What the Japan Tsunami Tells Us about International Politics


For as awful as natural disasters are, they also act as lightning flashes to illuminate the hidden landscape of states’ weaknesses and capabilities. As ‘acts of god,’ natural disasters represent a uniquely blameless test of state seriousness and capacity (and of genuine international solidarity). Unlike man-made catastrophes such as 9/11 or Srebrenica,  this cannot be blame on foreign machinations, ignored/manipulated for political calculations, or otherwise geopolitically spun. Not even Koreans, who are arguably the people most alienated from the Japanese on the planet, are ‘happy’ about this or calling it retribution or anything like that.

So this earthquake was a major test of the response capacity of the Japanese state (and of the functioning of global governance on things like nuclear-oversight or disaster-relief assistance), and we can honestly say that Japan has performed remarkably well. The quake was an staggering 9.0 on a 10 point scale (the Richter scale), and news reports are calling this the worst quake in Japan’s history. Yet the death-toll is still under 5000. Despite the sadness of these deaths, we should recognize how astonishingly low that is and credit that directly to the seriousness and functionality of the Japanese state. Events like this cast into extreme clarity: the difference between the ‘First World’ and the rest; why, for all the talk about the ‘second world rising,’ places like South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and even China, have a such long way to go, and why they export, not import, people; and just how badly governed so much of the world really is, and how that dysfunction borders on criminal negligence when really serious disaster strikes. Remember how many people died in far less powerful events in Pakistan or Haiti recently.This is not meant to be OECD triumphalism, but yet another wake-up call regarding the atrocious government of far too many places. Japan should make Haitian and Pakistani elites hang their heads in shame.

Here are a few applaudable illustrations of truly serious, responsible government:

1. Japan called International Atomic Energy Agency immediately after the earthquake about its nuclear reactors. It has cooperated properly and publicly with IAEA. It has noted the problems in the media, while responding properly with cautions where necessary. This is what real governments, who actual govern rather than tyrannize, pilfer, or exploit, do. Imagine how Iran or NK, or maybe even China and India, – all hyper-nationalist, corrupt governments  with super-secret nuclear programs – would have responded. They would have told no one until the questions became unbearable. Conspiracy theories about outside intervention would have been floated. IAEA regulations would have been openly rejected as a pretext for western espionage, etc. The consequence would be a re-run of the post-Chernobyl hysteria, because no one knew the details or trusted the source. By contrast, Japan did its duty, and the world trusts them. Well done.

2 Japanese emergency responders got out there quickly. Within a few hours, bulldozers were already on scene. Just like the rapid New Zealand response a few weeks ago, this was a good demonstration of what political science calls state capacity. The Japanese state is not faux-structure on paperthat really exists to serve some megalomaniac ‘president-for-life’ like Gadhafi. It is highly modern, efficient, rational, focused entity that can fairly rapidly process information, redirect resources, and otherwise flexibly respond to shocks. Given the 9.0 Richter measure, I am amazed how rapidly and coherently Japan is responding. Had this happened in Cambodia or Mozambique, the entire state might have collapsed. Even the Americans really blew it on the far-less-catastrophic Hurricane Katrina. Again, well done.

3. The Japanese trained a lot for this and are a disciplined, serious, but not therefore terrorized, population. What most strikes me about the videos coming out of this is just how calm everyone seems. The CNN reporters in the first few hours seemed almost desperate to find scenes of hysteria – one guy saying on a cell-vid, ‘the building is going to collapse!’, got re-played again and again. By contrast, look at the American response to 2003 power outage in northeast; people treated it like the apocalypse. Or far worse, look at how the NK state has ‘disciplined’ its people to “arduously march” through its recurrent famines, or how the USSR militarized its entire population and economy to fight WWIII. If the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in the US actually did its job, this is how Americans would respond to terror alerts, instead of neuroses about duck tape and safe rooms. Japan has just shown the US how intelligent grown-ups respond to real threats. We could only dream that DHS was so professional.

4. Japan didn’t blame this on God’s unhappiness about abortion, gays, or modern decadence; Mossad, the United States, China, Korea, etc, ad nauseaum. Again, try to imagine how NK would have responded: a US-SK-Jpn plot to control the earth’s crust!; or the Taliban: it’s Allah’s punishment for not beating our women harder; or Fox News: Jesus’ response to gays in the military. Don’t believe me? Jerry Falwell blamed US homosexuals for 9/11, or read this about how Israeli intelligence is responsible for shark attacks in Egypt – because, you know, Spielberg is a Jew and directed Jaws... Despite huge destruction, Japan’s response to the massive event has been serious, normal, and measured. Hear, hear.

5. Japan prepared for this by listening to scientists and experts and not just blowing the money on pork for reelection, or just conveniently forgetting about legislative hearings that demonstrated real threats. America is once again an instructive counter-example (*sigh*, wouldn’t it be nice if we could get this stuff right?). Post-Katrina, we all found out how much the New Orleans and Louisiana had been warned. Mayor Nagin was a balloon head with absolutely no idea what to do, despite governing a coastal city eight feet below sea-level (!) with known exposure to hurricanes – which is obviously why he got re-elected – wth!?, but then W got re-elected post-Iraq…  Anyway, then came heckuva-job-Brownie. Or how about the audits of DHS which show that homeland security money still follows legislative pork not appraised terror threats? This sort of stuff should tell you why the far less powerful Katrina Hurricane lead to the travesty at the Superdome, while Japan is pushing through with minimal panic. Serious people from a focused government spent big money on empirically demonstrated problems. I guess we forgot that in the war on terror.

Japan just showed how serious, professional, responsible, secular government can construct a real, responsive state apparatus that can help citizens in even very extreme circumstances and genuinely resolves serious collective action and public goods problems. Superb. Truly remarkable. In the midst of this tragedy, we should be in awe of the world-class response. This is a real ‘all-hazard’ response. The world – and especially DHS! – should take note.

If you want to donate to assist Japanese recovery, go here.


WACK-JOB ADDENDUM: At least one nutter has come out to proclaim this the Lord’s vengeance for those heathen Shintoists. I’m sure somewhere Pat Robertson is unhappy that he missed this chance. Appalling.

10 thoughts on “What the Japan Tsunami Tells Us about International Politics

  1. having lived in Japan (actually not far away from Sendai and Fukushima) for some months has made me little surprised about this professionalism.

    My experience with Japanese is that they unemotionally follow rules highly disciplined – anybody who has seen Japanese waiting in queue to board the Shinkansen, which then arrives with a precision of 30 cm and +-30 s can confirm this high level of organization and discipline.

    I think that there is another important factor to the discipline. Japanese are very much used to big disasters – earth quakes, typhoons and volcanoes in particular. That means that every Japanese gets into fights “against the elements” regularly. So they are much more used to it.

    I recall sitting in my office, when the ground started shaking. One of the colleagues just said “earthquake” just like you say “nice weather”. This tells me how relaxed they are about such things, they are simply used to it. This time it is significantly worse than “normal”, but they basically know what to do, they have to do it on smaller scale regularly.


  2. Thanks Dr. Bob. Great post. I too can attest to Japanese efficiency. Many years ago when I was stationed on the Island of Okinawa, I never suffered the loss of electricity during massive typoons. Life went on. Back where I live in the US, we lose power just about every time there is a mid to high level storm or snow. Major storm or snow forget it. Plus, it is like everyman or woman for themselves (actually there are a group of neighbors, including me, who assist one another).

    Also, you mentioned knee-jerk reactions, what do you make of GreenPeace’s reaction? Are you for or against? In addition, it seems all of the US’ media stars are heading to or are in Japan. Gaddafi now has free reign (not that Japan should not get the lion share of attention). I saw Dianne Sawyer briefly yesterday evening and turned the channel. She looked into some unfortunate person’s devastated home and noticed that their clock was still operating. The clock became her story at that moment. She imparted to us that the clock was “as if” telling us that life goes on. CBS or whom ever she works for spent all of that money to send her there for that.

    I would also like to know your position vis a vis our dependency on oil and this event (as far as nuclear power).


  3. Dr. Bob:

    Could you please confirm the severity level of the situation? According to US media reports, it would seem that all is pretty hopeless or getting that way fast. Is there panic in Tokyo? I don’t doubt that the situation is very grave.


  4. I really enjoyed this posts, especially the concluding paragraph, but I do have two criticisms:

    1. Tokyo still hasn’t conquered regulatory capture. The BWR model is outdated, and Fukushima Dai-Ichi should have been decommissioned in the 80s. Also, there’s s some debate about the advisability of putting the pools above ground in such an earthquake-prone country. Japan, like every other state in the world, doesn’t seem capable of establishing regulations, and then actually carrying them out.

    2. Acts of God might not be accurate. I forget now who argued this – it was after Katrina – but perhaps there are places on this earth where humans shouldn’t live. The argument is, that as people live in ever more marginal places, like coasts and mountain sides (like Rio’s favelas), these “accidents” will increase. Governments should at least require inhabitants to have extra insurance and take other precautions, if not provide it through taxes. Tokyo seems to be more responsible than most governments, but could it do more?


    • I hadn’t really thought of either of those good points. Nice. My general sense was to compare this to the way so many other states fail so badly in situations like this, including ths US most obviously in Katrina.


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