Author’s Response: 3.11 and the Fog of Politics

Author's Response
3.11 and the Fog of Politics

by Richard J. Samuels
January 30, 2014

This is one of seven essays in a book review roundtable on Richard J. Samuels’s 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan.

It has been almost three years since 3.11—36 months that have stretched out the longest and most painfully for the surviving victims. Many observers have spilled much ink trying to understand and evaluate what happened in Tohoku and what it would mean for Japan and the world. I am grateful to Asia Policy for assembling a group of thoughtful analysts to reflect on my early appraisal of the catastrophe. I would like to use their assessments to revisit that understanding of 3.11 and its impact.

As I wrote in the book—and as Michio Muramatsu reminds us—a master narrative for 3.11 has yet to be written. Sheila Smith puts it more directly. She wonders: “Did it really matter?” One way to judge is by revisiting 3.11 from the distance afforded by the passage of additional time. How might my conclusions have been different if I had written the book three years after the catastrophe instead of just 18 months later? Which of the dueling political entrepreneurs who tried to brand the 3.11 catastrophe have been rewarded with policies that conform to their preferences? Has Japan really “stayed the course,” or has it embarked on a new one—either forward in a new direction or “back to the future”?

Andrew DeWit’s apt characterization of “the speed with which Japan’s energy landscape was changing even as Samuels was writing about it” is a good place to begin. He is correct to point to the electric power revolution in Japan, to its acceleration after 3.11, and to its consonance with “global paradigm shifts in energy.” By shrinking and smartening, Japan’s electric power sector seems to be catching up to the rest of the world’s utilities, which had already begun adapting to disruptive technologies as well as to changing consumer, regulatory, and voter preferences even absent a 3.11-scale challenge.

Japan’s “energy shift” seems most prominent at the local level. Following Masayoshi Son’s creative lead, local governments are generating revenues by using the post-3.11 feed-in tariff (FIT) to induce businesses to build large-scale renewable-power projects on vacant municipal land. Municipalities receive rent for the land and additional tax revenue, while the residents get clean, low-cost power and investors enjoy subsidized, low-risk returns. In fact, renewables increased by 25% in the first year after FIT was enacted.

Change in the Japanese electric power sector—including a toughened regulatory authority and a shift away from the utility-centric programs offered by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) toward “micro-electric power companies”—has proceeded despite the utility companies’ natural resistance to change, a resistance abetted in December 2012 when Japanese voters decisively ended the hold of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) on governance. Although polls showed overwhelming opposition to nuclear power, voters returned Japan’s most avidly pro-nuclear and pro-utility party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), to power, and TEPCO shares rebounded immediately. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the DPJ’s policy of zero nuclear power “groundless,” accelerated efforts to export nuclear plants, appointed nuclear power advocates to key cabinet posts, removed anti-nuclear members of the Basic Energy Plan commission, and reduced the FIT price for new investments in renewables. Although METI approved solar-power generation facilities with output capacity equivalent to about twenty nuclear reactors (22 gigawatts), only about one-tenth of the newly approved facilities have actually started producing electricity. [1] Structural change and renewable growth have been slowed by a loophole in the FIT legislation, and some investors have abandoned their projects after encountering difficulty connecting to the grid and gaining access to panels. [2] Nonetheless, the breakup of the vertically integrated monopoly system is under formal discussion in METI councils. The “creative destruction” of hidebound utilities is finally coming to Japan, and Alexis Dudden may be right when she says that “changes in the energy sector may ultimately prove the most profound.” But evidence is mixed on the pace of and impetus for change.

Suzanne Basalla’s comments raise similar questions about the impact of 3.11 on Japanese security policy and on the Japan-U.S. alliance. She attributes recent shifts in Japan’s force posture and the deepening of the alliance to the unprecedented and effective cooperation of the U.S. military and the Japan Self-Defense Forces in the weeks and months after the catastrophe. By most accounts, bilateral coordination was exemplary, even considering some front-end hiccups. But her full glass may actually be half empty. Shifts that were easy to imagine after 3.11 did not come directly in its wake. A short list includes relocation of U.S. marines from Okinawa to the mainland, defense budget increases, consolidation of the Ground Self-Defense Force’s command structure, forward motion on the Futenma base relocation, creation of a Japanese amphibious unit, and creation of a National Security Council. Other long-awaited changes, such as the reinterpretation of the constitution to allow collective self-defense, remain stalled.

Change has required two additional catalysts not mentioned by Basalla, both of which occurred after the book went to press: consolidation of power by the more conservative Abe and confrontation with Beijing in the East China Sea. Moreover, despite unprecedented levels of support for the Japan-U.S. alliance among the Japanese public, Tokyo has dragged its feet on trade negotiations and allowed relations with the Republic of Korea—the United States’ other major ally in Northeast Asia—to deteriorate. In addition, Prime Minister Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, despite clear signals from top Washington officials—including Vice President Joe Biden—that the U.S. government wished him not to further provoke China or Korea.

Notwithstanding the enormous goodwill generated by the U.S. response to 3.11, the Senkaku/Diaoyu imbroglio has engendered repeated questions about Washington’s influence, capability, and commitment in East Asia. Japanese editorialists and elites ask if Washington will cut (budgets) and pivot to the region as promised, or if it will cut and run in the face of fiscal constraints and declining public support for “globo-cop” missions. [3] Nor has the afterglow of Operation Tomodachi mitigated Japanese concerns about the future of extended deterrence. In short, although the U.S.-Japan “friendship” has been well-earned and is high-sounding rhetorically, and while there has indeed been what Dudden calls a “discursive shift” in discussions of the Japanese military, common interests and common adversaries continue to shape international relations in general and U.S.-Japan relations in particular. However positively disposed they are toward one another, allies—particularly weaker ones like Japan—can never be reassured enough because their strategic environment never stabilizes for long. It is hard, therefore, to imagine that Operation Tomodachi alone, rather than in association with Chinese provocations and a shift to the right, was responsible for recent alterations to Japan’s national security posture and reaffirmations of alliance solidarity. [4]

Has 3.11 induced any shifts in Japanese citizens’ views of their own communities and leaders, two of the four central tropes in the book? There is limited evidence that Japan’s vaunted social solidarity may be fraying. More than a hundred decontamination workers have been arrested in Tohoku for shoplifting, looting, brawling, and other petty crimes, and a central government official was suspended for blogging that the Japanese public was being forced to foot the bill for reconstruction for political reasons, even though there is nothing worth rebuilding in the underpopulated region. [5]

Localities were so prominent in my account of 3.11 because they anticipated just this sort of central contempt for local conditions. It was hard not to be impressed by the number of relief officials dispatched to the service of Tohoku governors and mayors by fellow local governments acting ahead of the center. Some 1,500 such “horizontal” secondees are still in place today, but their numbers are shrinking due to budget cuts and the demands for disaster resources at home. [6]

Relatedly, Nobuo Fukuda echoes Sheila Smith’s remark that 3.11 “shook the foundations of Japanese confidence in their government” by pointing out that there has been a marked “disconnect between citizens and the state.” In one poll taken nearly two years after the catastrophe, about half the Japanese respondents indicated that they trust local government but only one quarter of respondents said that they trust the central government. [7] We know from other polling data that most Japanese oppose increased public works spending for disaster prevention and that nearly two-thirds feel that the reconstruction budget was “wasted.” [8]

Even if funds have not been wasted, reconstruction certainly has been slow. Twenty municipal governments in Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima will fail to complete reconstruction projects by March 2016, the fifth anniversary of the disaster. Unable to wait, many residents have relocated outside the area, and those who stayed have registered their discontent in local elections. In Fukushima Prefecture, where some 150,000 residents still live as evacuees, incumbent mayors lost elections in Fukushima, Koriyama, Tomioka, and Iwaki in 2013 alone.

Nowhere is public opinion more focused than on the dangers resulting from the meltdown and cleanup of TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi reactor, another important issue raised by Fukuda and Dudden. Indeed, one of the most noteworthy developments in the past year and a half has been the publication of relatively optimistic assessments of the health effects of the meltdown. Ken Buesseler, an oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, has argued that authorities should continue to monitor radioactivity in the area near the crippled reactors, but that “the dose from Fukushima cesium is…insignificant [and] much lower relative to other, more common sources, such as dental x-rays.” [9] Scientists who advised the U.S. government during the Fukushima nuclear crisis acknowledge the massive problem of containing radioactive matter passing through the area near the crippled reactor, but take the unpopular position that Prime Minister Abe’s claim to the International Olympic Committee that everything is “under control” is actually legitimate. In their judgment, stabilization of the nuclear fuel has been successful, and the reactor’s potential for overheating will continue to diminish. [10]

The “grave concern about the fallout” to which Fukuda refers cuts two ways. Some argue that for most citizens this concern itself is a greater danger than the fallout. Physicists David Roberts of the U.S. State Department and Ted Lazo of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) insist that “stress can be at least as harmful as the radiation exposure itself.” [11] Meanwhile, a peer-reviewed examination of the radiation risk conducted by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) suggests that “it is unlikely to be able to attribute any health effects in the future among the general public and the vast majority of workers.” [12] Investigative journalists who have now had the chance to comb official records find this to have been the early, but apparently underreported, conclusion of U.S. government officials as well. [13]

While this critical issue is being sorted out, several other questions await fuller investigation and beg for better answers. For one thing, we still have much to learn about Japanese leadership during the crisis, particularly regarding the role of Prime Minister Naoto Kan. That he was the only principal actor whose views on nuclear power changed in response to the catastrophe makes Kan an outlier worth special attention. So do many of his policy successes, despite his villainization by political enemies. Kan’s personal “energy shift” has now been followed by that of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and a growing number of LDP politicians. We should be less puzzled by the predictability of most policy entrepreneurs who would “never waste a good crisis” than by the willingness of others to abandon long-held views and lead in new directions.

The second puzzle concerns political mobilization. Despite the size and visibility of the nuclear accident, it took a surprisingly long time for protests against nuclear power to reach critical mass. It was not until mid-July 2012, some sixteen months after the meltdown—and only after an unpopular decision to restart Japan’s reactors—that thousands of protesters became tens and hundreds of thousands of protestors in sustained weekly demonstrations, forcing the DPJ to endorse a zero-nuclear option. But those protests, the largest public demonstrations in Japan in half a century, are in policymakers’ rearview mirror; only several hundred protestors now gather in monthly demonstrations in front of the prime minister’s office in central Tokyo. The rhythms and reach of Japan’s civil society need fuller illumination.

These issues, taken together, point us toward how to improve our understanding of the future of democratic politics in Japan. The enduring lesson of 3.11, at least for analysts, is that we need more and better research on the correlates of leadership and protest. That we still know too little may be a consequence of our going about our inquiries descriptively, without placing them squarely in their fuller comparative and theoretical contexts. Sheila Smith is right to ask for more history. We should all ask for better theory as well.

My mentor and old friend Michio Muramatsu suggests that I might have become “frustrated” by the hackneyed rhetoric of crisis and the brakes it applied to institutional change in the areas I studied. Wonderment is more like it. Like each of the participants in this roundtable, I continue to wonder how 3.11 will affect Japan. It was, after all, the largest natural disaster to befall Japan in the living memory of everyone but the diminishing few nonagenarians who were toddlers when Tokyo shook in 1923. All of us in this roundtable are familiar with theoretically grounded expectations for change at moments when stable institutional equilibria are punctuated by exogenous events such as war, depression, and natural disaster. We are all trained to look for political leaders who will frame catastrophic events and use them to tilt history in the direction of their choosing. And, as the conversation here reveals, we all wonder about how to know change when we see it, since seeing change clearly through “the fog of politics” is always so difficult. It is no wonder that we have to keep at it.


[1] Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (Japan), Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, “Saisei kanou enerugii hatsuden setsubi no dounyuu joukyou wo kouhyou shimasu” [Official Announcement of the Situation Regarding Introduction of Renewable Energy Electric Power Generation Equipment], November 18, 2013,

[2] Yomiuri Shimbun, September 8, 2013; and Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (Japan), Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, “Heisei 25 nen kamiki kouba ritchi doukou chousa kekka (sokuhyou) no gaiyou” [Outline of the Results of a Survey of the Trends in Factory Siting During the First Half of 2013 (Bulletin)],

[3] See, for example, the December 7, 2013, editorial in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun and the November 19, 2013, editorial in the Sankei Shimbun. Similar concerns were expressed during interviews with diplomats and military officials in the preparation of Richard J. Samuels and James L. Schoff, “Japan’s Nuclear Hedge: Beyond ‘Allergy’ and Breakout,” in Strategic Asia 2013–14: Asia in the Second Nuclear Age, ed. Ashley J. Tellis, Abraham M. Denmark, and Travis Tanner (Seattle: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2013), 233–64.

[4] Michael Green recently reviewed these changes and attributed none to 3.11. He agreed that there is “growing Japanese anxiety about U.S. capabilities and intentions in Asia.” See Michael J. Green, “Japan is Back: Unbundling Abe’s Grand Strategy,” Lowy Institute for International Policy, December 13, 2013,

[5] Mainichi Shimbun, September 26, 2013.

[6] Jiji Press, September 7, 2013.

[7] Yomiuri Shimbun, February 20, 2013.

[8] Mainichi Shimbun, December 28, 2012; and Nihon Keizai Shimbun, August 11, 2013.

[9] See Ken Buesseler, “FAQ: Radiation from Fukushima,” Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, August 28, 2013,

[10] Reid Tanaka and David Roberts, “Waterworld: How Worried Should We Be about Fukushima?” Diplomat, December 9, 2013. Three-quarters of Japanese did not believe Abe’s claim to the International Olympic Committee that the radioactive water problem at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant is under control. See Asahi Shimbun, October 7, 2013.

[11] David Roberts and Ted Lazo, “Fukushima, from Fear to Fact,” Project Syndicate, July 18, 2013,

[12] The final UNSCEAR report is still unpublished. For preliminary summaries, see “No Immediate Health Risks from Fukushima Nuclear Accident Says UN Expert Science Panel,” UN Information Service, May 31, 2013,; and “No Immediate Health Risks from Fukushima Nuclear Accident Says UN Expert Science Panel,” UN Environment Programme, May 31, 2013, For a rebuttal, see Physicians for Social Responsibility et al., “Annotated Critique of United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) October 2013 Fukushima Report to the UN General Assembly,” October 18, 2013,

[13] See Paul Brustein, “Fukushima’s Worst-Case Scenarios,” Slate, September 26, 2013.; and David Ropeik, “Fear vs. Radiation: The Mismatch,” New York Times, October 21, 2013,

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