The Fukushima Fifty: Forget the Rhetoric

I don’t know if they’re still there at work, but I’m still thinking about them. Maybe you are too.

On, March 15, The New York Times writes “Last Defense at Troubled Reactors: 50 Japanese Workers.” It’s a story that spread all over the world faster than the fear of radiation itself.

CBS takes the rhetoric up another notch with the headline¬† “Fukushima heroes: Not afraid to die.”

Then, on March 16, The Montreal Gazette publishes “Fukushima Fifty on whose bravery all hope rests.” Now the journalists are waxing Homeric:

In a country already brimming with stoic courage, this skeleton crew is surely the bravest of the lot. From fragments of information, we can build a picture of their desperate struggle to save their countrymen, and themselves.

The prime minister, Naoto Kan, tells the 50 (who may be more like 180, but let’s not quibble): “You are the only ones who can resolve the crisis. Retreat is unthinkable.”

An almost inconceivable national and then global guilt trip is being laid on these folks, who were just regular working stiffs a few days ago.

Monsters and Critics lets loose with the inevitable but wince-inducing “kamikaze” reference. There’s even a website devoted to them now:

And I’m thinking about all the hackneyed management-speak articles that have been written by people, including me, using terms like “talent” and “human capital” and “engagement” and “loyalty.”

This particular story brings home the superficiality and inadequacy of those terms. The Fukushima 50 are, in the end, people, and they’re way more than just “loyal.” In some ways, they’re like a lot of working folks who regularly take chances with their lives, ducking into burning buildings or charging toward gun fire or climbing into black coal holes for rescue work. This isn’t some poem or romantic narrative about about suicide warriors or divine winds. Sure, they are heroes. It’s as good a word as any. But there are really no good words – especially not in the management literature – for what’s happening here.

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