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Impressions of Japan, 2011

by Sheila A. Smith
December 22, 2011

A Japan Self-Defense Forces officer smiles as he holds a four-month-old baby girl who was rescued along with her family members from their home in Ishimaki City, Miyagi Prefecture in northern Japan, after an earthquake and tsunami struck the area on March 14, 2011.

A Japan Self-Defense Forces officer smiles as he holds a four-month-old baby girl who was rescued along with her family members from their home in Ishimaki City, Miyagi Prefecture in northern Japan, after an earthquake and tsunami struck the area. (Yomiuri Yomiuri / Courtesy of Reuters)

2011, of course, will be forever remembered as the year of Japan’s “triple disasters.” Only time will tell what this devastating experience will mean for the Japanese people and their society. For so many Americans, March 11 and its aftermath reminded us of why we so admire the accomplishments of Japan, and the civility and humanity of so many Japanese. From Kandahar to Canberra, from Seoul and Beijing, Japan’s friends around the globe responded—in part because of the tremendous scope of the tragedy, but also out of a sense of gratitude for Japan’s own effort to assist and befriend those beyond their own shores.

The impact of the disasters is too broad to discuss here. But as a long time Japan watcher, several aspects of the disaster and its aftermath stood out. The first, and most widely recognized, is the depth of gratitude expressed by the Japanese people for their military, the Self Defense Forces (SDF). As Japan’s “first responder,” the SDF performed search and rescue operations, opened and sustained supply routes, and filled in the manpower for the local governments that lost staff as well as infrastructure and communications. In June, when I visited Ishinomaki, the SDF were just beginning to hand back governance tasks to an inundated municipal staff.

Second, the disasters brought back into focus Japan’s Imperial family as the symbol of national unity. The Emperor spoke out in the early days as the nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi unfolded to remind Japanese to remain calm and to have hope. He and the Empress also traveled back and forth to the devastated regions of Tohoku, visiting evacuation shelters and reassuring those who lost not only their homes but their family members as well.

A third impression I had was how effectively Japan’s civil society coped with the trauma. Corporations and households alike jumped in to conserve energy at much higher rates than anticipated. The nascent disaster relief community was buoyed by an incredible wave of support, so much so that the NGO community found their capacities sorely tested. Volunteers streamed into the devastated areas, rolled up their sleeves, cleared debris, and dug out the remnants of homes from the tsunami’s mud. Anonymous donors left schoolbags, much needed personal goods, and in many instances, large envelopes full of cash for the hundreds of thousands of Tohoku residents stranded in evacuation centers. Nothing spoke louder to me of the national mood than the day that Japan’s women’s soccer team, Nadeshiko Japan, brought the World Cup home. It seemed that Nadeshiko’s victory released the country from the shock of the disasters, allowing a new sense of determination and pride to emerge.

Several other trends in Japan this year were brought into sharp relief by the nation’s challenges. Japan’s process of political transformation remains a work in progress, and the search for a new form of governance and for new political leaders continues to keep all of us Japan watchers busy. We have a new prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda—the third from the new ruling Democratic Party of Japan. Legislators continue to wrestle with a parliament that seems designed more for the old single party system than for the new politics of alternating power. The “twisted Diet” may be with us for some time, but in 2011 it revealed a structural weakness that demands more attention from Japan’s politicians. An effort by the Liberal Democratic Party to vote then prime minister Naoto Kan out of office in June failed miserably, but it called attention to the fact that an opposition party could raid the ruling party in an effort to undermine the government.

Local politicians took center stage this year, however. From the governors of Tohoku responsible for Japan’s quake response to the local mayors in the devastated towns and cities along the coastline, local leaders were the heroes on the front line of disaster relief efforts in Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima prefectures. Okinawa’s intrepid governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, continued his efforts to articulate his constituents’ sentiments in the never ending saga of disconnect between Tokyo and Okinawa. As the year ended, a dramatic electoral victory in Osaka’s double election transformed a governor into a mayor. Once elected, Toru Hashimoto immediately took his cause of reimagining Osaka on the road, and visited politician after politician in Tokyo to alert them that local leaders served their constituents rather than the national decision-makers.

This year too was the year of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Operation Tomodachi, the U.S. name for its assistance to Japan after the Great East Japan Earthquake, was deeply appreciated, and almost all of us who visited Japan this year were thanked repeatedly and sincerely for the outpouring of U.S. aid, both public and private, in Japan’s time of need. For all of the political hiccups of the past couple of years, the Washington-Tokyo corridor was well traveled. Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta all visited Tokyo. All told, high level meetings between American and Japanese leaders totaled ten, with many of those occurring in the multiplicity of meetings in and around the Asia-Pacific.

Finally, 2011 has put the economy back on top of Japan’s priority list. The cost of rebuilding in the wake of the earthquake will be far greater than anyone initially imagined, especially if we include the cost of reorienting Japan’s energy policy away from its 30% reliance on nuclear power. The yen soared in value, a defining if uncomfortable reality for those in government and in business. The decision to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership topped the list of “to dos” on the diplomatic agenda, and the drive to open the Japanese economy, symbolized by Prime Minister Noda’s gamble on trade talks with Washington and its partners, brings back some divisive tensions within both of Japan’s political parties.

For all of the political and economic challenges that remain, I suspect that most Japanese will be grateful to see the end of 2011. 2012 will be a brighter year.

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