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Making Sense of the Disaster

From: Asia Policy
Number 17, January 2014
pp. 148-150 | 10.1353/asp.2014.0018

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Now a word in Japanese, “3.11” is the date when the earth’s tectonic forces physically reconfigured Japan. Nearly three years since the March 11, 2011, nightmare began, the Japanese government has confirmed the deaths of 16,000 people; in addition, several thousand more remain missing and presumed killed by the devastation unleashed from the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the monstrous tsunami that ensued. Three of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant experienced meltdowns, and according to official statistics, 282,000 people are still refugees within Japan, unable to return home. Many have moved from the country’s northeastern Tohoku region because of infrastructure damage, while many more have dispersed because radiation levels in their houses and villages exceed acceptable norms. Fear and mistrust concerning what the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) deem “safe” levels of radiation propel them as well.

With characteristic clarity, intellect, and scholarly rigor, Richard Samuels has engaged this unfolding maelstrom head-on to produce 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan. Moving categorically through three areas—security, energy, and local public administration—Samuels argues that thus far the political fallout from this unimaginable trifecta of disasters has been not only imaginable but also predictable. Samuels explains of post-3.11 Japan that “political actors spun stories to help make sense of the disaster, always in ways consistent with what they already ‘knew’ to be true” (p. 184). His elaboration brings him to conclude that “3.11 was simply the continuation of normal politics by additional means” (p. 185). Throughout the book, Samuels thoughtfully explicates his thesis of continuity over rupture: the Japan in which “those who thought the utilities were villains before 3.11 insisted that 3.11 proved their point. Those who believed the DJP [Democratic Party of Japan] was a collection of incompetent parvenus…now had additional evidence…[and] supporters of the Japan-U.S. alliance and of the Japanese military renewed their claim that they were right all along” (p. 184–85). Writing most specifically about security, he emphasizes that, “in short, there was no major Tohoku dividend—either for the war-fighting capacity of Japanese troops or for the U.S.-Japan alliance” (p. 109).

All this notwithstanding—and what will likely be his pathbreaking contribution to assessments of 3.11—Samuels’s own detailed examination of the rescue and relief operations conducted by the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) suggests that if we wait just a little bit longer, the “dividend” for the SDF may be rather lucrative indeed. In short, Samuels describes how during 3.11 a discursive shift took place alongside the troops’ actions, one that has continued to secure widespread buy-in for the SDF throughout Japanese society in ways that—if not entirely new—have greatly expanded the level of support beyond anything seen before 2011 in the post-1945 era.

The SDF’s moment in the 3.11 spotlight shapes the book’s fourth chapter, “Dueling Security Narratives,” in which Samuels establishes three categories of responses to what took place: “wake-up call” (comments from those largely on the right who urged the nation to get “in gear and prepare for its real enemies”), “proof of concept” (views held by centrists who saw “the deterrent power of the alliance” in the SDF’s performance working together with U.S. troops), and “disarm” (the largely leftist perspective “that Japan’s soldiers get more shovels than guns”) (p. 83–86). Next, Samuels views these categories through secondary prisms that interrogate what we might glean for the future place and function of the SDF in Japanese society. Taken as a whole, the analysis ties in well with his previous work on the Japanese military, as well as with other analyses of the “soft” changes that were already afoot within the SDF long before March 11, 2011, in order to make its existence more palatable to Japanese society in general. New, though, is the fourth chapter’s thick description of the “narratives” surrounding SDF troops working on their own and together with U.S. forces in Operation Tomodachi during the disaster’s aftermath. Examples run the gamut: A retired...

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