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Policy Change in a Post-Crisis Japan

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Policy Change in a Post-Crisis Japan

An Interview with Richard J. Samuels

By Allen Wagner
March 5, 2012


Japan still faces numerous public policy challenges one year after the March 11, 2011, earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear crisis. To better understand the current status of post-disaster Japan, NBR asked Richard J. Samuels to discuss the internal debates surrounding Japan’s security and energy policies, as well as around the increased reform efforts at the local government level. He also provides updates on the reconstruction efforts in northeast Japan and assesses how Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his administration have handled the crisis.

Dr. Samuels is currently Ford International Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Can you explain the immediate and near-term public policy impacts for Japan in the one year since the Tohoku earthquake and Fukushima nuclear crisis?

I think it’s a little too soon to speak of impacts as if sustainable changes have already been made. It’s not too soon, though, to understand the directions in which Japan is being tugged and pulled by stakeholders. What March 11 did is what all crises do—it unleashed a range of ideas about how Japan ought to change. In this sense, crises are very generative. They release long-held preferences from policy entrepreneurs and open them up to public scrutiny and debate. That’s where I think Japan is right now. The impact is in the discourse so far. It will be quite some time before we know how it all comes out.


What are the dynamics of the debate?

Crises generate three kinds of general responses. One is from a group of people who say that the catastrophe was a warning that we have to accelerate and move faster, further in a new direction. I think of that as sort of a “put-it-in-gear” argument.

Then there’s a group that says, “No, the catastrophe was a one-off, black-swan event that is not going to be revisited upon us, so there’s no reason to change the way we go about our business, our lives, and the structure of society and politics.” So, “stay the course” is the second argument. If the first one is “accelerate,” this one is “sustain.”

And finally, there’s a third group that says, “The crisis teaches us that we had come too far in the wrong direction and we really need to go back to better times and the way we used to do things.” This narrative view says we should undo the damage we have done.


How do these three arguments apply specifically to Japan since March 11, 2011?

I have been focusing on three policy areas—security policy, public administration, and energy. Across the board, the debates were structured in the way I described. Let’s take security for example.

National security is one area where there was reason to think that considerable change could result from March 11. This is because the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and the U.S.-Japan alliance performed so admirably in the crisis. There were glitches at the beginning, to be sure, but they were soon ironed out. In very short order and in full public view, soldiers from both countries were serving the public in large numbers. Their efforts were widely appreciated.

But there is debate about the lessons of their success for policy going forward. Those who say “put it in gear” have written a “wake-up call” narrative about March 11. They say, “Yes, the efficacy of the SDF and the alliance were demonstrated, but the real threat is not natural disaster. If we start thinking of the SDF merely as a humanitarian-assistance disaster-relief (HA/DR) operation, then we will be taking our eyes off the real threat. The real threats are China and North Korea, and we have to do more to deter them.”

The stay-the-course group offers a “proof of concept” narrative. They say, “What the self-defense forces and the alliance achieved is what we have been telling everyone that they could achieve for decades.” They insist that the effectiveness of the SDF demonstrated that the nation has something it should value and reward with better treatment.

The third group says that the successful deployment of the self-defense forces for rescue and relief after March 11 taught Japan that the SDF is best and most legitimate when it is carrying shovels, not guns. This group argues Japan should return to the true meaning of Article 9, and not be focused on armaments, but on the creation of a global disaster-relief function for the Japanese military.

If I had to guess, the policy impact for the self-defense forces would be somewhere between the first two arguments, but so far—and this has been a bit of a surprise to many—the self-defense forces have not benefitted from their new levels of public support and legitimacy. Few new equipment requests were inserted into the FY2012 budget request, and in the end, the defense budget was cut again. The SDF is not benefitting in any direct way from its performance after March 11. Likewise, neither is the alliance in any better shape than it was beforehand. In fact, there are more questions than ever about basing issues in particular. In short—and in the near term—there does not seem to have been a particularly salutary effect on either the SDF or the alliance since March 11.


Why do you think that is? Is it because of the continuing debate between these three areas you discussed?

No, I think there are bigger forces at work. At the end of the day, a natural disaster can catalyze public opinion and crystalize debate, but it doesn’t force change on its own. As often happens, change and inertia each have many parents. That is to say, there are a great many moving parts in the security realm: budget constraints in both countries, U.S. strategic preferences, and domestic Japanese politics independent of March 11 all conspire to continue to complicate matters. Such complexity makes it all the more attractive for a policy entrepreneur with a coherent narrative, but March 11 can only be part of the story.


Can you describe how these three arguments are affecting debate in the other policy areas you have studied?

In the energy case, the put-it-in-gear people say, “What we have learned from March 11 is that we have suffered from the existence of a ‘nuclear village’”—by which they mean a collusive arrangement among the utilities; regulators in the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry; and professors who are “owned” by the utilities. In this collusion, the narrative goes, the Japanese were sold a “safety myth” that has cost them dearly. So, for this group, the lesson from March 11 is that Japanese citizens should no longer believe what they’re being told by the utilities or by METI and the professoriate; they should demand wholesale structural changes to the electric power sector.

The end of nuclear power is the first and foremost change they demand. Another is the break-up of the electric utilities’ regional monopolies and control of the power sector from generation upstream to transmission downstream. People in this group argue for enhanced incentives for independent power producers and alternative forms of energy, particularly for renewables like wind and solar. They argue for the feed-in tariff as one way to get there. Structural change is the lesson they draw from March 11.

There are actually two groups within the second, stay-the-course model. One I call the “business-as-usual” group. In its view, the catastrophe was a one-off event, and since there won’t be one for another thousand years, Japan should stay the nuclear course. Some in this group add that the victims of the disaster were killed by the tsunami and point out that “no one died from exposure to radioactivity.” They insist that nuclear power is safe and that it is critical to the stable supply of electricity to end-users, particularly to industry that maintains employment and generates national wealth.

The second group in this stay-the-course model basically comprises realists. They acknowledge that risk was undersold and that safety was oversold, but they believe that zero risk is impossible in any event. They argue for improved planning and transparency in the nuclear power sector, but are not willing to pull the plug completely on nuclear power. They will be cautious about building new nuclear power plants, but not opposed on principle, and they believe that existing ones—excluding perhaps the oldest among them—should be turned back on.

And then there’s the third group, the reverse-course advocates. They share the first group’s antipathy for nuclear power, but are not growth oriented. Sometimes these folks are referred to as the “simple-life” or “simpler times” advocates. Others identify them with the so-called edo shakai movement. They are not an enormously important part of the public policy debate, but, like the first group, they want to see renewables because they believe in recycling and conservation. Some are anti-science as well as anti-growth, and are convinced that Western science has led Japan down the wrong path.


You mentioned that you also examine local government in your current research. Can you talk a little about the debate on local policy issues in Japan?

The local government argument is particularly fascinating to me, in part because the very first project I did when I was a doctoral student 35 years ago was on local government. At the time, I was intrigued by the limits on top-down governance and the prospects for cooperation among local governments; it became my first book. But I moved off into other areas and did not expect to be studying local government again on this visit to Japan. To my surprise, however, I found myself drawn back by March 11 to exactly the same issue. There has been enormous activity at the local level, and much attention has been paid to local government reform. Much started before March 11, but the crisis galvanized it in some ways. So, how does it work?

The put-it-in-gear group has two variants in the area of local governance, both of which hold that March 11 taught Japan that the way it had been handling local public administration was wrong and that it needs to move forward in a new direction. That is, there are groups that say local government in Japan needs to be re-dimensioned— what I call the “supersize us” advocates and the “localize us” advocates. Both have been around for a while, of course. The former say that one of the lessons of March 11 is that Japan needs to have larger, more rational units of local government, and that they should expand the scope and scale of economic actors and administrative units. Japan should create states and eliminate prefectures. They believe that such a “state system” (Doushuusei) would rationalize the provision of public services not just in a disaster, but in normal times as well.

The latter group that talks about re-dimensionizing Japan, the “localize us” advocates, argues for decentralization. The heroes in their story are small producers and local residents; the big state and big firms are the villains. They believe that the best solutions post–March 11 are region-specific solutions that bubble up from the bottom.

Now, there’s some confusion here because the most active proponent of decentralization and local administrative change in Japan today, Toru Hashimoto, the mayor of Osaka, supports the doushuusei. I have interviewed other governors and mayors, including his allies, and very few of them support doushuusei. Perhaps this is because when prefectures are consolidated there will be room for only one governor. Hashimoto is different because he was governor of one of the largest prefectures in Japan and is the mayor of one of the largest cities. He has confidence that he could continue to be a major voice after a doushuusei is created—perhaps at the national level. The arguments about administrative and fiscal reform that he is bringing to the table—the supersize-us idea is only one of many—seem to have caught the political class in Tokyo wrong-footed. It’s a very interesting moment for the future of local public administration.

The stay-the-course second group is writing a “solidarity” narrative. In one of the most interesting developments after March 11, local governments from outside Tohoku moved rapidly and effectively to take the initiative to send large numbers of their own public officials to the disaster area to help with post-disaster relief and public administration. The first officials I met when I visited Rikuzentakata’s temporary city hall were seconded from Nagoya. They explained that the mayor of Nagoya, Takashi Kawamura, had “adopted” Rikuzentakata. Similarly, Toshizo Ido, the governor of Hyogo prefecture and head of a coalition of Kansai prefectures, and his colleagues immediately organized partnership arrangements with localities in the affected areas and began sending public officials there. Thousands of local government officials had been dispatched from cities and prefectures all around Japan to the disaster area and, a year on, are still serving there in every possible function area, from education and civil engineering, to social work and pension administration. This is really extraordinary.

Part of this is altruism, but a large part is designed to provide their officials the experience of dealing with emergency management in post-catastrophe situations. They understand well that the next natural disaster could be in their neighborhood and want some measure of preparedness. So there’s an enormous amount of learning and sharing going on all through Japan; it picks up on developments of the past couple of decades, in which localities signed disaster relief agreements with one another, and regional coalitions of localities voluntarily organized themselves to provide joint services. Localities put themselves on this course, and little of this involved the central government.

The third group in this local government argument is a sort of “back to the future” group. Like their counterparts in the energy debate, they are anti-growth and would like to preserve local values and vernacular. They’re less interested in the transformation of administration ideas or the transfer of individuals. They would like a system in which a truly sustainable local posture is possible and local identity is sustained.


Why do you think local governments were galvanized as much as they were?

My sense is that the officials who had to respond to the catastrophe were not getting the responses they wanted from the central government. There was a sense that the central government was slow off the mark and that it was bureaucratic in ways that disappointed them. It led them to seek their own solution.

But the most important thing is that the ideas about the debate about local government are also apparent in energy and security. Moreover, the ideas are not new ones. This is consistent with a model first articulated by John Kingdon at the University of Michigan. He pointed out to us decades ago that policy entrepreneurs who had been working on ideas find they will occasionally have a window of opportunity. They can wait until a crisis renders the public more receptive to their ideas. This is certainly true in each of the three areas I am studying. Each group had prior policy preferences and each therefore is seizing the opportunity to generate its own narrative of March 11—each with its own villains and heroes. I think the outcome of the debates they generate will tell much of the tale of the impact of the crisis.


How has public opinion of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda—since he came to office in September—evolved over the past year, and what does this tell us about the public’s expectations or views of the government’s leadership?

Prime Minister Noda has only been in office six months, and as with each of his predecessors, it hasn’t taken long for his support rate in public opinion polls to slide. This is something we’ve seen over and over again, so that the headlines about falling support rates have a déjà vu quality to them.

This time, in part because of the demands of March 11, public expectations are high. The public seems weary of the weak leadership and bickering in the political class. What’s interesting is that as support for Prime Minister Noda and for the DPJ overall declines, support for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) does not increase. The general public is becoming more and more inured to the appeals of the larger parties. This is what’s making the importance of Mayor Hashimoto’s Osaka Ishin No Kai so outsized—voters are looking for fresh, clear voices and are rejecting the narrow maneuvering inside Kasumigaseki that has characterized government for so long. March 11 may have catalyzed that.


Prime Minister Noda is trying to pass a consumption tax increase to help pay down Japan’s public debt and continue to fund social welfare programs. Do you see the effects of March 11 catalyzing conversation on the consumption tax debate, or would these conversations have happened anyway?

Certainly the conversations would have happened anyway, but March 11 may have catalyzed it because recovery will be so expensive. Before it issued its report last June, the Reconstruction Design Council, chaired by Professor Makoto Iokibe, ran into real problems on this issue. Even the ruling DPJ was riven by arguments about whether to raise taxes versus a new bond issue to pay for Tohoku redevelopment. In the end, the Iokibe Commission report mentioned bonds and taxes and donations, essentially kicking the issue upstairs to the politicians.


What progress has the Japanese government made in rebuilding destroyed areas since the disasters?

From what I have seen, the affected areas have been cleaned, cleared, and prepped, but there has been very little building at this point. Investors have been cautious, particularly local ones who are holding debt from before the disaster that has not been forgiven. Land-use plans have been slow in coming and there has been some frustration about how slow the response has been.

For example, the third supplemental budget was not passed until the autumn and the new Recovery Agency (Fukkouchou), which is supposed to be a “superagency” standing above the line ministries to overcome problems of bureaucratic fragmentation, was stood up only last month—eleven months after the catastrophe. Governors and mayors in the region, as well as editorialists, remark on how slow, bureaucratic, and politicized the response has been.


Prime Minister Noda inherited this recovery crisis. How would you define his administration’s work and legacy thus far?

If there was a single way to characterize the previous Kan administration, it was that the prime minister did not trust the bureaucrats. Kan made it very clear that the bureaucrats were not the answer and that he didn’t want a solution based on their recommendations. Over time, Prime Minister Kan realized he needed the expertise of bureaucrats. I think Prime Minister Noda started from a different place. He began with more confidence in the bureaucratic class. That’s not to say he doesn’t believe in political leadership—he does. But whether or not this translates into faster or slower policy action, or better or worse responses, remains to be seen. It is far too early to speak of his—or even Kan’s—“legacy.”


Richard J. Samuels’s most recent book, Securing Japan: Tokyo’s Grand Strategy and the Future of East Asia, was named one of the five finalists for the 2008 Lionel Gelber Prize for the best book in international affairs. He is currently writing a book on the impact of the March 2011 catastrophes on Japanese public policy, entitled “The Rhetoric of Crisis: Japan’s Choices After 3/11.”

Allen Wagner is an intern at NBR. A recent graduate of the University of Washington, Allen holds a BA in Asian Studies and Political Science.

This interview was produced by the Japan-U.S. Discussion Forum, NBR’s public email forum on Japanese affairs.


One Year after March 11 – A Retrospective

This interview is part of a one-year anniversary retrospective of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami that struck eastern Japan. Read more from this series:

Fukushima One Year Later
Q&A with Daniel P. Aldrich

Post–March 11: Japan’s Political and Economic Landscape Now and Ahead
Q&A with Michael J. Green


Related Q&As

Japan-U.S. Forum Q&As

All Policy Q&As on Japan


Richard J. Samuels is Ford International Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.