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An Independent Commission to Explore Japan’s Disaster Response

Tags: Earthquake-Tsunami , Reconstruction , National Security , Governance , Nuclear Energy

Watanabe, Tsuneo ( –2017.3)

April 18, 2011

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From March 25 to 27 I was in Belgium to attend the fifth Brussels Forum. This forum is an annual gathering of major policymaking groups (governments, international organizations, private think tanks, and businesses) organized by the German Marshall Fund (GMF), which is an international partner of the Tokyo Foundation. The forum gives these groups an opportunity to assemble under a single roof to freely discuss world affairs affecting the United States and Europe. Japanese experts have been active participants in the forum, as the country is both a key ally to the United States and an economic partner to Europe.

Many eyes at the forum turned toward Japan in the wake of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku. A panel was quickly organized to discuss the road forward for Japan. At the panel, Professor Yorizumi Watanabe of Keio University and Deputy Director-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Foreign Policy Bureau Masafumi Ishii led a clear and forward-looking discussion of Japan’s direction now and in the future and shared some of Japan’s efforts toward restoration and recovery with Western policy leaders.

During the forum, I personally received many messages of condolence, support, and solidarity toward those affected from Craig Kennedy, president of the GMF, Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs), and many more friends and acquaintances.

Far from my homeland in crisis, these warm sentiments for Japan convinced me that there is something important that Japan must do now. Japan must, in the immediate future, show to the world an honest analytical reflection on the ongoing response to the disaster. To that end, once the crisis situation has eased, the National Diet should act quickly to create an independent and nonpartisan investigative commission. All the major parties in the National Diet should reach agreement on establishing such a committee now, and the decision should be announced publicly to the world.

What I witnessed at this conference were two separate and ambivalent feelings toward Japan. The world is worried about the damage to Japan and the weakness of nuclear plant disaster management, but at the same time they are impressed by and optimistic about the underlying strength of the Japanese people. What the world has seen of the government and the people’s response to the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis will affect how the world sees Japan as a whole going forward. “How Japan will handle the ongoing nuclear crisis in Fukushima?” “How will Japan’s domestic industrial base and economy as a whole recover from the severe blow it has suffered?” These are the questions the world is asking as it watches Japan with both high expectations and real concern.

Already, in the immediate aftermath of unprecedented destruction, the world has admired the lack of violence and looting, and the calmness, patience and forbearance of those affected. Few countries could expect this sort of behavior from their citizens. There is also a great admiration globally for the technicians and other personnel taking great personal risk to deal with crisis control at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

The problem is a question of harnessing and leveraging this ground-level strength, which represents a major strength of Japanese society and institutions. Is this strength being effectively tapped by the leaders of government and industry?

In addition, questions about transparency and disclosure from the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) feed suspicions in many countries. These issues can be considered one of the most significant issues facing Japan today. Japan has a long history of promoting those who excelled as foot soldiers to positions of leadership. But a wealth of experience in ground-level situations often does not automatically translate into the right kind of strategic capacity at the leadership level. This was discussed at length in academic works like Shippai no honshitsu (The Essence of Failure) by Ikujiro Nonaka and others on the shortcomings of Japan's wartime military leadership.

Responsibility for overcoming Japan’s current difficulties will fall squarely on the shoulders of current and future leaders and opinion makers. In the wake of major crises, the same story has played out time and again in the history of international relations.

At some point in the future, the current disaster will be a part of the past, and Japan will face new trials. When that time comes, there are two possibilities. If Japan can move forward and surmount the current crisis, it will be stronger in the face of future challenges. But if Japan fails to overcome these issues, the threat of future crises could easily multiply.

For example, in the face of some 30,000 dead or missing, Japan has demonstrated a remarkable societal and communal strength against stress. This could discourage other countries from resorting to acts of violence and intimidation against Japan. This is an element of the country’s strength in national security. This strength can extend to the economic domain as well, where this sort of national character can engender greater trust in the nation’s products and the national economy itself.

This crisis has seen 100,000 members of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) mobilized on an unprecedented scale. Their steadfast efforts helping the people affected by the disaster are also likely to act as a significant deterrent to aggression toward Japan.

Through its Operation Tomodachi (“friend” in Japanese), the US military has operated search, rescue and relief aid with 180,000 personnel and 19 vessels on a scale unthinkable in normal times. During the crisis, the SDF and US forces have demonstrated closer coordination, displaying the depth of Japan’s security resources to the world. However, if the crisis were to deepen despite such resources, this would expose serious weaknesses at the leadership level. Such weaknesses may attract a number of risks in the years ahead.

It is clear that Japan has innumerable ongoing issues to wrestle with in the near future. However, Japan should consider transparently documenting its response to the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis—both strengths and weaknesses—a key priority. There is still much that the world does not know about Japan’s response to the current crisis, in addition to the many misapprehensions and overreactions.

An objective report evaluating the response, including failures, would be not only a valuable legacy passed on to future generations but also an endorsement of Japan’s strengths to the rest of the world. Ongoing issues at the nuclear plant should, of course, not be excluded from the report. A cover-up or a superficial whitewashing would have many negative repercussions.

Once the humanitarian crisis facing the victims of the earthquake and tsunami and the current crisis at the nuclear plant have stabilized, the Diet should create an independent commission of experts to produce an honest and uncompromising report on the response of national and local governments and of TEPCO. The investigation must be approved and organized beyond party lines.

In the United States, a bipartisan commission produced a report on the government’s response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The report provided much valuable information to both the US government and legislature and led to numerous improvements. Moreover, the report demonstrated to the world the strength and transparency of American democracy.

In comparison, Japan has a weak history of disclosing information to the public. But if, in spite of this weakness, the Diet were to act now to establish a nonpartisan investigative committee, it could positively impact current relief efforts. Careful recording and transparency of information would lead those responsible to be conscious of the oversight and to act accordingly.

This transparency would also demonstrate the strength of Japan’s democracy clearly to the world at large. Whether the world is gazing with approval or disapproval, all eyes are now on Japan. The Japanese people, and especially political leaders, must not forget this.

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