Skip to main content

What Japanese leaders can learn from the Fukushima nuclear crisis

By Seijiro Takeshita, Special to CNN
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Fri July 6, 2012
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
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
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
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
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
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
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.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
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.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
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
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
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
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
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.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
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.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
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
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
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
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
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
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
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
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
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?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
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
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT