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  • 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan by Richard J. Samuels
  • J. A. A. Stockwin (bio)
3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan. By Richard J. Samuels. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2013. xv, 274 pages. $29.95.

The Great Eastern Japan Disaster (Higashi Nihon Daishinsai), to give it its official title, combining mega-earthquake, mega-tsunami, and nuclear meltdown in the Fukushima No. 1 reactors, immediately cost around 19,000 human lives, devastated coastal towns to the north and south of the major Tohoku city of Sendai, severely disrupted the economy of northern Japan (including cutting transport links and closing many factories), forced the evacuation of a large inhabited area inland from the Fukushima reactors, and created a seemingly endless problem of how to control the stricken reactors. It also led to a (mostly temporary) exodus of many foreign nationals from the Tokyo area, fearful of the effects of nuclear radiation reaching as far as the capital region, and substantial displacements of population within Japan itself.

In the medium term, the disaster brought about the progressive closure of nuclear power stations throughout Japan, precipitating a huge debate about the future of nuclear power. It cast doubt not only on security preparations for natural or man-made calamities, but also on the efficacy and viability of longstanding political institutions. A spin-off of the crisis and its aftermath was the enhanced reputation of the Self Defense Forces (SDF) and of the defense relationship with the United States, following the effective performance of both the SDF and U.S. forces in postcatastrophe clear-up operations.

The crisis occurred at a time when the Japanese economy had experienced some two decades of stagnation and deflation, and when government was in the hands of an inexperienced coalition, based on the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), elected less than two years earlier. The handling of the crisis by that government, and in particular by Prime Minister Kan Naoto, became a matter of intense controversy, but the crisis also raised far wider questions about the viability of the political system as a whole, suggesting that Japan had a problem of governance and even of governability. [End Page 509] One wonders how a hypothetical LDP prime minister would have handled things, had that party still been in power.

Unsurprisingly, apart from a plethora of writing in Japanese, the crisis has generated a number of books in English describing what happened and exploring the implications. These include edited works by Jeff Kingston and by Bong Youngshik and T. J. Pempel, a monograph by Mark Willacy, and most recently an ethnographic volume edited by Tom Gill, Brigitte Steger, and David Slater.1

Richard Samuels brings impressive credentials to understanding what the crisis meant, having previously written monographs on Japanese local and regional policy, energy policy, technological change, political leadership, and security policy.2 Soon after the crises in Tohoku occurred, he shelved another project in order to bring his accumulated understanding to bear on the question of what kind of Japan was likely to emerge from the catastrophe. He notes in the preface that after six months of research he had to abandon his working title, “Rebirth of Japan?” now realizing that the crisis aftermath fitted better into the rubric of recovery than of transformation.

The earlier chapters deal extensively with disaster management, including an intriguing exercise in comparison, both with earlier natural disasters in Japan and with similar catastrophes in other parts of the world. Samuels pays particular attention to the great earthquake and fires that destroyed much of the capital region of Kanto in 1923 and to a number of other disasters outside Japan. These investigations lead him to notably bleak conclusions: the Great Kanto Earthquake facilitated military dominance and damaged the progress of democracy; international goodwill generated by foreign aid and participation in rescue efforts seldom leads to a real improvement in relations between nation-states.

In the Japanese case he also finds it difficult to discover evidence of improvement in standards of national governance following 3.11. Indeed, perhaps the most lamentable effect of the crisis was that, rather than fostering [End Page 510] political solidarity in the task of national recovery, after...


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