactions between research, innovation, industry, government, and society. These three layers are closely connected with each other. The Fukushima body of experience has opened the possibility to analyze each of them and how they are connected. These three matrices are deeply embedded in our societies, and each of them has been since the 1980s the subject of an influential book, which opened until today debates and research in politics and the media and social sciences. The goal is to criticize each conceptual matrix and in turn this complex in order to open a collective debate and research on the resulting situation.

Risk as Metaphysics

The theory of risk is foremost a theory to evaluate and manage the probability of risk in a cost/benefit analysis based on the notion of assessment, precaution, and prevention (Godard et al. 2002). But it is also much more than this today. The idea of risk has become metaphysics, a conception of society, and even vision of contemporary life in society. To mention Lacan’s distinction between reality and “what is real” has for goal to avoid and criticize metaphysical interpretations of the Fukushima catastrophe referring to an overpowering nature, uncontrollable by mankind and unpredictable by human technology, whatever precautions (seawalls, dykes, backup and security systems, evacuation policies and exercises) human endeavors can imagine and build. This metaphysical interpretation is the very metaphysics TEPCO is developing since the catastrophe. TEPCO asserts that it did all it could, before and after, because a tsunami of this magnitude could not have been reasonably predicted. These ideas are trivial: nature cannot be controlled by mankind, the wish to control nature is vain and even dangerous because nature is always more powerful than any human anticipation and precaution, etc. Accidents of this magnitude are supposed to be fate: the duty of humans is to edify their own world and nature is always there to dwarf in the end human ambition.

This popular metaphysics has a long history. It was best expressed by Martin Heidegger’s conception of technology (Heidegger 1977). In 1950, after Nazism, the Second World War, the Holocaust and Hiroshima, the German philosopher was denouncing the folly of modern humanity of “enframing” (For definition of enframing, its connection to technology and modern science, see Heidegger 1977 pp. 20–23.) (Gestell) nature, to dominate and control nature. Nature was supposed to have been objectified by “modern” science and then reduced by technology to resources to exploit, accumulate, and distribute. For Heidegger, the source of this folly was western metaphysics, which he contrasted with ancient Greece’s conception of humanity living in harmony with nature. Heidegger’s philosophy had and still has a great influence: the Fukushima catastrophe seems to prove him right. In his essay on technology, Heidegger gives as an example a dam on the river Rhine: it enframes not only the water flow but the myths and imagination of a whole German culture and society. (“What the river is now, namely, a water power supplier, derives from out of the essence of the power station,” (pp. 16–17).) Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was from the beginning of the catastrophe a perfect substitute for the dam on the Rhine. This metaphysics has two main drawbacks. Utilities companies share the same philosophy: nature is overwhelming and cannot be enframed without high cost. It dissimulates the real question, which does not concern the power of nature but the power of utilities companies on society and the economy. Any Heideggerian discourse on the Fukushima catastrophe is ineffective.

An advanced expression of this metaphysics is found in Ulrich Beck’s influential book, Risikogesellschaft (1986) (The Risk Society). The German sociologist developed an alternative and updated perspective on the problems raised by Heidegger and his commentators. The strength of the book is to propose a broad conception of risk, from ecological and industrial risk to social and individual risk, including new forms of subjectivity. The notion of risk becomes a picture and a vision of the various evolutions reshaping industrial societies since the 1980s. In this perspective, risk cannot be reduced to the precautionary principle and to risk analysis. Deeper than an ideology, it is a metaphysics proving that all industrial societies have entered a “new modernity.” Beck’s goal is to conceptualize from a sociological point of view this new “modern social order” (It is also a response and refutation of postmodern cultural studies (Beck et al. 1994) strongly influenced by Heidegger’s disciples.) (part 3). The source of these transformations is the ecological transition, which erupted in the 1970s with the first massive energy crisis. Today, especially since 2006, this energy crisis has proven its full depth and massive impact: it has altered the conditions of economic and social development of all industrial societies. This evolution justified and is still used to justify nuclear energy.

From the beginning, the Fukushima activated Beck’s conceptual frame, in Japan and abroad. The problem with a conceptual frame is that it filters the event and constructs reality. It also determines and even prescribes a range of comments on this reality. Events generate in social systems a reflexive process, which is structured by existing conceptual frames. This frame is a major progress: the energy and ecological crisis and challenge have replaced the metaphysics of nature. This crisis has driven industrial societies beyond the historical opposition between external risks (natural disasters) and internal risks proper to techno-industrial societies, whether “old,” “mature,” or “newly industrialized.” Ulrich Beck explained in the 1980s that this opposition between external and internal risks had vanished: it had become an obstacle to a proper understanding of the present social, economical, and ecological condition of industrial societies. For Beck, this opposition could not be restored: this means that one cannot expect ecology to define a model or a norm, which industrial societies should comply with. Natural risks are internalized within contemporary societies. They cannot be interpreted as natural or external accidents: social and economic systems are responsible for most natural disasters. (From flooding due to deforestation and anarchic urbanization to global warming due to carbon emissions by industries and unsustainable energy consumption and due to transport and urban, suburban, and even rural lifestyles.) Social and economic systems are themselves the source of various natural catastrophes, from the Chernobyl to Fukushima, from industrial pollution and overexploitation of lands to climate change.

The overcoming of the opposition between nature and society, between two distinct and conflicting orders, (In the European context, this taboo opposition dates from ancient Greece.) is breaching a deep anthropological order in all industrialized societies. The idea of “risk society” expresses this transgression and the Fukushima catastrophe condenses collective fear and anxiety. It is a transgression, not an anthropological transgression but an institutional transgression by an aggregated network of interests. The problem is to evaluate if this conceptual frame describes adequately the situation and provides the means to formulate problems that can be researched and debated in a democratic society. The metaphysics carried by the conceptual frame is an obstacle to analyze an event like Fukushima, to extract knowledge from a dramatic collective experience. What was called “nature” in the past and still in our imagination has become the ecology of social and economic systems, and this ecology is transforming the biophysical conditions of life on the planet. For Ulrich Beck, this diagnosis is the proof of a “new modernity”: all social and economic problems are ecological problems, the reverse being also true. They have become one multidimensional process, which has extended the level of risk and disequilibrium beyond institutional control and political management. The fear is that this disequilibrium has initiated an irreversible and uncontrollable evolution, beyond the extent of the precautionary principle. (The precautionary principle is a risk management technology. Its goal is not to reduce risk but to assess the limits within which a project is financially rational for a company or a state, justified and tolerable by a population or a government, which is supposed to represent and protect this population.) This is whole debate on climate change. Fukushima is a multidimensional catastrophe. What is feared is the uncertainty of the situation: uncertainty is a call for new knowledge. (For a distinction between risk and uncertainty, see Callon et al. (2001), pp. 37–55.) A metaphysical approach increases fear and anxiety: it expresses the complexity of the experience without extracting knowledge from Fukushima body of experience.

A critical point is reached. Beyond the conceptual frame, in a “risk society,” the real issue is the knowledge of the networks of power organizing and managing a society, exploiting the biophysical environment within an energy policy. This knowledge is disruptive because it gives a new meaning to politics and to the relevance and structure of the political process. This is the present step of the reflexive process initiated by the Fukushima catastrophe. This is a problem we all have in common. This proves that knowledge, its institutions, methods, and practices constitute today the core of our societies. It proves also that research and democracy are closely intertwined. In their influential book drawing on several experiments in Japan and Europe, Callon et al. (2001) explain that the time has come to imagine and organize democratic institutions adapted to a “risk society.” A “technological democracy” has for goal to manage risk according to collective rational decisions within a democratic process. Beyond rhetoric on participatory democracy (Hindmarsh 2013), this is exactly what Kobayashi Tadashi (2012) has been experimenting in response to the Fukushima catastrophe.

The Paradox of Trust

In my opinion, for the moment, the most important lesson from Fukushima is that shared knowledge is the common ground for democracy in an advanced industrial society. In order to place this role, knowledge needs to be extracted from existing conceptual frames. Once again, existing conceptual frames are not false or wrong, but they construct and restrict the meaning of disruptive events. Since March 2011, discourses on risk have been closely related to discourses on trust. Trust in government and institutions had been breached, trust was the basis of the social bond, and trust had to be restored. Trust is a powerful conceptual frame with many different aspects and discourses. The problem is to evaluate how it fits the Fukushima experience, if it produces adequate knowledge of this experience.

Indeed a “risk society” depends on trust in the future, in institutions, in knowledge, in experts, in entrepreneurs, and above all in rational expectations. Trust is an endless quest, always missing and in search of an impossible certainty. Like risk in Ulrich Beck’s book, the return of the question of “trust” marks a historical moment expressed in an influential book written by Francis Fukuyama (1995). Sign of those neoliberal times, in the introduction, Fukuyama declares it to be a “book on economics,” not in political theory. In a few years, trust would become a worldwide field of research and debate. After having predicted the “end of history” when the Soviet Union had collapsed and China turned to a market economy, F. Fukuyama was now trying to explain the emergence and consequences of the neoliberal movement. Since the 1980s, neoliberalism was revolutionizing, one after the other, all industrial societies, including former communist nations as well as Japan. As we still remember, it was supposed to open an age of worldwide economic growth and political freedom. F. Fukuyama’s intention was to explain that neoliberalism could not be reduced to a set of economic techniques to be learned and applied around the globe. It was based on culture and values, on those “social virtues” best exemplified in American history: a strong work ethics (p. 45) and a “spontaneous sociability” (p. 46) had created “an art of association” between hard work and knowledge in successful entrepreneurial projects. Trust was supposed to be the key explanation of the spirit of American capitalism. But this spirit was cultural, deeper than history, customs, and institutions. But this culture of capitalism was not an ethnic feature proper to a given people or civilization: it could spread to other nations, be adapted and adopted. Neoliberal policies had also a strong impact on Japanese politics and policies since the early 2000s, especially under Prime Minister Koizumi: the goal was “to loosen” Japan’s institutional system.

Fukuyama’s argument relies on a distinction between low-trust and high-trust societies. This distinction modifies the usual opposition between traditional and modern (capitalist) societies, between community and society. Strong family values create high trust within each family, clans, or people. But they also intensify low-trust between families, clans, and people. According to Fukuyama, this explains why nations based on family, clans, and ethnic groups are usually poor, underdeveloped, and under the authoritarian power of one group on all others. It hinders overall economic and social progress because any change would alter the balance of power between families or ethnic groups. In these conditions, a common economic and public sphere cannot emerge. By comparison, a high-trust society, like the USA, England, Germany, and Japan, is a type of society where clannish ties and ethnic bonds have evolved toward growing individualization and toward a strong public sphere. Families and ethnic communities did not disappear, but individuals are in charge of their own destiny and of the well-being of their families. To achieve these modern goals, individuals need to cooperate with each other and to build association and common enterprise in a public space emancipated from ethnic, religious, or clannish control. Histories are many, but the spirit common to all liberal societies is based on “sustaining sociability” between large groups of people. This is the ideal version of the “melting pot,” the model of a political community of individuals. This conceptual frame is extremely influential in Japan: traditionally Japan understood itself as an extended family unified by the emperor and a strong sense of nation. This ethnic and sacred conception of trust could not withstand the history of the Japanese people in the twentieth century. But a different version is quite meaningful since the 1945 and is even reinforced since Fukushima. High trust within the Japanese people is combined with low trust between Japanese civil society and its government and bureaucracy. This low level of trust is considered hindering Japan’s recovery from the systemic crisis, which started in the early 1990s and from reconstruction since March 2011.

As a vision of society, neoliberalism is simply a rearrangement of the relations and hierarchies between society, government, the economy, and religion. It established during the 1990s the conditions of the globalization process as well as the conditions of the systemic crisis, which started in 2007. This vision and ideology had a major influence on all industrial nations. This increased differentiation had in each nation a similar effect: it introduced a void and a gap at the core of society. It made societies more flexible. But the various functions constituting a social system do not fit anymore into a coherent whole. Economic interests, models, and values have taken precedence. People in their daily life, facing personal and private problems, have developed the feeling that they are left outside the dynamics of society. They feel the need to reorganize and make sense of their lives at another level. Paradoxically neoliberalism has introduced a collective and individual experience based on distrust and anxiety. The resulting situation is quite different from Fukuyama’s diagnosis in the 1990s. In retrospect, neoliberal policies have created a long-term divide between the economic sphere and the social sphere or “civil society.” In fact the new degree of autonomy granted to the economy led slowly to a new degree of autonomy granted to society, to individuals and groups in this society. This type of autonomy, which has been taking shape since the 1980s, is quite different from both modern political freedom and the moral (sexual) and social emancipation of the 1960s.

This emptying and reconfiguration of society had three main consequences. As first consequence, the problem of ethics and law found a new urgency and became a major political issue. Typically, according to John Rawls’ minimalist concept of society, what people have in common in contemporary societies was reduced to a conception of justice and fairness, to a subjectively acceptable degree of equality or inequality. The second consequence was mainly seen in the USA, as well as in other regions and countries. This emptying of society and the resulting personal anxieties generated a wide return to religion and spirituality in the USA and in the rest of the world. Religion became a last refuge for many of those who were losing their jobs and social identity.

The third evolution is the most important today because it leads neoliberalism to a new stage and possibly its progressive overcoming. It is particularly influential in Japan. This evolution is the reinvention of the modern ideal of “civil society” and of the capacity of individuals and groups to find between themselves, at their own level and in their immediate communities, and the capacity and the will to develop solidarities, common projects, and forms of resistance, mainly against government and businesses. In the end, neoliberalism is not all economic: it is also characterized everywhere by strong social movements for the environment and for food safety and against pollution and nuclear energy, against GMOs, against new fields of medical research (like stem cells), against tyranny and corruption, and against also the present systemic crisis. There are strong interactions and confusion between these various expressions of “civil society,” religion or spirituality, ethics, and social movements. This return of “civil society” is highly significant even if the themes associating people mainly concern their immediate lives and interests. What is significant is strong commitment and active resistance (For instance, “les insoumis” in France, “Occupy Wall Street,” in the USA, in Spain, Greece, Italy, Russia, etc.). This surge and reinvention of civil society might be the most enduring consequence of neoliberalism. A similar evolution happened in Japan since the 1990s. It is intensified by the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe and resulting collective inquiry to a point where the whole institutional system is in question.

The question of trust is a major issue when put in its proper context. But what brings back trust once it is broken? Since the 1980s, trust has increasingly become a major requirement in business, research, and politics, superseding traditional respect for social elites and even for competence. Trust is a subjective and shared certainty. It must be repeatedly proven and this proof remains a psychological experience according to which individuals judge politicians, professors, experts, companies, and their managers. Neoliberal values and policies might strengthen for a given moment the economy, but the social basis of a neoliberal economy remains unstable and its political legitimacy basically weak and constantly questioned because society is reduced to an experience of trust, on ethical values, and it is judged according to benefits to individuals and groups. In the case of Japan, the long-term crisis, the political failures, and finally the Fukushima catastrophe have destroyed trust in institutions. But it has also reinforced the need and hope for “civil society,” for interactions between individuals and groups outside and against the present power structure. This conjuncture is opening in Japan a collective need and a search for a renewed democratic progress. If this search for democracy is once more betrayed, Japan will indefinitely lose the coherence and collective resilience required to achieve the transition, which started in the early 1990s. The reference to trust can only be achieved by reforming the political system, uprooting it from existing power networks and by turning to civil society. This is exactly what the Fukushima body of experience and body of knowledge have been doing since 11 March 2011. Trust is always what is missing. But after Fukushima, mistrust turned into a collective feeling of betrayal and injustice, of a final divide between civil society and government, the bureaucracy, and big companies. In order to make sense of this collective feeling and transform it into a constructive political movement, the shared knowledge of the situation needs to become a political platform for debate, research, and reform. The challenge is to operate a transition from a value-based civil society to a knowledge-based civil society.

The High-Tech, Value-Added, or Knowledge-Based Society Model

This is the third conceptual matrix: it is far more influential and embedded in the network of influence and power governing Japan since the late 1970s. It is both an ideology and a program adopted and adapted by all industrial nations. It is extremely powerful and it largely escapes inquiry because the discourses and ideologies expressing the two other conceptual matrices are not to be touched. Once again, this matrix is not false or wrong: it is just there, an essential part of the epistemic infrastructure of all advanced industrial societies. It determines the conception of competitiveness and productivity. It explains how nuclear energy became the core of this type of society. It is the conceptual source of our science and technology policies, and it explains why they turned into research and innovation policies in the 1980s. This third matrix articulates the relations between science, technology, politics, and the economy. Society is considered as the milieu in which these interactions take place. Since the 1980s, research and innovation policies are supposed to drive industrial societies beyond their present economic and social problems. Today they are supposed to bring solutions to ecological challenges and to provide innovations capable of restoring competitiveness and creating new industries. These industries are supposed to create jobs paying for new taxes, which will finance social programs as well as these science and technology policies in an endless spiral of innovation and progress. This ideal vision and its related policies have different names: the formation of a “high-added value economy” or “new economy,” more generally “knowledge society” (Rieu 2005). These theories, discourses, and policies have their source in mid-1980s Japan. Sakaiya Taichi (1985) published in 1985 The Knowledge-Value Revolution or a History of the Future in which he explained that “the zenith of the industrial society” has been reached: the “postwar petroleum culture” ended in the 1970s with the energy crisis.

For him a new technological revolution has started: it generates “a shift in demand that will favor the consumption of knowledge value rather than natural resources” (introduction). The added value extracted from research and innovation has always in the past and would continue in the future to supersede the value of natural resources. Today this idea is considered so obvious that it is not even questioned anymore. It is a remarkable book, but in retrospect with a problem: nuclear energy is never mentioned, even if nuclear fusion is (p. 146) as well as solar energy. The reason is simple: “the end product is the same electric power produced by hydroelectric or oil-or-coal-burning plants.” So how electricity is produced does not matter, only cost and availability matter. Why is nuclear energy “under the radar” of Sakaiya Taichi, himself, a MITI official? Nuclear energy is not “under the radar” but put “under the carpet” in order to avoid any conflict with antinuclear movements. But there is another reason: beyond huge cost and high risk, nuclear energy is typically a high-value-added technology. In the imagination of the time, it does not depend on vast amount of natural resources, complex transportation, and transformation processes. It is supposed to depend on small quantities of rough uranium, technologically enriched in order to become combustible in a nuclear plant. According to this reasoning, beyond the scale and complexity of nuclear energy processes, it is assumed to be a dematerialization of energy, the triumph of technology over matter. Sakaiya Taichi knew that the very scale and complexity of nuclear energy production led to the formation of immensely powerful nuclear energy utilities complex. He could not foresee that this power network would in the end be responsible for the Fukushima disaster. Finally, the rhetoric of “knowledge over matter” hides that the development of nuclear energy production in Japan took off in the early 1980, as a response to the first petroleum crisis. Before Fukushima, nuclear power plants were producing only 25 % of Japan’s electricity (against 73 % in France). But this quantity is enough for utilities companies to regulate the availability and cost of electricity to industry and society. This explains the argument that nuclear plants have to be restarted. It also explains the role played by nuclear energy in a high-tech economy. The Fukushima catastrophe is the end result of a complex ideological, political, technological, and economic construction. Criticism of this conceptual complex opens the way for a better understanding of the post-Fukushima situation.

Also at stake are the idea of high-value-added economy and the project of a knowledge-based society. We now understand that in the late 1970s and early 1980s, nuclear energy was considered the most efficient response not only to the energy crisis but also to the idea that research and development (R&D) was the proper Japanese answer to the rising cost of energy and all natural resources. This was in early 1980s a major change in the conception and organization of Japan’s industrial policy: R&D was considered the core of all present and future industrial policies and the basis of future economic and social progress. R&D became the object of policies of increasing ambition all along the 1980s. When the bubble burst at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, R&D policies were considered the only answer to Japan’s economic crisis and the only solution for its future. If industrial policies found in nuclear energy the solution to secure energy, R&D policies were concentrating on many different sources of energy, including solar, thermal, coal, wind, etc. In summary, nuclear energy technology was at the core of industrial-nuclear complex, but it was not the core of the various science and technology policies launched since the 1990s. They are two connected but also different networks of power, with different interests and values. It is an important moment: in Japan, research and innovation might finally become the backbone of economic and social development. It is a major shift in the power structure managing Japan’s long-term evolution. The research and innovation field of activity is taking the lead in Japan’s future evolution, with important political consequences.

This shift cannot be achieved without the support of Japanese civil society. Since 2008, before the catastrophe, the trust of the population in science and technology was considered a major issue. Studies have discovered that the population had a high trust in scientists and engineers but a low trust in scientific and research institutions because of their close links with the power networks. The Fukushima catastrophe just confirmed the suspicion of the Japanese. The research and innovation communities consider quite important to connect with “civil society” in order to explore new objectives and possibilities. Because science and technology are considered today the basis of long-term social and economic development, because these policies are more and more inclusive and involve all aspects of life in society, research and innovation policies have learned since the mid-2000s to take into consideration any strong public opposition and civil resistance. Research policies of this scale cannot be implemented against public opinion and civil society. Since 2006 and the 3rd Basic Plan, Japanese science and technology policies explicitly refer to public opinion and social needs. In fact, for the last 15 years, public debates are organized in a rigorous and even exemplary fashion (Callon et al. (2001), prologue.) (ScienceWise 2011). Arimoto Tateo (2006) explained how these procedures were embedded in the conception of the 4th Basic Plan for science and technology. (Former director of the Research Institute of Science and Technology for Society (RISTEX) in the Science and Technology Agency at the prime minister office.) Since March 2011, a tension and even a divorce are obviously running deep between sovereign industries and society but also between these industries and those research institutions, which since the 1990s are orienting Japan in a different direction. Indeed these policies heavily finance and promote research on new energy sources, energy, and transport. Still to associate the population in the design of these large-scale policies remains a difficult theoretical and practical challenge.

The World After Fukushima

My goal in this entry was to explain that the Fukushima catastrophe is still happening. Its historical and world meaning is not yet established. It cannot be reduced to the earthquake, the tsunami, and the nuclear catastrophe and its consequences on the population and the environment. It is a systemic event, all at once geological, environmental, technological, social, economic, and political. But it is also an epistemic catastrophe because it defies our conceptual capacity to grasp the extent and depth of the catastrophe. The problem is as follows: how a society, its institutions, its established knowledge, its scientific and engineering disciplines and expertise, and its social sciences can respond to such a high level of complexity? The challenge of such an event is the information it generates in a population within a social system. Since 11 March 2011, the response of the Japanese people has been to start a collective inquiry on the catastrophe. Everyone participated, by their testimonies of anger or despair and by their study, inquiry, and debate on all aspects of the catastrophe. The Internet has been collecting all this information and transforming it into a collective experience.

But another problem followed immediately: how does a collective experience become capable of explaining and of establishing responsibilities leading to reforms? By transforming this experience into shared knowledge. The paradox is that knowledge is a social and historical construction, but a systemic catastrophe like Fukushima exceeds established disciplines and even interdisciplinary conceptual frames. It also exceeds political institutions. The problem becomes as follows: where such a catastrophe is leading a nation? Where does it drive a social system? How to make sense of such complexity? The solution is to accept the challenge of complexity and to explore as far as possible this new situation. I don’t pretend to provide solutions. I just try to extract from the collective response of Japanese society a platform for new research and debate. These research and debates touch the core of our societies and question the capacity of our institutional system to respond to complexity.


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of philosophyUniversity of Lyon-Jean MoulinLyonFrance
  2. 2.Institute of East-Asian Studies (CNRS)Ecole Normale Supérieure de LyonLyonFrance