Reflections on the 10th Anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake

March 11 marks the 10th anniversary of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident that caused widespread damage along the coast of Japan’s Tohoku region. Known as the Great East Japan Earthquake, this triple disaster killed over 15,000 people and destroyed over $200 billion of infrastructure and assets, making it the costliest natural disaster in history. In the aftermath of this unimaginable tragedy, the resilience of the Japanese people inspired the international community to assist with the recovery and help Japan build the foundation for a stronger future. 

On April 11, 2011, CSIS, in partnership with Chairman Hiromasa Yonekura of Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), launched a task force of prominent Americans chaired by then Boeing chairman, president, and CEO Jim McNerney to offer recommendations on how the United States and Japan could partner in the process of recovery and reconstruction. The task force was driven by several guiding principles, namely that the world needed a dynamic Japan and its ability to recover from “3-11” would have a profound impact on the international system. The task force formed working groups that examined opportunities for U.S.-Japan cooperation in areas such as health cooperation, economic recovery, and security. As the three principal authors of the report, we wanted to reflect on some of the lessons learned and Japan’s remarkable emergence from that tragedy as a bulwark of the international order 10 years later.  

The economic devastation wrought by the triple disaster generated concern about the prospects for near-term recovery as well as Japan’s capacity to engineer sustainable growth. The task force noted that 3-11 not only damaged the Japanese economy but also illuminated challenges Japan was already facing such as deflation, an aging society, and massive public debt, all of which persist today. Policy prescriptions in our task force report included tax reform, deregulation, and the creation of special economic zones to revive the economy of the Tohoku region. Trade liberalization also featured prominently under the assumption that connecting Japan to a broader process of regional economic integration through multilateral trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would create valuable export markets for Tohoku and other areas. Ironically, the United States subsequently withdrew from that process and it was Japan that ratified a modified TPP and has inked several other trade agreements. Despite lingering questions about the prospects for sustainable growth, trade liberalization is one of the most concrete examples of economic reform since 3-11 and positions Japan to play a leading role in economic rulemaking for the global economy. When 3-11 occurred, only about 15 percent of Japan’s trade was covered by liberalizing international trade agreements, which now account for over 80 percent of Japan’s trade. It was a remarkable turnaround.

The earthquake and resulting tsunami also caused a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, heightening public concern about the safety of nuclear power plant operations  and prompting a debate about Japan’s energy strategy, which at the time was set to become increasingly reliant on nuclear power. The task force emphasized U.S.-Japan dialogue on a range of issues including nuclear safety, energy sector resilience, and global market trends as Japan contemplated its future energy mix. We placed particular importance on not losing Japan’s leadership role in defining nuclear safety and security as China was beginning a rapid expansion of nuclear power plants itself. Japan’s energy policy debate has since focused more on alternative sources, but the government has not abandoned nuclear power as a stable supply of energy. Yet even though nuclear power could feature prominently in the context of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s recent pledge to make Japan carbon neutral by 2050, most of Japan’s nuclear power plants remain out of operation. Ten years after 3-11, definitive prescriptions for Japan’s future energy mix remain elusive.

One of the most impressive aspects of U.S.-Japan cooperation in the aftermath of 3-11 was Operation Tomodachi, a joint humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) operation in the Tohoku region focused on search-and-rescue efforts, providing relief supplies, and rebuilding infrastructure to advance the relief effort. Effective bilateral coordination and the rapid mobilization of resources were critical to success, but among the task force recommendations was an assessment of lessons learned, including the consideration of other variables that might have complicated planning and execution in a more complex security contingency. Since that time, the two governments have established new bilateral coordination mechanisms and guidelines for defense cooperation reflecting legislation passed in 2015 allowing Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to exercise the right of collective self-defense in certain circumstances. One of the takeaways from 3-11 is that interoperability between U.S. and Japanese forces will prove critical across a wide range of contingencies and requires enhanced capabilities, training, and exercises to ensure that the U.S.-Japan alliance is prepared to meet the challenges of a complex security environment.      

The task force traveled to Tohoku and heard unforgettable personal stories of loss, courage, and resolve. There have been no deaths from radiation sickness and exposure from the nuclear accident was not as widespread as initially feared, but some 160,000 people were evacuated from their homes and only about 20 percent of those living in the areas closed off after the disaster have returned (a challenge akin to what New Orleans experienced after Hurricane Katrina in 2005). Manufacturing in Tohoku has rebounded, with over 90 percent of farmland and seafood processing facilities restored as of March 2020. But the reconstruction process is not only about physical infrastructure, and the 10th anniversary of 3-11 is a reminder of the need to continue providing emotional support to the people of Tohoku whose painful memories of that day are not easily erased.             

Japan continues to face multiple policy challenges as it works to ensure a secure and prosperous future but has persevered with remarkable resilience and continues to command the respect of the international community. Back in 2011 it might have been difficult to imagine that 10 years later, Japan would be the world’s third largest economy; a leader in setting standards for trade and digital connectivity; the architect of a regional strategy, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, embraced by the United States and other countries; and a committed investor in new defense capabilities to strengthen networks of security cooperation across Asia. But Japan emerged from 3-11 stronger than ever, a testament to the resilience that engineered recovery at home and sustained Japan’s leadership role abroad in defense of the international order. Though the task is not complete, it was that spirit of recovery, learning, and leadership that so many of us working together on this task force in Washington, Tokyo, and Tohoku had hoped to see.          

Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. and Director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University. Kiyoaki Aburaki is managing director for Japan at BowerGroupAsia and a former Japan Chair visiting fellow from Keidanren. Nicholas Szechenyi is a senior fellow and deputy director of the CSIS Japan Chair. 

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Kiyoaki Aburaki

Managing Director, BowerGroupAsia