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Disaster did little to shake up status quo, expert says

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

Disappointing expectations that the megaquake and tsunami two years ago — and subsequent nuclear calamity — would trigger a rebirth of politics and government, Japan’s key policies remain largely unchanged, says Richard Samuels, director of the Center for International Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Samuels, a noted expert on Japanese politics, recently published the book “3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan,” in which he examined for nine months whether the disaster had any effect on national security, energy or local government policies.

“While there have been some important changes in certain areas, this was not a rebirth of Japan,” Samuels said in an interview with The Japan Times. “The normal politics prevailed, but most of us, I think, had inflated expectations for change.”

Samuels’ research covered policies before Shinzo Abe became prime minister in December.

On the national security front, Samuels said the Self-Defense Forces and U.S. military jointly gained acclaim for the first time for disaster responses, particularly thanks to Operation Tomodachi.

Yet the improved image of the SDF and U.S. forces in Japan in the wake of 3/11 failed to become a driving force for progress on key security issues between Japan and the U.S., including the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, he said.

Despite growing calls nationwide to stop relying on nuclear energy because of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant meltdowns, which forced tens of thousands to evacuate, the government failed to strike atomic power from its official energy policy mix, Samuels said.

Last September, then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, the Democratic Party of Japan leader, vowed to phase out nuclear power by the 2030s, but the timeline was omitted in the DPJ Cabinet-approved energy policy amid opposition from within and outside the party.

Even though Fukushima prompted antinuclear rallies numbering in the thousands nationwide, including a weekly one outside the prime minister’s office, Samuels said the public’s overall attitude toward nuclear power was largely unchanged.

“People who were opposed to nuclear power before 3/11 were opposed to nuclear power after 3/11. People who supported (nuclear power) before 3/11 supported atomic power,” he said. “Nothing changed anyone’s mind except for one person. That’s Kan, who was pronuclear and became antinuclear power after 3/11.”

In the general election in December, held 21 months into the nuclear disaster, voters were more focused on economic revival. Parties advocating ending nuclear power, including Nippon Mirai no To (Tomorrow Party of Japan), which was formed just days before the poll and vowed to phase out reactors in 10 years, lacked unity or seemed single-issue at best.

The Liberal Democratic Party, long an advocate of nuclear power and the big winner in the December polls, essentially re-established this pursuit under its leader, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

“Normal politics are very powerful. Ideological divisions are very hard to overcome,” Samuels said, positing that an even greater catastrophe would probably result in little change.

The grassroots antinuclear movement failed to effect tangible change because public support has waned since 3/11 and amid continued economic doldrums, which caused the public to be more self-centered, he said.

“The question is how long you can sustain the empathy for others when they have their own problems?” Samuels asked. “People are exhausted (by distrust of politics) and they want to take care of their own things.”

An Asahi poll in February showed 65 percent of respondents felt the public was losing interest in the plight of people affected by the nuclear disaster.

Yet, Samuels noted several positive changes brought about by 3/11, suggesting that people in general are not apathetic.

One example is the increasing support of local governments. By dispatching more than 100 city workers, Nagoya offered full-scale support to Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, which was ravaged by the tsunami.

Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, which was devastated by the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, also sent staff to the tsunami-stricken towns of Onagawa and Minamisanriku in Miyagi Prefecture.

“They sent large numbers of their employees before the central government was able to mobilize,” said Samuels. “It was a combination of volunteers and initiative of the local government. This was the biggest story of 3/11, in my opinion.”

  • Starviking

    Was Kan actively pro-nuclear before the Tohoku Disaster? I recall reading he was a strong environmental activist in the past.

  • KTA

    “‘Normal politics are very powerful. Ideological divisions are very hard
    to overcome,’” Samuels said, positing that an even greater catastrophe
    would probably result in little change.

    Indeed. One only needs to look across the Pacific Ocean to prove this maxim true.