The Limits of Perfectionism

by Hanna

(Protests in front of the Parliament in Tokyo on June 29. Source unclear.)

For the first time in 40 years, Japanese are taking to the streets in such numbers that they cannot be ignored. On June 29, 20,000 to 45,000 (Japan Times and NYT). On July 8, music celebrity Sakamoto Ryoichi hosted a music festival that included many mainstream musicians (publicity site), On July 16, Sakamoto Ryoichi was again present at a rally where nobel laureat Oe Kenzaburo spoke to about 170,000 protesters assembled in Yoyogi Park (Asahi and NYT). And again on July 29, protestors broke through police barriers and successfully surrounded the parliament building in Tokyo in a candlelight vigil (Reuters).

Following the disaster at Fukushima, all Japanese nuclear power plants were shut down on May 5th this spring, but even then it was already announced that the Ooi Nuclear Plant would be reactivated to supply electricity to the Kansai region during the summer. At the time, the Japan Times reported that

[T]he government and power companies also have to win approval in the court of public opinion. . . (Japan Times, May 6)

and

Local government leaders near the plant, including the governors of Kyoto and Shiga prefectures and the mayor of Osaka, are reluctant to agree to any restart.(Japan Times, May 6)

As the announced day of the reactivation neared, public opinion found an outlet in a major demonstration in front of parliament on June 29th. Considering the general absence of protest and of civil disobedience of any sort in Japan since the student movements in 1970, the scale of these protests indicates a major change in the population’s tolerance of political developments. [Update on Aug. 5: The people choosing to engage in the protests have been previously unable to find conventional means of expressing their dissatisfaction. Their protest is against nuclear power, but as such they are acting against formal conventions and questioning the status quo.]

It seems to me that Japanese people have lost faith in their nation’s own ability to adapt and improve upon foreign technology. They are very much aware that it has been proven impossible to adapt technology for nuclear power to suit their own natural environment. Since the beginning of recorded Japanese history, they have prided themselves in their ability to learn from foreign cultures and technologies and then to perfect the foreign models by applying a meticulous attention to detail. That perfectionism has reached a limit in its capabilities.

Despite this obvious misjudgment of ability, plans to reactivate the Ooi plant continued due to threats of power shortages in the summer.

After recognizing power shortages were likely to occur this summer, governors and mayors in western Japan backed off from their earlier opposition in late May, and the Union of Kansai Governments effectively gave consent for the reactivation. (Mainichi,  July 2)

There are obvious limits to Japanese perfectionism, but they seem to be ignored by politicians. The government plods along as planned despite a large negative reaction from the general population. A strong dependence on formal procedure and precedent has made the Japanese government incapable of reacting to new circumstances. The politicians’ goal seems to be to maintain the status quo—to keep the electricity flowing despite the dissent. Their focus is not on fundamental problems, but on maintaining appearances. Has Japanese perfectionism become a mere show, an illusion that covers up an underlying fracture?

The government’s actions seem to reflect a formalization in Japanese society that has progressed to a point of near paralysis. Just as the government functions on precedent and formality, so too does the rest of Japanese society, including business and education in all its iterations. Does Japanese formality and hierarchy require rethinking? Might that not threaten to destroy Japanese society as we know and love it?

Of course, these questions are not new. They have been begging to be answered since the beginning of the economic downturn. Alex Kerr’s book Dogs and Demons reveals exactly these fundamental problems. But now they are more explicit and made present in a palpable fear of nuclear fallout among the general population.

In short, a major component of the Japanese “identity” is being publicly questioned. It seems as if Japanese dependence on formal structures is threatening to strangle the freedom necessary to adapt to any given situation. If Japan wants to overcome this threat to their own definition of self, they must rise to meet it. Formality and precedent must be questioned in order to create a balance with creativity. This balancing act is not impossible, but it is difficult to achieve. It will need all the care and attention (a different kind of perfectionism, perhaps) the Japanese are so famous for.

(Thanks to a talk on June 19 by philosopher Yamaguchi Ichiro in Tübingen for problematizing Japanese formality and hierarchy in post-Fukushima Japan.)

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