Oct 4
"Samuels draws from historical precedents and a rich and meticulously researched source material, as well as his extensive experience as a long-time observer and commentator on Japan, to produce a compelling and thought-provoking attempt to examine the true impact of the 3.11 disaster." (Cornell University Press)

“Samuels draws from historical precedents and a rich and meticulously researched source material, as well as his extensive experience as a long-time observer and commentator on Japan, to produce a compelling and thought-provoking attempt to examine the true impact of the 3.11 disaster.” (Cornell University Press)


By Eden Law (Fukushima-ken, 2010-11) for JQ magazine. Eden currently serves on the JETAA New South Wales committee in Sydney, Australia as the online social media, webmaster and occasional editor. Got feedback? Leave a comment below.

The natural and man-made disaster of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake provoked an intense and visceral response from within and without, which saw an unprecedented level of cooperation between allies and between former enemies, and a united outpouring of human generosity and spirit globally. Little wonder then, that the usual cynical rhetoric was replaced with wholly credulous proclamations of a new age that could be an economic, technological, political and social rebirth of a nation.

“We expect a lot from crises,” author Richard J. Samuels notes in 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan’s preface, and confesses to have himself been caught up in that same wave of optimism. What would the actual consequences be from the disaster? Would it bring a new era of “revival,” one of a number of slogans touted around Japan in the months following 3.11, or would the goodwill and its accompanying momentum evaporate in the face of reality that brings with it the problems of coping and dealing with a humanitarian disaster?

Samuels draws from historical precedents and a rich and meticulously researched source material, as well as his extensive experience as a long-time observer and commentator on Japan, to produce a compelling and thought-provoking attempt to examine the true impact of the 3.11 disaster. Starting with a description of the state of Japan around the time of the event, he describes a country in the economic doldrums, far from its position that it occupied decades earlier as an economic powerhouse that was the envy (and fear) of the developed world. Politically, Japan’s government had become a circus of ever-changing prime ministers, resulting in low public confidence in its leaders. Little wonder, then, that when the calamity of March 11th struck, the expectation and need for change seemed especially urgent and indeed, possible, more than at other time in recent Japanese history.

What this “change” might be, and in what form it will take, quickly became a public ideological battle, as suddenly an opportunity presented itself to interest groups of different political ideology to seize the moment and guide the national consciousness and attention. Under the staggering onslaught of three catastrophes that happened in quick succession, a normally disinterested population was left shaken and vulnerable, seeking answers in order to make sense of the situation, and more importantly, someone or something to be held responsible. All these, Samuels shows, are well illustrated by historical precedent, such as the Ansei (1854-1855), Nobi (1891), Kanto (1923) and Hanshin/Awaji (1995, known as Kobe outside of Japan) disasters. “Political entrepreneurs” or “opinion leaders,” as coined by Samuels, can craft and present narratives touted to contain the answers, and those with the most compelling “truth” stand to gain the most political traction with the currency of public opinion. “Never waste a good crisis,” as the second chapter’s title states.

Samuels identifies three possible changes, or desired outcomes of the dueling ideologies favored by the competing interest groups that could occur. The first is the most revolutionary: a transformative outcome favored by radical reformists who see an opportunity to repair a moribund system riddled with flaws. The second “change” would be a continuation of the status quo with only minor, necessary adjustments, favored by conservatives who see further change as being more disastrous than good. And finally, the third change would be a dramatic reversal of direction—to a simpler, “purer” time based on the “better” ideals of native Japanese values, divorced from corrupting alien ideas and influences.

Having identified these changes, three key areas are examined for evidence for which ideology appears most dominant: Japan’s security policy, its energy industry and political structure. In the examination of security, the role of Japan’s SDF and the Japan-U.S. alliance were looked at as case studies, where (particularly in the latter example) the unprecedented level of cooperation that took place seemed to point towards a willingness to engage old partners and conduct international relations in a new way. On the issue of energy, with the once politically powerful and protected energy industry now a pariah and under scrutiny for culpability in its part in the crisis, an unheard-of level of public debate began, exemplified by the primacy of anti-nuclear groups, united under Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe.

In politics, impatient local governments and councils took the initiative to implement their own emergency policies and innovations, forming their own alliances and network and negotiating their own strategies for disaster planning and energy power, all without guidance or oversight from Tokyo. In each of these situations, the opportunities and examples of innovation and openness, and the rise and support of independent, dissenting views, which bloomed during the crises, are analyzed for their actual impact and longevity, and whether they provided real evidence for change. What emerges is a complicated picture that Samuels shows can only be appreciated and assessed by understanding how the relationships between its various parts have worked. An easy explanation would not be forthcoming, and to expect so would be to underestimate and ignore  the persistent issues and idiosyncrasies of the old system which still has a part to play. Samuels points out that it is still too early to assess the true impact and consequence of 3.11.

In the concluding chapter, Samuels records the words of two highly influential individuals whose diametrically opposed viewpoints sum up the contradictory and complicated approach to 3.11 within Japan. One is by Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, head of the first independent public investigatory commission into the Daiichi power plants, and the other is by DPJ Diet representative, Junya Ogawa. The report by Dr. Kurokawa’s committee not only condemned and assigned blame to the relationship between business and government, but went even further in identifying fundamental problems in the Japanese social system, and outlined possible strategies to deal with them. When seen with other developments (pointed out in the three areas of security, energy and politics earlier), Samuels indicates that this is by no means a minority view.

On the other hand, Rep. Ogawa stated bluntly in a session at the Diet that 3.11 would be nothing more than a blip on history, and that when faced up against reality, the much vaunted community spirit would dissipate and disappear, and that all the talk of change would amount to nothing but “empty chatter.” Though discomforting and counter to the accepted public viewpoint, Ogawa may be voicing a brutally realistic possibility, and one, as Samuels noted, that some have thought but only dared voiced privately. These two represent the debate about the direction the nation should take—whether to a more open future, or a return to the status quo.

The book also gives an unexpected context to my own experience as one of the numerous JETs caught up in the events of 3.11, when I was stationed in Fukushima, in a town relatively near to both the coast and the beleaguered nuclear power plant. At the time, rumblings that presaged the vilification of TEPCO had already begun, as its role as the villain in many narratives was taking shape. Later, when I had resumed my duties again in my schools, I witnessed the positive force of volunteerism and community cohesion that the Japanese were (quite rightly) proud of.

Like the author, I was certainly caught up in the celebration and lionization of the community spirit, of its heroes, and of the “Ganbatte, Nihon!” creed (or in Tohoku-ben, “Ganbappe, Nihon!”). And while in no way does it detract from the positive image thus engendered, when seen against the larger backdrop of the narrative debate, it is clear how this could have been easily manipulated, to either engender debate or to stifle criticism (as being “impolite” and “insensitive”) and turn attention away from the unpleasant and difficult issues of actually rebuilding ruined economies, communities and infrastructure, and the subsequent mid- to long-term consequences like psychological trauma by survivors and discrimination faced by those who have resettled outside of Tohoku.

While this book is definitely not a quick or easy read at 300-something pages (including a respectably-sized list of footnotes and cites), Samuels proved to be adroit at sorting through the different narratives and ideologies in a clear and concise manner (though admittedly, sloganistic Japanese words and terms abound with abandon throughout the text), and the result is a worthwhile and insightful read, highly recommend to those who have an abiding interest in the topic, long after global media attention have long moved on, about a tragedy that once captivated and moved hearts and mind across the world, and whose ramifications continue to play out.

For more JQ magazine book reviews, click here.

one comment so far...

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