Democracy, not stoicism, gives the country resilienceby Oliver Kamm / March 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Surveying the destruction wreaked by Japan’s recent earthquake and tsunami, Prime Minister Naoto Kan declared it the greatest crisis Japan has faced since the second world war. His comparison was carefully chosen. The memory of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians in 1945 has determined the country’s stance in the international order ever since. But Japan’s varying responses over the past century to a number of domestic catastrophes reveal much about its society—and how the transformation from autocracy to democracy, even a sclerotic one, has enhanced the country’s ability to cope with adversity.
The first line of journalistic cliché on the earthquake is the resilience of the Japanese people. This is true but unexceptional: when thousands die and hundreds of thousands are left without water and electricity, shock succeeded by stoicism is a natural human response. More significant in the sweep of history is what comes after. There are unresolved questions about the extent of the damage to Japan’s nuclear energy plants. Yet Japan’s response to disaster indicates less an enduring characteristic of human nature than the self-correcting nature of a democratic society. For all its political stasis and economic stagnation in the past two decades, Japan has an essential strength born of the democratic culture it developed after 1945.
The most destructive earthquake experienced by Japan during the 20th century was the Kanto earthquake of 1923. The tremor was of comparable magnitude to the recent one, and it too generated huge tidal waves. The death toll was more than 100,000. Most of the victims died in firestorms, but xenophobic violence claimed many lives too. The day after the quake, the government declared martial law. Far from pacifying a panicked populace, this galvanised vigilantes into terrorising the Korean minority. Some of the military and police joined in crimes of torture and massacre, and an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 Koreans, mainly migrant workers, were murdered. At the time, Japan was attempting to build a democracy and open economy. The atrocities were evidence of the fragility of that culture, and its vulnerability to the extremist currents to come in the next decade.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki, engulfed in a hell of blast, fire and radiation, remain the defining images of disaster and suffering in modern Japanese history. Their horror has long obscured the reasons for America’s decision to use the bomb and delayed an accounting by Japan for its own historical culpability.
As it emerged from the ruins of its totalitarian experiment, Japan in the postwar era recovered its sense of a proper humanitarian response to suffering. The Kobe earthquake of 1995, with a magnitude of 7.3, was by far Japan’s worst postwar natural disaster until now. More than 6,400 died. The authorities were initially accused of tardiness in their response, yet the rubble was entirely cleared within two years and more than £15bn was spent in rehousing 300,000 people. Similarly, the catastrophe that struck Japan in March elicited a swift emergency response, despite questions over the management of the nuclear crisis. Some 100,000 military personnel were sent to the affected region, along with around 60 ships and hundreds of aircraft. The crisis at the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant has severely tested the authorities’ capacity to manage the aftereffects of the earthquake. But the damage is rooted in the more distant past: an old design, subject to unanticipated structural stresses.
The disaster has brought to light lingering problems of bureaucratic incompetence and corruption. Japan has never evolved into a polity where power alternates regularly between competing parties. The Liberal Democratic party, founded in 1955, has governed almost continuously. A desire for consensus has curbed the growth of civil society and undermined the economy, by ensuring that the failures of the banking sector were never properly addressed after the collapse of the asset-price bubble 20 years ago. The Democratic party, which won elections 18 months ago, has stumbled in office. The electoral system is manifestly unfair in over-representing rural voters. Yet Japan is a peaceful society that has borne the hardships of prolonged stagnation.
In the international sphere, Japan has often been caricatured as an adjunct of US foreign policy, but has continually adapted itself to shifting geopolitical conditions. An egregious burst of Japan-bashing broke out in US and European policy debate a couple of decades ago, founded on the misconception that Japanese trade practices posed an economic threat. Japan sat through it. In the emerging crisis of the nuclear adventurism of North Korea, Japan has allied itself to US diplomacy without getting much in return. It has contributed substantially to the funding of international NGOs, and has progressively downgraded the links between its aid and its exports.
At home, democracy, even of a qualified kind, has improved life in the most fundamental forms: social stability and enhanced living standards. And for all the economic difficulties stemming from mistaken policies of the past, the ability to respond to hardship is there. Expansionary policies in 1995 allowed the economy to grow despite the shock of the earthquake that year. This time round, the Bank of Japan has injected huge liquidity into the financial system to maintain stability, and political stalemate appears to have dissolved in the wake of the disaster, as opposition politicians pledge to support economic legislation.
The overwhelming fact of the earthquake is the human cost and the lives lost. But a secondary lesson lies in Japan’s postwar embrace of modernity. Democracies have safety valves. They are sensitive to suffering. And they have the ability to respond to terrible adversity with greater efficiency as well as humanity.