The magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, 2011, devastated the northeast, killing more than 15,000 people and causing level 7 meltdowns at three reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Observers believed the sheer size of the catastrophe and its subsequent effects provided the country with an opportunity to reform and turn the page on two decades of political, social and economic crisis. In his 2013 book “3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan,” Richard Samuels, director of the MIT Japan Program, chronicles the 18 months that followed the disaster and explains why this opportunity for change wasn’t followed by substantial progress. Here, Samuels expands on some of the issues he examined in his book:
Your book was published on the second anniversary of 3/11, and you actually submitted your manuscript in 2012. Considering what’s happened in Japan since the book has come out, would you write the same book now?
In certain areas there have been more changes than I had first observed, particularly in the energy sector, where it seems there’s going to be major restructuring. Really large vertically integrated utilities are going to be broken up, at least to a certain degree, in favor of smaller and smarter utilities. We will see nuclear power return, but nothing like the ambitious plans the government initially had. Secondly, the regulatory body seems to have more traction than anybody expected.
On the security side, we have seen changes in security environment and policy but rather than 3/11, they are linked to two other things: one is China’s provocations in the China Sea; the other is the election of (Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe, who is more ambitious on the military side. On the local government side, we have seen local governments around Japan help Tohoku by sending their officials to the disaster area. Even though their number is declining, there are still 1,500 local government officials from around Japan in Tohoku. This has been a very important development. Surprisingly, though, we have seen dissatisfaction among the Japanese not only toward the central government but even their local leaders, particularly in Tohoku. As a consequence, local mayors have been thrown out of office one after the other in subsequent elections. These are the developments I didn’t anticipate in my book.
How do you judge the Democratic Party of Japan? Do you think it was incompetent or just very unlucky, or maybe a little bit of both?
They were certainly unlucky. We can’t do a final analysis yet, particularly about (then-Prime Minister Naoto) Kan’s management of the crisis. He was already under enormous pressure to leave because his party was revolting around him — even before 3/11. So he became the chief villain. The question is, does he really deserve it? I think probably not. Mistakes were made, that’s for sure, but before he agreed to leave the leadership he held the party and the government hostage to pass the supplementary budget in order to provide the necessary resources. This was important leadership, especially for someone who was leaving the scene. I think there will be a revaluation of his role.
On the other side, we have a Liberal Democratic Party that comes under criticism in your book.
In my book there is a critique of the LDP as having colluded with the utilities, the bureaucrats and the academics on the energy issue. It was too cozy a relationship, especially when you have both regulation and promotion of nuclear power in the same ministry. On the other hand, even the DPJ was very pro-nuclear both before and after the catastrophe. So it’s not as if one party was in favor and the other was against.
Were you surprised by the results of the political elections in December 2012, and the way the LDP won?
Yes, I was. Everybody saw the polls according to which people were overwhelmingly opposed to nuclear power, and then the elections saw the biggest pro-nuclear party triumph. This suggests a couple of things. One is that people don’t always vote on their poll preferences. There are other issues, and Abe was very successful running on an economic platform. The Japanese may have disliked nuclear power but they hated an economic lethargy even more. What’s more, 10 million less voters cast ballots in 2012 compared to the previous poll — the lowest turnout ever in a national postwar election. This shows that people had lost confidence in the government.
The fact that people went into the streets again to protest the situation after so many years of lethargy can be seen as an important development. What are your thoughts on this?
That’s true, but don’t forget it took a long time for those groups to get going. Then the DPJ backed off and embraced the zero option. But when the DPJ disappeared, so did the protests. Now they only draw dozens, maybe a couple of hundred people, once or twice a month, whereas they were drawing hundreds of thousands every Friday night during the 2012 summer. So it’s true that robust political mobilization was back for the first time in two generations but, still, it wasn’t sustained.
Regarding security policy, what is Japan’s current position in relation to the U.S. on one side and other Asian countries on the other?
Well, the U.S. is Japan’s military ally, and both governments have consistently tried to reinforce an alliance that proved very successful during 3/11 when the Japanese public finally came to believe in its importance and efficacy. As you know, Japan right now has a difficult relationship not only with China and North Korea, but even with South Korea, which is troubling. What’s in question sometimes is whether the U.S. is repositioning toward the Far East in the face of a more powerful China.
In the past, Abe has explicitly targeted Article 9 of the Constitution and the LDP has generally moved away from the country’s postwar pacifism.
When Abe tried to do this in 2007 he was met with a vigorous public pushback, so he has given up on changing Article 9 and is now moving toward reinterpreting the article. This doesn’t require a change in the Constitution but only a declaration by the government that the implementation of Article 9 allows other kinds of capabilities, particularly regarding collective self-defense. An actual constitutional change would be a much more difficult legal obstacle and would face more public opposition.
Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine in December was met with international criticism. Do you think the government will ever agree on establishing an alternative secular war memorial?
That’s actually the U.S. government’s clear preference, because both the Yasukuni narrative about the war crimes trials and the version of Japanese history presented at the Yushukan (the military and war museum located within Yasukuni Shrine) are repugnant to all the countries. Abe blatantly ignored all that and went anyway. This is not the work of a realist but of an ideologue. What is striking about the visit is that in the months before, Japan had the sympathy of the world. China was seen as provocative — a would-be hegemon and a bully — while Japan was seen as a victim. But what Abe did changed everything and called attention on Japan’s inability to come to grips with its war responsibilities. This is a problem for the Japan-U.S. relationship.
How do you judge Abe’s decision?
Well, if you look at this from his point of view, he’s held the door open to China for over a year. He was ready to talk and they didn’t come. So given his ideology he was fairly patient, but he decided at the end of the day that he wanted to do this, thinking that their relations couldn’t get any worse because they were already screwed up.
Do you think that the opposition parties have a chance to win the next Lower House elections?
Absolutely not. The LDP is divided on some issues, including nuclear power, so we may see some fighting about that. However public support for the DPJ now stands at 6 percent. Unless the party is reborn somehow or there is a reconfiguration of party structure it really has no challenge to the LDP right now. New Komeito has a stable base but it’s not going to either grow or shrink. The Communist Party is in single digits. The Restoration Party never really got the traction people expected. Your Party didn’t go anywhere. They are all in single digits. However, the LDP only has 37-40 percent of the public’s favor, so they will need to build a coalition to reach a majority, which means they must convince New Komeito.
This interview first appeared translated in French in Zoom Japon. Foreign Agenda offers a space for opinion on Thursdays. Comments and ideas: email@example.com