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Takahashi Tetsuya on Fukushima and Okinawa: Japan’s “Sacrificial” System

Posted in Books,Current Events by bourdaghs on the June 2nd, 2012

Takahashi Tetsuya (University of Tokyo) is one of contemporary Japan’s leading philosophers and public intellectuals. I’ve just finished reading his most recent book, Gisei no system: Fukushima Okinawa (The sacrificial system: Fukushima and Okinawa; Tokyo: Shueisha, 2012). It builds on Takahashi’s earlier work on the postwar Japanese social system as one grounded in systematic sacrifices and scapegoating. In other words, Takahashi finds in both Fukushima and Okinawa paradigms for the problematic structure of postwar Japanese society.

Here’s how Takahashi defines a “sacrificial system”:

In a sacrificial system, the profit of one person (or persons) is obtained and maintained through a sacrifice in the living conditions (life, health, everyday life, property, respect, desires, etc.) of another person (or persons). The profit of the sacrificer cannot be obtained or maintained without the sacrifice of the sacrificed. This sacrifice is ordinarily either repressed from view or aestheticized and legitimated as a “noble sacrifice” carried out for the sake of the community (sate, nation, society, company, etc.) (my translation, e.g., p. 185)

Takahashi, who was raised in Fukushima, traces the ways this insidious logic led to the concentration of nuclear power plants in rural areas such as Fukushima, as well as to the concentration of U.S. military bases on the small province of Okinawa. Each is an instance of a kind of colonization, he argues, and each has been recently aestheticized and praised by national politicians as a kind of “noble sacrifice” carried out for the benefit of the nation.

Takahashi is particularly good at tracing out the complexities of responsibility that lie behind the still-unfolding nuclear disaster in Tohoku. No one is completely innocent here, not even residents of Fukushima prefecture, and yet some people–particular those politicians, bureaucrats, scientists and industry leaders who formed Japan’s now-notorious “nuclear energy village”–bear particularly deep responsibility for the disaster.

In one particularly interesting chapter, Takahashi unpacks the ethical implications of statements by such figures as Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintaro claiming the 3/11 disaster was “divine punishment.” Takahashi sees such claims as forming a particular kind of ideological obfuscation. He reads them in relation to earlier statements by the Christian intellectual Uchimura Kanzo writing in response to the 1923 Tokyo Earthquake and Nagai Takashi responding to the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.

As Takahashi unpacks the logic of the sacrificial system, he never loses sight of the pressing ethical demand it posits. We can’t simply mourn the victims or celebrate the beauty of their sacrifice (as Takahashi notes, this was the dominant tone in coverage both in Japan and abroad of the workers who remained inside the Fukushima complex during the disaster, trying frantically to try to bring it under control). Fukushima and Okinawa instead demand that the sacrificial system as a whole must be dismantled.

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