Fallout from 3.11 Crisis Confounds Japan Says MIT’s Samuels

Richard Samuels (L) and the cover of his new book (R). (Richard Samuels)

HOUSTON, September 10, 2013 — National catastrophes generally prompt collective soul-searching — witness America’s response to the September 11 attacks. In Japan the devastating earthquake, tsunami, and meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in March 2011 generated continuing rounds of self-examination: What lessons should be learned? What changes should be made? Will 3.11, as it has come to be known, be a tipping point in Japan’s long history?

“The master narrative is still under construction,” says political scientist Richard J. Samuels, professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the new book 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan.

But despite the enormity of the event — 20,000 dead and damage in the trillions of yen — dramatic changes in Japan’s government, economy, or security system don’t appear to be in the offing, he said.

“The rhetoric of the crisis should be dialed back to something much more realistic, one that focuses on regaining what’s lost rather than trying to create something that never was,” he said, summarizing the views of one Diet member.

Speaking at Asia Society Texas Center, Samuels laid out three different narratives, incorporating three different approaches to change, that have emerged from Japan’s post-3.11 self-scrutiny. The first sees the events as a “wake-up call” demanding new directions and big change. The second argues that Japan has been on the right course and needs to continue the incremental improvements it has been making in recent decades. The third says the country has been on the wrong path and should return to older, better ways of doing things. He discussed how these competing narratives envision the future of national security, energy, and local government.

“These three approaches to change dominated the Japanese discourse across the three policy areas that I looked at,” Samuels said. Political entrepreneurs of every ideological stripe seized on the disaster to argue in favor of long-held views about what’s best for Japan. But all the discussion about change didn’t actually change many minds.

Samuels acknowledged that like many observers he initially expected 3.11 to inaugurate “massive changes,” politically, economically, socially, and administratively. Indeed, the first working title of his book was Rebirth of a Nation?

But talking with politicians, government bureaucrats, and ordinary people in Japan promoted him to change the working title to The Rhetoric of Crisis. “I realized the book was really about talking about what had happened and using what had happened to advance the preferences that particular political actors had.”

A big part of the post-3.11 conversation has been a “blame game,” creating heroes and villains in the drama of disaster. Heroes included Japan’s military, the Self-Defense Forces, which performed well in disaster relief, worked closely with Japan-based U.S. military, and won high marks from the public, Samuel noted.

“Japan’s military proved to itself and proved to the Japanese public it was a responsible and very able institution,” he said. On the other hand, the applause has not led to a jump in the military budget, nor has there been progress in the fraught issue of U.S. bases in the country. So 3.11 brought limited change to Japan’s national security posture.

In the energy arena, limited rather than dramatic change has also been the name of the game. Japan’s government did inaugurate a new regulatory structure, separating agencies that regulate the nuclear power industry from those that promote it.

Summarizing the three policy areas he studied, Samuels said, “It’s been more or less a victory for the sustainers, those who argue that Japan should continue and enhance what it’s been doing all along.”

Reported by Fritz Lanham


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