The Diplomat speaks with Jeff Kingston about the recovery effort from the March 11 tsunami that struck northeastern Japan.

By Mark Austin for

The earthquake and tsunami that struck northwest Japan on March 11 triggered an outpouring of charitable initiatives, including two books compiled in a matter of weeks that were published in print and electronic form and sold to raise money for the victims of the disaster. 2:46—Aftershocks: Stories from the Japan Earthquake, better known as Quakebook (Goken) is essentially written snapshots of the disaster, while Tsunami: Japan’s Post-Fukushima Future (Slate), examines the political, social and technological implications of the disaster from a long-term perspective. Its contributors include journalists, academics, a former central banker, a poet, an English teacher, an art historian and a non-profit executive.

The Diplomat interviewed Tsunami’s editor, Prof. Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University’s Japan Campus, about the e-book, which was produced in collaboration with Foreign Policy magazine.

Mark Austin: How did the Tsunami project get off the ground?

Jeff Kingston: My wife’s relatives are from Iwate, and I visited the devastated region on my honeymoon in 1982 and returned several times. So when I went up on April 1 I was in total shock. I went back a few times and decided that there was a need to go beyond the Twitter-sourced Quakebook and get some deeper analysis out about the situation and to probe its portents. So I put together this project to raise awareness and also to raise money. I was thinking of a traditional book, but realized that would take a long time, and I wanted to reach an audience soon. (Foreign Policy Contributing Editor) Christian Caryl suggested I contact Foreign Policy because they had recently produced an e-book on the Arab Spring. The editor-in-chief, Susan Glasser, responded very positively, and we ran with the idea.

One of the charms and strengths of the book is its eclectic mix of authors. How were they chosen?

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I reached out to the network of contacts I have developed over the past 20 years living in Japan, and everyone was happy to contribute. I set a tight schedule and they delivered. I chose people who could give us various angles on the 3/11 catastrophes, and I think that’s the great strength of the book. A wide range of readers will find something up their alley, and hopefully we will tempt them to explore some of the other essays to widen their perspective about 3/11 and its implications.

What was your personal experience of the March 11 earthquake?

I was out of the country—in India—when the quake struck. I made my way back on the 13th and was amazed at how empty Narita Airport arrivals was. I cleared immigration, got my bag and cleared customs in record time. Departures looked full. I had been in a Kerala jungle camp, and one of the locals came up to me on the night of Friday the 11th and said, ‘Big bad in Japan,’ several times. He had heard something on the radio. Next day I travelled into town and found out the story. But tsunami news had to compete with the cricket World Cup being staged at that time in India, so it was strange watching local coverage flipping from a game I don’t understand to scenes of devastation I could barely comprehend.

The Kan government’s response to the earthquake/tsunami and ensuing nuclear disaster has been both praised and criticized. How would you rate that response, in comparison with the Murayama government’s inept handling of the aftermath of the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995?

The response has been much, much better. Overall, Kan probably deserves more credit than most observers seem willing to give him. Under the dire circumstances of a complex catastrophe involving the triple whammy of an unprecedented earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis, Kan managed the initial relief operations reasonably well. A lot depends on the yardstick against which he is measured. Compared with other leaders dealing with natural disasters—think Katrina, the 2004 tsunami in Aceh and Sri Lanka, and the earthquakes in Kobe in 1995 and Sichuan in 2008, and flooding in Europe in 2010—the current response hasn’t been that bad. Having witnessed the bungling response to the Kobe quake, I’m impressed by how much better the current government’s initial disaster response was, although follow-up has been weak because disaster-hit areas have been held hostage to party politics. This is scant consolation to evacuees, but failure to meet unrealistic public expectations or assuage their frustrations doesn’t mean Kan is doing a lousy job.

In contrast to initial rescue and relief operations for the 1995 Kobe earthquake, when the Liberal Democratic Party-dominated coalition government was paralyzed, Kan immediately mobilized 100,000 troops and accepted international offers of assistance. Tsunami disaster relief has been reasonably fast and effective under difficult circumstances, and evacuees received basic needs. Certainly, they have reason to be frustrated with the pace of relief and recovery, but it’s hard to imagine any government performing better given the devastation of ports and other infrastructure and the sheer scale of the disaster. Opposition politicians churlishly criticized the government for not meeting its target of building 30,000 temporary houses for evacuees by June, but it managed to build 27,200 units, an impressive performance in 10 weeks given shortages of building materials, difficulty in finding suitable sites and damage to transport networks. For comparison, in Tamil Nadu in India, nearly seven years after the devastating 2004 tsunami, the government has only managed to build a total of 7,800 units. Kan’s efforts also appear splendid in contrast to the American debacle with trailer housing after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In his essay, Financial Times Asia Editor David Pilling refers to comments Prime Minister Naoto Kan made in May regarding what Kan described as an ‘impasse’ that Japan had faced ‘for the 20 years before this great earthquake disaster.’ The prime minister went on to say, ‘As we overcome the crisis created by this disaster, we must also overcome the preceding crisis, what could be called Japan’s structural crisis.’ What are the key features of this ‘structural crisis’?

I think when people refer to the structural crisis they mean prolonged economic stagnation stemming from low productivity growth, overregulation, institutional rigidities, stifling of innovation, propping up highly indebted zombie companies that cut prices just to service debts, harming competitors and fuelling deflation, etc. Japan is a high-cost economy with low returns on investments.

David told me he thought Kan was referring to Japan’s difficulty in dealing with the aftermath of the bubble, including its slow growth rate, persistent deflation, growing debt, the relative decline of its nominal GDP in relation to other that of other countries, its significant decline in terms of share of world trade, plus some of its social problems: political drift, a high suicide rate, a bifurcated labour market, working poor, growing disparities in wealth and the issues around dealing with a rapidly aging society.

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Some of your contributors point out that the Japanese word for crisis, kiki, is made up of the ideograms for ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity,’ suggesting that the earthquake offers a chance for Japan to remake itself. But haven’t we been here before—in 1993, when the LDP briefly lost power for the first time since 1955, and in 2009, when the Democratic Party of Japan routed the LDP in a lower house general election? On both occasions, there was much talk about the prospects of a ‘new Japan,’ but in the end it was a case of same old, same old. Will things be different this time? What’s required for real change to happen?

I’m not optimistic that the political elite will avoid squandering the opportunities created by this disaster. Civil society, however, is flowering during this crisis and playing a critical role in relief and recovery. I think that the institutionalization of volunteer efforts in Tohoku has made them far more effective than in Kobe, and more sustainable. So this is a new Japan, where NPOs have a seat at the table and are shaping the response.

Kiyomi Tsujimoto, co-founder of Peace Boat, is in the SDP and is Kan’s coordinator of volunteer efforts while Makoto Yuasa, the guy who helped set up the tent village in Hibiya Park in early 2009 that focused attention on the precariat, is also a key adviser. In a sense, Tohoku has seen the mainstreaming of civil society, and that is a critical development. We are also seeing a good response from corporate Japan in terms of relief goods, logistics, manpower. And Tsujimoto has called this ‘year one of corporate social responsibility’—referring to the aftermath of the 1995 Kobe quake as being ‘year one of volunteerism.

Also, while the nuclear village digs in its heels and resists Kan’s feed-in tariff bill, Masayoshi Son of SoftBank is ponying up ¥100 billion for a mega-solar project and has the governors of 38 prefectures on board. So if you are looking at Nagatacho or Kasumigaseki (Japan’s political and bureaucratic nerve centres), there’s little sign of change, but civil society and private sector initiatives are more encouraging. ‘New Japan’ talk is over the top—change happens gradually and cumulatively, but only if people push for it. In that sense, I think Fukushima is creating momentum for change as we see a huge shift in public sentiment against nuclear energy and the media belatedly criticizing the ‘nuclear village’ and exposing how much it donates to the LDP. So one big change is national energy strategy: There is zero chance that Japan will increase nuclear energy capacity to 50 percent of the total, as currently planned, by 2030. And with renewables at 1 percent, one can expect significant increases in coming decades.

In Tsunami, the Japan Society’s Devin Stewart and you mention how social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter were foregrounded in Japan in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, when cell phone services were disabled. While Facebook users in Japan reportedly account for just 2-3 percent of the population, 20 percent of Japanese are said to use Twitter, and 14 percent of all tweets are in Japanese—second only to English, which accounts for 50 percent of the global total. How important have SNS been in what you call the ‘flowering’ of civil society in Japan, post 3/11?

SNS have played a crucial role in relief and recovery operations, not only for civil society organizations. Google ran a people locater that proved very effective in reuniting relatives and friends. SNS were crucial in assessing needs and conveying information quickly in order to ensure effective distribution and also useful in mobilizing volunteers and maximizing their impact. So yes, SNS enhanced the effectiveness and impact of NPOs in ways that boosted their credibility while also enabling them to raise donations.

The proceeds of Tsunami are donated to NPOs working in the affected Tohoku region. For more information and how to purchase the e-book, please click here.