Friday, 1 July 2011

Fukushmia & Tepco's kamikaze ethics

A group of Japanese pensioners shot to fame last month when they volunteered to lead on the clean-up of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Their rationale was straight forward: should they develop cancer, it will take ten to twenty years until the condition becomes fatal. And by that stage, they’ll be dead anyway. The press labelled them the ‘Kamikaze Pensioners’. To belittle their stance is cynical and unfair. Amid the tragedy of the tsunami that hit the Japanese coast earlier this year, examples such as these demonstrate the remarkable Japanese trait of solidarity and self-sacrifice.

It’s just a shame that Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) has not shown a similar calibre of ethical commitment. Jon Entine’s recent feature article in Ethical Corporation details a raft of incidents dating back over decades that raise serious questions about the company responsible for operating the Fukushima plant. Faked safety reports, internal cover-ups and blackballing of whistle-blowers seem par for the course at the world's largest privately-owned electricity utility.  
Entine highlights two critical failures in the Tepco case that are relevant to any sector. The first centres on the relationship between companies and their regulators. In Japan’s power sector, cosiness reins. That breeds complacency and, worse, collusion. Politicians and civil society need to be awake to such scenarios and hold regulators to account. 

The second lesson is more immediate to corporate management. How should senior company executives respond in the wake of an ethics crisis? Japanese leaders, more than most, are quick to accept responsibility for misdemeanours that happen on their watch. How different the reluctant response of BP’s TonyHayward after the Deepwater  Horizon spill to the mea culpa performed by Tokyo’s  president Akio Toyoda after the Japanese automaker’s recall crisis? Yet a company must be seen to take action as well, not just offer mere words. Following a major safety cover-up scandal at Tepco in the early 2000s, its chairman and president were made to resign - only to be then given advisory posts at the company. Other executives were demoted, but later took jobs at companies that do business with the utility.

Nobody could have predicted the tsunami. What happened at Fukushima was, and still remains, a tragedy. One’s left thinking, however, that if Tepco had taken stronger action in the wake of earlier ethical breaches, then it’s a tragedy that could have been mitigated.


  1. While I agree with the intent of your article, as summarized in the last sentence ("...if Tepco had taken stronger action in the wake of earlier ethical breaches, then it’s a tragedy that could have been mitigated"), I am confused by your use of the term "kamikaze" in the context of ethical corporate behavior for a variety of reasons based on historical evidence -

    Also, your statement that "Nobody could have predicted the tsunami" is no longer true since recent scientific advancement has made the knowledge of the inevitability of tsunami damage from near shore earthquakes and landslides available to susceptible areas around the world. The real problem is the denial of this new-found knowledge which, of course, reinforces the validity of your main point above -

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