3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan

March 12, 2013

Richard J. Samuels
, Ford International Professor of Political Science; Director of the Center for International Studies, MIT

Dr. George Packard
, President, United States-Japan Foundation

On March 12, 2013, Richard J. Samuels of MIT visited Japan Society to talk about the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that struck Japan's northeast coast barely two years earlier. He began by asking the audience to join him in a moment of silence to remember those who were caught, and those who are still caught, in that catastrophe.

As a political scientist, Professor Samuels wanted to study the crisis and its aftermath in terms of "what political entrepreneurs did with it, what they tried to do with it, what they succeeded in doing with it and how they failed trying to use it."

His new book, 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan, takes off from the idea "that crises are tools. I am interested in the way the tools were built and how political entrepreneurs generated narratives to explain and frame the event. They created heroes, identified villains, and used their stories to legitimate their own preferences and to delegitimize the preferences of others. In this way they could fortify their own preferences and sell their preferred futures."

The National Conversation
The story of March 11, 2011 "starts with a national conversation" on leadership (or lack thereof); risk and vulnerability, qualities distilled as soteigai, "the unimaginable"; community; and, lastly, change.

Change is "at the end of the day the key question," Professor Samuels said. "It's the thing everyone wants to know about after a crisis. What will be the lasting change? It was clear that expectations for change were inflated that that many of us were experiencing and analyzing the crisis were credulous."

"We were told (and believed) that a new chapter would begin, that we would leave the post-war and we would enter the post-disaster period of Japanese history," and "Japan would experience—take your pick: a national rebirth, a reset, a start, a reform, a recovery, a regeneration."

Three Narratives of Change
Three different narratives on change emerged, Professor Samuels said. Either

• Japan must change course; or
• Japan should stay the course but do better—"a don't-throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater kind of narrative"; or
• Japan must "go back to idealized better times."

He set out to examine how these three views of change played out in three important areas of Japan's public life: security, energy and local government.

Status Quo Ante
Professor Samuels explained his sense of what the three sectors looked like before 3.11:

In the security sector, Japan had practiced "cheap riding realism." It's not "free riding," because there is a cost, but "basically [the principle has been] to depend upon the United States without spending too much." Overlaid on this "was a sense of pacifism in Japan that limited what the Japanese were willing to do with their military."

In energy, there'd been a shift in the fuel mix every decade, from coal in the 1960s, to dollar-a-barrel oil in the 1970s, to nuclear as "the fuel of choice" by the past decade. Nuclear power producers were vertically integrated monopolies; there were "huge transfer payments to folks all in the countryside to take nuclear power plants and overcome the NIMBY—not-in-my-backyard—resistance."

In local government, "the standard characterization has been that local governance is very top down... and yet over the last 40 years cooperation among local governments had really developed… But [there were] real restrictions on how much Japanese local governments could generate in tax revenue on their own—a real fiscal handicap. And the debate over decentralization and re-centralization was perennial."

Status After 3.11

What happened after 3.11? Professor Samuels’ three models replicated themselves across very different sectors of Japanese public life and public policy. He used his three models and three cases to present nine 3.11 narratives.

Security. For those who say security had to change, 3.11 was "a wakeup call." Yes, the 100,000 soldiers "performed well, but they were talking to each other on cell phones and no one was shooting at them." The lesson of 3.11 is that Japan "needs to be more muscular" and to depend less on the U.S.

The stay-the-course narrative on security takes 3.11 as "proof of concept." 3.11 demonstrated that the Self-Defense Force "should be considered a legitimate part or arm of the Japanese government." Civilian control is robust and Japan should "build from the successful cooperation and mobilization during 3.11."

The "undo" group offers a “disarmament narrative." The exceptional performance by the SDF happened precisely "because they had shovels in their hands and not guns." To be true to Article 9 and to Japan’s national identity, Japan should "take the guns out of the soldiers’ hands and turn them loose on the world to do good through humanitarian assistance and disaster relief."

Those who saw 3.11 as a wake-up call "spun up a very powerful metaphor" for Japan's energy issues: the "nuclear village" argument. According to this perspective, the real reason for 3.11 "was a collusive set of relations between the electric utilities, big business, the national bureaucracy and academics," Professor Samuels said. Japan has to have better regulation. It has to replace nuclear power with renewables, clean and green energy.

The energy stay-the-course philosophy is propounded by those with "skin in the game—the utilities and others who said, 'This was a black swan event.'" Japan shouldn't spend its time planning for once-in-a-thousand-years events. There is no way renewables can replace nuclear power—renewables can't generate enough energy to enable economic growth.

The back-to-the-past proponents see 3.11 as a sign that Japan needs to return to a simpler and better time. "Their explanation for what happened was that the enlightenment ideas of the West had crept into Japan to such an extent that it destroyed Japan… Professor Umehara particularly recognized this. His idea was to go back to enlightenment as Buddhists would practice it rather than enlightenment as Western philosophers would have it."

Local government. Here, there were two positions on change: those who would "super-size” local government by building "larger, more coherent regional units of government," and those who believe that highly localized units deliver much more effective disaster response.

Professor Samuels explained how his doctoral dissertation almost 40 years ago "talked about understanding the dynamics across the local government, and not to imagine that everything that local governments do require guidance and tutelary supervision from above. When I got to Tohoku this time, that’s all people could talk about."

"When I first arrived at the Rikuzentakata temporary city hall, I started interviewing. I asked the first person a question, and he said he did not know the answer because he was from Nagoya. I turned to the next guy and asked 'Where are you from?' Again, 'Nagoya.' The third person was from Yokohama. Thousands and thousands of local government officials had been sent by their mayors and by their governors to help in the relief effort. Were they altruistic? Only in part… They were also being trained to deal with disasters, because they understand that the next one may be theirs. It was brilliant."

What Has Changed? Not So Very Much

"Certainly the legitimacy of the Self-Defense Forces and of the alliance has never been higher," Professor Samuels said. U.S. forces won't have trouble using civilian bases and harbors as they did in the past. However, Tohoku didn't erase the base issues of Futenma. "The Japanese people weren’t so taken by Operation Tomodachi that they said, 'You can build new bases in my backyard.'"

The energy sector has a new regulatory structure, and it will be harder to get nuclear plants restarted. "You’re not going to see 50 percent of Japanese electric power generated by nuclear reactors at any time soon—any time in this or the next lifetime I would guess. But they have not been turned off, and they will not be turned off." Reprocessing, as well as sales of nuclear plants abroad, will continue.

“The autonomy of local government has been enhanced, and local leaders have become nationally prominent, but "there has been no significant re-dimensioning of local government."

So in these three areas, "what you see is a commitment to sustain, to deepen and enhance the way things were before."

There are some "very general changes," including "a deeper urban/rural divide than have ever existed in Japan." There is also a higher level of cooperation between NGOs and the government.

Dr. Kurokawa Kiyoshi, who chaired the Diet's investigation commission, said, "'There are no villains in this story. There is only a dysfunctional system, and we have an opportunity now to fix it.'"

Contrast this with what seemed to be a painfully cynical comment by a Diet member, "who actually said that only 20,000 people died," but "30,000 people commit suicide every year in Japan, and nothing changes."

On reflection, Professor Samuels said, the latter comment seems not so much cynical as an insightful take "on the credulity of analysts and the manipulative efforts of political entrepreneurs who plant false hopes for great change. And he’s just saying, 'Slow down. Lower your sights.... Focus on regaining what was lost rather than on creating something that cannot be.'"

Professor Samuels ended by pointing out that none of this “rhetoric of crisis” is peculiarly Japanese: “We have seen finger pointing and narrative construction all too often in the U.S. It’s what happens after crises when political entrepreneurs contest for control."


George Packard, the presider for the evening's discussion, began the Q&A:

Abe is Kishi's grandson. Gerry Curtis has said that he is truly an heir to Kishi's philosophy, and is moving towards changing the Constitution. Do you worry about that?

Abe "paints himself in his own account as a very idealistic nationalist," yet he's "been very pragmatic in dealing with China and in dealing with the U.S." He hasn't called for autonomy, but "for deepening the alliance. And I believe that that’s where it will go—it will go to a deeper alliance accepting and assuming that the U.S. doesn’t do anything to undermine its credibility in Japan."

You have used the word "sclerotic" to describe Japanese society. Is this because it's Japan, or can it be used of any advanced industrial democracy?

Bureaucracies both here and in Japan have siloes that inhibit coordination across agencies, but the U.S. also has interagency taskforces and committees, and often the people who serve have worked on campaigns together and are committed "ultimately to the president."

"The real question is what is the proper relationship between politicians and bureaucrats? Until you get that right, you can hardly get public policy right."

Audience members joined the discussion:

After Fukushima I saw an incredible rise in distrust of experts of all kinds, not just politicians and bureaucrats, but scientists, academics, corporations, the press. And people's curiosity diminished. Do you see this happening, and what are the implications?

Professor Samuels replied, "There is distrust of every institution top to bottom in Japan, and not for no reason," though "I would have to look at the numbers side by side" to make a more specific comparison with the U.S. It used to be said that politicians were corrupt but the bureaucrats are "above all that," but this has been changing for 20 and 30 years. Distrust of academics and the press is newer, and "very troubling."

Young people are energized. The older generation is most affected in terms of their lives. How will these two groups see out the post-3.11 period?

"The day I arrived in Rikuzentakata, I pulled into a volunteer center parking lot, and came across a group of young people giving a speech to express their gratitude to the volunteer organizers. I did not recognize their accent, and asked the guy next to me where these young people were from. “Korea,” he said… I started crying just listening to them thank the volunteer center for allowing them to volunteer. It was very touching. And over the course of the next several days, all along the Sanriku Coast, I was touched by how effective and energized young people were throughout the entire crisis," he said.

About the elderly, Samuels pointed out that "in about 20 minutes on March 11, 2011, Tohoku’s demographic curve shifted 20 years. It suddenly became the demographic profile of what places like rural Shiga can expect in two decades. It is a place where the old suffer disproportionately. The youth can have hopes and dreams, but many of the elderly can’t go home again."

—Katherine Hyde

Topics:  Business, Policy

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