- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

Making Sense of the Disaster

Alexis Dudden

Alexis Dudden is a Professor of History at the University of Connecticut.

This is one of seven essays in the book review roundtable on Richard J. Samuels’s 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan.

Now a word in Japanese, “3.11” is the date when the earth’s tectonic forces physically reconfigured Japan. Nearly three years since the March 11, 2011, nightmare began, the Japanese government has confirmed the deaths of 16,000 people; in addition, several thousand more remain missing and presumed killed by the devastation unleashed from the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the monstrous tsunami that ensued. Three of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant experienced meltdowns, and according to official statistics, 282,000 people are still refugees within Japan, unable to return home. Many have moved from the country’s northeastern Tohoku region because of infrastructure damage, while many more have dispersed because radiation levels in their houses and villages exceed acceptable norms. Fear and mistrust concerning what the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) deem “safe” levels of radiation propel them as well.

With characteristic clarity, intellect, and scholarly rigor, Richard Samuels has engaged this unfolding maelstrom head-on to produce 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan. Moving categorically through three areas—security, energy, and local public administration—Samuels argues that thus far the political fallout from this unimaginable trifecta of disasters has been not only imaginable but also predictable. Samuels explains of post-3.11 Japan that “political actors spun stories to help make sense of the disaster, always in ways consistent with what they already ‘knew’ to be true” (p. 184). His elaboration brings him to conclude that “3.11 was simply the continuation of normal politics by additional means” (p. 185). Throughout the book, Samuels thoughtfully explicates his thesis of continuity over rupture: the Japan in which “those who thought the utilities were villains before 3.11 insisted that 3.11 proved their point. Those who believed the DJP [Democratic Party of Japan] was a collection of incompetent parvenus…. now had additional evidence…. [and] supporters of the Japan-U.S. alliance and of the Japanese military renewed their claim that they were right all along” (p. 184–85). Writing most specifically about security, he emphasizes that, “in short, there was no major Tohoku dividend—either for the war-fighting capacity of Japanese troops or for the U.S.-Japan alliance” (p. 109).

All this notwithstanding—and what will likely be his pathbreaking contribution to assessments of 3.11—Samuels’s own detailed examination of the rescue and relief operations conducted by the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) suggests that if we wait just a little bit longer, the “dividend” for the SDF may be rather lucrative indeed. In short, Samuels describes how during 3.11 a discursive shift took place alongside the troops’ actions, one that has continued to secure widespread buy-in for the SDF throughout Japanese society in ways that—if not entirely new—have greatly expanded the level of support beyond anything seen before 2011 in the post-1945 era.

The SDF’s moment in the 3.11 spotlight shapes the book’s fourth chapter, “Dueling Security Narratives,” in which Samuels establishes three categories of responses to what took place: “wake-up call” (comments from those largely on the right who urged the nation to get “in gear and prepare for its real enemies”), “proof of concept” (views held by centrists who saw “the deterrent power of the alliance” in the SDF’s performance working together with U.S. troops), and “disarm” (the largely leftist perspective “that Japan’s soldiers get more shovels than guns”) (p. 83–86). Next, Samuels views these categories through secondary prisms that interrogate what we might glean for the future place and function of the SDF in Japanese society. Taken as a whole, the analysis ties in well with his previous work on the Japanese military, as well as with other analyses of the “soft” changes that were already afoot within the SDF long before March 11, 2011, in order to make its existence more palatable to Japanese society in general. [1] New, though, is the fourth chapter’s thick description of the “narratives” surrounding SDF troops working on their own and together with U.S. forces in Operation Tomodachi during the disaster’s aftermath. Examples run the gamut: A retired National Police Agency official explained that the SDF’s work during 3.11 was proof that “the SDF is no longer a bastard child (shoshi)…. Its real job is ‘national defense,’ so let it defend the homeland” (p.84). On the other hand, Waseda University law professor Mizushima Asaho observed that “the crisis offered Japan the chance to reaffirm its original peaceful and productive postwar identity” and argued that “if the SDF is transformed into a globally active, nonmilitary relief force that assists neighbors in times of need, ‘no country will any longer have reason to attack Japan’ ” (p.87). The chapter’s analysis underscores how this entity of Japanese society bears the greatest potential for a redefined future as a result of its involvement in the 3.11 crisis. Although changes in the energy sector may ultimately prove the most profound—especially given possibilities such as the megasolar farms proposed by entrepreneur Masayoshi Son—the pace of such shifts will likely be far slower. Put differently, Samuels is wholly correct in the judgments he makes concerning the practical capabilities and legal status of the SDF right now—that there has not yet been a “major Tohoku dividend.” Yet his examination brings into relief ways in which public discussion of the SDF’s role in Japanese society has changed to the extent that it is now commonplace for opinion-makers and leaders across the political spectrum to summon the “good” that the SDF does for Japan.

This shift alone, albeit still at a discursive level, marks an important break. Elements of Japanese society that heretofore have avoided even mentioning the SDF’s existence—the emperor being a primary example—as well as its overt detractors in the media and activist communities who have espoused solidly pacifist interpretations of Article 9, point to the reality that society’s discussion of the SDF has moved on: the SDF is now an indispensable element of the terrain in contemporary Japan. Since 3.11, images of Japanese troops in action have gained positive connotations for millions more Japanese, as evidenced by the bestselling picture albums of troops doing relief work, among other things. Although Samuels might prefer more clear-cut definitional guidelines for the SDF’s role in Japan to have emerged already, one way or another, his analysis usefully sets the terms for the Article 9 debate in play today.

In each of the areas that the book interrogates, 3.11 urged Japanese people across society to voice opinions, question information, and make their preferred stories heard. Arguably, this was the healthiest possible response to a truly awful series of events. This leads one to consider, however, some of the more chilling aspects of the proposed “secrecy” legislation afoot in the Diet. Given the ten-year prison sentences these codes threaten for those who would dare to question aspects of the country’s nuclear power industry, among other areas being defined as too secret for the public to interrogate, is it too much to wonder whether Samuels would have been able to elicit the reactions he captured had he waited a moment longer to write? His interlocutors confront countless challenges in their lives that are not directly related to the Fukushima nuclear power plant, yet collectively they make clear that this element of the triple crisis defines all other aspects of Japan’s post-3.11 future. The possibility that much of the evidence Samuels gathered could be silenced remains an important challenge for Japanese society to confront as well.


[1] On this point, Sabine Frushtuck’s work is most germane.