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3.11 and Policy Advocacy in Japan

From: Asia Policy
Number 17, January 2014
pp. 168-171 | 10.1353/asp.2014.0010

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The magnitude of Japan’s 2011 triple disaster took our breath away and shook the foundations of Japanese confidence in their government. All of us have heard countless stories from the media, friends, and those who continue to suffer displacement, stories that are still accompanied by the memory of those searing images of devastation and loss that were transmitted across the globe as the tsunami followed the 9.0-magnitude earthquake. Who can forget the daily coverage of the effort to prevent a catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant?

Ultimately, however, it was the mobilization across Japanese society to respond to the needs of the people of Tohoku that colored our understanding of what the disaster meant, not only for Japan but for all of us around the world who are vulnerable to natural and man-made disasters. The strengths of the Japanese people were abundantly clear—calm and resilient, the residents of Tohoku sought safety and medical attention, and later waited for help to arrive from their government.

Only two and a half years later, Japan seems well on the way to recovery. The Japanese economy is beginning to grow again, the political disarray that preceded the earthquake and resumed so quickly thereafter seems diminished, and while far from easy, the adjustment to significantly reduced nuclear power has been costly but less painful than many might have imagined. Tohoku remains to be fully rebuilt, however. The scars of the tsunami’s powerful grip on the landscape are still there. Approximately 290,000 people still live in temporary housing, and proposals for how to imagine new towns and villages along the coast remain deeply contested and vastly underfunded.

So what did 3.11 mean for Japanese priorities? Did it really matter? What are the lessons for a society that has been struggling for decades with economic and social reform? Did 3.11 reinforce or challenge Japanese assumptions about the future? Richard Samuels, in his new book 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan, refocuses our attention on the legacy of that tragic—but galvanizing—moment and what it meant for Japanese governance.

Samuels offers a masterful analysis of what happened in Japan after the immediate shock of the triple disaster had subsided and Japan’s policymakers had to contend with its impact. The narrative that emerged in the political debate after March 11 is the book’s main focus. In chapter 2, Samuels persuasively demonstrates that stories of disaster, replete with emotional urgency, create a shared demand for change. Japanese understanding of 3.11—what Samuels refers to as the narrative of that disaster—was also infused by three other elements: the failure of Japan’s national leadership, an awareness of the nation’s vulnerability, and the deep sense of community that allows the Japanese people to be resilient in the face of disaster.

This complex narrative then became fodder for policy advocacy. Citing others who have written on natural disasters, Samuels cautions us to examine our own expectations about the impact of 3.11. Disaster breeds the desire for reform; the need for hope encourages new schemes promising prevention and transformation. Yet these expectations, Samuels points out, must ultimately come to rest on the day-to-day political tussle over whose ideas are better. In chapter 3, he also cautions us to not see Japan’s 3.11 experience solely on its own terms but rather recognize that, as a geological reality, Japan has faced such disasters earlier in its history, at times with equally devastating consequences. Moreover, geology and geography aside, Samuels shows how the intense Japanese criticism of the government’s response to 3.11 has parallels in other contemporary societies facing similar devastation, including the United States after Hurricane Katrina and China after the Sichuan earthquake.

3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan also seeks to link the broad themes of the lessons learned in Japan to the policy debate that came afterward, as Japanese national and local governments sought to regroup:

Like all catastrophes, 3.11 generated pain and imagination, heroes and villains. Political entrepreneurs with motivation and resources were quick to do battle for control of the event. They spun narrative explanations for...

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