Ulrich Beck and Japan

Ulrich Beck (1944-2015). Wikimedia commons. Public domain.
Ulrich Beck (1944-2015). Wikimedia commons. Public domain.

Ulrich Beck and Japan

By Kiyoshi Abe

School of Sociology Kwansei Gakuin University, Japan

It is apparent that one of the reasons why Ulrich Beck’s Risikogesellschaft became a globally well-read sociological book is that it was published in the year of Chernobyl disaster in 1986. The first Japanese-translated version of Risikogesellschaft appeared in 1988 and it also gained wide-ranged public attentions in Japan. As Japanese society had already faced serious cases of the environmental pollution like Minamata which was caused by Japanese chemical industry Chisso Corporation during 1950s and 1960s, Beck’s sociological concept of ‘Risiko’ concerning how to control and distribute the potential damages caused by industrialism and its highly advanced technologies like atomic energy plants was the very issue that Japanese academics thought they should tackle. However at that time of the postwar history of Japan many people, including careless sociologists like me, naively believed that those risks could be present but might not be in Japan as Japanese technology was excellent enough to efficiently prevent those risks from occurring.

After the successful publication of Risikogesellschaft, Beck’s reputation heightened in Japan’s sociological communities thanks to his development of concepts like ‘reflexive modernization’, ‘individualization’ and ‘cosmopolitanism’. Now it is quite common that we see quotations of the word ‘risuku-shakai’ (risk society) not only in academic journals but also in journalistic articles issued in Japan. When people begin to talk about the unforeseeable future of Japan, somebody will quickly mention to the ‘risk society’ even though they don’t necessarily understand what that concept actually means. Needless to say, such phenomenon increased after the huge earthquake, concomitant tsunami and the horrible disasters caused by the nuclear plants meltdown in Fukushima in March of 2011.

risk society-japanese edition
A Japanese edition of Beck’s Risk Society

Ulrich Beck was invited to Japan and participated in three symposiums organized by Japanese sociologists in the autumn of 2010. The main theme discussed at those academic conferences was the varying process of ‘individualization’ going on in the East Asia region. While the Japanese, Korean and Chinese societies seem to enter into the ‘second modernity’, the process of ‘individualization’ in each area must be different from those observed in Europe and North America. At the symposiums Japanese and Korean sociologists intensively discussed the multiple courses of modernization and concomitant ‘individualization’ discerned in East Asia. After the crash of bubble economy in early 1990s Japan had long suffered its economic recession and socio-cultural instabilities. One of the typical incidents showing Japan’s uncertainty during that time is the notorious sarin gas attack at Tokyo subway in 1995 conducted by a religious cult group called Oum-Shinrikyo. Japanese society couldn’t recover from severe economic and societal conditions through 1990s to 2000s, so those periods are often called the ‘lost two decades’ in Japan. Considering the impasses Japanese society faced in the first decade of 21st century, it is quite understandable why Japanese scholars picked up Beck’s concept of ‘individualization’ and argued the potential of it with Beck himself at the conferences held in Japan. They expected the concept of ‘individualization’ could be a way out of the serious impasse of the time.

However in his preface to the Japanese book titled ‘risukuka suru nihonshakai (Japanese society in its rising risk)’ collecting the documents of those symposiums in Japan and published in 2011, Beck referred to the essence of risk recognized in contemporary societies, quoting the incidents of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant which occurred just four-month after his leaving Japan. What actually happened in Fukushima on 11th of March in 2011 and thereafter was totally beyond the official risk assessment of nuclear plants. It caused quite a shock for not only the Japanese nation but also for the world as a whole. In theory scholars might have understood the probability of nuclear accidents, but for ordinary people living in Japan it was not realistic at all. One reason for this is that both government and electric power companies have enthusiastically kept on launching campaigns persuading the public to believe in the safety of nuclear power. But realistically enough, the meltdown of nuclear plants tragically compelled us to recognize that it can happen and cause the profound risks that we have to keep on handling for a longer time in the future. It is nothing but the sociological theme Ulrich Beck warningly pointed out twenty-five years ago.

However rich foresights it may have, we should be careful of not reading a sociological work like a sort of Revelation. Keeping it in mind, I dare to mention the potential of Risikogesellschaft redux in a Japanese context. As Beck analyzed using the term of ‘sub-politics’ in Risikogesellschaft, the widely shared public sentiments of anti-nuclear power spread all over Japan and a variety of socio-cultural movements organized not by established political parties but by more amorphous networks among citizens vividly rose up after the terrible accidents in Fukushima Daiichi Plants. The unbelievable meltdown of the plants and public reactions against that surely affected the political climate abroad. The Federal Republic of Germany was compelled to revise its predetermined policy concerning nuclear energy. But ironically enough what happened in Japanese government and parliament was another shock for the world. After the general election in 2012, Japanese government led by PM Shinzo Abe has been eager to foster the re-starting of nuclear plants in Japan, threatening the public with the potential shortage of electricity as foreseen in the case of abandoning nuclear power policy.

In his preface Beck mentioned two scenarios with respect to future that Japan might take. One is ‘Carl Schmitt’s ’ and the other ‘Hegelian’. I myself am not sure whether the German philosophical tradition is still valid even in the East Asian area, but what Beck predicted observing Japan’s situations at the time of 2011 is very suggestive and somehow prophetic.

Shamefully enough Japan seems to have chosen Carl Schmitt’s scenario that represses the self-reflexive reconsiderations on the profound risks facing us. Using nationalistic and deterministic rhetoric, the populist-looking demagogues try to camouflage the essence of risks. But remembering that Beck also postulated another scenario that is more cosmopolitan in its nature, we still might have opportunity to redirect it based on globally shared sentiments of and ethical commitment to the anti-nuclear movements.

Unfortunately we cannot discuss with Ulrich Beck any more, but fortunately enough we still have a lot of things to take from what he kindly left behind for Japan. I appreciate it with deepest grief.

Kiyoshi Abe

School of Sociology Kwansei Gakuin University, Japan

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