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Author’s Response: 3.11 and the Fog of Politics

From: Asia Policy
Number 17, January 2014
pp. 172-178 | 10.1353/asp.2014.0013

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It has been almost three years since 3.11–36 months that have stretched out the longest and most painfully for the surviving victims. Many observers have spilled much ink trying to understand and evaluate what happened in Tohoku and what it would mean for Japan and the world. I am grateful to Asia Policy for assembling a group of thoughtful analysts to reflect on my early appraisal of the catastrophe. I would like to use their assessments to revisit that understanding of 3.11 and its impact.

As I wrote in the book—and as Michio Muramatsu reminds us—a master narrative for 3.11 has yet to be written. Sheila Smith puts it more directly. She wonders: “Did it really matter?” One way to judge is by revisiting 3.11 from the distance afforded by the passage of additional time. How might my conclusions have been different if I had written the book three years after the catastrophe instead of just 18 months later? Which of the dueling political entrepreneurs who tried to brand the 3.11 catastrophe have been rewarded with policies that conform to their preferences? Has Japan really “stayed the course,” or has it embarked on a new one—either forward in a new direction or “back to the future”?

Andrew DeWit’s apt characterization of “the speed with which Japan’s energy landscape was changing even as Samuels was writing about it” is a good place to begin. He is correct to point to the electric power revolution in Japan, to its acceleration after 3.11, and to its consonance with “global paradigm shifts in energy.” By shrinking and smartening, Japan’s electric power sector seems to be catching up to the rest of the world’s utilities, which had already begun adapting to disruptive technologies as well as to changing consumer, regulatory, and voter preferences even absent a 3.11-scale challenge.

Japan’s “energy shift” seems most prominent at the local level. Following Masayoshi Son’s creative lead, local governments are generating revenues by using the post-3.11 feed-in tariff (FIT) to induce businesses to build large-scale renewable-power projects on vacant municipal land. Municipalities receive rent for the land and additional tax revenue, while the residents get clean, low-cost power and investors enjoy subsidized, low-risk returns. In fact, renewables increased by 25% in the first year after FIT was enacted.

Change in the Japanese electric power sector—including a toughened regulatory authority and a shift away from the utility-centric programs offered by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) toward “micro-electric power companies”—has proceeded despite the utility companies’ natural resistance to change, a resistance abetted in December 2012 when Japanese voters decisively ended the hold of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) on governance. Although polls showed overwhelming opposition to nuclear power, voters returned Japan’s most avidly pro-nuclear and pro-utility party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), to power, and TEPCO shares rebounded immediately. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the DPJ’s policy of zero nuclear power “groundless,” accelerated efforts to export nuclear plants, appointed nuclear power advocates to key cabinet posts, removed anti-nuclear members of the Basic Energy Plan commission, and reduced the FIT price for new investments in renewables. Although METI approved solar-power generation facilities with output capacity equivalent to about twenty nuclear reactors (22 gigawatts), only about one-tenth of the newly approved facilities have actually started producing electricity. Structural change and renewable growth have been slowed by a loophole in the FIT legislation, and some investors have abandoned their projects after encountering difficulty connecting to the grid and gaining access to panels. Nonetheless, the breakup of the vertically integrated monopoly system is under formal discussion in METI councils. The “creative destruction” of hidebound utilities is finally coming to Japan, and Alexis Dudden may be right when she says that “changes in the energy sector may ultimately prove the most profound.” But evidence is mixed on the pace of and impetus for change.

Suzanne Basalla’s comments raise similar questions about the impact of 3.11 on Japanese security policy and on the Japan-U...

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