Features | Politics | East Asia

The Struggle for a New Japan

Naoto Kan has shown during the ongoing crisis his determination for a more open style of government in Japan. It won’t be easy for him.

By Thomas Berger for

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.

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For the United States, US participation in disaster relief operations is an opportunity to underline the utility of the alliance to the Japanese people and to dispel some of the bad blood that developed over Futenma. As one US commander put it while handing out relief supplies, ‘this is public diplomacy in action.’ It also is one of the areas where the United States and Japan can hope to expand their military cooperation internationally without inflaming Japanese and Asian public opinion. Asian participation in relief efforts, meanwhile, is also extremely important because it offers an often troubled region a chance to demonstrate a spirit of solidarity that transcends the often bitter emotional disputes over history and territory. History has shown how cooperation in disaster relief has allowed other countries to significantly improve diplomatic relations despite continuing tensions in other areas. Greek-Turkish relations, for instance, were set on a better course after the two nations aided each other following disastrous earthquakes in 1999.

Finally, and not insignificantly, there’s the readiness of the Kan government to order the Japanese Self-Defence Forces (JSDF) into action. Of course, disaster relief has been a major focus of the JSDF’s training and mission since the 1970s. In 1995, however, the Socialist-led Maruyama government was reluctant to allow Japan’s armed forces to assist in coping with the Kobe earthquake, largely because of the lingering negative image associated with the Japanese military after the pre-1945 era. Today, these concerns have mostly evaporated, allowing the military to help the nation face its greatest crisis since World War II.

These three trends all point in the direction of a more open, more democratic and more normal Japan.

Yet, problems remain. The biggest isn’t so much dealing with the after-effects of the earthquake and the tsunami, but rather coping with the ongoing nuclear reactor crisis. The fears raised by the spectre of nuclear contamination are immense, both because of Japan’s much commented upon history as the only nation that has suffered the effects of atomic bombings, and also because of the insidious nature of the dangers associated with radiation. While there’s no doubt, though, that exposure to radiation is associated with an increased risk of cancer, there’s great uncertainty over what level of exposure leads to what kind of increased level of risk. Moreover, under the chaotic conditions of an ongoing disaster, measurement of how much radiation has escaped and how far it travelled is inherently difficult.

In addition, while the dangers of radiation are real, so too are the costs associated with a hysterical reaction. Preoccupation with the nuclear crisis can distract attention from the other, more concrete problems associated with the earthquake and the tsunami, which may have killed more than 20,000 people. Panic over radiation can lead to anti-social forms of behaviour, such as hoarding. And efforts to entirely eliminate the risks associated with nuclear power may be fruitless—other sources of energy bring their own difficulties, such as global warming and dependence on supplies from volatile regions of the globe. As Aaron Wildavsky and Mary Douglas put it in their classic study on risk, the greatest risk is to try to take no risk at all. 

This means the Kan government has a dilemma—on the one hand it’s trying to calm and reassure the public about the dangers that it faces, while on the other it tries to remain open and transparent about a problem that is inherently ambiguous and where it has to operate on the basis of imperfect information. To make matters worse, there is a sharp clash between the operating culture of TEPCO, which continues to be characterized by the more closed ‘Japan Inc.’ way of doing things, and the new style of openness and accountability that the Kan government is trying to promote.

Already, tensions are beginning to emerge between the Kan government and TEPCO, spurred by popular anger over management missteps in dealing with power outages and the possible lack of preparation for a disaster of this size and scale. In certain respects, the situation is reminiscent of the problems that the Obama administration faced in the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf. The magnitude of the crisis in Japan, however, is incomparably greater, and Japan’s dependence on TEPCO—Asia’s largest utility, which supplies 30 percent of Japan’s electricity—is far greater than the US reliance on BP.

Much depends on how the Kan government is able to manage this dilemma going forward. Will it be able to negotiate the tensions between maintaining public order and a more transparent form of governing? Can it hold TEPCO responsible for whatever mistakes it can legitimately be held accountable for, without that criticism turning into a broader crisis of confidence regarding the Kan administration and the Japanese government as a whole? And while for now the DPJ has closed ranks and the opposition parties have avoided trying to score points over government missteps, inevitably the issue will become politicized. When it does, a new cycle of recrimination may emerge that will undermine the political process and dash public hopes for a new, more open and more democratic Japan.

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Ultimately, the drama that is unfolding is mostly a Japanese one—the losses have been Japanese, and the resources for reconstruction will come largely from Japan. The key decision makers in the political battles to come are Japanese. Still, the outside world has both a role to play and a strong interest in the outcome.

The continued foundering of the world’s third largest economy and the largest democracy in East Asia is in no one’s interest, while the benefits of a more active and positively engaged Japan in the international community could be considerable. There are a number of ways in which the outside world can help. Perhaps the most important thing that other governments can do is to participate in the public analysis of the disaster. Foreign experts, including scientists, on organizational behavior, as well as former regulators, can play a key role not only by sharing their own experiences, but offering a perspective that isn’t tainted by political interest or association with TEPCO or the Japanese government. While public fears of bias can’t be dispelled by foreign participation, they can at least be mitigated.

The 2011 disaster can also be used to lend further impetus to the development of regional and international disaster relief bodies. Chinese participation in such multilateral institutions is particularly important, and could prevent such embarrassing incidents as the initial turning down of Japanese offers to provide response teams following the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Finally, the United States and Japan should continue to develop joint response to natural disasters as an important element of their armed forces’ mission.

While there are clear limits to what non-Japanese can hope to accomplish, the possibilities for making a positive contribution despite the considerable obstacles are significant. In the meantime, the hope for a more open, more internationalized Japan, remains in the balance.

Thomas Berger is Associate Professor of International Relations at Boston University. He is the author of ‘Cultures of Antimilitarism: National Security in Germany and Japan’ and co-editor of ‘Japan in International Politics: Beyond the Reactive State.’