Japan’s Revenge of the Mandarins

 Ever since the huge earthquake that hit Japan’s Pacific coast at Tohoku on March 11, 2011, the country’s mass media has obsessively focused on the magnitude of the physical damage and the loss of life. Repeated broadcasts of traumatic video images of the great tsunami and the damaged nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant have been seared into Japan’s collective memory.


Japan’s Revenge of the Mandarins
Illustration by Paul Lachine


One year later, the media will be sure to intensify its reports and broadcasts along the same lines, encouraging the Japanese public to become all the more determined to overcome the disaster. But the Japanese may already have fallen victim to an unforeseen pitfall.

What the Japanese public has endured over the past year is somewhat analogous to what Americans experienced following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Both events severely distorted public discourse. In the United States, the government employed massive propaganda to promote public support for the “global war on terror” that it was about to wage. Video images, particularly of the World Trade Center’s collapsing twin towers, fanned the flames of conflict.

In Japan, images of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear-plant disaster have been used to unite the Japanese public behind rehabilitation of damaged regions by bureaucrats, as well as behind continuation of the country’s decades-long junior-partner status vis-à-vis the US, which the public rejected in the 2008 general election.

But, almost one year after the earthquake, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government has made scant progress in post-disaster reconstruction and rehabilitation. Many evacuees continue to live in temporary shelters, and mountainous piles of refuse remain in the devastated areas. By contrast, private-sector actors quickly rebuilt major production facilities across the region, restoring crucial links in global supply chains.