On Feb. 12, the College of East Asian Studies (CEAS) hosted a lecture titled “3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan,” which focused on the political and economic effects of Japan’s March 2011 natural disasters.
The speaker was Richard J. Samuels, the Ford International Professor of Political Science, Director of the Center for International Studies, and Founding Director of the Japan Program at MIT. He recently authored a book, also titled “3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan.” His talk is a part of the current “A Body in Fukushima” project at the University.
Samuels began by speaking about the underlying theme of his lecture, which was crisis in general and its many effects.
“The question is, ‘How do we think about crises?’” Samuels said. “What do we know about crises and how do we think about them?”
Samuels expanded on his idea of the far-reaching effects and usage of crises in the political sphere.
“The way I’m thinking of it…is that crises are tools,” Samuels said. “They’re instruments in the hands of political entrepreneurs. And these…ambitious political animals, offense intended, write narratives [and] they frame the event. They tell you who the heroes were, they tell you who the villains are, and they do it in order to fortify their own preferences and to sell those preferences in a political battle that takes shape across the larger landscape. And that’s the way I approached 3.11.”
Vina Vo ’18, who attended the lecture, stated that Samuels’ view on crises provided her with an interesting new perspective.
“I knew, of course, that natural disasters have economic ramifications, but I had never thought about their effect on the politics of [a country],” Vo said. “His points about how crises are ‘used’ are really interesting. I definitely want to read his book now.”
When Samuels started doing research for his book, he had high expectations for the country.
“When I went to Japan, my working title of the book was ‘Rebirth of a Nation,’ with a question mark,” Samuels said. “I left myself a little weasel room to get out in case there wasn’t so much rebirth. But that was the idea, rebirth, and it ended up becoming something quite different…. I became, within three months, quite certain that there was no rebirth.”
After spending time doing research and interviews in Japan, Samuels realized that he had been wrong about the way disasters would affect the country. However, he says the anticipation of a national rebirth was not unwarranted, and was one he shared with many others.
“It’s not a surprise that everyone had inflated expectations for what would come in the wake of 3.11,” Samuels said. “There is one sort of truism that…there’s an equilibrium, a steady state in society…and then things get reassembled. Institutions change. People’s incentives shift, and then you get a new, stable equilibrium. Wars are like this. Disasters are supposed to be like this.”
Attendee Max Owen-Dunow ’15 made a connection between how blame was placed after 3.11 and how Japan dealt with taking responsibility in the post-World War II era.
“There is a similar, it seems to me, dismissal of individual culpability, dismissal of anything but a more systemic culpability that places the blame for much of what went on in the war on these shadowy elites and on the military,” Owen-Dunow said. “I wonder…whether there isn’t some level of similarity in the way war guilt was dealt with to a certain extent. And with this failure to really grapple with potential changes…led to a failure to enact real substantial change.”
Samuels found that many people were hoping that growth after the crises would mean a new era for Japan, separate from World War II and “war guilt.”
“I listened to what people were saying,” Samuels said. “Basically I was eavesdropping…and people were talking about leadership and the lack thereof. They were talking about risk and danger and they were talking about the community that emerged around the catastrophe. But they really were talking about whether or not this was the punctuation mark on the post-war, on the end of an era, and if it was going to lead to a new democratic system, new kinds of institutions, new kinds of national security.”
According to Samuels, the future is unclear for Japan, but its unity as a nation will be its best asset, and the rest of the world can learn from the Japanese and their reactions to the 3.11 catastrophes.
“Resilience—and Japan is resilient—may be the best thing that 3.11 victims can expect from themselves, and indulgence might be the most that they, realistically, can expect from others,” Samuels said. “Pull the lens back. It’s not just about Japan, folks.”