3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan

[Ed. note: Today’s post has nothing whatsoever to do with Two Dudes’ avowed SFF mission. However, after attending a presentation and book signing by Japan expert Richard Samuels on the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and then after tearing through his new book about it, I couldn’t restrain myself from writing a lengthy reaction. I have personal stakes in both the disaster and its aftermath, so this remains an emotional issue. I don’t have any other outlet at the moment for this, so for now it goes here, inappropriate or not. To readers not interested, I recommend skipping this long article. There will be no science fiction today.]

3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan
Richard J. Samuels

On the morning of March 11, 2011 (Pacific Standard Time), I arrived at the office, logged onto my computer, and absently opened Firefox in a side window while I brought up the day’s work. Then I realized what had happened in Japan and ignored that work for the rest of the day, instead staring in increasing horror at the news playing out on my monitor. I watched the earthquake and tsunami, and later the nuclear meltdown, bring not just my second home to its knees, but the region I refer to as “my Japanese hometown.” (I will spare the personal details, except to say that at least one former residence was assuredly washed away.) Some weeks later, I wondered publicly if this would be my generation’s Black Ships, the event that would finally shake Japan out of its inexorable decline and galvanize the populace to face boldly their problems, as Commodore Perry’s arrival and the end of the Pacific War had done before. I was not the only one.

Richard Samuels is one of the foremost Japan experts of his generation, widely respected and hugely influential in the Asian Studies community. By his own account, he shelved a long running project in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, arranged a sabbatical to Japan, and commenced his year of research there fully expecting to document the profound change that must inevitably follow a catastrophe of this magnitude. 3.11 is his account of what is actually happening in Japan, detailing the political change, or lack of it, as the Japanese struggle to make sense of the tragedy and define a narrative that both explains the paths leading to the disaster and a way forward. It is not, to me, a hopeful tale, but does contain a few bright possibilities.

Samuels focuses on the three political arenas most affected by the quake: the status of the Self Defense Force (SDF; Japan’s euphemistically named military), energy policy, and the relationship between federal and local governments. The first two were my bread and butter in grad school; the last I hadn’t thought much about. Each of these areas had advocates forming three camps; Samuels labels them “put it in gear,” “stay the course,” and “return to the past.” (In common terms, these are progressive, conservative, and reactionary, respectively.) Undergirding these are three major tropes of Japanese self-image: Leadership (or the lack thereof), Vulnerability (“Japan is a small island nation poor in natural resources yada yada yada”), and Community. If this seems like it could get confusing in a hurry, rest easy. Samuels’ organization and narrative keep everything clear from start to finish.

To illustrate, let’s look at how two people fit into this bracket. First, me. The SDF is one of the few institutions that left Tohoku almost universally praised. Their bravery and reliability in helping the disaster victims were above reproach; I am happy to see the Japanese finally accept that they have a military that can be something other than power-crazed xenophobes. This does not mean that I support further expansion, a move towards more aggressive policies abroad, or any such saber rattling, but I do think that the Japanese can put their troops to good use in peace keeping and relief operations. This puts me firmly in the “stay the course” camp, not advocating any particular change in policy.

Energy is even more complex. I grew up near the world’s first nuclear power plant, so I am pretty sanguine about that sort of thing. I realize that Japan’s industrial might, and thus its economic well-being, is based primarily on nuclear power, with the only reasonable alternative to import and burn more fossil fuels. On the other hand, regulatory failure and corporate malfeasance are as much to blame for the Fukushima meltdown as natural causes; the subsequent disintegration of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) was both deserved and gratifying. Clearly, Japan needs to fire up its renewable energy efforts by resurrecting policies that self-serving corporate interests have stymied. This puts me just barely into the “put it in gear” crowd, favoring as I do the progressive approach to energy, even as I am comfortable with the reality of nuclear power.

Finally, local governance. I don’t really have a horse in this race, beyond a vague loyalty to the Kansai area in opposition to whatever stupidity Tokyo might be exporting at the time. I’m not much of a States’ Rights advocate, but neither do I deny the relevance of the locals. Toss me into “stay the course” again, since I don’t really know what else to do. (Note that my ambivalence here is not universal. Samuels introduces many people who care very deeply about this, and who have very good ideas. There is a rousing debate about this subject going on, I’ve just never been a part of it.)

For contrast, I will cite my wife. She is in many ways very typical of a large segment of Japan. My wife has no use for violence, weapons, the military, power projection, American bases, the works. The SDF might have been valiant in disaster relief; if so, she might say, let’s turn them into engineers and farmers and send them out to help that way. Article Nine of the Constitution (the part that outlaws war) is basically holy writ and should be held inviolate. These opinions are a text book “return to the past” viewpoint, one that advocates returning the SDF to its pre-Nakasone and/or Koizumi state. The Tohoku disaster is a clear illustration of what the military should be used for, not a case for more cruise missiles and Aegis destroyers.

Nuclear power fares similarly. My wife was galvanized by the anti-nuclear protests and wants to see the whole program shut down. When I explained that Japan can’t power itself any other way, she responded that maybe it’s time for Japan power itself down. To her, if Japan must import power or rely on obviously dangerous technology, maybe the Japanese need to find a quieter lifestyle that can be sustained purely by native resources. Again, “return to the past.”

Her opinions about local governance are about as strong as my own, but the idea that the communities have gotten too big, too spread out, and have lost that Special Something that binds a neighborhood together seems to hold a certain allure. I’m not sure that she goes far enough to join the “return to the past” crowd, but she’s certainly not on the front lines of change.

The genius of 3.11 is the way Samuels maps this grid over a vast array of actors, through politics, business, the non-profit sector, the media, and everyday people. Veteran Japan observers will have no trouble keeping up, but newcomers will also be fine if they trust in Samuels’ narration. The Japanese political continuum is baffling if one comes at it from a US left-right perspective (the two might as well be mutually incomprehensible), thus the necessity of the three tropes of Leadership, Vulnerability, and Community to act as guideposts along the way.

The very heart of the book is also clearly illustrated by the examples here. My position on each issue is almost exactly what it was before the earthquake. My wife’s is too. In fact, Samuels finds only one person in the entire book, Prime Minister Kan, who changes his mind on anything. Certain voices have been amplified and certainly some positions have evolved, but by and large, everyone in Japan is precisely where they were before any waves crashed down on Tohoku. In the end, when all of the power vectors are added, subtracted, and averaged out, Samuels finds that Japan is firmly in the “stay the course” camp for each issue. To many of us hoping for so much more, it is a discouraging conclusion, but after reading cover to cover, I don’t see how it could be any other way.

In spite of all, Samuels is consistently upbeat. (This holds true for his other writing as well.) Where I see a country utterly bereft of leadership, an educational system incapable of producing bold thinkers, and an electorate too self-absorbed and apathetic to take action, Samuels sees incremental change and gradual progress. I wish I could share his optimism, but we may yet both be right. The Tohoku disaster nudged public opinion and catalyzed some action, but its greatest effects appear to be in those topics Samuels covers. The biggest problems facing Japan, a looming demographic implosion and the social institutions exacerbating it, will only be changed by a grassroots-based tidal wave of opinion, not an actual tidal wave. It is my own fault that I got carried away in my initial exuberance for progress.

3.11 is not a theoretical or conclusive work. It is not here to put forth analytical frameworks or give authoritative answers. (Too soon for both, though for different reasons.) I consider it an essential book in 2013 however, because I doubt there is any other English source that even approaches the stupendous amount of research and information that Samuels marshals. For the time being, it is the definitive account of post-quake Japan; any book challenging for 3.11‘s crown in the near future will be hard-pressed to survive even the first round. It is a must read for anyone even remotely interested in Japan.

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2 thoughts on “3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan

  1. Pingback: Random Book Survey | Two Dudes in an Attic
  2. Pingback: Ten Books that Stay With Me | Two Dudes in an Attic

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