Tenth Anniversary of the March 11 Disaster in Japan: STS Reflections

Volume 15, Issue 2

Coinciding with the day on which EASTS published its first issue with Routledge, March 11 marked the tenth anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The event was unquestionably catastrophic in both scale and nature, but what was unexpected was the nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and the spread of radioactive contamination that followed. This turned the disaster into the complex, challenging task it has proved to be ever since. It afflicted terribly the Japanese people, and it also had an impact upon those STS scholars who concern themselves with energy policy and development, and with the immense socio-technical system that is nuclear power. EASTS has been paying close attention to this field of STS and has published a number of articles over the past few years, including a panel discussion shortly after the disaster (vol. 5, nos. 3 and 4) and a review of two documentary films (vol. 13, no. 2). We are delighted that our editor, Kohta Juraku, an expert on the topic who has been deeply involved in it ever since the disaster, has been able to write for us the reflective literature review which appears in this issue. We want to stress that this is no time to consign the disaster to history; to say nothing of the toll it has taken on countless people’s lives and happiness, it has taught us important STS lessons, and we are committed to valuing those lessons in preventing future failures of technology.

EASTS Editorial Office

The tenth anniversary of the 2011 earthquake, its subsequent tsunami, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster on March 11 proved to be of a soberer atmosphere than I had expected, perhaps partly because of the various practical restrictions and socio-psychological effects caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Individual Japanese STSers and the Japanese STS community as a whole have struggled with the contradictions that center on the question of what precisely should be their role and their behavior during this emergency, this very uncertain situation? Many people, including myself, have tried to set out in some organized way our reflections on our experiences of the past decade. Anticipating the upcoming tenth anniversary, a number of titles have been published over the past couple of years by Japanese STSers.

The book series The Challenge of STS (科学技術社会論の挑戦, University of Tokyo Press, 2020) was published as an organized compilation of Japanese STSers’ work. It consists of three books and was edited by EASTS associate editor Yuko Fujigaki (also the editor-in-chief of this series), Tadashi Kobayashi, Shuichi Tsukahara, Koji Hirata, and EASTS senior editor Hideto Nakajima. All of them have been the successive chair of the Japan Society for Science and Technology Studies (JSSTS), the major STS academic society in Japan. Its 29 chapters cover the extent and depth of a contemporary Japanese STS that has experienced such an instinctive opening up under the impact of the disaster.

It seems to me that the series’ editors and its many authors share some sense that Japanese STS has been unable to make a substantial contribution to society in the wake of the disaster, even though it had once differentiated itself from the other humanities and social sciences by its “usefulness” for society in general, for citizens, and for public administration, especially in the sub-field of “science communication.” This notion had a positive impact in the start-up period of Japanese STS in the 2000s. Yet, when push came to shove, not a few policy-makers, public practitioners, scientists, and engineers were disappointed at the ineffectuality of STS and left the JSSTS and other STS-related interdisciplinary arenas. The phrase “sleeping together but dreaming different dreams” might best sum up the relationship between what STS had set out to achieve and the reality of 2011.

And not just the trauma of the 2011 disaster but also consecutive (and perhaps more frequent and devastating) major natural disasters and technological failures in the 2010s inevitably forced STS scholarship to be more self-reflective. Ryuma Shineha’s Responsible Governance on Science and Technology (責任ある科学技術ガバナンス概論, Nakanishiya Shuppan, 2020) is the first Japanese handbook of science and technology governance studies, an important pillar of contemporary STS scholarship. It covers topics from the history of science and technology policy through to science communication, from research evaluation to ELSI/RRI initiatives. The author also co-edited Legacies of Fukushima: 3.11 in Context: Critical Studies in Risk and Disaster (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021) with sociologist Kyle Cleveland and historian Scott G. Knowles. It is one of this decade’s best examples of interdisciplinary and international collaboration. He further edited For the Memories and Narratives of Disasters in the Society (災禍をめぐる「記憶」と「語り」, Nakanishiya Shuppan, 2021) which critically examines the standpoints and impacts of humanities and social scientific research on “disaster” from the perspective of “memorialization” and “narratives.”

Another long-awaited Japanese textbook in this field is Sociology of Science (科学社会学, University of Tokyo Press, 2020) edited by EASTS senior editor Miwao Matsumoto. This is his first university-level textbook of the sociology of science and technology, though he has already authored a series of important works in the field. It is noteworthy that Japanese STS-affiliated sociologists and historians from the Sociology of Science Society of Japan (one of the major STS-related academic communities there) contributed chapters to the book. It is expected to be a catalyst for further academic exchange between communities, as well as a good introduction for junior students.

Simulation, Prediction, and Society: The Politics of Forecasting (予測がつくる社会, University of Tokyo Press, 2019), which was reviewed by EASTS (vol. 15, no. 1) and edited by EASTS editors Tomiko Yamaguchi and Masato Fukushima, is another example of the reflective evolution of STS scholarship in Japan. It is written by sociologists and anthropologists in the broader sense of STS, in collaboration with interdisciplinary experts. I would just like here to remind readers about the existence of this book as it will hold a great deal of importance for us in describing, analyzing, and understanding the post-COVID-19 world.

Finally, let me humbly introduce my own Learning from Technological Failures: Toward the Era of Risk and Resilience (科学技術の失敗から学ぶということ:リスクとレジリエンスの時代に向けて, Ohmsha, 2020). An introductory book for the undergraduate course Interdisciplinary Studies of Technological Failure, it is to date the latest STS book to tackle the disaster. It tries to connect the STS perspective with engineering wisdom, by examining cases of technological disaster with a multi-dimensional analysis.

Fully aware that the above review of books may be considered selective–for example, I do not include in this report the English-language Lessons from Fukushima (edited by Yuko Fujigaki and previously reviewed in EASTS)–I simply wanted to highlight the pedagogical efforts Japanese STSers have made in responding to the 2011 disaster. Michael Fischer rightly indicates this aspect of STS discussion in his film review (vol. 13, no. 2). Based on these few examples given here, I do hope we are able to broaden and deepen our scholarship further in the coming decades, so that, with our international readership, we might succeed in making society that bit better.

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