Initial assessments of Japan's response to the 3/11 disasters were positive. Tokyo appeared to have responded quickly and efficiently to the combined earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear catastrophes. The government established an emergency response team headed by the prime minister, coordinated over 300 organizations providing disaster relief, and quickly ordered deployment of the Self-Defense Forces to disaster areas.
Yet as time passed, a more critical assessment arose of Japanese indecisiveness, poor coordination amongst national and local governments, and unwillingness to assume responsibility. These factors, combined with the Japanese requirement for consensus-building leadership, hindered effective government disaster response.
The lack of decisive national leadership even delayed the government's initial understanding of the extent of the Fukushima nuclear disaster which, in turn, degraded Tokyo's efforts to contain the problem. Kevin Maher, former State Department Japan Desk officer, criticized Tokyo's efforts, saying, ''It was very clear to me as coordinator of the task force that no one was in charge. No one in the Japanese political system was willing to say, 'I am going to take responsibility and make decisions.'''
Poor coordination between national and prefecture governments resulted in costly delays to the U.S. military's disaster response. U.S. Marine Corps ground units were unnecessarily delayed for two days as a result of needless negotiations with local authorities.
Though Japan's response to the Great East Japan Earthquake was an improvement over those of the 1995 Kobe earthquake, lingering systemic shortcomings are cause for serious concern. Unless corrected, these systemic problems, most notably an inability or unwillingness to make decisions, will undermine Japanese responses not only to natural disasters but also foreign policy crises.
The (Naoto) Kan administration's stumbling response to Chinese belligerent behavior during the Senkakus incident in September 2010 was also due to indecisiveness and timidity. Similarly, Japan's inability to implement the 2006 Guam Agreement has strained relations with the United States. Although Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has pledged to make tangible progress on the Futenma Replacement Facility, my meetings with senior DPJ officials cast doubt on that promise.
Japanese interlocutors during my mid-September trip to Tokyo unanimously praised Noda as an improvement over his predecessors -- though Kan and (Yukio) Hatoyama admittedly set the bar low. But all cautioned against expectations for Noda actually accomplishing anything until after either the DPJ election or general election in 2012 and 2013, respectively. It was argued that Noda must first prioritize harmony amongst factions and parties over national interest or implementing critically needed policy changes.
The unfortunate and potentially disastrous result is that Japanese harmonization and indecisiveness will lead the country to continue to lose influence and even relevance in Asia. Although Tokyo is unwilling to act, Beijing does not share the same self-imposed constraints.
Bruce Klingner is Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in Kyodo News