Natural Disaster and Nuclear Crisis in Japan

Phar Kim Beng, PhD
4 min readAug 15, 2020


By Phar Kim Beng
Strategic Pan Indo-Pacific Arena
Twitter: @indo_pan

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Japan is often considered an oddity in international relations. It has one of the best minds in the world but is struggling with a greying phenomenon that is likely to make it shrink in population size in the coming few decades. Most of the traditions in Japan remain intact but it is also a country in constant hurry to enhance the scale of its own modernization. Those that can deal with the paradox, and pressures, put on a strong front and deal with them head-on. Those that can’t potentially sink into depths of depression, with some preferring solitude and a life of quiet resignation.

The Tohoku disaster of March 11 tested Japan like no other. It wasn’t a war, or, a missile strike from North Korea or China to be sure. But it was an earthquake, 150 KM away from the coastline of Tohoku, that pushed the fury of nature into a society that has otherwise become adept at harmonizing itself with the anger of nature. As the edited book affirmed “close to 20 percent of the world’s earthquakes” occurred in Japan. Building codes and elaborate rules and regulations had been put in place to prevent the revisit of any major disaster that hit Tokyo and Yokohama in 1923. Chastened by the Kobe earthquake in 1995, more rules and regulations were introduced to enhance the prominence of the nonprofit sector.

But when the disaster is one where three nuclear reactors broke down within a span of eight hours, and the depth of the crisis is kept from the knowledge of Prime Minister Naoto Kan, further compounded by opposition politicians who were bent on using this crisis to undermine his authority, then this becomes grist for conspiracy, and human deceit at the time of the huge disaster, that deserves careful deliberation, especially on a country that is supposedly peaceful, civil, and thoughtful.

Superbly edited by Professor Jeff Kingston at Temple University in Japan, the contributors could offer intimate and deep insights into the string of events. The book is further helped by the prestige of the Nissan Japan series of the Routledge Press. Arthur Stockwin and Roger Goodman’s preface alone makes for excellent reading, as they added the caveat that more “definitive studies” would probably continue to come, but this is one of the first efforts to understand the complexity of the issue.

Did all the senior scholars and young researchers succeed in amalgamating the different strands of stories together? Yes, they did. The only lament, as one looks back, is that the book was published in 2012.

Much has changed since then. Prime Minister Abe, regardless of the force of the social opposition, has become cozy with the nuclear lobby again. Nor can one blame him.

With 54 nuclear reactors at work, it was a matter of time before the special and vested interest of these operators came together to hold him to ransom. Proceed with more nuclear reactors, or else. It cannot be any simpler than that.

That said, no one knows the depth of Prime Minister Abe’s family involvement in the nuclear energy business. But it won’t be surprising to see some fingerprints there. In this sense, this book is a must-read, for anyone who wants to understand politics “in the raw”. And, the reference to Japan is only fortuitous in this sense.

If post humanitarian disaster politics in a place as harmonious as Japan can be so acidic, with Prime Minister Naoto Kan being one of the first to be “pushed under the bus” when he was kept oblivious of the true magnitude of the meltdown, at least, for a good six months, then one really should be a realist in politics, period. To attempt any theoretical persuasion is to invite certain defeat.

Thus, while common people may reel at the sufferings of every little perturbation and accident, natural or man-made, the truth is the politicians and political Brahmins that pull the strings from up above, probably do not care.

In this sense, this book is a scientific catalog of the radiological leaks and dramas that come with them, but also a very vivid, in some senses tragic, description of the injustices that many Japanese constantly have to endure on a daily basis.

Understood in this vein, it is a major puzzle, why the average Japanese is not more incensed by the petty politics at hand, before or after March 11th? The fact that some 60,000 anti-nuclear demonstrators showed up in the heart of Tokyo in 2012, “the largest since World War II” according to Jeff Kingston, is a powerful optic that enough is enough.

But in the labyrinth that is the Japanese political system, formed from centuries of hidden family connections, networks, and realignment, perhaps the story cannot be known in full unless there are more and more investigative stories on Japan. This book, whose editor Jeff Kingston has a regular column in The Japan Times, is the right place to start if anyone wants to understand Japan amidst all its paradoxes. Kudos.

In this sense, it is better than Richard J Samuel’s single effort to understand Japan post March 11. Well, this is because this book is aided by the insights of numerous top and aspiring Japanologists, beyond what Professor Gerald Curtis at Columbia University alone can offer. Since not all of them were Japanese by background, the insights and understandings of Japan are truly insightful.



Phar Kim Beng, PhD

Founder of Strategic Indo-Pacific Arena (