There is a great deal to remember this week, the one year anniversary of the devastating Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis. Few events in recent history have combined to such an intense degree natural disaster, technological failure, humanitarian relief, and government scrutiny.
It is proper above all to memorialize the 20,000 dead and missing, the majority of whom were swept away by torrential waters before finding safety. Yet it is also a time to question what Japan and the world has learned from the catastrophe, and how both have changed, if at all. The answer remains unclear, but there seems to be less evidence that any enduring changes have taken place.
The human toll of the Tohoku earthquake remains staggering. Although not the world’s most deadly natural disaster, the sheer scale of destruction was nearly unprecedented. Hundreds of miles of coastline were inundated, entire villages washed away. Video of burning wreckage floating on waves of roiling water brought to mind biblical visions of rivers of fire. When news crews reached some of the most affected areas, the scenes were nothing short of apocalyptic.
There remains years, if not decades, of work to rebuild Tohoku, yet the crisis forced Japan to grapple with questions that affect the entire country. How viable is it to rebuild villages whose populations were aging or whose way of life reflected increasingly inefficient farming or fishing activities? This is a debate that must help shape Japan for the rest of this century, as the country faces an unprecedented demographic collapse and continues to struggle to end a two decade-long economic slump.
The greatest global impact of March 11 remains the nuclear crisis at Fukushima. Only now are we beginning to understand the scale of the accident and how completely unprepared and overwhelmed the government was from the beginning.
Fukushima revealed a failure of disaster response that severely undermined public trust in the authorities and helped bring down Naoto Kan, prime minister at the time of the earthquake.
Clean up continues at the plant, and the aftereffects of the partial meltdown and emission of radioactivity into the air, ground, and waters of Tohoku will take years to fully manifest themselves.
Just as pressingly, the question of how to make up electricity supply lost due to nuclear plant shut downs all across the country has yet to be fully addressed, and Japan seems headed towards a de facto nuclear free future.
No government can be fully prepared for a disaster on the scale of Tohoku. Yet the contradictory messages, delayed decision making, lack of transparency, and apparent unwillingness to listen to experts that marked Tokyo’s response revealed a deeply inadequate government structure.
The ad hoc nature of Prime Minister Kan’s reactions was ameliorated only by the heroic actions of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, in partnership with the U.S. military, and Japan’s citizens themselves.
March 11 therefore also provided some stirring examples of success. Above all was the response of the people of Japan. Those affected in Tohoku showed extraordinary fortitude in helping each other and patiently enduring emergency shelters for months. While there was some looting, very little apparently occurred, and order was maintained to a degree largely unimaginable in many other parts of the world.
When Japan’s electricity supply was severely degraded by the nuclear plant shutdown and damage from the earthquake, denizens of Tokyo and other areas voluntarily cut energy consumption by nearly 20 percent throughout 2011. Long lines of volunteers and a small constellation of homegrown NGOs brought aid and relief to affected areas.
The disaster also showcased the professionalism and competence of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, and to bring the Japanese and U.S. militaries closer together than ever before. Within 24 hours, the SDF was mobilizing and reaching the disaster scene, working around the clock in rescue operations.
In just days, well over half of Japan’s entire military had been dispatched to Tohoku, proving the SDF’s ability to respond quickly and on a large scale to unforeseen crisis. Then, in the coming days and months, Operation Tomodachi (Friend) placed U.S. and Japanese military units next to each on the ground, while massive amounts of supplies were flown in by the U.S. Air Force or ferried by helicopter from U.S. Navy ships, including the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier. U.S. Air Force units reopened the inundated Sendai International Airport within a week of the tsunami, thereby allowing aid to be flown in from around the world.
Despite a 50-year defensive alliance, U.S. and Japanese troops had never worked this closely together or under such emergency conditions. Great lessons in communication, joint planning, and building trust and respect for each others’ capabilities were learned, as well as pointers on areas where communication broke down or different modes of operating could interfere with carrying out missions.
Yet did March 11 truly change Japan? Rather, it seems simply to have brought into stark relief the country’s strengths and weaknesses.
Japan’s government, whether led by the Liberal Democratic Party or the current Democratic Party, has been ineffective for years, consumed with politics and unable to create coherent policies to spur growth or respond to challenges.
The disaster clearly showed that in a harsher light than usual. Japan’s citizens have long been admired for their quiet persistence, fortitude, and sense of community—and these traits kept society intact in a region completely devastated by nature. Japan’s military has been quietly professional for decades, caught in a twilight zone of constitutional restrictions and limitations on its experience, yet filled with capable, patriotic soldiers, sailors, and airmen. On the world stage, it showed its ability to respond in force and with great speed.
Other effects of this triple disaster have proven to be more intractable. Japan’s manufacturers have largely returned to pre-March 11 levels of production, but many are actively exploring off-shoring their operations, due to continuing electricity restrictions and worries about Japan’s supply chain.
The nuclear industry has not recovered and there is little strategic planning yet to deal with the long-term effects of a sustained nuclear shutdown. It remains unclear whether government crisis planning has improved at all, or whether the next big disaster will result in a similarly inept initial response.
March 11 was a human tragedy and a national trial. Japan’s longstanding and often dismissed strengths made what could have been an uncontrolled descent into chaos as manageable as possible. Yet its underlying weaknesses remain lurking dangers, revealing the threat to its ability to recover when the next big disaster occurs.
Michael Auslin is an expert on Asian and security issues at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin.