Skip to main content

What Japanese leaders can learn from the Fukushima nuclear crisis

By Seijiro Takeshita, Special to CNN
July 6, 2012 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
The nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan was a
The nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan was a "man-made disaster," according to a new report.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Fukushima report says nuclear crisis was a "man-made disaster"
  • Seijiro Takeshita: In Japan, group-binding rules are very strong
  • He says individualism and top down decision-making process are often rejected
  • Takeshita: Can the Japanese move away from consensus type of management?

Editor's note: Seijiro Takeshita is director of Mizuho International in London, specializing in structural transformation and organizational behavioral science of Japanese organizations.

(CNN) -- They finally called a spade a spade.

Japanese Parliament's new report on the Fukushima nuclear crisis stated that the "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." This admission exposes perhaps the weakest aspect of the Japanese governance style.

Japanese companies are known to be indecisive, always taking a long time to reach any conclusion. On the other hand, they make the world's best consumer products. How can one explain this paradox?

In the aftermath of the big earthquake last year, there was a group of 40 Japanese stranded in a building. There was no food in a freezing cold night, except for one cup of instant noodle. The 40 people calmly shared that one little cup, without any fight or quarrel. Stories like this coming out of the affected region illustrate the amazing level of collective discipline that Japanese have. It's hard to imagine the same behavior anywhere else.

Seijiro Takeshita
Seijiro Takeshita

For the Japanese, this wasn't unusual. The reactions to such stories in Japan were along the line of: "We knew you'd hang in there, well done, we're right behind you." The Japanese are educated from a very early age to constantly "think about others" and to assess "the positing of one's self in an organizational context." Hence, solidarity within a group setting is very important. The unwritten communal rituals, value sharing and group-binding rules are so strong that they can overrule laws.

In such a culture, the leaders in Japan are often selected on a consensus basis. In other words, the leader is often the person who can best represent and voice the group's collective interests. Individualism and top-down decision-making process are often rejected, especially among traditional organizations like the government or corporations. As a result, someone who has original or different ideas is more likely to be cast out of a group. This is opposite of the top-down decision-making process that is required for the leaders in Western countries.

Report says Japan failed with Fukushima
Report: Fukushima disaster man-made

This consensus-based management style leads to an internal "village-like" way of doing things, usually under a closed-door policy. It breeds vested interests, which binds the leaders tighter. It is not hard to imagine that such organizational traits can easily reject third party's comments or suggestions, even if they are objective.

For example, when there was a whistleblower from TEPCO, the first call that the government made to TEPCO was: "Hey, you have a whistle blower" instead of "Hey, you might have a problem at the nuclear reactor -- look into it." This is when rationality is washed away by excessive formalities and bureaucratic rituals. Many Japanese scandals in the past have been the result of this type of behavior.

When there is no crisis, or when there is little or no paradigm change, the Japanese decision-making process is not a problem. In fact, it can even be advantageous, especially in a corporate environment. Japanese workers are extremely obedient, hard-working and loyal to their group. The corporate chief simply pushes his "automatic flight mode" and the plane will glide nicely as the mass will work hard to set the course.

However, when there is an unanticipated event like an earthquake or tsunami, Japanese leaders cannot cope well. This is equivalent to when they are asked to make a decision about crash landing. Since these leaders have been constantly opting for consensus decision-making process that is based on precedents, when there is no precedent they malfunction. Strong top-down leadership when needed is simply not there.

The statement in the Fukushima report says it all -- there is both strength and weakness to the Japanese style of management. The challenge for the Japanese is to open up to individualism and more top-down leadership while retaining collectivism to some degree.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Seijiro Takeshita.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT