February 14, 2013
Japan's 3.11 Catastrophe: The Rhetoric of Crisis and Political Change
On February 14th, 2013, Dr. Richard Samuels shared his recent research on the consequences of the 3/11 disasters in Japan, focusing on the possible implications for government, energy policy, and national security. To help frame the discussion, he introduced four perspectives from which to analyze these sectors: leadership, risk and vulnerability, community, and change.
From the leadership perspective, Dr. Samuels contrasted leadership deficiency at the national level with the more adept local leadership. The party in power during the disaster, the Democratic Party of Japan, was largely blamed for the poor response, creating opportunity for other parties to push their platforms. From a risk and vulnerability perspective, the disaster has largely been defined as "unimaginable." The ongoing discussion regarding the response has been framed by defining the disaster in such a way. To explain the sentiment of community in Japan following the disaster, Dr. Samuels explained that every year in Japan, a character is chosen that best exemplifies the year as a whole: the character for 2011 was "bond." Taken together, the opportunity in Japan for change was seen to be at a historical level, with the nation at an inflection point.
The question seemed to be, which way would Japan turn? Would it forge ahead in a new direction, beefing up its military and increasing its support of nuclear energy? Or would it reverse course and undo policies, weakening budgetary support for the military and ending reliance on nuclear energy? Would the government be restructured to give more power to local prefectures, or would federal power be strengthened? In the end, neither of these paths won out. In all three sectors "“ government, energy policy, and national security "“ those in favor of maintaining the status quo largely came out on top.
To use the national security sector as an illustrative example, in the aftermath of the disaster the Japanese Self-Defense Force was lauded for its heroic work in rescuing and rebuilding. As a result of their heroism, some called for the expansion of the force to include more traditional security and military work, while others called for turning the force even further from a military role and into a disaster response and relief role. In the end, neither side fully succeeded in its desire for enacting change "“ there has not been a real change in the amount budgeted for the Self-Defense Force, either greater or lesser, than before the disasters.
Thus though many believed the calamity of 3/11 would be the impetus for great societal change in Japan, Dr. Samuels argues that normalcy prevailed, and that in retrospect, predictions of some sort of national rebirth were off the mark.
Richard Samuels is Ford International Professor of Political Science and director of the Center for International Studies. He has been head of the MIT Political Science Department, Vice-Chair of the Committee on Japan of the National Research Council, and chair of the Japan-US Friendship Commission. He has also been elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and was awarded an imperial decoration, the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star by the Emperor of Japan and the Japanese Prime Minister. His study of the political and policy consequences of the 2011 Tohoku catastrophe is forthcoming from Cornell University Press. Samuels' , was a finalist for the Lionel Gelber Prize for the best book in international affairs. won the Marraro Prize from the Society for Italian Historical Studies and the Jervis-Schroeder Prize from the International History and Politics section of American Political Science Association. Earlier books were awarded prizes from the Association for Asian Studies, the Association of American University Press, and the Ohira Memorial Prize. His articles have appeared in and.