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Japan: Early Observations on Heroism, Authority, Emergency Response and Global Governance

The March/April print and online editions of PA TIMES featured several articles on the aftermath of the
devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan. Contact
Christine McCrehin, [email protected], to find out how to receive the
paper. See the Related Articles box for links to read more of the featured articles.

Alexandru V. Roman

The world still grapples with the events of March 11th and the complete scale of the implications of the Japanese disaster will probably not sink in until a few years from now. The initial estimates are already dramatic: thousands considered dead or missing and millions injured or displaced. The threat of an impending nuclear catastrophe has made the destruction on the ground by the tsunami at times seem like an afterthought. It is certain that this tragedy will end up being one of the most consequential for Japan since the last sixty years. While broad scale conclusions are not appropriate at the moment, there are certain observations that can be made.

The heroism, with which Japanese citizens, above all those who have been displaced, are ‘dealing’ with the situation, would leave anyone speechless. Their efforts and their ability to maintain order are laudable. The images, videos and interviews that have filled the media outlets show that the Japanese renowned resilience is not a myth. There is no looting, no disorderly conducts, there are scores of volunteers and at least at the moment there is no finger pointing. Everyone seems to just go about ‘dealing with it’ in a manner that resembles more a ‘project-type’ approach than a panic. Even those familiar with Japanese culture are amazed. There is an incredible sense of resiliency and psychological strength that cannot be described. Norihiko Sunaoka, a Japanese financial specialist working in Tokyo, is more concerned with the hyper-supply of information to the general public and the impact it may have on the people, than with anything else. “We were asked to stay home. Most companies have issued safety rules and have asked their employees to remain home. We are waiting. It is the media that concerns me. The media seems to be interested in stirring fears up, mainly by showing videos and pictures of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.”

This is not the first time Japan will have to rise from a devastating crisis. The country did exactly that after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and World War II bombing. These historic disasters have forged a powerful national psyche that has responded so heroically and orderly thus far. However it also might be the case that, as Michel Foucault suggest in his famous lecture on governmentality and Hugh T. Miller discusses in his 2008 article “Governmentality, Pluralism, and Deconstruction” from Administrative Theory & Praxis, Japanese response is a mere reflection of that governance techniques once solely characteristic to government have become an important part of the national identity.

It is impossible to be ‘prepared’ for such catastrophic natural disasters as the one Japan is enduring. Japan has arguably one of the best preparation and emergency planning framework. The Japanese are used to the seismic instability of their region. After all ‘tsunami’ is a Japanese word. The earthquake did not take Japan by ‘surprise’. It is the magnitude that was not expected. The March 11th earthquake was so powerful that lifted by the ocean floor too such an extent that the incoming water mass simply ‘disregarded’ any coast protection mechanisms. As such, given the ‘preparedness’ of Japan for such events and considering the magnitude and implications of the losses so far, it begs the questions–what would be the impact of similar events in other areas which are not as prepared and or do not posses such a sophisticated protection mechanism as Japan? The state of transparency issues within the Japan’s nuclear energy industry is a separate discussion.

The patterns and dynamics of the Japanese government’s response in the first seventy-two hours confirmed the indispensability of bureaucratic-authoritative type response systems. Donald F. Kettl in his 2002 book, The Transformation of Governance, argues that the complexity of today’s problems has classical bureaucratic-type solutions “cornered.” To deal with today’s challenges, public administration has had to adapt to dealing with, what Kettl calls, “fuzzy boundaries.” However, he still suggests that hierarchy and authority cannot and will not be replaced, and this is especially true in the case of a short-term immediate emergency response. A bureaucratic-authoritative type approach might not be fully fit to deal with long governance challenges, but for short term emergency interventions this type of approach seems to remain superior to all other forms.

The threat of radioactive contamination introduces a very difficult dynamic in the rescue and recovery processes. Rescue efforts are never trivial and by their nature already assume an increased level of risk. Adding radiation into the ‘equation’ makes the dynamics of the expected recovery intervention very difficult to assess in terms of democratic responsibility. If the radiation leaks are as bad as feared then in Japan’s case, humanitarian and recovery assistance within the affected areas can be characterized more as ‘sacrifice’ than ‘helping’. In essence, an already overly complex mission becomes almost impossible given imperatives and implications of such an intervention.

Finally, any such disaster is by no means national. The economic and policy shocks just within days of the tsunami have shown that it is, after all, an interconnected world. Countries, willingly or unwillingly, are more interconnected than at any point historically. Such interconnectedness makes any viable solution fall within the domain of global governance efforts. As such very soon we might not be able to talk about competitors or political adversaries, since it would be difficult to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. Who should lead in making the critical decisions–the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the Japanese government or the global governance community? What we are witnessing within the Japanese tragedy is that the “fuzziness” that Kettl refers to is also now a well established global challenge.

In the end as the ‘norm’ would suggest this tragedy will leave us with more questions than with answers. The best we can do is help and learn. It also should be noted that the tragedy in Japan introduces some complexities domestically, where the administration is burdened by unprecedented budget pressures and war engagements. The budgetary debates are not expected to be simple, what is happening in Japan would only complicate them by adding an additional opportunity for political maneuvering.

The events in Japan suggest the importance of a well designed and implemented emergency response system that accounts for a large spectrum of challenges. While the probability of such massive earthquakes is very small, the dramatic consequences warrant reasonable investments in developing response strategies and mechanisms.

ASPA member Alexandru V. Roman is a Ph.D. student in public administration at Florida Atlantic University. Email: [email protected].

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