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Asia Unbound

CFR experts give their take on the cutting-edge issues emerging in Asia today.

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The Top Ten Events that Shook Asia in 2011

by Elizabeth C. Economy and Adam Segal
 The body of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il lies in state at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang.

The body of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il lies in state at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang. (KCNA/Courtesy Reuters)

If there were one word to describe Asia in 2011, it would likely be tremors—not only the physical ones that devastated Japan, but also the political ones that reverberated throughout the region shaking India, China, and Thailand, waking up Burma, and further unsettling North Korea.

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Impressions of Japan, 2011

by Sheila A. Smith
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. Read more »

Prime Minister Noda Outlines His Priorities in New York

by Sheila A. Smith
Japan's new Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda speaks during a high-level meeting on nuclear safety and security at the United Nations headquarters in New York September 22, 2011.

Japan's new Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda speaks during a high-level meeting on nuclear safety and security at the United Nations headquarters in New York September 22, 2011 (Shannon Stapleton/Courtesy Reuters).

Japan’s newest prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, arrived in the United States this week for his much anticipated first meeting with President Obama, and a debut at the UN General Assembly—the first conversation there since the March 11 earthquake-tsunami disaster struck.

U.S. officials seemed upbeat about the prime minister’s meeting with President Obama. Yet, media questioning about the infamous Futenma Marine base on Okinawa set off another round of speculation about the state of the relationship. Earlier in the week, at a George Washington University conference hosted by Professor Michael Mochizuki, the governor of Okinawa, Hirokazu Nakaima, laid out current political realities in Okinawa and argued the U.S.-Japan governments’ plan to relocate the marine airfield was too difficult to realize. The governor presented his thinking on how to proceed, a position that surprised few of us who have been watching Okinawa politics of late. Pressure is building again here in Washington, as Congressional budget cuts loom, and the governor spent some time on Capitol Hill with Senators Levin, McCain and Webb sharing his thoughts.

But Prime Minister Noda presented a broader—and more strategic—agenda during his New York visit.

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A Vote of Confidence by Toyota*

by Sheila A. Smith
Akio Toyoda, center, poses with Iwate Governor Takuya Tasso, left, and Miyagi Governor Yoshihiro Murai before a meeting at Miyagi prefectural government in Sendai July 19.

Akio Toyoda, center, poses with Iwate Governor Takuya Tasso, left, and Miyagi Governor Yoshihiro Murai before a meeting at Miyagi prefectural government in Sendai July 19. (Courtesy The Asahi Shimbun)

Last month, I wrote an update on Japan’s efforts to cope with the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11. One of the most dramatic discoveries during my trip to Tokyo was the buzz about the possibility that Japan’s continuing energy problems would encourage an exodus of industrial investment in Japan.

The shock was not the uncertainty about Japan’s future, but rather that the companies that were losing faith in Japan as a site for future investment was none other than Japan’s own industrial leaders.    Read more »

Japan’s Heroines

by Sheila A. Smith
Japan's players celebrate with the trophy after the victory against the U.S. in their Women's World Cup final soccer match in Frankfurt July 17, 2011.

Japan's players celebrate with the trophy after the victory against the U.S. in their Women's World Cup final soccer match in Frankfurt July 17, 2011. (Courtesy Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach)

What a game! The U.S. and Japanese women’s soccer teams faced off for the World Cup yesterday afternoon, and after an electric overtime comeback by the Japanese team, Nadeshiko Japan went on to win the match in penalty kicks. For soccer fans, it was a heart-stopping finale. For American fans who have been consumed with the vitality of their women’s soccer team, it was so close…

But for the people of Japan, it was a miraculous demonstration of what determination and skill can bring. As team captain Homare Sawa said, on the morning of the final match, the opportunity to play was “a gift from the soccer god.”   Read more »

Harnessing Technological Prowess for Japan’s Recovery

by Sheila A. Smith

Full service is restored to JR East Tohoku Shinkansen line on April 29, 2011 following the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011.

A bullet train arrives at JR Sendai Station after full service is restored on April 29 to the JR East Tohoku Shinkansen line following the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011. (YouTube User Karibajct)

As politicians in Tokyo continue to flounder in their efforts to look forward, it continues to impress upon me the importance of understanding what is going right in Japan’s recovery effort. Last time I shared a story that reflects the ability of individual Japanese to innovate and cope during the crisis. Today it is a story of Japan’s technological prowess—harnessed in the service of social need—that I want to share with you from my recent trip to Tohoku. Read more »

Innovation and Leadership in the March 11 Crisis

by Sheila A. Smith
Survivors of an 8.9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami receive treatment at the Ishinomaki Red Cross hospital in Miyagi prefecture March 12, 2011.

Survivors of an 8.9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami receive treatment at the Ishinomaki Red Cross hospital in Miyagi prefecture March 12, 2011. (Courtesy Reuters/Ho New)

One of the most impressive accounts of disaster response came from Dr. Tadashi Ishii of Ishinomaki Red Cross Hospital. Dr. Ishii—a slender man, with graying hair and glasses dressed in jeans and a t-shirt—provided a concise and matter of fact account of his hospital’s response to the terrifying and chaotic days after the March 11 disaster. Read more »

Ishinomaki City—Three Months After

by Sheila A. Smith

In Ishigaki, debris of all types in piles along the roadway, organized by type and size (June 22, 2011).

In Ishinomaki, debris of all types are organized in piles along the roadway by type and size. (Photo by author, taken on June 22, 2011)

So many aspects of Japan’s response to the disasters of March 11 have yet to be fully understood. Many in Japan continue to be critical of their government’s response, and yet so much that happened on that day and in the days that followed demonstrates the strengths of Japanese society—and of the Japanese people. Read more »

Japan’s Reconstruction Planning

by Sheila A. Smith
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan (2nd R) attends a cabinet meeting on environment and energy in Tokyo June 22, 2011.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan (2nd R) attends a cabinet meeting on environment and energy in Tokyo June 22, 2011. (Courtesy Reuters/Frank Robichon/Pool)

Without a doubt, this is a complex moment for the Japanese people. This is both a country struggling with critical governance challenges, and a society recovering from the shock and devastation of a tremendous set of disasters. As I travel, I have been amazed—both at the scale of Japan’s governance problems, and at the immense effort and creativity that has been ongoing across Japanese society since March 11.   Read more »

A Dimmer Tokyo

by Sheila A. Smith
Lights are turned off to save energy before rolling blackouts in Tokyo, March 17, 2011, after an earthquake and tsunami hit northern Japan. Tokyo Electric Power Co has announced rolling blackouts after its power generation was cut due to damage from an earthquake and tsunami to its Fukushima Daiichi power plant, where it is struggling to prevent reactor meltdowns.

Lights are turned off to save energy before rolling blackouts in Tokyo, March 17, 2011, after an earthquake and tsunami hit northern Japan. (Kyodo/Courtesy Reuters)

I arrived in Tokyo several days ago, and was immediately struck by both the mood and the changes visible in the city itself. The hotels are nearly empty, elevators are turned off, and lighting everywhere is dimmer. Quite literally, Tokyo’s sparkle has been muted in an effort to conserve energy.

But dimmer, too, is the mood. In my early conversations here, the on-going challenges to cope with the effects of March 11 and its aftermath top the agenda. Daily coverage of the effort to clean up coastal cities in Tohoku is heartbreaking still. 86,000 or so Japanese are still in evacuation shelters three months after the tsunami hit. Resettling people by the end of the summer continues to be the goal, but temporary housing may fall short of current needs. Read more »