Recently I read the following book. A book summary and my comments are attached.
Book title: Samuels, Richard. 2013. 3.11 Disaster and Change in Japan. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
According to Richard Samuels, a political scientist, the Japanese government had handled the 3.11 poorly due to a lack of communication between different parties responsible for handling the disaster: the government head by PM Kan Naoto, the US rescuing party, the Self Defence Force (SDF), and TEPCO. After 3.11, political entrepreneurs were quick to do battles for controlling the post 3.11 development. This book focuses on the dynamics of these efforts under three specific topics: the national security, energy and local government (p.45).
The author suggests that cataclysmic events did not always deliver large-scale changes, but much of social theory predicted that they were likely so (p.24). Social scientists had focused on ‘critical juncture’ when constraints on choice ‘soften’ or ‘relax’ for short periods due to power shifting because of exogenous shocks such as war or natural disasters etc.(p.24). Crisis provided the stage on which the groups battled to both define the situation and to control it (p.26).
According to Samuel, Japan after the 3.11 catastrophe had three directions in which prescriptive narratives were pointing at. The first was ‘put-it-in-gear’, that was to call for acceleration away from the trauma and the immediate past. The second was a ‘stay-the course’ narrative, with its advocates insisted that the crisis was overblown and little adjustment was needed. The third narrative responded to a crisis by calling for undoing what had led to the catastrophe (nuclear energy) by returning to better and possibly simpler lives (p.26).
Samuels asserts that many social scientists believed that 3.11 would provide the potential disjuncture necessary for substantive political, economic and social changes. Of the three prescriptions for changes mentioned, each had its own causal energy and its own villains and heroes (p.30). The weeks and months after 3.11 were filled with calls for wholesale changes across a very broad institutional horizon. There was a widespread optimism on both the Left and Right in Japanese politics that a stagnant nation had experienced a short of ‘creative destruction’. Some predicted that the 3.11 disaster could be seen as a big shock that led to a declining (due to the economic bubble) Japan to revive (p.31).
In chapter 3 the book uses previous disaster incidents to compare how the Japanese government responded to the disaster in history. It suggests that the most destructive and best-document earthquake before 3.11 were the Ansei quake of 1854-55, the Nobi quake in 1891, the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923 and the Hanshn/Awaji earthquake of 1995 (p.47).The book also examines how the US in handling natural disasters in recent years (p.63). It concludes that the hurricane Katrina in the US in August 2005 had reminded us the power of narrators to create heroes and villains (p.66).
On national security, some Japanese saw the 3.11 was a warning that Japan should do more to rebuild its military capabilities; and pointed out how the SDF and the US-Japanese alliance ought to expect a political gain in the aftermath of the 3.11 (p.80). They thought that Japan had been ‘lulled into pacifism’ by its dependence, and had lost the ability to take care of itself. What happened on 3.11 was nothing other than a war in which Japan, that had forgotten war, was attacked (p.83). The timely and effective 3.11 rescue done by the Japanese military and the activation of the Japan-US alliance were credited with saving many lives. Other than that no major resource increase or effort to improve war-fighting capacity of Japanese troops had been seen (pp.107-8).
Then the book shifts its focus on how energy policy was debated. In the case of energy, as most of the protagonists failed dramatically, the 3.11 catastrophe was widely seen as an ‘opportunity for major transition’ in the domestic energy system (p.110). The debate was confronted by several competing ideas about what happened on 3.11. Two narrative loaded with different practical reasons on why Japan should stay the course (business as usual) had the same argument: that 3.11 was an exceptionally rare natural disaster. The third narrative suggested that the 3.11 had showed that Japan had come too far in the wrong direction, and should stop growth and return Japan to simpler lives (p.128).
Samuels suggests that it was relatively simple to gain support and attention after 3.11 when the national discourse emphasized community (everyone sought it), insecurity (everyone felt it), leadership (everyone missed it), and change (everyone anticipated it) (p.140). But in the end 3.11 had virtually no effect on the larger national strategy. The thinking of many leaders was that it was important to Japan continue to contribute globally through improved nuclear technology as a matter of national energy policy and diplomacy. The energy sector saw few changes in the first year and a half after the disaster (p.150).
In chapter 6, the book talks about the repurposing of local government. “To get local government right” had become central to a renewed national debate cloaked in the language for changes (p.151).Given the widespread perceptions of the failure of the central government, 3.11 pushed the window wide open for local government reforms (p.158). The result was that virtually every prefecture and city started to enhance it programs for disaster prevention and response (p.177).
The book concludes that the post 3.11 discourse was thus a duel among the 3 very different prescriptions for change. The contest between ‘putting in gear’ and ‘stay in course’ was the most robust (p.188). As it turned out, 3.11 was just another episode in which the winning of hearts and minds consistently yielded to realistic facts on the ground – the balance of power, rivalries, and ideological competition, and domestic political struggles over foreign and security policy priorities (p.193). In short we saw in 3.11 what we saw in previous crises in Japan: post disaster did not exist in separate domain, normal constrain continued to operate even during the crisis (p.199). The 3.11 disaster was not the ‘game changer’ that many policy entrepreneurs desired, it did not cause structural changes to the Japanese body politic. Normal politics prevailed (p.200).
This book tries to answer the question “What have changed in Japan after the 3.11 disaster?” After analyzing the three areas of national security, energy, and local government, the book concludes that not much has been changed. While I agree with the conclusion, I would like to point out that as the book is about changes in Japan after 3.11, the details in the sections on comparative guidance starting from page 63, which talks about typhoon Katrina in the US in 2005 and other relief operations done by Japan, seem to be not relevant to the focus of the book. Also, I am interested to know why Samuels only pin-points that social scientists, not other people, believed that 3.11 would provide the potential disjuncture necessary for substantive political, economic and social changes.