With the active support of the government, Japan developed one of the most advanced nuclear programs in the world. Powerful institutions of the Japanese industrial society such as the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) and the government have produced serious global hazards, and according to sociologist Ulrich Beck, it is the behaviour of these corporations that is drawing major attention to a ‘risk society’. Japans post-war governments have in the past actively campaigned against the use of atomic weapons. However, Japan has in recent years allowed large construction of nuclear power industry in areas well known for severe seismic waves and risk. Through their use of public relations (PR), Tepco overcame local antagonism towards nuclear energy, covered up accidents and shaped an environment of community acceptance. It is these behaviours that were a major contributing factor to the Fukushima accident, a series of events that ‘were entirely predictable’ (IGEL 2013, p.3) and hence begun Japans movement from that of a ‘scarcity society’, to a risk. It is clear that grassroots activism and challenging of public statements made by those in power in response to Fukushima have gained media coverage that Japan has not seen for many years. The PR response of the Japanese Government and Tepco helps to understand the implications of ‘risk society’ and the rise of activism on both a global and local scale. Complimentary to Beck’s ‘risk society’ is the theoretical study of the ‘stakeholder’; greatly focusing on the ‘public’ as a separate influential entity, and a potential shift in the relationship between non-governmental organisations/community action groups and business orientated sectors.
Due to the Fukushima nuclear accident, the political and social landscape for energy in Japan was radically changed. The Japanese Government ordered the partial shutdown of the nuclear power industry, leading to brownouts and drastic interruptions to power. On March 29th 2013, Tepco released a ‘Fukushima Nuclear Accident Summary & Nuclear Safety Reform Plan’ in which they communicated regret, admitted their dishonesty and reinforced their Nuclear Safety Reform Plan.
We profoundly regret that there was not ample promptness and accuracy in our public-relations activities caused unease and mistrust among the people of siting communities, Japan and the entire world (Tepco 2013, p.7).
Ironically, it is the ‘government, the regulators and TEPCO management’ who ‘lacked the preparation and the mindset to efficiently operate an emergency response to an accident of this scope’ (IGEL 2013, p.6). None were effective in inhibiting or even reducing the damage to follow.
Japan’s history and widespread fear of radiation and distrust of nuclear power, following the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, have in the past deterred the Japanese from pursuing any form of nuclear power. As an attempt to gain the trust of the public, the Japanese Government began to promote a number of different support systems for Tepco. Their plans became untrustworthy, as they placed projects in rural communities, where it was less likely for citizens to successfully mount anti-nuclear campaigns. To overcome any remaining opposition in such localities, the government frequently offered jobs and support to fisherman to ensure that nuclear power plants would not be seen as restricting their livelihoods. As Thomas & Eyres (1998) say, PR practitioners often work to polish the positive aspects of a company and gloss over the bad. ‘They do not seek to ensure that the company understands the needs of its stakeholders’ and ‘are ultimately aimed at providing a justification for corporate policy’ (Thomas & Eyres 1998, p.12). The Fukushima incident has ‘raised and reinforced environmental concerns and health fears as well as a social scepticism about information from the Government and corporate sources’ (Aldrich 2012, p.1). The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (FNAIIC) concluded that ‘despite numerous opportunities to come up with countermeasures, successive generations of regulatory authorities and Tepco’s management resorted to delay tactics’ (cited in The Sasakawa Peace Foundation 2012, p.7). Despite an initial prediction that the disaster was caused by natural effects, the commission eventually deemed it as entirely man made. The continuation of the nuclear plant’s electrical supply remains unpredictable.
Ulrich Beck defines ‘risk society’ as a domination of life threatening by-products of an industrialised society (Beck 1992, p.19). Claiming, ‘risk may be defined as a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernization itself’ (Beck 1992, p.19). The term ‘modernity’ describes a society that is characterised by industrialisation, capitalist economies, and democratic political organisation. This term also describes a society with a ‘Western’ view of progress, assisted by the development of scientific rationality. Beck’s writings reflect on the past, where society was much more focused on need or deprivation, this can be recognised as a ‘scarcity society’. In the current ‘Western’ period of modernity, scarcity has somewhat lost its significance and people have become anxious with the consequences of overproduction and wealth. This change can be linked to Japan transitioning from scarcity, to risk. As a result of this anxiety, Mehta reasons that protest groups have become an expression of a risk society. ‘Environment, anti-nuclear and peace movements can be viewed as collective risk movements’ (Mehta 1997, p.4). She claims these responses are a rejection of ‘conventional forms of political decision-making, which have created ecologically unstable and non-stable patterns of consumption,’ (Mehta 1997, p.4).
Beck warns in his writings that which society deems as ‘progressive’ is causing serious risks to the wellbeing of the world. Beck defines ‘risks’ as that which is often unseen, for example, radioactivity – cultivated over long periods of time. Risks may be linked to traditional practices or products that were initially deemed safe, and are now connected to outcomes of negative development. Beck’s Risk Society: towards a new modernity (1992) discusses the idea of a new era titled ‘reflexive modernisation’. In the culture that Beck describes, old hierarchies of social order that were once based on economic power have changed to a new order including social and political power. ‘In this new political culture, those outside traditional political systems or civil society are powerful determinants in decision-making and change’ (Beck 1992, p.185). The evolution of a risk society means that the once imprinted traditional rules and regulations used to protect institutions are now inadequate in their response to growing activist groups and passionate individuals. In other words, the PR industry could never convince the Japanese people of the ‘absolute safety’ of nuclear energy today.
Post Fukushima Japan is clearly an example of a risk society as defined by Beck. Beck highlights that the impact of risks produced will not just stay close to the general public but continue to spread. The radioactive contamination concerns of the Fukushima nuclear event and its following political fallouts filtered well beyond the Japanese boarders. As the Japanese government attempted to deal with the rising death toll from the tsunami of March 2011, the slow, unfounded release of information about the accident from Tepco, and the rising of distrust of Japanese civilians, ‘governments around the world began to revaluate their own commitments to nuclear power’ (Aldrich 2012, p.7). Many major industrialised countries such as Italy, Germany and Switzerland used the nuclear crisis as an incentive to shift away from or completely abandon nuclear power in search of less potentially life threatening sources. Undoubtedly, Fukushima has triggered major concerns ‘not only for Japan but for the entire international community about the safety management at nuclear power plants and about nuclear security’ (The Sasakawa Peace Foundation 2012, p.6).
Beck hypothesises that modern ‘risk’ will produce the primary incentive for social change. In a risk society, it is predicted that citizen initiative groups or community action groups (CAGs – devoted to achieve change and resolution outside of developed institutions such as the Government) will play a progressively central role in shaping political and social systems. There have been numerous explanations proposed to consider the rise of the significant environmental movement in Western society. Beck views social movements as a representation of ‘the emergence of a new form of politics in a society which is based upon conflicts around risks’ (Anderson 2000, p.95).
On the one hand the new social movements (ecology, peace, feminism) are expressions of new risk situations in the risk society. On the other, they result from the search for social and personal identities and commitments in detraditionalised culture.
(Beck 1992, p.90)
These movements involve a reaction to objectively and subjectively perceived dangers or threats, and to relevant contradictory processes of individualism in late modern society. The Japanese energy industry has been greatly impacted by the events at Fukushima, but so has the Japanese lifestyle. After a history of being told that nuclear plants are in fact beneficial and safe, people have now been forced to seriously question their acceptance of nuclear power.
In the past it was more possible for businesses to exploit the public in the interests of profit. However, the way companies interact with stakeholders has altered over the years. Many ‘grassroots networks have emerged, often pursuing their own distinct agendas’ (Anderson 2000, p.93). A number of social theorists hypothesising that this behaviour might be ‘conceptualised as forms of a new culture’ (Melucci as cited in Anderson 2000, p.94), brings a change in the policies of risk in Western society. A critical shift in a business view of the public can be linked to theories discussed in R Edward Freeman’s book Strategic management: a stakeholder approach (1984). Freeman’s writings include a concern with the relationship between the PR domain and its future. He identifies ‘single issue politics’, or ‘social activism’ as part of the catalyst for change towards a less defensive society. Freeman initially discusses a range of negative outlooks for PR, predicting that much of the PR roles act as a ‘defender of the organisation’ (Freeman 1984, p.166) and end up being used by offending organisations as a ‘sacrificial lamb’ (Freeman 1984, p.166), only used in times of crisis. However, as his writings continue Freeman offers prospective new ground for the development of PR. According to Freeman, the term ‘stakeholder’ refers to ‘any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the organisation’s objectives’ (Freeman 1984, p.46) – like that of the Japanese Government and Tepco, to the people of Japan. Freeman’s theories regarding the stakeholder present ideas that could redefine the relationships between activists and business. Freeman moves from original simplistic management and adjusts business to include a civil sector. A ‘stakeholder society’ compliments the behaviours of activist groups in response to the Fukushima incident, further implementing changes in the public and business relationship.
CAGs participants are dedicated to growing their campaigns and experimenting with new technologies to harmonise action and promote their cause. Beyond economic concerns from a business community, several new initiatives show how Japan’s civil society has been energised by the nuclear tragedies. Local residents throughout Japan along with Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) jumped on the opportunity to respond to the Fukushima accident by radiation monitoring, challenging bureaucrats and authorities and mass protesting. ‘Research on citizen science shows the participation of everyday residents as volunteers in data collection, technical measurement and analysis in fields such as ecology, biodiversity and astronomy’ (Aldrich 2012, p.2). This is vastly different to the opaque data collection released by the Government and Tepco, who created a widespread collection of ‘policy instruments and social control techniques’ (Aldrich 2012, p.6) to encourage public opinion towards national pro-nuclear energy goals. The two most established anti-nuclear organisations in Japan, Gensuikyo and Gensuikin have emerged from nuclear disasters and continue to hold conventions to circulate information on nuclear issues. ‘Roughly one-third of the people of Japan express their support for a nuclear weapons ban’ (Aldrich 2012, p.2). Countless Japanese citizens are expressing their increasing anger over reassurances from the central Government that they and their children are safe – ‘despite blood and urine tests showing high levels of exposure, even in areas far removed from the Fukushima area’ (Aldrich 2012, p.6).
Fundamental to the idea of a stakeholder community is public communication and empowerment of individuals to come forward and discuss public issues in a ‘credible and meaningful way’ (Burson-Marstellar n.d). PR firm Burson-Marstellar confirms that social ‘reports have emerged as the favoured tool for communicating with stakeholders about a company’s social and environmental impact’ (Burson-Marstellar n.d). This distances society from PR concepts of persuasion and manipulation, and instead encourages debate and independent thinking. The stakeholder theory is an important new strategy to promote vast ethical communication campaigns and an acceptance of diversity within communities. A stakeholder approach can help organisations to develop their decisions in a way which satisfies the wider public, help the organisation understand what corporate responsibility means, appropriately assess priorities, earn trust between the individual and the business or organisation and promote sustainability.
Ulrich Beck’s theoretical perspectives of a risk society speak to the conditions of our time and help to provide coordinates of potential use to the PR industry of today. In the event of the Fukushima nuclear incident, a crisis with overwhelmingly major repercussions and risks which could have been foreseen by the Japanese Government and Tepco, Beck’s writings aid in further understanding of fundamental measures of which to be aware when practicing PR. Freeman’s examination of stakeholder/business relations highlight that which should be nurtured as a long term partnership, as it is clear that the resolution to many an issue lies in the communities participants and their commitment to extensive networking of ideas and action. The Japanese government’s decision to move away from a bias organisational system of supremacy and decision-making processes demonstrates that public pressure is altering decades of ‘business as usual’ politics. Non-governmental organisations and community action groups are on the rise, as they continue to influence individuals on a local and global scale. After many homes destroyed and lives taken, the Fukushima incident and the publics response to PR, Japan has been able to awaken a civil society.
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