Democracy, not stoicism, gives the country resilienceby Oliver Kamm / March 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.