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Fukushima One Year Later

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Fukushima One Year Later

An Interview with Daniel P. Aldrich

By Laura Araki
March 6, 2012


The March 2011 earthquake in Japan has had a significant impact not only on cities in the Tohoku region but also on the state of domestic nuclear energy generation. The government and public responses to the Fukushima disaster have brought the safety of nuclear energy into the spotlight.

NBR first spoke with Daniel Aldrich, an expert on nuclear energy in Japan, Japanese civil society, and Japan-U.S. relations, five months after the crisis to better understand the impact of the disaster on Fukushima and the surrounding areas.

Now at the one-year anniversary of the March 11 earthquake, NBR followed up with Dr. Aldrich to discuss the ongoing recovery efforts and the greater implications this crisis has had on Japan’s nuclear future. Dr. Aldrich is currently an Associate Professor of Political Science at Purdue University and an American Association for the Advancement of Science fellow at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).


As we approach the first anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake, can you reflect on the general outlook on the recovery of affected communities?

One year after the compounded disaster in Tohoku, many of the communities affected by the event have successfully cleaned up the debris, torn down or fixed damaged homes and businesses, and removed the wreckage which defined their physical landscape after the tsunami. The popular press has been filled with stories of long-absent residents who have returned to their hometowns to help with the process. Roads which were blocked have been returned to normal, volunteers have worked to replant trees wiped out by the water, and contractors have recycled damaged buildings into their components.

Survivors have, by and large, been taken out of public facilities such as schools, town halls, and cultural centers, and placed in longer-term shelters, known in Japanese as kasetsu jutaku (temporary housing), which, to a degree, resemble the FEMA trailers provided to many survivors of Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast in 2005.

While the physical landscape in towns like Rikuzentakata, Ofunato, and Minami Sanriku better resembles normalcy, the recovery process is only just beginning. A number of larger issues, such as the balance between the central government’s fiscal control over the recovery process and the desire of local governments to have more autonomy to pursue creative rebuilding efforts, remain unresolved. Other local-level concerns for Tohoku residents, such as issues of radioactive decontamination, counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder, and the long-term economic viability of these coastal communities, which often depend on fishing and canning industries, must be addressed through intergovernmental consultation. Some larger issues, such as the length of time for which evacuated villages will remain empty, and the creation of new no-build zones adjacent to low-lying, vulnerable areas will take considerable political will to tackle.


Following up on a theme in your previous interview, has civic engagement continued to play a key role toward the success of community recovery processes? How has this role evolved over time?

Major disasters have served as focal points for civil society and the state. Following the 1923 Tokyo earthquake, the number of individuals joining chounaikai, or neighborhood associations, skyrocketed across the city, and religious and philosophical organizations set up new clinics and hospitals as the rubble was cleared away.

Similarly, after the 1995 Kobe earthquake, the national renaissance in volunteering pushed the government to pass a series of laws making it simpler for NGOs to be registered with the state. Many of the Kobe-based NGOs formed after the1995 earthquake have since branched out to provide post-disaster assistance overseas, using their own experiences as the basis for service assistance to survivors in Southeast Asia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

To date, more than half a million volunteers have come to Tohoku to put time and energy into clearing debris, cleaning up roads and floors, and visiting the sick and infirm. Research on past crises has underscored the critical role played by social networks and social capital in recovery and rebuilding. Rieko Kage’s study of post–World War II recovery illuminated how prefectures with better-connected residents displayed higher levels of recovery than similar prefectures with more fragmented citizens. Volunteers may help to extend the aid provided to the population of survivors.

Following the March 11 disaster, where the government may lack the resources to send medical or psychological assistance to each survivor, volunteers have filled the gap with their home visits, group exercises, and good will. NGOs such as Peace Boat have gone into schools to work with children and parents while others have assisted the disabled in the recovery process. Observers also saw how the lack of social networks among survivors of the Kobe earthquake who were placed in high-rise apartment buildings far from their friends, family, medical professionals, and shops resulted in kodokushi, or lonely deaths, and hope that more sensitive placement procedures will avoid these outcomes after the March 11 tragedy.


How have anti-nuclear movements been affected by the Tohoku earthquake and its aftermath?

Citizens have taken up a number of new strategies and tactics in opposing nuclear power in Japan. Most obviously, mass protests of 40,000 and more participants in such public events have become commonplace, including the Sayonara Nuclear Power rallies headlined by well-known public figures such as Kenzaburo Oe. These rallies have drawn out tens of thousands of new marchers and participants who a decade ago felt little interest in marching against atomic energy.

I remember that when I studied nuclear power in Japan in 2002 and 2003, rallies of 400 people from Yoyogi Park were quite common. The size of these protests in 2011 and 2012 is testament to the degree to which the larger Japanese public feels strongly about the issue.

Next, due to a lack of trust in the information about radioactivity provided by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and the central government after the disaster, many citizens worked together using crowdsourcing techniques and open web platforms to create new transparent sources of data. Safecast, one of the largest of these, has more than 1,000,000 pieces of data collected by citizen’s radiation detectors and uploaded to an open-source website (safecast.org) to create a radioactive exposure map across much of Japan. This “citizen science”—when regular citizens, and not scientists or government officials, work together to collect and analyze data—is an impressive new form of protest against the top-down status quo in the field.

Finally, a number of organizations are pushing for both local- and national-level referenda on the issue of nuclear power. In 1996 the town of Maki-machi successfully used a referendum to end an all-but-assured attempt to site a nuclear power plant in their home, and given the broader antipathy for nuclear power, any local or national referendum is likely to come out in favor of ending nuclear power. While these referenda are not legally binding, if they go forward they will place additional pressure on public figures to stall the restart of the reactors idled across the country.


Amid a sharp decline in domestic demand, the Japanese government seems to be actively promoting the exportation of nuclear technologies. Given that such actions directly contradict current public sentiment about nuclear energy, will we see increasing public pressure on the government to curb this policy? If so, in what ways?

The active promotion of the export of nuclear technologies does seem to contradict the broader popular will to reduce or even eliminate the domestic nuclear power program.

First, it is important to recognize that even within the top echelons of the Japanese government, the prime minister, cabinet members, and other decision-makers are not completely unified in their vision of Japan’s energy future. Hence, Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Yukio Edano has implied that he would be willing to delay restarting the nuclear power plants which have been idled and shut down since the earthquake, while Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has suggested a more moderate and pragmatic approach to the issue. (Edano seems closer along the spectrum of opinion to former prime minister Naoto Kan, who has emerged from the shadows as a strong opponent of the nuclear industry.)

Next, different agencies within the government have different goals; the promotion of nuclear technologies and expertise for sale in Vietnam, Korea, Turkey, and Russia falls under bureaucrats tasked with Japan’s trade and exports. They may envision their goal of exporting nuclear programs as orthogonal to the concerns of many Japanese citizens about the domestic costs of nuclear power. Further, many Japanese citizens may be willing to tolerate the export of nuclear power goods and services while they themselves push for a shutdown of the 54 plants at home. I expect public pressure to focus on the domestic program.


You had mentioned previously that the catastrophe of the Fukushima nuclear plant provided a “window of opportunity” for the transformation of political and social problems and policies. Has this potential for change been realized?

This disaster has radically altered the political landscape in the field of nuclear energy. For the last six decades, the nuclear industry has remained a closed “iron triangle” or “nuclear village,” with strong connections between regulators, politicians of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and the private industry.

I remember how some scholars in the 1990s, for example, posited that the LDP sought to place nuclear power plants in the backyards of towns and villages that supported opposition parties such as the Communists and Socialists. While data has not supported the claim (in fact, the presence of more LDP politicians made it more likely that a town would host an atomic plant), it shows the degree to which outsiders recognized the insulated and politicized nature of the industry.

Further, a great deal of work by scholars like Richard Colignon and Chikako Usui has shown the degree to which regulators expect to move into the industries that they regulate over their civil service careers, and the LDP has received a tremendous amount of financial support from TEPCO. The March 11 catastrophe showed a widening gap between politicians and the nuclear industry, and motivated millions of Japanese to sign anti-nuclear power petitions.

The government is certainly going to bail out TEPCO, and some have even talked of the potential of nationalizing TEPCO’s nuclear power section. In recent discussions with nuclear power executives, many of them told me that central government bureaucrats are no longer taking their calls; the civil servants are seeking to distance themselves from the utilities to avoid being tarred with the same brush. Civil society has stepped up with citizen science, open challenges at public forums, and mass rallies against nuclear power.

Whether or not Japanese decision-makers decide to continue the use of atomic energy, the iron triangle has been shattered.


Dr. Aldrich is the author of the recent book Site Fights: Divisive Facilities and Civil Society in Japan and the West, and the forthcoming book Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery. To learn more about his research on Japanese civil society, nuclear power, and disaster relief, please visit his website here.

Laura Araki is an Intern at the National Bureau of Asian Research and a senior at the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies.

This interview was produced by the Japan-U.S. Discussion Forum, NBR’s public email forum on Japanese affairs.


One Year after March 11—A Retrospective

This interview is part of a one-year anniversary retrospective of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami that struck eastern Japan. Read more from this series:

Policy Change in a Post-Crisis Japan
Q&A with Richard J. Samuels

Post–March 11: Japan’s Political and Economic Landscape Now and Ahead
Q&A with Michael J. Green


Related Q&As

Japan-U.S. Forum Q&As

All Policy Q&As on Japan


Daniel Aldrich is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Purdue University and an American Association for the Advancement of Science fellow at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).



See Charles D. Ferguson's chapter The Implications of Expanded Nuclear Energy in Asia in Strategic Asia 2010-11: Asia's Rising Power and America's Continued Purpose for an assessment of likely trends in nuclear energy and nonproliferation within Asia in the next two decades.