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Letting opportunity slip away

by Jeff Kingston

So why hasn’t March 11, 2011, been the game-changer that many anticipated? Richard Samuels’ masterful account of Japan’s policy responses to its greatest crisis since World War II explains why continuity has trumped change. But maybe, just maybe, it hasn’t, as he also reminds us that the consequences are still unfolding.

3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan, by Richard J. Samuels. Cornell University Press, 2013, 274 pp., $29.95 (hardcover)

Crisis creates opportunity, but Japan’s politicians and mandarins let this one slip away as they resumed old battles under new guises. Samuels focuses on three policy areas — national security, energy and local government — and analyzes the competing narratives that emerged as policymakers hijacked the crisis to bolster their preferred agendas.

Samuels writes, “Political entrepreneurs with motivation and resources were quick to do battle for control of the event. They spun narrative explanations for the tragedy across a broad horizon of meanings and values, all conforming to their own preexisting preferences and to what they believed would be effective with the Japanese public. Existing enemies were enemies still, but newly villainous. The stakeholders, thus rearmed, used these narratives aggressively in an effort to shift the still unformed preferences of a general public struggling to make sense of otherwise unfathomable events.”

The resulting standoff favored further drift, and despite the massive jolt, the process settled back into established ruts. Although scrupulously balanced in his assessments, and extolling virtue where he finds it, Samuels presents a withering indictment of a dysfunctional governing elite that comes across as petty and blinkered.

While appeals to social solidarity were widespread and reassuring, Samuels notes, “cheap talk of kizuna (bonds) and tsunagu (connection) were accompanied by a more consequential mistrust of the political class.” Even now, everyone can see how little progress has been achieved on the tsunami coast and with good reason most blame an ineffective central government.

In clarifying the extent of institutional resilience, especially the nuclear village, Samuels conveys a sobering tale of stasis that has confounded those who perhaps expected too much from crisis. The one million anti-nuclear protesters in 2012 are among the disappointed as the government appears determined to restart nuclear reactors despite safety issues and polls showing strong opposition.

In the security realm, the Self-Defense Forces’ role in disaster relief gained widespread kudos and conferred new public legitimacy, but no major budget boost. The U.S.-Japan joint military rescue and relief operation dubbed Operation Tomodachi had a positive impact on public perceptions of the U.S. and the alliance, but the good will didn’t shift Okinawan opposition to the U.S. military presence nor ease other alliance management headaches. South Korea and China engaged in disaster diplomacy, sending relief teams to Tohoku, but with little impact on regional tensions.

Local governments have not received the coverage or praise they deserve, but here are given their due. As the author notes, “They were the democratic institutions that stepped up when the center was gridlocked and unresponsive.”

Interestingly local governments around Japan sent officials to help in Tohoku’s disaster-ravaged towns, significantly boosting their diminished capacity. This networking is based on the Chinese model developed in response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake wherein provinces “adopted” towns and took responsibility for their reconstruction. In Japan, town officials’ desire to help counterparts in Tohoku was reinforced by their need to acquire experience and skills in coping with coming disasters.

The March 11 disaster — quake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns — was a cascading crisis that is far from ending due to ongoing bungling at Fukushima and stymying indecision about the region’s future.

On a more uplifting note, Samuels draws our gaze to “the Japanese people responding with determination and the Japanese nation responding with resilience.” Surely both deserve better from their underwhelming leaders.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus.