There’s much that is familiar about how Japan is responding to the unfolding crisis following the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck earlier this month. In the face of a terrible humanitarian crisis, the Japanese people are displaying a calm stoicism and readiness for collective action that they have long been justifiably renowned.
At the same time, though, the government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan is struggling to respond to the crisis in a new way, and to redefine Japanese politics and the country’s relationship with the outside world. But whether he will succeed or not remains an open question, for the obstacles facing the government are formidable.
There are three things that stand out about the current Japanese response that distinguish it sharply from the last time the country suffered a comparable shock—the Kobe earthquake of 1995—and which underline just how much has changed since then.
The first difference is the considerable lengths that the Kan government has taken to keep the Japanese people informed about the crisis and its efforts to deal with it. The Prime Minister and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano have been offering regular press briefings as the crisis has unfolded, in sharp contrast with the hapless Murayama government, whose initial response in 1995 was marked by indecision and apparent confusion. In this, Kan’s policies are part of a general trend away from the ‘Japan Inc.’ style of policymaking in which decisions were made behind closed doors by a coalition of business, bureaucratic and conservative political elites. Kan, who as a health minister in the 1980s played a key role in exposing bureaucratic efforts to conceal the contamination of Japanese blood supplies with the HIV aids virus, is unusually well-suited to the role of a populist prime minister.
Second, the Kan government has more actively sought out international help and advice wherever it can find it, even though for the most part Japan has more than enough resources to deal with the most immediate and pressing aspects of disaster relief on its own. Unlike in 1995, when Japan turned away international aid when it was offered, disaster relief teams and emergency support have been accepted from a range of countries, including not only the United States, but also Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan and even China. This reflects a new openness in the Japanese government, not only with its own people, but also with the outside world.