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3.11 and the U.S.-Japan Alliance: Building on Success for the Next Generation

From: Asia Policy
Number 17, January 2014
pp. 155-159 | 10.1353/asp.2014.0001

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Richard Samuels’ provocative and engaging book, 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan, offers a timely and broad framework for examining Japan’s response to the complex disaster caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake. Samuels asks whether Japan is on a path for restoration or for renaissance, and while he judges that it is “too early to know,” he argues for the value of understanding why either outcome may be in the offing and shows why elements of both outcomes are likely to persist. A reader seeking a neat, unambiguous argument will be disappointed by the number of questions Samuels raises that remain unanswered. But for those looking for a current account of Japan’s response to the 3.11 disasters, this book is an excellent English-language resource. The assembled statistics and case studies will undoubtedly serve future researchers well as they tackle the issues discussed here. Samuels concludes that many observers (and he humbly includes himself in this category) overestimate the transformational potential of crises and suggests that we should not be surprised that Japan has basically chosen to “stay the course” rather than adopt what he calls a “put it in gear” narrative (p. 26).

That Samuels generally concludes that Japan’s observed change thus far is neither a game changer nor structural does not in any way detract from the value of his analysis. He offers a useful framework for exploring dueling narratives of change, focusing on leadership, risk, and community in the context of security, energy, and local governance. Samuels brings a rich set of data to this analysis. He has assembled an impressive review of statistics, reports, and interviews, drawing on bilingual sources, social media, a broad network, and years of experience. Even for those of us who lived through some of the events Samuels describes, the comprehensive approach offers new insights and perspective. The book also includes a fascinating chapter on historical examples of how Japan dealt with previous large-scale disasters; the parallels it draws to the country’s recovery from the Kanto earthquake of 1923 (and the U.S. military’s “disaster diplomacy” at the time) prove quite revealing. Samuels’s explanation of the dynamics between central and local leaders provides some the freshest and most provocative insights of the book. Having had the privilege of visiting some local communities in Tohoku after the disaster, I, too, was struck by the extent to which the quality of local government can mean the difference between life and death for its citizens. Describing the extensive horizontal cooperation among local governments (the scale and impact of which I had no idea about before reading this book), Samuels says of the solidarity among local governments, “there was something special in this development” (p. 170), which he later calls the “biggest untold story” after 3.11 (p. 196). His account reminds us why it is critically important that we include local leaders, from mayors to governors, in our understanding of Japan’s leadership and factor them in when we think about Japan’s future.

On 3.11, I was serving as senior advisor to U.S. ambassador John Roos and had a front-row seat to much of the U.S.-Japan coordination that the book details. Samuels captures well the breadth and scale of U.S. official support to Japan, much of it through the U.S. military’s Operation Tomodachi. The military’s immediate response, eventually involving the nearly 20,000 troops, 140 aircraft, and 20 ships cited by Samuels, was massive and meaningful. Additional support poured in from across the government, reflected in the 145 officials who joined the U.S. embassy to help coordinate efforts. This was coupled with an outpouring of civil-society and private support from Americans that highlighted just how special and unique the U.S.-Japan relationship really is.

In describing the initial challenges in establishing coordination between the U.S. and Japanese governments, Samuels references some of the more sensational reports of tensions as a frustrated U.S. government pushed Japan’s Kan administration for better access and more timely information. Many accounts of friction during those early days mistakenly suggest that at issue was a...

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