When the earthquake and tsunami hit the coast of Japan on March 11, it was clear the scale of this disaster, compounded by the nuclear crisis in Fukushima, was unprecedented — even for natural disaster-prone Japan, where some 20 percent of the world's earthquakes occur.

Beyond the level of destruction, the Japanese response to this crisis reveals unique characteristics of Japanese social dynamics, and the role of the third sector in Japan — spanning from local level community-based groups and parent-teacher associations, to national-level non-profits and even international nongovernment organizations (NGOs) like Save the Children. The absence of a strong independent third sector in this country is possibly one of the major factors that results in the lack of cohesion and creative policy debates and the absence of dynamic political leadership.

In comparison to many countries coping with the consequences of natural disasters in the world, Japan has well developed social infrastructures predominantly managed by government but has a relatively weak institutionalized civil society, with the exception of cooperative movements. And yet the concept of civil society, or shimin shakai, has in fact been a strong component of Japanese values for almost 400 years dating back to the Edo Period — built on ideas stemming from community solidarity and helping each other out for the collective wellbeing — so long as it did not challenge the absolute feudal authority of the Tokugawa shogunate.