WASHINGTON, DC -- One year ago this week, a magnitude-9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami devastated the northern Tohoku region of Japan, causing the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Many observers have pointed to 3/11, as it is now called, and its aftermath coming after two decades of slow economic growth as further reasons to write off Japan, in addition to the country's adverse demographic trends, unfavorable immigration policies, strong unions, unsustainable social spending, and stagnant bureaucracy. Yet there is room for optimism about the country. Japan has continually defied its critics with its remarkable ability to regenerate and reinvent itself. While the Japanese public and broader society have proved incredibly resilient in the face of disaster, the real tragedy is that their efforts continue to be stifled by an ineffective political leadership that remains stubbornly resistant to change despite the shifting of both literal and figurative tectonic plates.
In spite of the 3/11 disaster, and amidst economic and political upheaval in many parts of the world, the fact is that Japan remains remarkably stable. As the world's third largest economy, and one of the oldest democracies in Asia, it continues to boast an open yet mature society. Stability and strong human ties, or what Japanese call kizuna, remain a driving force for the country's recovery. In fact, Japan's economy and society appear much more stable than that of Europe, and it remains less socially or politically polarized than the United States, giving it some inherent advantages for regeneration.
During times of national tragedy, citizens expect their leaders to put aside their differences for the common public good and make necessary structural reforms. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Democrats and Republicans in the United States cooperated to great effect to push through long overdue intelligence and security reforms, including the creation of the Director of National Intelligence position and the Department of Homeland Security. Conversely, in the face of economic crises in 2008 and 2011, U.S. and European governments have done only the bare minimum necessary to avert a complete meltdown.
The Japanese government's response to 3/11 has resembled the latter, with its leadership failing to use the disaster to set the country on a different trajectory. Part of this had to do with erratic behavior on the part of former Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his weak political standing, but larger bureaucratic and structural impediments have also been revealed over the past year. At one level, 3/11 has narrowed Japan's policy options and led to greater convergence between the two major political parties, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Both now lean toward a consolidated U.S.-Japan security partnership, and pro-growth and pro-globalization economic policies. However, this "reluctant consensus" is disputed both within and between various political factions, meaning that necessary reforms are less likely to be implemented now that the immediate crisis has passed.
It is often noted that the Japanese kanji character for "crisis" holds the double meaning of "opportunity" and "danger." The danger is that after the one-year anniversary of 3/11 passes, complacency and depression may replace resolve and national unity. The political incentives to become further insulated and isolated run opposite to Japan's national interests. Growth through closer ties with the developing world and greater competition at home offer Japan a brighter future, and bold political leadership is necessary to pursue that path. Without such leadership, Japan risks another decade of relative decline even in the absence of another tragedy. In isolation, 3/11 did not change Japan. What it did was expose the Japanese state's shortcomings by contrasting the resilience of its citizenry with the impotence of its government.
Joshua W. Walker is a Transatlantic Fellow with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) in Washington DC and co-author of the report from which this Transatlantic Take was taken, "The Shifting Tectonics of Japan One Year After March 11, 2011." Originally posted at GMF.