Monday, March 11, 2013

Richard J. Samuels's "3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan"

Richard J. Samuels is Ford International Professor of Political Science and Director of the MIT Center for International Studies. He is the author of several award winning books, including: Securing Japan: Tokyo’s Grand Strategy and the Future of East Asia (2007) and Machiavelli’s Children: Leaders and Their Legacies in Italy and Japan (2003).

Samuels applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan, and reported the following:
On March 11, 2011 Japan moved eight feet closer to North America, the earth’s axis shifted, and the world turned upside down for 128 million Japanese. We watched in horror as 20,000 people were washed away by a devastating tsunami just minutes after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake shifted the sea floor off the Tohoku coast in northeastern Japan. And then, in slower motion, we witnessed the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor, the displacement of 110,000 residents, and the spread of an invisible radioactive terror across the archipelago. This quake, tsunami, and meltdown — a triple catastrophe with no precedent—is known simply as “3.11."

On page 99, one finds both the central question of the book: “What will (and will not) change?” and its conclusion: “it is too soon after the catastrophe to identify lasting changes.” At this point, the question and answer refer to one piece of the Japanese national fabric-- national security. The book also examines change vis-à-vis energy policy-- particularly the future of nuclear power-- and local governance--the locus of most public policy delivery. In all three areas Japan’s elites competed to control national rhetoric, the “sweet talk” that frames public choices. For some, 3.11 was a warning for Japan to “put it in gear’’ and go in a new direction. For those with more to lose from change, the catastrophe was a once-in-a-millennium “black swan,” so Japan should “stay the course.’’ Still others declared that 3.11 taught a clear lesson--that Japan must return to an idealized past and rebuild what was had been lost to modernity and globalization.

Optimists saw 3.11 as the moment to seize the opportunity to re-energize civil society and enhance transparency in the policy process. The enormity of the tragedy notwithstanding, pessimists insist that 3.11 was not big enough to compel changes to national institutions. There is evidence to support both views, but observers are struck by how inflated many of the grandest predictions were—e.g., that 3.11 would stimulate a “civilizational transformation” or that a new chapter in Japanese history would begin. An insistent flood of extravagant claims dominated the 3.11 discourse, rattling Japanese politics and society. The discourse was filled with reaffirmations of community and social solidarity. But the political world was not “reborn,” nor was national life “reset.” Normalcy prevailed. Japan would not become more muscular, it would not alter its system of local governance, and it would not abandon nuclear power. It was not nudged in a new direction.
Learn more about 3.11 at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue