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Long-Awaited Self-Rule on the Horizon?

From: Asia Policy
Number 17, January 2014
pp. 165-167 | 10.1353/asp.2014.0007

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What would truly fundamental change mean in Japanese politics today? In the wake of the deadly earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, in which more than twenty thousand people were killed or went missing, what else could Japanese leaders and citizens have thought, said, and pursued than the discourse, policies, and deeds that Richard Samuels articulately recorded in his latest book 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan? While reading this well-researched and fair-minded account of Japan’s epochal experience, those were the questions that came to my mind.

Samuels is right when he states that “3.11 changed few minds within Japan’s chattering classes” (p. xi). Political entrepreneurs across the wide spectrum scrambled to define exactly what had happened, to name villains and heroes, to prescribe creative solutions, and to sell their long-cherished agendas for change (or no change) to the public. In the three policy areas closely studied in the book—national security, energy, and local governance—Samuels concludes that it was the political actors and pundits who advocated for “staying the course” who prevailed. Apparently, no fundamental change has materialized as an immediate result of 3.11.

Interestingly, the author sees the most lasting changes after 3.11 coming from Japan’s local governments. He highlights a number of prefectures and municipalities that sent thousands of officials to badly affected localities in Tohoku and assisted their counterparts in the region for many months. Along with the novel horizontal collaboration crafted by a few prefectures and big cities, such as the Kansai Regional Union, their swift assistance initiatives enhanced the prominence of some ambitious local politicians, including Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto and Nagoya mayor Takashi Kawamura (see pp. 154–57, 179).

From his comparative study of large-scale natural disasters in the past, Samuels finds that central governments around the globe have always tried to reassert their authority following a disaster, while local actors have resisted and demanded greater autonomy in the process of recovery. In Japan, it has been more than a decade since the Regional Autonomy Law was revised, wherein local governments were granted equal status with the central government for the first time in the nation’s history. Nevertheless, the devolution of power and resources has progressed slowly, as Samuels suggests by directing our attention to the well-known catchphrase in Japan “30 percent autonomy.” In that context, the empowerment of governors and heads of major municipalities after 3.11 should certainly be seen as a step toward change in Japan’s political system.

Even in less prominent examples, we can find just as important signs of change. Katashina is a small village in Gunma Prefecture, located 110 miles north of Tokyo at the foot of Oze National Park. The village is a popular ski resort in the Kanto region and hosts nearly three hundred mostly small- and medium-sized hotels. On March 14, 2011, just three days after the earthquake and tsunami devastated its northern neighbors, Katashina invited residents of Minami Soma to take shelter in the village. Minami Soma, which is about 170 miles north of Katashina, was a coastal town in Fukushima that had been gravely affected by both the tsunami and the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Displaced people moved in from Minami Soma on March 18. Katashina, a village with a population of only five thousand, accommodated as many as one thousand “refugees” for months. It is noteworthy that the initiative originated with dozens of village youths who busily e-mailed each other on March 11 and discussed what they could do for their unfortunate neighbors. The village assembly and mayor supported their idea and quickly appropriated 100 million yen (roughly $1 million), which was mainly used to help feed the guests.

Recently, I spoke with about a dozen organic farmers in a village in northern Fukushima. The village was more than 60 miles away from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi plants, and the farmers said that their farms were not as badly contaminated with radioactive materials as those closer to the reactors. Nevertheless, as the farmers kept producing crops, milk, and eggs, they found higher radioactivity levels in some of their products...

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