Japan Could Change While Staying the Course

Japan Could Change While Staying the Course

by Michio Muramatsu
January 30, 2014

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

Richard Samuels’s book 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan is the best academic book to date on the triple disaster because of both the insightful academic questions it raises and the thoroughness of its earthquake-related information. It also is among the most provocative books I have ever read, posing the crucial question to Japan: Why has the opportunity of this crisis not produced change? While contemplating this important question, however, I wondered whether perhaps it was good that Japan did not change that much as a result of the crisis. I learned a lot from reading this book, but sometimes found myself being a bit skeptical of its criticism of Japan’s choice to “stay the course” rather than “put it in gear.” [1] Perhaps, I wondered, Japan is changing in a piecemeal way, and perhaps it was predictable from the beginning that the probability of great change would not be high.

To understand what happened, Samuels smartly chose three policy areas: national security, energy policy, and local governance. These not only are the areas that he knows best from his own academic research, but they also are where Japan faced the most important difficulties during 3.11. The damage from 3.11 was unprecedented. According to the World Bank, it represents the largest economic loss from one disaster since 1965. [2] In the first week after the incident, people suffered shortages of food, water, and gasoline, among other things. Help and support came from abroad as well as from all over the country, as the largest number of volunteers in Japanese history was mobilized. Although he points out some of the positive aspects of the response, Samuels nonetheless is very critical of the early stages of the government’s risk management under the Kan cabinet. Two years and some months later, numerous debates are underway about changes in various policy areas. However, Japan has still not “geared in” the course for change.

Chapter 2, which is titled “Never Waste a Good Crisis,” and chapter 3, “Historical and Comparative Guidance,” were to me the key chapters for understanding this book. Chapter 2 sets the stage for the argument that Japan chose to “stay the course” rather than “put it in gear.” Samuels explains that the first few years after a crisis constitute a critical period during which leaders may “enjoy a greater range of choices” than usual and in which new institutions and structures could emerge (p. 24). The events and experiences of 3.11 were shocks of a magnitude equal to or greater than what had produced changes to the system in the past. According to Samuels, we should presume that “significant adjustments follow sudden, major challenges to a previously stable system” (p. 24).

In contrast with chapter 2, where Samuels argues for a direction of change, chapter 3 provides very objectively the comparative framework to read the subsequent chapters (with chapter 4 focusing on security, chapter 5 on energy, and chapter 6 on local governance). The book considers a range of historical examples of natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina in the United States in 2005; the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China; Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008; and the 1995 earthquake in Kobe. These examples may not be exhaustive, but they are deeply researched. Samuels clearly is knowledgeable and must have worked hard to collect and present the information about these disasters in a very interesting way. His analysis of the Sichuan earthquake, for example, is a small case study of Japan-China diplomatic relations in a difficult time. Although he concludes that the relationship did not ultimately improve from such diplomacy, the case study still suggests how a disaster can function as a diplomatic tool.

Drawing on a quote by White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel to “never waste a good crisis” (p. 26), Samuels has analyzed 3.11 to see how Japan has made use of its “good crisis” to recover from the damages. He reviews the past two years since the earthquake in each of the three policy areas to assess whether any changes have occurred. In energy policy, he notes that Masayoshi Son proposed alternative technologies to nuclear energy and argued for the introduction of the feed-in tariff used in Europe (pp. 140–42). Although this proposal has not been realized as originally proposed, it did stimulate Japanese policymakers and the Kan cabinet to suggest repricing the cost of electricity in Japan that has allowed the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and the other eight monopolized electricity companies to benefit from the existing legal framework.

In addition, for the first time Japanese journalists picked up the theme and focused on the political structure in the energy sector—that is, the so-called “iron triangle” that defends the status quo. The extent to which the tsunami or earthquake caused the huge damages, including the loss of lives, as well as the extent to which TEPCO’s mismanagement caused these consequences, is controversial. If it was the earthquake rather than the tsunami that broke the electrical wiring network at the Fukushima plant, TEPCO’s responsibility is larger. There are a lot of debates on responsibility, prices, effectiveness of alternative energies, and so forth still underway in the energy policy arena.

After analyzing the daily newspaper reports and conducting many interviews with high-level officials and journalists, Samuels finally concludes that on energy policy Japan has adopted the strategy of staying the course. He sees some shift of political influence away from TEPCO by way of forcing the company to adopt a more open-disclosure policy. Samuels observes another small change in that localities now have more input in building new reactors and restarting existing ones. But he also observes that the Japanese government decided to continue nuclear exports. Only six months after 3.11, for example, Japan Atomic Power Company signed an agreement with Vietnam to conduct a feasibility study for introducing nuclear energy.

Security is another policy area where the book provides detailed and insightful analysis. Few Japanese political scientists would be able to accomplish this quality of research on security and natural disasters in such a short period of time. Reflecting on the mishandled response and the consequent human costs in the Kobe earthquake in 1995, Samuels notes that both the local governments and the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) were quick to respond after 3.11. It is true that well beforehand national and local authorities had become more prepared for disasters. For example, the SDF and local governments had engaged in a number of rescue drills, and tsunami operation manuals had been improved. However, the actual rescue operations in which the SDF was involved in the immediate days after the disaster could not have been imagined. Concerning the exercises and preparations, Samuels concludes that “there cannot be enough of them, and they cannot be too complex” (p. 91).

Another important element was the SDF’s work with the U.S. military during the response. The Japanese people thanked the Americans greatly for the support of their military, which helped save many Japanese lives and whole towns in some cases. All Japanese know the phrase “Tomodachi Operation.” According to an opinion poll, 95% of respondents supported the actions of the SDF in the areas of eastern Japan, and 88% agreed that it was appropriate for the SDF to work closely with the U.S. military (pp. 92–93).

Based on these experiences during the rescue operations and the resulting shift in public attitudes toward the U.S. military and the United States, Samuels thinks it is natural to assume that the Japanese government would change its policies and the issue agenda between the two countries. But he finds only a small shift toward joint operations within the military command, with Japan seeming to have learned lessons about the importance of the rotation of troops and commanders and the provision of support services. Samuels does not see real changes in government policies to resolve U.S. basing issues, strengthen security infrastructure, or create genuine interoperability between U.S. and Japanese forces. Again, Japan would stay the course.

It does not seem necessary in this review essay to discuss much about the third policy area, local governance. There have been discussions over the past twenty years about placing regional governments above prefectural governments, on the one hand, and increasing local participation, on the other hand. Samuels nicely distinguishes between one trend of trying to put local governance into a larger institutional framework, which he terms “supersize me,” and another trend toward more local influence, named “localize me” (pp. 160–70). However, I do not think that there will be significant changes in the central-local government framework in the near future. Samuels, for his part, intuitively appears to know this and seems to have not invested as much time analyzing this policy area as the previous two. The emergence of local-local agreements for emergencies is a new phenomenon, but one that can still be understood within the existing local governance framework.

On the whole, my sense is that Samuels is frustrated. He took the logic of a “good crisis” scenario and began research on 3.11, tracing what happened within the two years or so after the disaster. He should be praised for his academic achievement of distilling so much of the relevant literature into such a comprehensive and authoritative book in a short time. Perhaps the most important characteristic of this book is its timeliness. The materials used are fresh and lively and belong to narratives that should not be lost. On the other hand, there is a danger in writing fast. Some of the trends described may disappear, even though this would not damage the work as a whole. For example, Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto was popular at the time 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan was written, but his influence has declined quickly since then. Likewise, Koizumi Junichiro, the former prime minister, very recently has been campaigning for abolishing the use of nuclear energy. In this kind of disaster, stories cannot be considered completed. Two years is a very brief time frame for writing about such a big event and may be too short to see its real impact.

A big concern that I had in reading the book is that Samuels did not discuss the larger political implications of his good crisis scenario. For example, is he suggesting that Japan adopt a more centralized framework in order to bring about greater change? Or is he thinking of the possibility that a strong leadership would emerge in such a crisis? I would approach the question of politics and change in a different way. Given the limited political tools in Japan, piecemeal change is what we can expect following a crisis, when available resources must be used to support refugees and compensate severe accident-related losses. However, when serious incidents are ongoing, they usually stimulate more change over time, while maintaining good practices like the public trust shown in the immediate days after the crisis. It may be worth mentioning that the earthquake happened under the newly in power and politically unskilled Democratic Party of Japan. My hope is that the bottom-up, piecemeal accumulation of small changes will lead Japan to greater change. To this end, a large number of Japanese social scientists are engaged in research on 3.11 through a grant from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. I am one of them. This book will be among the most important resources guiding our efforts.


[1] Chapter 2 introduces these public narratives that followed from 3.11. Samuels also considers a third option proposed by some that he calls “reverse course,” which requires that “we undo the structures and assumptions about progress that led to the catastrophe in the first place” (p. 26). However, it is not a realistic scenario, and thus I do not discuss it here.

[2] According to the Economist, “the World Bank put the economic damage resulting from the disaster at as much as $235 billion, around 4% of GDP. That figure would make this disaster the costliest since comparable records began in 1965.” See “Natural Disasters: Counting the Cost,” Economist, May 21, 2011.

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