Japan's Tsunami Disaster

“As terrible of a tragedy as the Japanese tsunami is shaping to be, at least two things are clear. First, given the magnitude of the natural disaster, it would have been far, far worse but for the careful planning and preparation of the Japanese government and people – more than 20 times more people were lost in a far weaker earthquake in Haiti last year. Second, as tragically devastating as this is turning out to be, it is certain that Japan will show the same level of resilience that it showed in picking itself up by the bootstraps in the 1870s and again after the Second World War. Japan has been an outstanding global citizen over the past half century -- it has supported, for example, nearly 20 percent of the costs of the United Nations for years. Now, at this moment of need, the world must rally around Japan and help its remarkable people do what it already knows it can do,” says Asia Society Executive Vice President Jamie Metzl.

Long-term effects 

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami, and the nuclear plant explosions that followed, are the biggest national emergency Japan has faced since World War II. As the scale of the damage emerges, how the government responds will determine more than the fate of hundreds of thousands of people in the areas affected. It will also shape the country’s direction for many years to come,” says Asia Society Associate Fellow Alexandra Harney.

“Politics: Naoto Kan’s unpopular administration has tried to avoid repeating the mistakes made in earlier disasters, such as the massive earthquake that destroyed parts of Kobe in 1995. But old habits die hard: the government took five hours to announce crucial information about a possible radiation leak at the Fukushima nuclear plant, and has repeatedly downplayed the risks facing area residents. Japanese I have spoken to are furious at both the administration and politicians’ response.

“Deep divisions in Japan’s parliament could also delay the allocation of funding to the relief effort. So far, there seems to be little substantive effort by Japanese politicians to move beyond partisanship despite the emergency.

“Economy: The disaster has also exposed the huge gap between urban and rural areas in Japan. The areas hardest hit by the tsunami were among the weakest economically and demographically. In some of the towns hit, one in three residents are elderly. Financially strapped fishermen will struggle to return to work without massive government subsidies. The worst-hit coastal regions may never recover economically, even as the burden on Japan’s already debt-heavy national finances only increases.

“Energy policy: The nuclear plant explosions will also revive debate about the country’s reliance on nuclear power, and Japanese power companies’ ability to manage it safely. Nuclear plants supply about 11 percent of Japan’s energy needs.

"Foreign policy: The swift response by the US military, and its cooperation with Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF), should be very good for US-Japan relations. It could help resolve the protracted dispute over a shift of American bases in the southernmost province of Okinawa. Dramatic rescues by the SDF could also encourage Japanese to allow their military to do more overseas.”

Political risks loom

"All eyes are rightfully focused on rescue and recovery following the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The Japanese government and its people are working together to deal with both the physical and emotional damage left in the wake. For a government faced with severe challenges prior to the disaster, its ability to adequately address the needs of its impacted population stands as a leadership opportunity around which all citizens of Japan (and its neighbors) must unite. In this effort, Japan's political parties, often at odds with each other, must present a united message as the country continues to deal with the aftermath of this terrible tragedy,” says Michael Kulma, Asia Society’s Executive Director of Global Leadership Initiatives. 

In honor of Japan's lost 

The performance at Asia Society New York on March 14 by Kodo, Japan’s foremost Taiko group, will be dedicated to victims of the tsunami.

"Asia Society extends our deepest sympathy and concern for the devastation caused by the earthquake and ongoing traumas,” says Asia Society President Vishakha Desai.

"The scale and power of this earthquake and tsunami disaster are truly horrific and the news coming out of Japan is heart-breaking.

"Since its founding more than 50 years ago, Asia Society has worked with many individuals and institutions in Japan as part of our central mission to broaden understanding and build relationships across the Asia Pacific region.

"As we watch developments unfold, our thoughts and prayers are with our friends there and all the peoples of Japan as they grapple with the enormity of this catastrophe."