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3 Questions: Richard Samuels on Japan’s 3.11 triple disaster and its impact 10 years later

Within minutes, the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown on March 11, 2011, brought an unprecedented wave of death, displacement, and destruction to Japan.
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Portrait photo of Richard Samuels against a neutral gray background
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“Social science teaches that great and unexpected shocks can stimulate great and unexpected social and political change,” says Professor Richard Samuels, director of the Center for International Studies. “But what I found was that even an event as cataclysmic as 3.11 did not change the policy preferences of Japan’s leaders.”
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Photo: Pablo Castagnola Fotograf and Einstein Stiftung, Berlin
Topological Google Earth screengrab centered on Japan
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Satellite topological map of Japan and environs on March 11, 2011

Ten years ago, on March 11, 2011, Japan was struck by the most powerful earthquake in its recorded history. Of 9.1 magnitude by many accounts, the earthquake occurred off the Pacific coast of Tohoku and triggered a tsunami and meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

Nearly 20,000 Japanese — and most of their worldly possessions — were washed away in a matter of minutes. 340,000 survivors were displaced, and only a fraction ever returned to their homes. For some survivors, this decade passed with the speed of light, while for many others — most, perhaps — time has lumbered along, encumbered by reminders of loss.

Richard Samuels, the Ford International Professor of Political Science at MIT and director of the Center for International Studies, offered the first broad assessment on Japan’s response to the horrific triple disaster in his book “3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan” (2013, Cornell University Press). His work explored the impact of 3.11 on policy preferences of Japan’s leaders across three key sectors: national security, energy policy, and local governance.

For some reformers, 3.11 was a warning for Japan to overhaul its priorities and political processes. It was a chance to push the nation forward in a new, and better direction. For others, 3.11 was a “black swan” — a once-in-a-millennium event that required no tinkering and certainly no new dramatic changes to business as usual. Still others declared that the catastrophe demonstrated the need to return to an idealized (and more simple) past; Japan needed to recover what had been lost to modernity and globalization.

On March 11, he will lead a conversation with other scholars, including Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor of architecture and urbanism at MIT and director of MIT’s Urban Risk Lab, at a virtual event, 3.11 Ten Years Later: Disaster and Resilience in Japan. Here, Samuels reflects on whether 3.11 was a force of change, or a return to status quo, in Japan’s politics and public policy.

Q: Ten years later, what are some examples that 3.11 impacted Japan's government and society, for good or bad?

A: In the days and months after the tsunami and the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the nation and the world closed ranks to support the survivors under the banner “Gambare Nippon!” (“Hang Tough, Japan!”). This was a moment of great promise — or at least one of great promises. Politicians vowed that Japan would be reborn, revitalized, rebuilt, and renovated.  Many of their promises became hopes. And, sadly, many of these hopes remain unrealized a decade later.

Indeed, a shroud of disappointment covers many communities in northeastern Japan — and across the rest of the archipelago as well. In a survey by the Asahi Shimbun in January, nearly two-thirds of the Japanese do not trust the government to ensure the safety of nuclear power generation. And an even greater number disapprove of how the government has handled the Fukushima Daiichi plant in particular. In a Kyodo survey taken in November, only 30 percent of Fukushima Prefecture residents say reconstruction has been sufficient. “There is nothing left for me to return home to” has become a common, elegiac refrain.

Q: You warn in your book to look for continuity, and not change, following major catastrophe. How has this played out in Japan?

A: The facts that support this conclusion have surprised many observers: For example, the same majority of the Japanese public that, when polled, declared its opposition to nuclear power also voted to return the pro-nuclear Liberal Democrats to power in 2012. The same Japanese public that emphatically embraced the alliance with the United States after the U.S. military supplied 20,000 troops and nuclear expertise to come to their rescue continues to oppose plans to reconfigure the footprint of U.S. bases on the Japanese home islands. 

Social science teaches that great and unexpected shocks can stimulate great and unexpected social and political change. Catastrophes on a 3.11 scale should “punctuate equilibria,” making it impossible for the status quo to be reconstructed and for change to happen. Events such as this, we think, free up paths for new sets of institutions, practices, preferences, and ideas to shape the future. 3.11 was, I thought, a great case to test this long-held idea. But what I found was that even an event as cataclysmic as 3.11 did not change the policy preferences of Japan’s leaders. 

Perhaps the most striking development in the weeks and months after the devastation was how political entrepreneurs from across the political spectrum used the catastrophe to frame the event to justify, to legitimate, to fortify, and to sell their pre-existing preferences. Those who were anti-nuclear before 3.11 said that Fukushima proved they were right. Those who supported nuclear power insisted that since this destruction was beyond anyone’s imagination (souteigai) they were not responsible and, besides, they would learn from the accident, making future ones even less likely. Those who were opposed to the rearmament before 3.11 lauded the hard work of the Japanese military in its rescue work, but said that this service was only possible because Japanese soldiers carried shovels, not guns. Those who sought a strong military and who supported the alliance with the United States declared that 3.11 proved the value — and the need to strengthen — both.   

That said, there were important changes. In 2012, the Japanese government stood up a new regulatory body that has had surprisingly sharp teeth. By 2013, the agency issued safety standards requiring new plants to prove they would be able to withstand earthquakes, floods, and terrorist attacks. The Japanese military was allowed for the first time to work with local officials and the utilities to develop emergency plans in the event of another Fukushima-like accident. And, while nine nuclear reactors have been approved for restart, only four — a tiny fraction of the 54 that had been producing power before 3.11 — are in operation today. The government — a pro-nuclear power government — now aims to have renewables account for 22 to 24 percent of the country's electricity generation, more than the share projected for Japan’s nuclear power.

And, in what is the most heartening measure of “non-change,” the Japanese press reports that the Tohoku region, which accounted for nearly 16 percent of Japan’s total agricultural output in 2008, achieved a 15 percent share by 2017.    

Q: You wrote your book on 3.11 in record speed following the catastrophe. How were you able to pivot so quickly to this pressing yet unexpected topic and produce, within two years, such compelling work?

A: For about four years before 3.11, I had been working on a project on how political captivity — kidnappings, POWs, etc. — have been used in democratic states by political entrepreneurs to capture foreign policy. For centuries — and without regard for location — political abductions have figured in the construction of national identities and in justifications both for aggression and conciliation. Many ambitious politicians and their support groups have capitalized on captivity to frame and highlight national weakness and the fecklessness of opponents. Others have spun out accounts of heroism to demonstrate national strength and visionary leadership. Either way, the manipulation of the captivity passion for political ends often has been used to mobilize public sympathy to reorient national policies. This work will be the subject of my next book.

In short, work on how politics can be kidnapped intrigued me — and I found myself pivoting to study this in the painful context of 3.11. It was immediately clear that a competition was emerging for control of a national narrative that could be manipulated to shape minds and generate political support. As I saw it, 3.11 would provide a different, but parallel laboratory for investigating how the identification of heroes and villains — and the assignment of credit and blame — matter for democratic politics.

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