The thing to remember about corporate history is that it tells its own story. This may seem obvious, after all doesn’t everyone? What version of events is true? Normally, your own, right? (Witness today’s news about the sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former French head of the International Monetary Fund and contender for the French presidency, said to be “on the verge of collapse as investigators have uncovered major holes in the credibility of the housekeeper” who accused him of assaulting her.) The fact that corporate history tells its own story may also seem benign.
Yet when you visit an exhibit created for a company or industry, you need to be on your toes. Ask yourself, Why are businesses and industry interested in history? What is the role of the historian in the corporate context? And both, Whose stories are corporate historians usually telling, and whose stories are not being told?
I normally would not want to comment on an “exhibit” that I had not seen. However, I was fascinated when it was reported this week that in Japan, the only country in the world to have suffered through a nuclear holocaust, the nuclear industry there has:
“…devoted vast resources to persuade the Japanese public of the safety and necessity of nuclear power. Plant operators built lavish, fantasy-filled public relations buildings that became tourist attractions. Bureaucrats spun elaborate advertising campaigns through a multitude of organizations established solely to advertise the safety of nuclear plants. Politicians pushed through the adoption of government-mandated school textbooks with friendly views of nuclear power.”
Putting aside the debate about whether nuclear power is actually safe, let’s take a closer look at the propaganda – the “fantasy-filled public relations buildings.” It turns out that after Chernobyl, the nuclear energy industry (and Japanese utilities and the government worked together) created nuclear-energy-promoting theme parks, playgrounds, and exhibits, even holding events with anime characters to attract children and young adults, at their nuclear plants in order to create a sense of safety and security with regard to nuclear power in resource-poor Japan.
The exhibits in fact do not concern themselves with history (again, an astonishing omission anywhere but particularly resonant in Japan). Instead they show models of the control rooms, and models that promote the idea of cleanliness and efficiency. They also provide virtual tours of the facilities, and encourage children to play outside on playgrounds, and in on video games. Perhaps the most surreal examples (from the article in any case) are the ones in which characters from Allison in Wonderland and a forest of dwarfs are used to explain the safety and benefits of nuclear energy. Throughout, one can see the bright, colorful, smiling bubble characters for which Japanese pop culture and art are known, Japan’s culture of cute.
It’s pretty clear whose stories are not being told in this environment, and ironic that Japanese anime, which is often full of apocalyptic imagery and toxic wastelands, has been used to further the ends of the nuclear establishment. More than that, it seems the whole of the culture of cute has been co-opted for corporate ends, in this case quite damaging ones, clear now in the wake of the March 11 tsunami and the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Remember, Little Boy was the name of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
For a slide show of the P.R. buildings click here.