Japan’s 3.11 master narrative still under construction

Author: Richard J. Samuels, MIT

It has been five years since the triple catastrophe in northeastern Japan on 11 March 2011 when Japan was rocked by an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown. Nearly 20,000 died in minutes. For some survivors, these years have passed with the speed of light, while for many others time has lumbered along, accompanied by the dull pain and encumbering reminders of loss.

It is natural to ask what has changed. Much of social science is predicated on the idea that catastrophes of this sort are so shocking that the status quo can never be reconstructed. New sets of institutions, practices, preferences and ideas are freed to shape the future.

But perhaps the most striking development in the weeks and months after the devastation was how champions of existing institutions, practices, preferences and ideas — even those that failed so spectacularly and so indisputably — rallied to define the lessons that would be drawn.

Political entrepreneurs from every corner framed the catastrophe to justify, legitimate, fortify and sell their pre-existing preferences. Japanese politics became a competition for control of who would define the heroes and the villains of the tragedy — and for the power to determine what would come next.

Everyone agreed that the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF) were heroes, with 100,000 troops mobilised for search and rescue in a matter of days. Those who had wished for a more muscular SDF before 3.11 used the catastrophe to show that more equipment as well as better command and control were needed.

But those who opposed the institution before the catastrophe took the chance to press the idea that the SDF is legitimate only when troops wield shovels, not guns. They spun a ‘disarmament’ narrative.

No one agreed who the chief villain was.

For opponents of nuclear power the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), and its half-hearted government regulator were easy targets. TEPCO executives had overstated nuclear safety and had falsely claimed that the accident could not have been anticipated. All this was grist for the mills of anti-nuclear groups, which told a ‘nuclear village’ narrative of collusion and betrayal of public trust.

And so it went in policy arena after policy arena. For some, 3.11 was evidence that Japan needed to go ‘back to the future’ and abandon consumerism and even Western science. For others it was evidence that Japan needed to accelerate in a new direction. For some public administrators this meant larger regional governments and centralisation. For others it meant smaller, decentralised units.

In short, few agreed on policy alternatives, but everyone insisted that 3.11 proved they had been right all along.

Yet not everything proved divisive. Everyone rallied around the flag. Tropes of military heroism were joined by tropes of community solidarity.

In the dominant narrative, the people of the Tohoku region embodied what it meant to be Japanese — they formed a community (komyunitei) connected (tsunagu) by bonds (kizuna) and human contact (fureai) that sustain solidarity (renkei) through common struggle (ganbarō nippon!).

And the alliance with the United States, supplier of 20,000 troops for disaster relief assistance under the banner of ‘Operation Tomodachi (Friendship)’, was embraced as never before.

So where are we five years later? Were civic activists who argued that systemic dysfunctions in Japan can now be fixed correct? Or was one parliamentarian right when he suggested that 3.11, as colossal as it was, may not have been big enough to stimulate substantive institutional change?

The evidence is mixed.

In the energy arena, despite an anti-nuclear movement that forced the Democratic Party of Japan government to abandon nuclear power altogether, exhausted voters re-elected a pro-nuclear government led by Shinzo Abe in December 2012. Record numbers of voters stayed home. The Abe administration has been stable and relatively popular, but it has not gotten much traction on nuclear power.

Japan has a new nuclear regulatory regime, and only four of Japan’s 54 reactors are back in operation. There is serious talk about dismantling the vertically integrated regional monopoly system that has dominated Japan’s electricity market for more than 60 years. And the oldest of the existing nuclear reactors are apparently likely to be decommissioned with no new ones being built any time soon.

The feed-in tariff designed to stimulate Japan’s renewable energy sector has been successful, but liquefied natural gas has become the replacement fuel of choice for the utilities.

Meanwhile the utilities remain tied to familiar practices. In October 2015 the Tokyo Shimbun reported that 71 senior central government officials and 45 senior prefectural bureaucrats had retired into positions in electric power companies — replicating precisely one of the dynamics central to the anti-nuclear village critique.

The popularity of the Abe administration notwithstanding, opinion polls in the years after 3.11 suggest that the public is disillusioned with government. In 2013 large majorities reported that they believed reconstruction funds were wasted. Trust in government increased for a time, but recent data show that it has fallen and is below the global average.

Most tragic of all, disaster-related suicides in Fukushima Prefecture increased last year — 19 up from 15 in 2014. These suicides are blamed on the stress induced by extended evacuation from the nuclear site, and by uncertainty, particularly among the elderly, about ever returning home.

Five years on, the 3.11 master narrative is still under construction.

Richard J. Samuels is Ford International Professor of Political science and Director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan.

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