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Japan’s roiling struggle forward

A year after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, criticism continues on the government’s response to the disaster.Shizuo Kambayashi/Associated Press/Associated Press


ONE YEAR ago Sunday, the world watched in horror as 20,000 people were washed away by a devastating tsunami just minutes after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake shifted the sea floor off the Tohoku coast in northeastern Japan. And then, in slower motion, we witnessed the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor and the displacement of 110,000 residents.

This quake, tsunami, and meltdown — a triple catastrophe with no precedent — is simply called "3/11.'' A year on, 3/11 and its consequences are at the center of a Japanese national debate on the future direction of the country, one that focuses on change, community, leadership, and vulnerability.


Many say that 3/11 was a warning to "put it in gear'' and go in a new direction by moving to a new energy supply mix, adopting a new security posture and reforming government to make it more responsive to crises. Others exhort Japan to "stay the course,'' feeling that the catastrophe was a "black swan'' that comes once in a millennium. Others declare that Japan must return to an idealized past and rebuild what was lost to modernity and globalization.

The meltdown at Fukushima as well as the government response have prompted economists, entrepreneurs, and civic activists to argue that Japan should pull the plug on nuclear power and generate renewable energy on a national - or even Asia-wide - scale. Some defense experts want the Japanese military to use 3/11 to acquire new equipment, such as the US-supplied unmanned aerial vehicles that proved so valuable after the reactor accident. Pacifists insist 3/11 taught the true meaning of the "peace constitution'' - any new defense acquisitions should replace Japan's guns with shovels and Japan's military should be reinvented as a "Global Disaster Relief Corps.''

A second master narrative focuses on community. Each December, the priests of Kyoto's Kiyomizu temple hold a competition to identify the Chinese character that best exemplifies the past year. The winner for 2011, the elegant character "kizuna'' that evokes communal bonds, was inspired by the extraordinary solidarity of the people of Tohoku and the nation that rallied behind them. "Kizuna'' and related terms of social unity have been as ubiquitous and emotion-laden in Japan's post-3/11 discourse as the "hallowed ground zero'' was after 9/11 in the United States.


This has been the starting point for many community-builders - whether they want to "super-size'' regions for the sake of administrative efficiency or return to smaller districts over which residents may have more control. When the central government was slow in responding to the needs of Tohoku localities, governors and mayors across Japan took the initiative and dispatched thousands of their own officials to assist. Large cities "adopted'' Tohoku towns and villages, and organized a system that continues to provide technical expertise to the affected area. At the same time, they provided themselves emergency management training for future disasters.

Appropriating the new national motif, a group of nine parliamentarians split with the leadership of their own ruling party, and established the "New Party Kizuna'' in January. My Tokyo neighbors don't think much of these politicians - or, indeed, of any elected officials or bureaucrats. They lament Japan's leadership deficit, and are tired of the revolving door through which six prime ministers have passed in and out in as many years.


Japanese leadership is now more than another narrative theme. It is an oxymoron. After a short "rally round the flag'' moment - a month's respite from relentless criticism of Prime Minister Naoto Kan - the critique of the entire political class went into hyper-drive, culminating in Kan's resignation.

Of course, it is not just leaders but the entire nation that is vulnerable. Japan has long identified itself as a nation at risk - whether from natural disasters or foreign control. The early "black swan'' defense by the utilities and their allies holding that 3/11 was a natural disaster "beyond imagination'' touched off a storm of probing denunciations that continues today.

Critics insist that this was a human failure and that explanations based on limited imagination are merely evasions of responsibility. They ask how the Japanese, who have lived continually with risk and who have weathered so many crises in the past, could have so "recklessly'' failed to imagine disaster. Wasn't Japan a technological superpower? Where were the robots that could have examined and controlled the nuclear plants in crisis? Why, many wonder, was so much left unimagined?

Each of these 3/11 tropes - change, community, leadership, and vulnerability - is used by political entrepreneurs to define heroes and villains; each is buttressed by reports and analyses designed to convince citizens that there are particular lessons to be learned and optimal ways for Japan to pick up the shards of 3/11 devastation.

Generating explanations and prescriptions to nudge preferences and realign policy after tragedies of this sort is a core business of democratic politics. Japan's prolonged, intense post-3/11 engagement of government with citizens and ideas is many things, not least of all evidence of a robust democracy at work. However much policies shift - or inertia prevails - one can only hope that catastrophe on the scale of 3/11 is never revisited upon this resilient people.


Richard J. Samuels is a professor of political science and director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.