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.