Monday, March 11, 2013

3.11 and beyond

Professor Samuels
An instant swept away, lives, livelihoods, pasts and futures. But how long will the March 11, 2011 triple disasters remain in Japanse consciousness?  To the surprise of many, this is debatable.

People still suffer and remain displaced. Donations and service are still welcome.

The world has been incredibly generous and emphatic to the people of Tohoku. As the Japan Center for International Exchange (JCIE) has found in its recent Special Report (Civil Society Monitor, March 2013, 5 pgs). The U.S. private sector alone has donated $712.6 million (approximately 67.7 billion yen) for relief in Japan over the past two years. This is the largest amount of disaster assistance the U.S. has ever extended to an advanced nation.

The total was obtained by tallying up donations by U.S. corporations, nonprofit organizations, and individuals. This is the fifth largest amount of money ever donated by the U.S. private sector after a disaster, following the donations to victims of Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. (5.2 billion dollars), the 9/11 terrorist attacks (2.8 billion dollars), the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (1.9 billion dollars), and the 2010 Haiti earthquake (1.4 billion dollars).

Grassroots and exchange organizations played a key role. Altogether, more than 65 organizations dedicated to various aspects of US-Japan exchange raised roughly $50 million. These ran the gamut from Japan-America Societies to foreign policy institutes. The top three fundraisers reporting results were the American Red Cross ($312 million), Save the Children ($26.2 million), and Samaritan’s Purse ($23.3 million).

But what of the politics of hope and change?

Professor Richard J. Samuels of MIT in another of his seminal books on Japanese politics and society, 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan, examines that question. He finds that both are difficult achieve or maintain.

You can preview his book this recent journal article, "Japan's Rhetoric of Crisis: Prospects for Change after 3.11" published in the Winter 2013 volume of the Journal of Japanese Studies.

Over this month, Dr. Samuels is giving a series of off-the-record, unrecorded lectures at universities and organizations on his book. He will be speaking March 12th, 6:00-8:00pm, at the Japan Society in New York:  3.11: DISASTER AND CHANGE IN JAPAN and March 14th at MIT. And in Tokyo to the MIT Japan Association on March 26th, 6:30-8:30pm. We hope there will be a recording of one of these talks.

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The catastrophes, he finds, were not the catalyst for change as some believed they would be. Instead, different political interests used March 2011 to nudge national policy in the direction of their own choosing. For some, 3.11 was a warning for Japan to “put it in gear’’ and head off on a new path. For others, the catastrophe was a once in a millennium “black swan,” so Japan should “stay the course.’’ Still others declared that 3.11 taught that Japan must return to an idealized past and rebuild what was lost to modernity and globalization. The political battles were therefore less about national rebuilding than about preserving and expanding special interest power. He observes that: "The political world was not 'reborn,' nor was national life 'reset.'"

In regard to U.S.-Japan relations, the "success" of Operation Tomodachi also did not translate into any substantive change. The Alliance was not transported to the next level. As Dr. Samuels notes:
There is no evidence that the U.S. response was calculated as a matter of "disaster diplomacy," which is good, since there has been no appreciable "Tohoku dividend" for the alliance. As one official told me, the U.S. knew going in that there would be "no withdrawals from the Bank of Goodwill." This is probably as it should be, but still, uncertainty and policy gridlock on force realignment and trade issues continue to weigh down alliance policymaking more than helped.
Yet, as he concludes, despite the axiom that crises provide great opportunity, there were inflated expectations for what would actually be achieved. After all, as one Japanese politician pointed out to Dr. Samuels, "only" 20,000 people died in this tragedy. The fact that 30,000 people commit suicide each year in Japan shows that Tohoku, sadly, does not represent a tipping point.
So we are left with a paradox. 3.11 has not been the “game changer” many policy entrepreneurs desired and predicted. It did not “cause” structural change to the Japanese body politic. “Normal” politics prevailed, with all its imperfections, and “staying the courses,” rather than the more forward leaning “put it in gear,” seemed to prevail across the three policy areas we have examined. Still, the rhetoric of crisis infused democratic politics, empowered new actors, stimulated long awaited if piecemeal reform, aroused considerable public protest, and may have pushed the policy process in the direction of transparency. At a minimum, the catastrophe opened all of these possibilities and, in a famously conservative system, the first months that followed the quake, the tsunami, and the meltdown provided encouraging (if limited) signs of change for those who hoped for a new style in Japanese politics. Would those early move result in long-term alterations in the country’s politics? It is too early to tell and too soon to conclude otherwise: a 3.11 master narrative is still under construction. 
Someone once wrote that studying Japan leaves one broken-hearted.

Dr. Samuels heads the MIT Japan 3.11 Initiative. This is MIT’s response to the March 2011 triple disaster in Japan.

LATER: Dr. Samuels created a website devoted to his new book 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan.

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