One Year After 3-11: “Lessons Learned” For Japan

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By Yuki Tatsumi – One year has passed since Japan was hit by the greatest natural disaster in its recorded history.  Combined with the nuclear accident that was triggered by the severe earthquake and tsunami, the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake (GEJE) is one of the biggest natural tragedies that Japan faced in its post-1945 period.  In the past year, the disaster netted a few important “lessons learned” as Japan moved forward on the road to recovery.

First and foremost, the Japanese government learned the importance of a government-wide response to a large-scale crisis.  On March 11, 2011, the Japanese government was presented with complex emergencies-it had to respond to the most serious nuclear accident that it has ever experienced in its history while having to provide relief to the survivors of earthquake and tsunami.  The complexity of the challenge demanded an “all-of-the-government” approach and close inter-agency coordination at all levels of the government-central, prefectural, and local. 

In the case of 3-11, however, leadership in the central government was often overwhelmed by the response to the accident at Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station, often leaving the Ministry of Defense (MOD), the Self-Defense Forces, and prefectural and local authorities (including the first responders) to their own devices in coordinating their relief activities on the ground.  In the time of a national crisis such as 3-11, however, it is essential that the Japanese government has institutional arrangements that support the prime minister and his/her cabinet to respond to all aspects of crisis management. 

Secondly, the accident at Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station raised a fundamentally important question for Japan’s energy policy.  For a large part of its post-World War II history, Japan, lacking its own reservoir of natural resources, has ardently pursued civil nuclear energy as an alternative to oil.  In doing so, the Japanese government emphasized the safety and cleanliness of nuclear power, and often downplayed its risks.  The accident at Fukushima showed the dangerous side of nuclear power-so much so that it has now become practically impossible for political leaders to continue to pursue civil nuclear energy as a part of the solution for Japan’s future energy supply.  Prior to 3-11, 54 nuclear reactors met approximately 30 percent of Japan’s electricity demand.  As of today, only two out of 54 nuclear reactors are in use.  Among the ones that have stopped due to safety inspection since 3-11, 11 reactors have completed safety inspection.  Power companies have requested the resumption of nuclear energy operations to the government, although they face strong opposition.  Should the Japanese government fail to convince local authorities to allow these reactors to resume operation, there is a real risk that all nuclear reactors will stop operating after this spring, which would result in a 10 percent supply shortage for the summer of 2012. 

Understandably, it is difficult to talk about re-starting the nuclear power plants when the Japanese public hears about irregular radiation levels and radioactive contamination of the atmosphere, food, and water.  At the same time, short of a viable alternative immediately available, Japan will need civilian nuclear power simply to meet its demand for electricity.  At present, there is no coherent strategy from the government to fill the potential supply gap in electricity.  So far, each power company has been coping with the situation by reactivating their fire- and coal-based power generation, in addition to asking for voluntary conservation efforts from households and businesses.  The Japanese government should reevaluate Japan’s future energy policy, including the role of nuclear energy. 

Finally, the GEJE raised the profile of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) as well as US forces.  The dedication of JSDF personnel engaged in disaster relief operations and the attempt to contain the damage from the Fukushima nuclear accident-more than 100,000 at its peak in spring 2011-coupled with support provided by the US armed forces (more than 20,000 personnel) showcased the strong defense ties forged by the two uniformed organizations in the last six decades.  However, the experience also identified challenges of bilateral defense cooperation.  For instance, the different levels of “jointness” between the two militaries caused frustration in communication and coordination at times.  It is up to both militaries take this experience and come up with bilateral “lessons learned,” so both can be better prepared for a full spectrum of unforeseen emergencies in Japan and in East Asia. 

As Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said in his March 9, Washington Post op-ed, Japan has come a long way in recovery and reconstruction.  But it still has a long way to go for a full recovery.  As Japan continues to move forward to overcome the tremendous difficulty it experience one year ago, it is incumbent upon its leaders to ensure that the important “lessons learned” are not lost.

Photo Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Alexander Tidd,

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