Lessons for Japan in 2004 Tsunami

Lessons for Japan in 2004 Tsunami

Japan bears only some resemblance to the Asian countries ravaged by the 2004 tsunami, but their recovery experiences could provide valuable insights to leaders in Tokyo, writes CFR’s Joshua Kurlantzick.

March 18, 2011 9:49 am (EST)

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The photos and videos of the aftermath of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami are devastating: freezing and emotionally numbed survivors huddling in makeshift shelters; crowds waiting for fresh food at stores; nuclear technicians struggling to avert a Chernobyl-style meltdown in the Fukushima reactors.

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Though I cannot fathom the despair of the Japanese survivors, I have some idea of how they feel. In December 2004, I was in Bangkok and southern Thailand, working on a series of articles, when a massive tsunami hit the country’s west coast, along with other parts of South and Southeast Asia, killing over two hundred thousand people. I was far from the epicenter and unhurt, though when I wandered through southern Thailand in the tsunami’s aftermath, I saw scene after scene of devastation (TNR).

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In studying the region’s recovery efforts, there are lessons for Japan’s leaders. To be sure, not all of them could help Japan: The creation of a better early-warning system across Asia, a result in part of the 2004 tsunami, still did not give many Japanese enough time to flee the rising wall of water. But some of the most important lessons from 2004 could be useful to Japan, a country far richer and better prepared than the nations hit hardest in 2004--Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, India, and Sri Lanka--as it tries to rebuild its economy and environment, and prepare better for the next disaster.

No. 1: Preserve Natural Barriers

In preparing for natural disasters, Japan, which lies along the "Ring of Fire" Pacific earthquake zone, has built a series of seawalls and other protections against earthquakes and tsunamis. Some of its regulations have proven priceless, like those that ensured that many taller buildings were built with earthquake-resistant standards. But Japan, which has a politically powerful construction industry, also has destroyed much of its natural coastlines, which could serve to impede the flow of high seas.

Construction along Thai beaches had destroyed natural mangrove forests and coral reefs off the coast. These reefs and forests serve as natural barriers against the tides and could have helped block the deadly waves, though they wouldn’t have stopped them. They also can help stop coastal erosion, keeping barriers against the sea in place. Since the 2004 tsunami, many of the countries in the region began to repair their coasts.

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No. 2: Official Secrecy is Corrosive

The 2004 tsunami hit at a time when authoritarianism was strengthening in Southeast Asia. In Myanmar, a country with more than 1,500 miles of coastline, the government barred journalists, sealed its coastline, and blocked aid workers from surveying the ruins, perhaps worried that the damage would make the government seem vulnerable. The New Light of Myanmar, the junta’s state newspaper, reported shortly after the disaster that Burma’s beaches were still "thronged with vacationers."

In Thailand, then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, an elected autocrat, ordered an investigation into the initial tsunami response, but few Thais believed any culprits, such as officials who ignored warnings of the tsunami, would be punished beyond the head of the Meteorological Department (which might have provided a warning), who was transferred. After all, the real culprit was Thaksin himself, who as prime minister had stifled free press outlets and independent-minded civil servants and so had neutered the kind of independent thinking necessary to respond to crises.

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Japan will need to create one agency, near the center of the damage, which can take responsibility for organizing relief and rebuilding.

By comparison, the region’s most democratic countries, though still devastated by this force of nature, at least were responsible in their responses. In India, the disaster produced a ferment of anger in the press, and the population at large, over whether unregulated coastal construction and the destruction of wetland environment exacerbated the deadly impact of the waves. Since 2004, though, little has been done by India’s government to shore up natural coastlines in areas vulnerable to tsunamis.

Japan is not Myanmar or Thailand, but Japanese leaders, and corporations, do have an unsettling history of favoring secrecy over transparency. Japanese leaders have given various explanations of what constitutes a safe distance from the nuclear reactors, and in speaking with reporters, many Japanese men and women already indicate that they do not trust the government’s pronouncements on the nuclear disaster. But a disaster throws this secrecy into light, and Japan’s nuclear industry, and its politicians, will need to change their style for the future, embracing more openness, even if the reports about the reactor’s damage are terrifying. Only then will they earn back the trust of the public.

No. 3: The United States Remains the Critical Foreign Player

The 2004 tsunami occurred in the middle of a soft power charm offensive by China, which had used aid, cultural ties, and better public diplomacy to change its reputation in Southeast Asia from an aggressor into a solid partner. At the same time, the United States was extremely unpopular in much of Asia, the result of the Iraq invasion. Yet the tsunami showed that, despite China’s growing ambitions, it still remained far from able to deliver public goods. It did contribute some $85 million to tsunami relief and reconstruction. But the region’s nations, including Indonesia, Thailand, and India, had to rely on the U.S. Navy to coordinate relief efforts.

The U.S. Navy’s response helped win back some of the region’s hearts and minds--particularly in Indonesia, one of the countries most alienated by the Iraq War. Though Japan already is an American ally, the alliance has been shaken in recent years by debate over moving an American base in Okinawa, the Democratic Party of Japan’s initial attempts to foster a closer relationship with China, and American concerns that Tokyo is letting the alliance drift. Tens of thousands of U.S. personnel are already involved in relief, search-and-recovery missions, and nuclear assistance to Japan; and major, well-delivered American aid in the post-tsunami reconstruction could help smooth over these tensions.

No. 4: Give Local Authorities Power

In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, many government officials in Jakarta, which had been used to a strong central government during the decades of rule by dictator Suharto, wanted to control the reconstruction process. But aid workers in Aceh, the UN, and some wise government officials in Jakarta developed a different plan.

The U.S. Navy’s response [to the 2004 tsunami] helped win back some of the region’s hearts and minds--particularly in Indonesia, one of the countries most alienated by the Iraq War.

They gave enormous authority to a government body in Aceh, called the BRR, which could quickly make decisions about how to use relief money and was not hindered by as much bureaucratic red tape. Creating the BRR allowed Indonesia to incorporate local employees of NGOs into the rebuilding process and to empower Acehnese in their own recovery. The BRR also took responsibility for vetting any rebuilding programs.

In Japan, where the central government also is used to exerting enormous control, such devolution of power will be critical as well. To bring local Japanese into the process, to make decisions on the fly, and to avoid wasting what will undoubtedly be an enormous influx of aid from many countries, Japan will need to create one agency, near the center of the damage, which can take responsibility for organizing relief and rebuilding.

No. 5: The Power of Reconciliation

The 2004 tsunami devastated Aceh, a province on the far western end of Indonesia, where a separatist rebel group had been fighting the central government for decades. In the wake of the carnage, which affected both the rebels and local officials, Acehnese victims bonded in the reconstruction. Both sides put down their arms, came to the peace table, and worked out an agreement that granted Aceh limited autonomy. One former rebel leader was elected governor of the province, and there has been no return of major conflict since the tsunami.

Japan, of course, has no simmering political conflicts on the level of Aceh, where thousands of people had been killed in decades of civil strife. Yet the country is suffering from a milder, but in many ways as dangerous, kind of political conflict. After two decades of weak growth and weak leadership, many Japanese are fed up with the nation’s political class, yet they feel like they have nowhere to channel their unhappiness. Their only options are the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Japan, which swept into power in 2009 because of this anger. Both parties seem unable to provide strong leadership and decisive responses to serious long-term problems, including an aging society, a lack of immigration, an economy being hollowed out, a long-term security challenge from China, and an alliance with the United States unpopular with many younger Japanese.

As in Indonesia, the tsunami could provide the opportunity for a kind of reset in Japanese politics and society, as well as a chance for more decisive leadership, since the country will need it in the coming months.


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