Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 23, 2011

Japan: Then, now and becoming

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on September 23, 2011

Rikuzentakata on March 13, 2011 (photo by Reuters/Toru Hanai)

Rikuzentakata on September 9, 2011 (photo by Reuters/Toru Hanai)

The tenth anniversary of 9/11 happened to coincide with the six-month mark for the 3/11 earthquake-and-tsunami in Japan.

The Wall Street Journal dedicated a special weekend section to Japanese recovery.  Brookings hosted a seminar.  The Japan Society sponsored a panel discussion organized around the theme Re-imagining Japan: The Quest for a Future that Works.

The Japan Society seminar was, in part, prompted by a new book based on a series of essays mostly completed before March 11.  The book was conceived as a call-to-action for the world’s third largest economy, still stalled two decades after the explosion of a  huge property bubble.

Otherwise I did not notice much attention in the United States. This is despite a continuing drag on the US economy caused by disruption of the global supply chain after one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded.

No doubt 9/11 crowded out attention to 3/11. Too bad.

What might we learn from a formidable economic power that has evidently lost its ability to grow? What might we learn from a democratic political process that has lost the confidence of its citizens through unending factionalism?  What might the United States learn from a catastrophe that killed more than 22,000, displaced more than 300,000, left behind more than 24 million tons of debris, and spawned a long-lasting nuclear emergency?

The instrumental lessons-learned abound.  On this count, the best single source I have so far seen is an August special report by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute.  A whole range of studies are being completed or are already under peer review.  By March 11, 2012 much of what we think we know about catastrophe preparedness may be revolutionized by an enhanced understanding of the Japanese experience.  If we choose to pay attention. (Recovery Diva gives close attention and should be regularly read.)

Regarding less instrumental but potentially important outcomes, it may be several more years before we can reach conclusions.

I will point to one phenomenon that is worth particular attention.  There is a Japanese term, shimin shakai, that is usually translated as “civil society” and often used to describe a range of semi-official Japanese voluntary organizations.  There is a deeper meaning.

What is the role of a “citizen” (shimin) in “society” (shakai)?  What do these terms mean in a post-modern culture that still draws heavily on pre-modern sensibilities?

In the early 1960s the notion of shimin became closely associated with a largely grass-roots movement opposing  the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan.  While no doubt mythologized over the decades, many remember the popular struggle against the treaty as giving birth to nothing less than a new kind of Japanese: spontaneous, autonomous, free-thinking, even while in meaningful relationship with others and collaborating on issues of common concern.

Simon Andrew Avenell has explained, “As an idea, shimin proposed a new relationship between individual and state; it made possible a progressive reimagination of the nation; it legitimized the defense of private interest against corporate and political interference; and, most important of all, it infused individual and social action with significance far beyond the specific issues at stake, linking them to an ideal — if protean — vision of a new civil society for a new Japan.”

The events and aftermath of March 11 have retrieved and reinvigorated this concept of shimin.  Depending on how the emerging sense-of-citizenship develops, this could be the most profound outcome of the crisis.


I found the pictures at the top in a collection put together by Alan Taylor at The Atlantic.  Please visit: Japan Earthquake: Six Months Later.

The pictures are of Rikuzentakata.  The Wall Street Journal has given sustained attention to this community, including some well-produced multimedia.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn


Comment by Claire B. Rubin

September 23, 2011 @ 5:36 am

Excellent post. I especially like your observations about what we can learn from Japan.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 23, 2011 @ 5:38 am

So Phil do the Japanese and others accurately estimate the impact of the events of March 11th and following or are they still in denial?

I asked then and ask now will this event have broad cultural impacts on the Japanese and their tightly connected society? Will it drive them faster into the Chinese condominium and away from the USA? And based on passage of time what assessments are going to become available for impacts not on Japanese but indirectly on USA?

Clearly we now know that the USA despite observing two full decades of problems in the Japanese economy learned almost nothing from those problems and the “Japanese” disease seems to have come home to roost in the USA.

Why is so little known about the Japanese after the fear mongering of the 80’s stopped and the James Fallows types stopped predicting Japanese dominance of world economy? Has the USA effectively written off the Japanese for any purpose other than parts supplier in last 6 months?

Perhaps Phil you should write the book on Japanese USA relations starting with Perry’s brief appearance with the Black Ships and then analyzing key translators of Japan to the USA from Lafcadio Hearn to Phil Palin.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 23, 2011 @ 6:13 am

Bill, I have to run to a breakfast meeting but I will respond to two of your questions:

The broad cultural impacts are still rippling, resonating, and occasionally crashing against long-accepted boundaries. It could easily be another ten years before these outcomes can confidently be assessed. And much will depend on other events — such as a big earthquake hitting Tokyo — over the next decade.

A Chinese-Japanese “condominium” is verr unlikely… at least on anything other than very narrowly commercial terms. The level of mutual distrust is too high and, perhaps, too well-founded.

If there is a book to be written on your topic, there are a thousand better authors than me.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 23, 2011 @ 7:30 am

Well predictions are usually wrong but I predict several decades will pass before all is absorbed fully by Japanese and I label this the biggest events for Japan since those of August 1945. Interestly at least for once [unless you label Japan’s use of Nuclear Power and American imposition on Japan]for once it is the power of Mother Nature and ripples on manmade technology that have created this situation for Japan.

Has anyone analyzed closed the USA assistance to Japan in this situation? Will it be documented either by USA academics or governmental sources or by the Japanese? Was it a help or a hindrance? Notice that the US military imposed an 80 mile no go zone on its soldiers, sailors, and airforce personnel almost immediately. Far bigger than the Japanese government!
What did the US know and when did it know it?

Comment by Isotec

September 23, 2011 @ 11:32 am

Great post, Philip. That concept of shimin: do you think that there’s a parallel ideology in the United States, or that a (possibly idealistic) desire to remain wholly separate from the state is what motivates a majority of Americans?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 23, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

Isotec, One of the reasons I used the Simon Andrew Avenell quote (an Australian, by-the-way), was how it reflects a description of Japanese “shimin” that I perceive to be very similar to how many Americans conceive of citizenship.

Most Japanese may be more inclined to social coherence than most Americans, but they hunger to more fully express their individuality. Most Americans may be more expressly individualistic than most Japanese, but we are often hungry for a fuller experience of social coherence. We start from opposite ends but are each trying to find a balance. (I will also caution that this dichotomy is not universal and is much less pronounced than just 25 years ago.)

Another implication of your question is even more complicated. To what extent does the “state” reflect, reinforce, and/or fulfill the social aspirations of either Americans or Japanese? Less and less, it seems.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 23, 2011 @ 11:02 pm

To some extent the “STATE” is what passes for the agreed level of social controls in any society. But often individuals against which the actions of the STATE must always be measured and reconciled because the STATE can only act through individuals. And now we live in a time in which those controlling the levers of STATE power use it for their own purposes, no longer for the benefit of individuals that make up any society.

When the maintenance of the STATE exceeds the costs of its benefits as surely as there is evolution there may be revolution attempting to re-balance those benefits and costs.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>