Sunday, March 25, 2012

What if the tsunami never happened?


The Tokyo Diplomat provides a snappy, weekly roundup of news relevant to Tokyo’s foreign policy community. To find out more about this subscription service contact the Editor, Mr Michael Penn at the Shingetsu News Agency in Tokyo. He is the author of the piece below.


March 11 of this year has witnessed a tsunami of its own—a tsunami of news coverage of the anniversary. This entire week international news about Japan has been flooded with all kinds of stories about the disaster. The larger news organizations really geared up for this event and produced a number of very good reports which clearly had been in preparation for weeks or months.

It would be futile and just a bit repetitive to give an account here of rebuilding efforts in Rikuzen-Takata or the story of a family still suffering from the losses of that day. We recommend that you read some of the stories that are out there in the mainstream press, because in this case the international media is doing an excellent job.

What we want to do here is to play out a little thought experiment: How would Japan be different today had the 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Tohoku not occurred? Would this nation be radically different?

Needless to say, the lives of many people in the prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi, and especially Fukushima would certainly be quite different. About 20,000 more people would still be living and roughly a quarter of a million would be back in their own homes. Many of those regions would still be relatively poor and facing economic struggles, but their overall situation would obviously be much better than it is now.

At the national level, energy policy is the area that would be strikingly different. The national plan called for a massive expansion of nuclear power from 30% of the nation’s energy to 50% in the decades ahead. This plan had high-level political support in both the Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Democratic Party, and there were few effective forces countering them. The anti-nuclear groups were more marginal than they are today, and the mainstream was mostly indifferent. The biggest challenge was likely to come from local communities that didn’t want new nuclear plants to be sited in their immediate neighborhoods.

The struggle over nuclear power is ongoing, but almost no one argues in favor of expanding it beyond the March 11, 2011, level any more. Even the more conservative views now acknowledge that Japan’s reliance on nuclear power needs to be reduced below the levels of a year ago and that renewable energy needs to be pursued more keenly. Most of the arguments now are about speed and degree, not basic direction.

But what about Japanese politics? Have they been changed in any important way by the multiple tragedies of March 11?

We tend to think not.

When the disaster struck, Prime Minister Naoto Kan was on the ropes, and quite possibly within days of resigning. His administration’s star foreign minister, Seiji Maehara, had just resigned for accepting campaign contributions from a Korean national he had known in his youth. Another lawmaker who was a close ally of Kan had attended a conference in South Korea which demanded that Japan give up its territorial claims to Dokdo (Takeshima). Indeed, the story had just broken that Kan himself had received illegal donations from non-Japanese nationals. While the whole issue was basically a triviality whipped up into a national scandal by Japan’s far right and the media, the campaign was working and appeared to be on the verge of toppling Kan’s shaky government. The prime minister was in the Diet getting pounded by the opposition when the earthquake struck.

So the life of the Kan administration was extended from March to September, and Kan himself found a political cause (denuclearization) that had previously escaped him.

Would Yoshihiko Noda be prime minister today had there been no earthquake and tsunami? Possibly. He would have been a major contender had Kan been forced to resign over the campaign finance scandal in March. Maehara couldn’t have run and very well may have thrown his support to Noda. The Ozawa group’s situation was not dramatically altered between March and September, so Noda could very well have been the man to rise at that time too.

There’s no reason to think that the balance of power between the parties would be much different either. No one has really seen their political stock rise dramatically due to the March 11 tragedy—except arguably the Emperor Akihito and the Self-Defense Forces which both played positive roles. By the same token, no major political figure saw their career ruined by the disaster either. For most people in the political world, it made no significant difference to the trajectory of their personal fortunes.

Clearly, the anti-nuclear movement became more significant in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns, but they still remain on the edges of the mainstream political world and are not united behind any of the existing political parties.

We also hear much about how the trust of the Japanese people in their leaders has been eroded by gross mismanagement by the authorities. However, it remains unclear if this signifies very much. Whatever distrust that ordinary Japanese citizens may feel, when it comes to action there is very little to behold. Only a handful takes part in protest movements and there is little evidence that people are organizing themselves in any fashion that will have a meaningful effect on government policy. Indeed, a very common reaction is to complain about a lack of leadership in one breath and then shrug that “it can’t be helped” in the next. No “Arab Spring” is imminent in this nation.

In any case, were bureaucrats and the political class highly regarded before March 11? The handling of the tragedy has only exacerbated old trends rather than produced entirely new factors—outside of the aforementioned changes in energy policy, which did take an unexpected U-turn.

Some political force is eventually going to capitalize on the popular discontent and be swept into power. The most obvious candidate at present is Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, although we frankly doubt if he is really the answer to Japan’s problems.

However, all of this is something that has been building for decades and is not a product of March 11. For the past several election cycles, the Japanese people have continued to “throw the bums out” and give electoral victories to opposition parties. The August 2009 general election in which 54 years of Liberal Democratic Party rule was terminated was supposed to herald the new dawn, but the Democratic Party of Japan has—to say the least—failed to live up to its promises, which is a judgment that most lawmakers inside the ruling party freely admit. If a fresh general election is held soon, there is no reason to believe that the situation will radically improve. The dysfunctional system seems to have at least a few more years in it.

Surveying the year that has passed, one is therefore struck with the sense of how little things have changed from the perspective of Japanese politics and government institutions. Yes, there is a lot of discontent in Japan and a political turning point will eventually come. We can now safely say, however, that the March 11, 2011, disaster may one day be counted as a contributing factor to that change, but it does not represent the political turning point itself.

This essay first appeared in the Tokyo Diplomat March 12, 2012 and then in the Asia Policy Calendar for APP members on March 18th.

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