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Japan Could Change While Staying the Course

From: Asia Policy
Number 17, January 2014
pp. 151-155 | 10.1353/asp.2014.0015

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Richard Samuels’s book 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan is the best academic book to date on the triple disaster because of both the insightful academic questions it raises and the thoroughness of its earthquake-related information. It also is among the most provocative books I have ever read, posing the crucial question to Japan: Why has the opportunity of this crisis not produced change? While contemplating this important question, however, I wondered whether perhaps it was good that Japan did not change that much as a result of the crisis. I learned a lot from reading this book, but sometimes found myself being a bit skeptical of its criticism of Japan’s choice to “stay the course” rather than “put it in gear.” Perhaps, I wondered, Japan is changing in a piecemeal way, and perhaps it was predictable from the beginning that the probability of great change would not be high.

To understand what happened, Samuels smartly chose three policy areas: national security, energy policy, and local governance. These not only are the areas that he knows best from his own academic research, but they also are where Japan faced the most important difficulties during 3.11. The damage from 3.11 was unprecedented. According to the World Bank, it represents the largest economic loss from one disaster since 1965. In the first week after the incident, people suffered shortages of food, water, and gasoline, among other things. Help and support came from abroad as well as from all over the country, as the largest number of volunteers in Japanese history was mobilized. Although he points out some of the positive aspects of the response, Samuels nonetheless is very critical of the early stages of the government’s risk management under the Kan cabinet. Two years and some months later, numerous debates are underway about changes in various policy areas. However, Japan has still not “geared in” the course for change.

Chapter 2, which is titled “Never Waste a Good Crisis,” and chapter 3, “Historical and Comparative Guidance,” were to me the key chapters for understanding this book. Chapter 2 sets the stage for the argument that Japan chose to “stay the course” rather than “put it in gear.” Samuels explains that the first few years after a crisis constitute a critical period during which leaders may “enjoy a greater range of choices” than usual and in which new institutions and structures could emerge (p. 24). The events and experiences of 3.11 were shocks of a magnitude equal to or greater than what had produced changes to the system in the past. According to Samuels, we should presume that “significant adjustments follow sudden, major challenges to a previously stable system” (p. 24).

In contrast with chapter 2, where Samuels argues for a direction of change, chapter 3 provides very objectively the comparative framework to read the subsequent chapters (with chapter 4 focusing on security, chapter 5 on energy, and chapter 6 on local governance). The book considers a range of historical examples of natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina in the United States in 2005; the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China; Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008; and the 1995 earthquake in Kobe. These examples may not be exhaustive, but they are deeply researched. Samuels clearly is knowledgeable and must have worked hard to collect and present the information about these disasters in a very interesting way. His analysis of the Sichuan earthquake, for example, is a small case study of Japan-China diplomatic relations in a difficult time. Although he concludes that the relationship did not ultimately improve from such diplomacy, the case study still suggests how a disaster can function as a diplomatic tool.

Drawing on a quote by White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel to “never waste a good crisis” (p. 26), Samuels has analyzed 3.11 to see how Japan has made use of its “good crisis” to recover from the damages. He reviews the past two years since the earthquake in each of the three policy areas to assess whether any changes have occurred. In energy policy, he notes that Masayoshi Son proposed alternative technologies to nuclear energy and argued for...

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