Foreign Policy Blogs

Year in Review

Year in Review

Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Yukio Edano is Person of the Year. (AP Photo/Greg Baker)

Foreign Policy Association bloggers write their “Year in Review” posts for their respective topics by Dec. 1 of every year. Of course any Year in Review of Japan will be dominated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis.

Summary of the Past Year

The year started out quietly enough in Japan. Bells gonged at midnight as Buddhist temples rang in the new year. Families crowded Shinto shrines before going home to eat zoni and soba noodles, their length symbolizing longevity. Children received otoshidama, envelopes of spending money. In foreign policy, there were the usual territorial disputes with Russia, China and South Korea, as well as ongoing debate about the relocation of the Futenma base in Okinawa. These all seem ironic in retrospect, given that 2011 would become the most tumultuous year in Japan’s post-war history.

Japan’s disaster-in-installments began suddenly on March 11 when the country was hit by the largest earthquake in its history. The tsunami triggered by the 9.0-magnitude quake claimed nearly 20,000 lives and kicked off a crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

Rolling blackouts in Tokyo halted production of automobiles and consumer electronics, the lifeblood of Japan’s export-driven economy, which was already mired after more than 20 years of stagflation. Stress mounted in shelters as evacuees grew impatient waiting for help from an indecisive government. Consumer confidence plummeted amidst fears of radiation-tainted food from the Fukushima area. And on top of all that, Japanese people across the nation felt vague feelings of survivor guilt.

Politicians from the opposition Liberal Democratic Party called for a no-confidence vote in Prime Minister Naoto Kan. Kan survived the motion, but stepped down in early September due to heavy criticism from the public, the LDP and rival factions within his own Democratic Party of Japan. After promising to resign, Kan became an outspoken critic of the nuclear power industry, playing to popular fears of radiation inborn in the people of Japan, the only country to have been attacked with nuclear weapons.

Kan was succeeded by Yoshihiko Noda, who was a controversial choice for the government’s top seat given his view that the war criminals enshrined at Yasukuni are not in fact criminals. However, the decision from the DPJ to promote the former Minister of Finance indicates that Tokyo is making economic recovery its top priority.

Most Unexpected Event

The idea of a major earthquake hitting Japan has never been a question of if, but when. Whenever I walked through bustling Shinjuku Station in downtown Tokyo, I would think of the oft-quoted statistic saying that there was a 90 percent chance of a major earthquake hitting Tokyo within the next 50 years. As I looked around at the thousands of faces around me, I was struck by how devastating such a tragedy would be.

Just as Americans will always remember where they were on 9/11, I will always remember where I was on 3/11. When the quake struck, I was a few hundred miles away in Okayama, where I was working at an elementary school. I was leaving school at the time, chatting with a student’s mother as we walked through the parking lot. We didn’t even feel a tremor. After I returned to my apartment, I dove onto my bed fully clothed to take a hard-earned end-of-the-week nap. My wife returned from work about 30 minutes later and said, “There was an earthquake.”

I said, “Where?”

“Near Tokyo.”

“Was it the big one?”

“Looks like it.”

I rolled out of bed and turned on the TV. Live footage showed floods washing over familiar towns in Fukushima and Miyagi where I had passed through two summers before. The fires that always accompany an earthquake spewed inspissating clouds of dark smoke obscuring the afternoon sky. The picture was incongruous with the sunny sky outside my apartment window. I learned that my sister-in-law was stranded at Ikebukuro Station, but was OK. The first rumors of a shut-down at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant were reported, but took backstage to the human crisis the tsunami had left in its wake.

After the initial shock of the disaster, the Japanese people, who are usually non-confrontational by nature, began to voice frustration with the government’s inaction, partisan bickering and non-transparency in the following months. However, the discontent never reached a level that threatened Tokyo’s authority, and a sense of normalcy eventually returned to the country.

Person of the Year

I declare Yukio Edano as Person of the Year. As Chief Cabinet Secretary for Prime Minister Naoto Kan, Edano had the thankless job of being the face of the government. As he gave updates to the people and press on the situation at Fukushima, he often took the brunt of criticism toward the government. The government was criticized for trying to pacify the population, rather than inform them. One common complaint went something like: “We’re not panicked because we’re afraid of what’s going on, but because we don’t know what’s going on. That is your fault!”

However, Edano worked tirelessly to keep the world informed on the disaster at Fukushima. If updates were piecemeal, it had more to do with Tokyo Electric Power Company trying to hide the true extent of the damage, while covering up their own incompetence. Edano himself criticized TEPCO for keeping Kan’s administration in the dark.

The strain of Edano’s efforts began to show on his face, and he eventually gained the admiration of the Japanese people, who would say, “Edano is the only one in the government who is working.” The Japanese admonished Edano to get some rest with the catchphrase, “Edano nero!” Sleep, Edano!

When Noda succeeded Kan as Prime Minister, he appointed Edano to the prestigious post of Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Forecast for 2012

If the March 11 disaster has taught us anything, it’s that acts of God can make forecasts futile. However, barring another major disaster, I predict Tokyo will attempt to return to and maintain the status quo in 2012.

Changes in Japan are few and far between, and almost always have an outside catalyst. However, when the country does decide to change, it does so at an astonishing pace. Japan’s economy has been kept afloat for the past 20 years by massive pork-barrel spending. I hoped that the March 11 disaster would provide an impetus for change in Japan’s notoriously conservative government. However, for the time being, change in Japan does not appear to be forthcoming, signaled by the government’s intent to rebuild a massive wall of concrete in Tohoku meant to hold back a tsunami, which failed its first test on March 11.

Japan may have no choice but to change. The devastatingly low birthrate and growing ranks of seniors crushing an economy that has had only lackluster growth since 1990 signals the country is on the brink of a demographic crisis. The Japanese are a xenophobic people, and have traditionally been uncomfortable with immigration. Unless the country takes an uncharacteristic 180-degree turn in its sentiment toward foreigners, Japan will be forced to move more jobs overseas to make up for its labor shortage and generate enough capital to take care of its seniors. The obvious choice for this labor pool will be where Japan has turned to in the past: the so-called Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere of the wartime era. Whether Japan will do this peacefully or return to its historic aggression remains to be seen.



Dustin Dye

Dustin Dye is the author of the YAKUZA DYNASTY series, available through the Amazon Kindle.

He lived in Okayama, Japan, where he taught English at a junior high school through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program for three years. He is a graduate from the University of Kansas, where he received a bachelor's degree in anthropology.

His interest in Japan began in elementary school after seeing Godzilla fight Ghidorah, the three-headed monster. But it wasn't until he discovered Akira Kurosawa's films through their spaghetti Western remakes that he truly became fascinated in the people and culture of Japan.

He lives in Kansas with his wife, daughter and guinea pig.

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E-mail him: [email protected]