In the 10 years since Japan was hammered by triple catastrophe — an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant — the Japanese public has cycled through five phases that weren’t exactly grief but still managed to shake foundational beliefs about themselves. Ultimately, resilience — gaman, that old reliable — prevailed, a mixed blessing for a country that felt it had lost its way even before the horrific tragedy.
The first reaction to the crisis was shock. The disaster was a stunning and heart-stopping spectacular. Watch the mesmerizing videos on YouTube to see the destruction unfold in real time. It was first estimated that more than 30,000 people might have died. The eventual death toll was just over half that (15,899 lives) with another 6,100 injured; more than 2,500 people are missing to this day. The economic damage exceeded 5% of GDP and displaced nearly a half a million people, although many of them, but not nearly all, have returned home.
Richard Samuels, Ford International Professor of Political Science at MIT, one of the world’s pre-eminent Japan scholars and author of “3.11,” a magisterial assessment of the calamity and its impact, concluded that the word “soteigai” (unimaginable”) came to dominate the post-3/11 national discourse. This was the main response from officials from Tepco, the power company that ran the Fukushima plant, and provided some comfort as the nation sought answers to what had happened that day and why. If March 11 was beyond conception — a once in a thousand year phenomenon — then there could be no fault for failing to prevent it.
That initial reaction gave way to hopes — or dreams or fears — that the country was on the verge of a so-called “Meiji moment” that would yield a national reorientation and put an end to the malaise that had settled on Japan since the lost decade(s) that began when the bubble burst in 1989. Fanciful as it may now seem, a number of thinkers anticipated that the crisis would prove cathartic, galvanizing the nation to embrace what was widely believed to be needed change.
That moment passed — in retrospect, many, if not most, will say it was never a real option — and a third phase, confusion, set in. This was a reaction to news that 3/11 wasn’t beyond belief at all. Rather, it was discovered that the failures in planning, preparation and execution that occurred that day were the product of mundane organizational shortcomings: group think, regulatory capture and the pursuit of profit.
Investigations uncovered a report that warned a week before the accident of an earthquake of the size of that which hit Tohoku, which Tepco and two other utilities pressed regulators to play down. That was followed by the revelation that Tepco was aware of the risk of flooding to its facilities (the main factor behind the nuclear accident), and after three years of internal circulation, a report had been forwarded to the nuclear regulator only four days before March 11.
Confusion gave way to anger as the Japanese people realized that they had been deceived. The public was forced to recognize that it had been sold a “safety myth” about nuclear power to make palatable strategic choices about energy policy. Worse, those organizations and institutions weren’t chastened by their failures.
As the country debated whether nuclear power plants shut down over safety concerns in the wake of the accident should resume operation, it was reported that power companies and regulators were working together to manipulate public opinion in favor of restarts.
Ultimately, Japan seemed to settle for resignation and acceptance of the status quo, with some changes on the fringes of policy. That outcome aligns neatly with a culture that encourages resilience, struggle in silence and to not make waves.
Ishinabe Hiroko, who grew up in one of the villages that would be hardest hit by the tsunami before moving to Tokyo for a career as a TV producer, dismissed foreign applause for the silent endurance of Japanese and order in the face of chaos: “From a Japanese point of view, it wasn’t even a point of contention,” she sniffed. Such stoicism was just who the Japanese are. A Japanese politician conceded that those virtues can be a problem, confiding with a sigh that the “social resilience that makes Japan work is an absolute brake on change.” (All comments and quotes are from “Peak Japan,” which was originally undertaken as a study of whether March 11 would trigger paradigmatic change in Japan.)
It is tempting to end the story there. Japan survived the events of that day with psychic and physical scars, but the country largely continues on its previous trajectory. I don’t think that’s accurate, however. March 11 had enduring impacts on Japan, but they aren’t at all obvious.
First, the triple catastrophe deeply affected politics. Not only did it put an end to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government, but it fatally wounded the party. DJP prime ministers continued to occupy the Prime Minister’s Office for another year and a half, but the party’s future was sealed.
More damaging, though, the DPJ’s mishandling of the crisis seems to have undermined public faith in any opposition party. There is little if any willingness to entrust anyone other than the LDP with control of government. That has erased any seeming readiness on the part of the LDP to engage in self-reflection and reform and, worse, encouraged a confidence that borders on arrogance.
Second, March 11 shattered core myths about Japanese identity. In an essay published days after the disaster, cultural commentator Hiroki Azumi argued that those events “tore us apart.” He explained that “The gravity of the damage and the ability to respond to it differ according to each person’s conditions … we became aware that everyone is not the same.”
This may sound obvious but it shredded a foundational tenet of Japanese national identity. March 11 made plain that notions of equality were a fiction, and that victims and survivors were distinguished by random circumstances. A senior government official was more blunt still: “It marked the end of our illusions,” he lamented. “We thought our economy would grow forever, that the national debt could be shouldered by future generations and the U.S. would protect us. Now the euphoria is over.”
Third, and more tentatively, I wonder if the end of those myths hasn’t liberated the Japanese. Freed from a commanding sense of national purpose, they have been able instead to express and sometimes indulge themselves. There is no longer the instinctive readiness to sublimate the individual to the group.
There remains, of course, a considerable gap between that individualism and that which is found — and often abused — in the United States, but it’s budding. The trick now is to nurture it in ways that fuel imagination and innovation in the service of a compelling yet less oppressive sense of national purpose.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).
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