Meridian 180’s inaugural online forums began in the wake of unexpected circumstances. While the project members and the staff were preparing for the official launch in July 2011, the world witnessed the devastation of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake (Higashi Nihon Daishinsai) on March 11, 2011. In response to this disaster, the members of Meridian 180 decided to launch forums on March 19 to discuss both the immediate and long-term responsibilities of intellectuals during such crises. Two scholars from Tokyo, Professor Naoki Kasuga (Hitotsubashi University) and Professor Yuji Genda (University of Tokyo), immediately sent us their articles and took the initiative to lead Meridian 180’s inaugural forums. This summary will review the forum, “Cry from the Scene” – which was chaired by Professor Kasuga – in conjunction with the discussion contents of the other forum, “A Grand Coalition for a Rise in the Consumption Tax is the Only Way” (chair: Yuji Genda).
Professor Kasuga started the forum on March 19, 2011, only eight days after the initial strike of the megathrust earthquake around the Pacific coast of Japan’s Tohoku region, and only one week after the hydrogen explosions of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant. Referring to the large-scale quakes and the nuclear disaster in Tokyo, Professor Kasuga asked two questions of the members of Meridian 180: 1) What does the current situation illuminate about the contemporary problems that Japanese nuclear power plants present, and 2) how does this nuclear disaster reveal the socially constructed nature of information? By introducing the commentary of a former first-grade piping engineer named Mr. Hirai Norio (whose comments had been widely circulating in Japan and Taiwan via the Internet), Professor Kasuga asked more specific questions on “contemporary problems” such as “manualization, audit culture, modularized industries, non-regular employment, and social discrimination,” and also asked “what kind of information we need to sort and link together in order to construct reality.” Professor Kasuga asked whether questions about the “nature of information” could be revealed as questions of “trust” during situations that go beyond our imagination. And if so, how should intellectuals approach such situations?
By providing her first-hand analysis of the problems with natural gas hydraulic fracturing projects in the US, Professor Cynthia Bowman (Cornell University) pointed out that questions about the trustworthiness of information sources were not issues unique to Japanese society. Just as Japanese policy-makers had emphasized the safety of nuclear power plants while avoiding disclosing information on the risks associated with them, the main emphasis with regard to natural gas hydraulic fracturing initiatives in the US tends to focus on potential reductions of carbon dioxide more than on the possibility of pollution due to the fracturing techniques. Professor Bowman pointed out that it would be difficult to fully trust information “[u]ntil profit-making corporations can genuinely be held accountable to the public, not just after an accident but before and during construction, and until regulatory agencies are genuinely independent of the industries they are meant to regulate.”
Professor Bowman’s argument on the trustworthiness of information in a profit-driven economy is related to the discussion about legal interpretation in the forum, “A Grand Coalition for a Rise in the Consumption Tax is the Only Way.” For example, by analyzing the British Petroleum oil spill of 2010, she presented how the corporation predicted, in accurate proportions, the amount of civil and criminal fines for restoration efforts that would be required in light of the spill’s magnitude. When the information has a strong correlation with the amount of compensation or penalty, what information must a corporation disclose to the public? Through what means must it do this? In terms of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant incident, the facility owner was a business corporation, TEPCO, and thus the focus on liability will be determined by the relevant rules, as well as the approaches its managers took to engage in the compensation efforts. Legal and financial experts, such as Mr. Toru Yamada (Jones Day) and others, commented that TEPCO was liable not only to the victims of the nuclear disaster, but also to their equity shareholders and employees. Therefore, both TEPCO and the government faced the difficulties of information disclosure not only to avoid possible legal and financial risks by examining related laws such as the Act on Compensation for Nuclear Damage, but also to minimize the socio-medical liability of the local residents.
The forum also focused on how the government and their related institutions disclose and provide information. Contrary to how Professor Kasuga characterized the American propensity “to overcome a crisis situation by exaggerating its criticality and creating a strong leader and self-sacrificing heroes,” it seemed that both Japanese government officials and intellectuals seem to be attempting to “overcome the current difficulty by avoiding any panic.” Like Professor Kasuga, Professor Shigeki Uno (University of Tokyo) argued that Japan has taken such a paternalistic stance that they considered that “it would be sufficient to disclose only the results of their deliberations and decision-making endeavors.” In contrast, “the role of the government is to provide necessary information for all individuals” so the individuals can make their own informed decisions. Such a paternalistic stance not only indicates the hierarchical flows of information guiding government and corporations, but also demonstrates passive attitudes toward information gathering among the Japanese public. Professor Bowman and Professor Annelise Riles (Cornell University) commented that Professor Uno’s portrayal of the US political culture painted “a rosy picture.” When corporations and governments are feeding questionable information, the forum participants, such as Professor Bowman, Professor Grace Kuo (National Cheng Kung University), and Ms. Tai-li Lin (Ministry of Justice, Taiwan), agree that we have “a heavy responsibility to acquire and analyze information on our own and to disseminate it widely.”
We then came back to Professor Kasuga’s second question: What kind of information do we need to sort and link together in order to construct reality? Particularly when we are “facing a situation that is beyond imagination everyday” – such as constant aftershocks and the fear of the nuclear power plant incidents – what should intellectuals do? The forum participants provided a variety of responses to this question. For example, Professor Gilles Lhuilier (GLSN ESSEC) proposed taking a “detour,” to understand others by paying attention to the subtle meanings of the language used in our communication. Reverend Clark West (Cornell University) offered an alternate approach: the potential of silent prayers that “eschew[s] words” to “suggest a greater degree of clarity or epistemic confidence in a traumatic situation.” Even though the comments of Professor Lhuilier and Reverend West seem to contradict one other, they have a critical and important similarity. Both of them suggest that we avoid looking for an immediate answer, and that we pause and take a something akin to a “detour” when we face a situation that is beyond our imagination. Their comments also resonate with Professor Hirokazu Miyazaki’s (Cornell University) analysis on hope and “the hopefulness of a rested mind.” Much like some of Professor Kasuga’s perspectives, Professor Miyazaki noted that, “[T]he situation is extremely fluid. Moreover, radioactivity is a contentious and little known territory to begin with. In other words, no matter what, certain knowledge is not something we can expect to achieve at the moment.” Professor Miyazaki further pointed out, “[I]n confronting uncertainty, hope demands that we at least temporarily give up our constant quest for information, knowledge and certainty. It then gives us a moment of rest that our mind desperately needs for further thought and action.”
The content of the discussion among the forum participants relates directly to scholarship on how scientific activities construct information, and how scientific analysis and decisions become information and thus take on authoritative predictive powers. Professor Kasuga stated that scientific activity must “pursue the fragments of truth no matter how small those fragments are.” However, Professor Kuo pointed out that, “scholars and experts too have been drawn quickly into the swirl of these debates, as they are called to propose ‘solutions’ to many of these new problems in times of crisis.” Many of us, including the members of Meridian 180, are struggling between the urge to pursue immediate responses and the need for careful and time-consuming information analysis.
In the forum “A Grand Coalition for a Rise in the Consumption Tax is the Only Way,” the participants engaged in an important discussion on how intellectuals should immediately respond to restoration efforts by critiquing Professor Genda’s policy proposal. Professor Kasuga raised a different, and very important, question for intellectuals on how to deal with the nature and the trustworthiness of information in circumstances beyond our imagination.
We started these forums as in response to the Tohoku earthquake in Japan. Since then, they have become an effective platform for participants from different cultural, geographical, and professional backgrounds to share a wide variety of themes with one another.