Kosei Books
Dharma World Magazine homeCurrent Issueback issues of Dharma World MagazineKosei Publishing Co.Dharma World buddhist magazineKosei BooksRissho Kosei-kai English web site
Dharma World Buddhist magazine

The TEPCO Nuclear Disaster and the Responsibilities of Religions

by Martin Repp


It is time that religious individuals and organizations in Japan liberate themselves from feudal structures and struggle against the terror of the nuclear industry, the sale of contaminated food under the pretext of false "patriotism," the burning of contaminated waste, the insufficient evacuation of citizens, and the failure to treat cancer patients in Fukushima.

Once, during my twenty-one years of work and life in Japan, I encountered a representative of the Japanese nuclear industry. When traveling in Kyushu I happened to meet a young man who was working in the public relations department of a major power company. After learning of my German nationality, he spoke enthusiastically about the superb PR skills of German nuclear companies, from which, he said, his department had learned the following three basics: nuclear energy is safe; it is cheap; and it is environmentally friendly. I did not voice strong criticism then, even though I was critical of nuclear energy. I was not yet an antinuclear activist, as many Germans after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster had become. In subsequent years, however, I observed that nuclear accidents occurred almost annually in Japan.

In 2009 I went back to Germany because of my work, but I planned to return to Japan after retirement and spend the rest of my life in that country of good friends, a fascinating culture, and an intriguing religious world. After March 11, 2011, this dream came to an abrupt end. Of course, my disappointment is nothing compared with the pain and despair of the survivors of the two natural disasters and the nuclear catastrophe. Since that time I have become an antinuclear activist together with a number of Japanese people living in Germany. We are developing information networks and planning to engage in humanitarian aid. During demonstrations we join hands with German activists and exchange information. We try to overcome the communication gap caused by language barriers. Since the nuclear industry is interconnected worldwide, the antinuclear movement still needs to improve its international networking similarly.

The TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) nuclear disaster forced me to deeply reconsider my way of thinking. This change was late in coming but hopefully not too late. In this essay I try to formulate some critical and self-critical reflections about the nuclear industry from the perspective of a Christian, a student of Buddhism, and a participant in interreligious dialogue. In this matter, I think, the basic ethical positions of Buddhism and Christianity do not differ much. I have developed four points that describe the present situation and pointed out alternatives to the ways of life and thought that dominate us in the early twenty-first century.

Lies and Truthfulness

First, one of the ethical principles of Buddhism and Christianity is truthfulness and the rejection of telling lies. The PR claims that electricity produced by nuclear power is cheap, environmentally friendly, and safe are blunt lies. It is only "cheap" when ignoring the tax money used for construction of the power plants and the tremendous costs for the final disposal of nuclear waste. It is "safe" only when the many accidents and the constant impact of radiation from the power plant under normal working conditions on the environment and human health are concealed. It is "environmentally friendly" only when claiming that the CO2 emissions from conventional power plants are more dangerous than the radiation released by reactors during normal operation. Keeping quiet about one side of the coin (the ugly side) characterizes modern advertising. Telling only half of the truth means telling lies.

Moreover, the amount of money spent by the nuclear industry for PR to manipulate public opinion is enormous. In the case of Japan, since 2011 the electric power companies have paid huge amounts to the mass media, scientists at universities, and others. If TEPCO had instead used this money to compensate for damage caused by its nuclear disaster, the government would not now need to spend the taxpayers' money for such purposes. Since power companies in Japan possess monopolies in the regions in which they are operating, one wonders why they need to advertise so heavily in the media and sponsor academics. The only conceivable reason is the attempt to manipulate public opinion. Apparently in response to this outpour of money, critical reporting in most Japanese media has been suppressed - with a few exceptions, such as by the newspaper Tokyo Shimbun - and critical journalists have been fired. Even worse: as early as April 2011 the government issued laws attempting to strictly control the information flow on the Internet under the pretext of preventing the "spread of rumors." Previously, such drastic measures had been taken only by totalitarian regimes. I was disturbed by the absence of a public outcry by Japanese citizens and organizations.

There are other forms of lies or verbal manipulations of truth. Recently it has become customary to treat certain words as taboo, such as hibakusha (victims of nuclear radiation) and hinan (evacuation). On the other hand, euphemisms have come into use, such as decontamination or cold shutdown. "Decontamination" designates the futile effort to relocate radioactive soil to storage areas; hence the real contamination problem is not solved. (The yakuza [underworld] have been involved in decontamination, skimming the wages of illegally hired workers, putting tax money into the pockets of organized crime.) The government's declaration of a "cold shutdown" in December 2011 - a lie - earned derision in the media worldwide. Do government and administration officials not realize how they make fools of themselves internationally? Manipulation of speech, or verbal distortion of reality, is nothing other than telling lies. Religions like Buddhism and Christianity encourage facing the truth and telling the truth - even if it may be disadvantageous in the short run. A Fukushima citizen taught me to use the expression "TEPCO nuclear disaster" instead of "Fukushima nuclear incident." His beloved prefecture should not receive a bad reputation while the real culprit, TEPCO, is not held to account. In summary: Why do the government and the nuclear firms feel it is necessary to base the national system of energy production on such an accumulation of lies?

Greed and Contentment

The second point presenting the alternatives to the present way of life is that Buddhism and Christianity teach that a major reason for misery in this world is our human greed (Jpn., yokubo; Latin, concupiscentia, one of the cardinal sins). Beginning in the 1960s in Germany, when the economy and consumption began to boom, Protestant ministers ceased to use the word greed. Similarly, during the "bubble economy" period in Japan, Buddhist priests taught little about yokubo. Recently, however, the worldwide financial crisis caused by greedy bankers and speculators has prompted us to reconsider this issue. The driving force behind the nuclear power industry is blunt greed: greed by bankers of megabanks, by managers and engineers of electric manufacturing companies (Toshiba, Mitsubishi, et al.) and construction companies, and finally by the executives of power companies, such as TEPCO and KEPCO (Kansai Electric Power Company). Monetary profit has become the ultimate goal in our secularized world, the absolute value replacing God or the Dharma. Unfortunately, for too long Christians and Buddhists have failed to clearly name the driving force that has eventually led to nuclear disasters and other misfortunes.

One consequence of greed is social discrimination: reactor workers cleaning up the nuclear waste and refugees from Fukushima Prefecture who have escaped to other parts of the country are equally victims of discrimination. The greed for profit has not stopped even after the disaster: TEPCO pays either no or completely inadequate compensation to those many victims who lost their homes and work because of nuclear contamination, although at the same time it spends huge amounts to influence mass media, scientists, politicians, (ex-)government officials, and others. In Japan one of the basic principles of neoliberalism is functioning well: privatization of profit and socialization of economic loss. Ordinary taxpayers have to pay for the huge amount of damage caused by the failures of TEPCO engineers and managers. (Investigations have shown that construction failures in the nuclear plant were the cause of the 3/11 nuclear disaster.) As after most previous nuclear accidents in Japan, the persons responsible have not been brought to justice. The rest of society has had to bear the burden, whereas TEPCO employees still receive their annual bonuses.

I am wondering why we religionists and our religious organizations today have not clearly enough taught the evil of greed and the blessings of contentment. In the garden of the temple Ryoanji in Kyoto is a stone washbasin in a shape combining four Chinese characters, each sharing the element of "mouth" ? in the central opening of the stone. The four characters ???? can be read in the sense of "I know only what is sufficient." This sentence is derived from a Buddhist sutra and is also related to the Confucian saying "The heart of the person knowing what is sufficient is settled." After I returned to Germany I became unhappy because I had not achieved certain goals I had envisioned. My mood changed only after I learned from a sermon to become grateful for every little positive experience each day: for the common blessings that cannot be taken for granted, such as health, a safe trip, friends, food, the air. Only after we have lost such things do we start to regret that we did not appreciate them in time. For reasons of others' greed, the people from Fukushima lost so many necessities of well-being such as home, family, friends, work, income, as well as unspoiled air, water, and food.

Technology and Religion

The third point is that the nuclear industry is based on blind trust in modern technology. Heinz Riesenhuber, a former minister for research in Germany (1982-93) who was in charge of developing the nuclear industry, stated after the TEPCO nuclear disaster: "I trusted in technology" and "I trusted that we have a secure and controllable technology. I did not consider that something like [the disaster of] Fukushima would be possible" (Frankfurter Rundschau, April 14, 2011). Another article criticized "faith in technology" (Technikgläubigkeit) (Frankfurter Rundschau, April 12, 2011). In Japan, Tetsuen Nakajima identified the widespread "faith in science and technology" (kagaku gijutsu shinko) that has existed since the Meiji period, which began in 1868 (Bukkyo Times, June 2, 2011). Like money and profit, technology has achieved absolute value in modern societies. Many people serve such false deities even at the costs of destroying land, water, and air; plants and animals; and the lives of human beings. Religious persons know that we should put our trust not in technology or money but in the Buddha, the Dharma, God, or a similar divine reality. Again, we must ask ourselves critically: Have we not failed to teach and live according to the values of our holy scriptures? Have our religious organ­izations not become like any other economic enterprise and thereby lost credibility? Few leaders give hope and encouragement for us to pursue a more authentic way of life.

Karma and Liberation

A final point presenting alternatives is that one of the basic Buddhist teachings is the law of karmic retribution. When Buddhism was introduced to China and to Japan, this law was taught first. Only after being acquainted with karma do human beings understand the significance of religious liberation. What happens when this law is no longer taught? In view of the many corruption scandals among politicians, civil servants, bankers, and others, I have often wondered why priests no longer teach the karmic law. Buddhist friends have told me that fear of discrimination has prevented them from doing so: in former times the concept of karma was used to legitimize ascribed low social status by reference to the person's presumed evil deeds in a previous life. As far as I know, the Buddha used this concept not primarily to explain present situations through past deeds but first of all to encourage responsible behavior today by considering the consequences of our deeds. Christians have a similar ethical principle that is called "interconnection between deeds and their consequences." This is expressed in the Bible, for example, by the proverb "Whoever digs a pit for others shall fall into it." Unfortunately, Christian ministers in Europe have also neglected this basic teaching since the second half of the twentieth century. Consequently, the sense of ethical responsibility has become considerably weaker among people in Europe - quite similar to the case in Japan.

Politicians, businesspeople, managers of banks and industry, and nuclear engineers worldwide do not seem to care about the disastrous consequences of their projects. They do not worry about the land, plants, animals, or grandchildren and great-grandchildren who will suffer the consequences of their deeds. However, as Buddhism, Christianity, and other religions are teaching, we human beings are liable for each of our deeds, without fail. Only when this is taught and understood can religious liberation be realized in this world.

Responsibility of Religion

During a European symposium for interreligious dialogue in 1975, Cyrus Vance, a former U.S. secretary of state (1977-80), asked why the "religious community throughout the world" has "such apparently ineffective input into the management of our global village." Indeed, many religious persons have influential positions in politics, society, technology, and the economy. So why have religious individuals and organizations not contributed more to the improvement of our world in recent decades? Is it because we religious people do not talk truthfully or our teaching and actions are not in accord?

The present situation in Japan seems to be more complicated in two respects. First, following the mingling of religion and politics from the Meiji period until 1945, most religious organizations now observe separation from the state according to the postwar constitution. In legal terms this is negative freedom; that is, religion is free from interference by the state and vice versa. However, jurisprudence also teaches the equally important term positive freedom, freedom for something, such as a social action. In Germany, for example, a treaty between church and state regulates cooperation, such as the social service of the church and its support by the state. The German churches also play a crucial role in the antinuclear movement. In medieval Japan, Buddhism contributed to political change when it caused the state to replace capital punishment with the penalty of exile. In my view, Japanese religious organizations today should again learn to practice such positive religious freedom while respecting the separation of state and religion.

The second specific problem in Japan today is not easy for me to articulate, since I fear to offend some dear friends. While living in Japan I gained the impression that after World War II Japan had become a democracy only on the surface, not really in its social, political, economic, and mental structures. The survival of prewar feudalistic patterns is apparent in many instances: numerous politicians inherit their position from their family and then pass it on to their scions. Widespread amakudari ("descent from heaven," the retirement of high government officials to executive positions in private companies) creates collusion between state administration, politics, banking, and industry. The influence of business (specifically, nuclear power) on the media has been mentioned already. And most of all, democracy is not taught thoroughly in Japanese schools, as has been done, for example, in South Korea since dictatorship was abolished.

It is time that religious individuals and organizations in Japan liberate themselves from feudal structures and struggle against the terror of the nuclear industry, the sale of contaminated food under the pretext of false "patriotism," the burning of contaminated waste, the insufficient evacuation of citizens, and the failure to treat cancer patients in Fukushima. It is time to protest against the present government's right-wing intention to abolish the peace constitution, its tendency to provoke tensions with neighboring countries, and its desire to sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, which would enable the United States to exploit Japan's industry, trade, banks, insurance, and health system. Japan is in its deepest crisis since 1945, and it is now time for religious individuals and organizations to cooperate to save it from self-destruction.

Martin Repp is a representative in Frankfurt of the Church of Hessen and Nassau (Germany) for dialogue with Asian religious organizations and a lecturer on religious studies at Heidelberg University. From 1988 to 2009 he worked at the National Christian Council in Japan's Center for the Study of Japanese Religions, in Kyoto. From 2004 to 2009 he was also Professor of Comparative Religious Studies at Ryukoku University in Kyoto. His research focuses on Buddhism, religious reform, and interreligious communication. His books include Honens religiöses Denken (Honen's religious thought).

This article was originally published in the October-December 2013 issue of Dharma World.

Kosei Publishing

Copyright (C) 1997-2019 by Kosei Publishing Co. All rights reserved.