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2011 Japan Earthquake and Tsunami: Ethical, Legal, and Political Implications

On March 11, 2011, a massive tsunami caused by a 9.0-magnitude megathrust earthquake off the coast of Japan devastated coastal communities and triggered a nuclear reactor meltdown. Japan is no stranger to earthquakes (Samuels, 2013). It lies near the Pacific tectonic plate and on the intersection of the Eurasian, Philippine, and North American plates. The country is also no stranger to tsunamis, having been hit by major tsunamis in 1896 and 1933, which left 22,000 and 3,000 dead, respectively. Despite extensive seawall building over the last 150 years and government reports indicating a tsunami of this level was possible, Japan found itself unprepared for the tsunami of 2011. The tsunami overcame the seawall defenses and rushed inland, inundating or wiping away entire communities and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The plant suffered a power failure and nuclear meltdown, sending radioactive material into the environment. Homes, Industry, coastal and marine habitats, and lives were devastated (Karan & Suganuma, 2016) at a cost of at nearly 19,000 lives (including 15,894 confirmed dead and 2,562 still missing) (Matanle, 2016) and $219 billion. The effects of the disaster on the economy, society, and politics will last for years to come (Karan & Suganuma, 2016; Samuels, 2013).

Ethical Considerations

One ethical problem stood out to the Japanese people following 3/11. Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi electric power plant, actively hid accidents from public view, falsified reports, refused to partake in safety training exercises visible to the public in order to manipulate the public, manipulated media narratives to promote a sense of safety regarding nuclear energy, and failed to notify the government when the reactors melted down (Karan & Suganuma, 2016; Samuels, 2013). Perhaps the original cause of these actions, however, is the “pipeline” of industry regulators and politicians to the nuclear industry, leading to at minimum the perception of corruption and at maximum willful negligence from lax regulations. In addition, TEPCO officials declined to go beyond regulatory minimums to put measures in place to prevent the disaster despite knowing it was a possibility (Karan & Suganuma, 2016). While these last two problems technically took place within the bounds of the law, they were highly unethical, failed to protect the public, and led to substantial damages. This was especially true for vulnerable social groups. For these reasons, both TEPCO and the government were found liable for damages (McCurry, 2016; 2017).

Social Considerations

Elderly people were disproportionately affected by the tsunami, comprising over 50% of the death toll (Samuels, 2013). The elderly may face increased barriers to evacuation and safety during disasters due to medical needs, mobility issues, and lower use of technology to receive emergency communications. In the relatively poor agricultural Tohoku region, this problem was exacerbated by demographic changes caused by younger people leaving to seek work. This left some elderly people without people to care for them or bring them to safety (Karan & Suganuma, 2016). The tsunami wiped out hospitals and clinics in the area, leaving people desperately in need of medical attention unable to reach it (Samuels, 2016). Elderly people were also vulnerable to the Fukushima Daiichi reactor meltdown and its after-effects, many dying of illness or suicide following the disaster due to lack of medical care or loss of livelihood (Karan & Suganuma, 2016).

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Some regions, especially the Tohoku region were socially and economically vulnerable to disaster. The Tohoku region is a long-time poor, primarily agricultural region with a high proportion of the already socially vulnerable elderly. When the tsunami hit, it devastated the agriculture of this and other coastal regions, destroying crops and rendering the land uncultivatable due to pollution and saltwater damage. This was especially devastating to coastal areas, where the dominant agriculture relied on the sea (fish, seaweed, etc) and meant living in geographically vulnerable areas (Karan & Suganuma, 2016).

Populations and workers located near reactors were a vulnerable population before the disaster for several reasons. First, the plants were located in poorer areas because the residents there needed the subsidies provided in order to improve their local economies. Over time, this developed into a reliance on subsidy and jobs provided by the plant (Samuels, 2013). Workers could not unionize or fight back against unsafe working conditions (Karan & Suganuma, 2016). Second, the plants themselves put the population at risk by covering up major incidents and refusing to allow the SDF to conduct training at the reactor sites in order to keep up public perception of safety. Therefore, these people were vulnerable due to an information blackout (Samuels, 2013). People affected by radiation contamination also lost not only their homes and livelihoods but also some measure of social standing and security due to discrimination. Even absent radiation, social bonds have been damaged between those who evacuated the areas surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi plant and those who did not, as well as between those who received different levels of compensation (Karan & Suganuma, 2016). Japan’s society is heavily community-oriented, and extended displacement of families ruptured or strained community bonds depended on for recovery and left populations vulnerable to mental health and physical ailments extended displacement (Slavin & Kusumoto, 2014). Extended displacement, the stress of radiation contamination, discrimination against fallout victims, probably prolonged vulnerability and contributed to the increased rates of mental health strain in this population (Kunii et al, 2016).

The social system of Japan lent itself well to disaster response. Businesses contributed substantially to the relief effort, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) saw a huge influx of volunteers and money, and the citizenry itself donated massive funds of money for disaster relief (Samuels, 2013). The Japanese people were, by all accounts, model examples for how to respond in a crisis. They formed emergent groups to respond to the crisis, saw minimal to no looting or violence, and supported each other physically, financially, and emotionally (Karan & Suganuma, 2016; Samuels, 2013; Warren, 2016).

Legal Considerations

When the Fukushima Daiichi reactor meltdown occurred, the government seized control of its operating company, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), in order to ensure it would not be able to abandon the site and prevent bankruptcy. The government felt the company needed to remain in business so it could be forced to pay compensation to its victims and deal with its own mess. The company itself declared it could not be held liable because it could not have foreseen a disaster of such magnitude and was exempt from liability based on existing law, compliance with regulations, and politician statements. The government disagreed, arguing the company neglected to prepare for a known possibility (Samuels, 2013). In fact, it was later discovered the company had known about the possibility of such an event occurring and Fukushima Daiichi’s vulnerability due to an internal report completed two years before the disaster and had neglected to take action (Karan & Suganuma, 2016). In 2016, three top officials at TEPCO during the disaster were charged with professional negligence (McCurry, 2016). One year later, the government was found liable by Japanese courts for failing to properly regulate TEPCO, which courts already declared liable for damages. This was the first time the government had been found liable for part of the disaster (McCurry, 2017). As of September 2018, the trial is still ongoing, but the court officially accepted a new statement on the 5th of September which supports the prosecution.  The statement, from the official in charge of tsunami protection at the time of the disaster, claims top officials planned tsunami protection improvements based on government reporting but postponed the plans in order to avoid difficult questions about the safety of the plant if such fortifications are needed (Sugiura, 2018).

Legal changes for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) since the last great earthquake disaster combined with preexisting structures in place for businesses to aid during disaster improved volunteer group response. Learning from the 1995 earthquake disaster, the government gave NGOs legal status which greatly improved their ability to provide relief both alone and in cooperation with other groups during the 3/11 disaster (Samuels, 2013). NGOs gained widespread public support for their exemplary performance, especially compared to the failure of central government resulting from its infighting and confusion (Samuels, 2013; “The death of trust”, 2012).

Political Considerations

Pre-3/11 Japan was in a state of political turmoil and frustration. Forces in the political sphere tried to pull the public’s interest to the causes they deemed most important. Issues ranging from the country’s prolonged economic troubles to social changes competed for prominence, and forces in the political sphere tried to pull the public’s interest (and resources) to the causes they deemed most important. After the devastation wrought by the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown of 3/11, politicians and officials of industry seized on the disaster to control the narrative and shift the political direction of the country. Certain political forces had a vested interest in slowing, maintaining, or increasing the rate of social, economic, or industrial change in the country. Therefore, the disaster became a tool which politicians used to attempt to shift conversations about social and political change to the pressing need to prepare for major disasters or whichever other topics they deemed more important. Others elected to wait for the political turmoil caused by the disaster to fade and public interest to wane. Several new political parties arose out of the post-3/11 turmoil, each vowing to improve or change policies they feel left Japan vulnerable to the disaster and its aftermath. Unfortunately, whether any long-term political change will endure remains to be seen (Samuels, 2013).

The domestic political situation in Japan was a fraught flurry of complications and conflicting information, opinions, and priorities (Samuels, 2013). Frustrations with the government, already high due to the perceived relationship between nuclear industry regulators, the government, and the nuclear industry (McCurry, 2017), as well as other bureaucratic entanglements, increased after the disaster. Confusion and missteps by officials left the public in the dark about which actions they should take and how much danger they really faced. In-fighting in the government led to the Prime Minister being forced to resign and a sea change in the popular vote. Few bills were passed while the government focused on fighting itself and citizens waited for help. This could not have been entirely unforeseen as government mismanagement and failure to cooperate with internal and external entities are recurring themes throughout Japanese disaster history, often leading to increased death tolls and delayed aid distribution (Samuels, 2013).

Trust in the scientific community after the tsunami was badly damaged by how scientists responded to-or did not respond to- the Fukushima Daiichi crisis. In order to rebuild this trust, new measures implemented involved public participation in emergency preparedness discourse and reviewing scientists role in emergency decision-making (Sugiyama, 2016).

The tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi reactor meltdown also had global political implications. Trading partners became uneasy about trade goods originating in Japan due to radiation concerns in addition to its decreased credit standing and trade capabilities (Samuels, 2013). Countries developing or increasing their own nuclear power capabilities became nervous about the consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor and Japan’s dramatic public support shift away from nuclear power (Karan & Suganuma, 2016).

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On the positive side, however, international political partners came through with humanitarian aid, and cooperative military ties with the United States improved substantially. The international community sent humanitarian aid and personnel to aid Japan, though some countries responded much more strongly and/or were received more warmly than others. The United Kingdom pledged support after the tsunami, which was accepted but delayed by an overwhelmed Japanese government in order to determine need. The U.K. embassy got around this red tape by deploying units to the U.S. base at Misawa, which effectively placed them under U.S. jurisdiction. This move was actually supported by Japanese officials and was effective in getting U.K. humanitarian aid to the disaster zone (Warren, 2016). Japan had also previously aided during disaster in China, and China repaid this favor after the tsunami with money and personnel. The U.S. committed itself to help Japan immediately following the disaster which, despite considerable barriers to effective cooperation, ultimately dramatically improved the countries’ military cooperation and goodwill in certain areas. The U.S. provided substantial assets such as supplies, Navy ship USS Ronald Reagan, and technology to address the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown (Samuels, 2013). Support from and interactions with these countries demonstrated how building relationships and currying political favor with other countries can make a difference for the country after a disaster.

History has demonstrated how disasters can lead to both upturns and downturns in both international diplomacy and domestic government. Short-term political effects include increased domestic political turmoil but some improved international relationships (Samuels, 2013). Less than a decade on from the 2011 disaster, it remains to be seen whether the disaster will ultimately lead to long-term changes in the political sphere of Japan.

Unfortunately for non-Japanese Westerners exploring the topic, information about the political environment in Japan must be filtered through various entities which may frame translated information to suit their own arguments. Nuances must be examined and explained, information may be lost in translation, and cultural attitudes and expectations may be missed, confused, or ignored in favor of brevity. It should be noted, therefore, that assessments of political and social change are subject to the competing narratives described by Samuels (2013) and should be evaluated with caution.

Lessons Learned

Japan learned many lessons after 3/11. The Self-Defense Force (SDF), Japan’s military, performed very well during the crisis, and cooperative efforts with other agencies and local governments paid off. Emperor Akihito, for the first time in history, commended the SDF for its efforts and performance. The response revealed unanticipated vulnerabilities to SDF troops, which were addressed following the disaster, but it also affirmed the value of its cooperation with civilian agencies/groups. The SDF also learned how to temporarily govern in localities where the government was absent (Samuels, 2013). During the disaster, many local government officials were killed or displaced, resulting in a leadership vacuum (Karan & Suganuma, 2016). SDF members took charge in these places and were able to govern effectively. The highly successful SDF operations bolstered public and governmental support for the organization, gaining a high level of public approval and subsequent government support. The Japanese learned, in sum, that their military could be an effective, morally positive force for good, resulting in political pressure to expand the SDF’s capabilities and responsibilities (Samuels, 2013).

In contrast to the SDF, the central government performed very poorly. Local governments had to rely on themselves and each other during and immediately following the disaster. The disaster highlighted the failure of the current structure and need for local and regional governments to prepare to respond on their own. While the central government debated restructuring, local governments began implementing the lessons learned in order to become self-sufficient in their response (Samuels, 2013; “The death of trust”, 2012). Public trust in the central government was devastated following the disaster as disparate agencies from the central government allocated resources unevenly with little coordination to prioritize properly. NGOs took on a larger role, providing aid to those desperately in need when the government failed them. This shifted public support for central government toward local political bodies and reliance on self-sufficient communities (“The death of trust”, 2012).

Political and diplomacy-related lessons were also learned. Japan’s military and U.S. military faced difficult challenges during the early stages of cooperation during the disaster. They resolved these issues by each military embedding personnel in the other at all levels in order to facilitate communication and decision-making. Unfortunately, a less positive lesson also arose out of the disaster aftermath: crisis is not always an impetus for major political/diplomatic change. Despite hopeful rhetoric that both countries would build off their success and goodwill in the aftermath of the disaster, efforts to use the political momentum to deepen this alliance largely failed (Samuels, 2013).

The Japanese people learned the consequences of nuclear power combined with a lack of appropriate oversight. Over the last several decades, Japan has pursued nuclear power with fervor, largely out of necessity due to lack of resources. The Fukushima Daiichi disaster and subsequent investigations revealed to the public how extensive the corruption, how lax the regulation, how manipulative the media had become to hide the truth from the public about nuclear safety. Post-3/11 years saw a dramatic shift in public opinion away from nuclear power and increased support for antinuclear political positions and candidates. Some may argue it is too little, too late, but there are several other reactors reportedly at risk which could cause disasters of similar magnitude (Karan & Suganuma, 2016). Tsunamis occur for other reasons in addition to the earthquakes Japan is already known for, such as underwater landslides, volcanoes, and asteroids. Should the nuclear power industry survive the political strife in Japan, as it seems it will (Silverstein, 2017), it will need to improve safety and transparency. Japan or other coastal countries wishing to continue forward with nuclear power should incorporate tsunami protection recommendations so the industry may rebuild and maintain public support in addition to protecting public health and safety (McKinley, Alexander, & Kawamura, 2011).


The 3/11 disaster highlighted existing ethical, social, legal, and political vulnerabilities and resulted in changes in these spheres. Ethical problems arose in regard to the practices of the utility companies utilizing nuclear power and the government regulatory bodies tasked with regulating them (Samuels, 2013; Sugiura, 2018). This resulted in public outcry and political pressure which resulted in the partial shutdown of Japan’s thriving nuclear power industry, though plans are in place to continue restarting reactors (Silverstein, 2017). Legal action found both the Fukushima Daiichi reactor’s operating company, TEPCO, and the government, liable for damages as a result of poor emergency planning and lax regulation (McCurry, 2016; 2017). Political pressures also resulted in loss of support for the central government and ruling party, resignation of Prime Minister Kan, and a shift in focus to local government self-sufficiency in responding to disasters (Samuels, 2013; “The death of trust”, 2012). Social vulnerabilities exposed by the disaster. Elderly and poor people were disproportionately affected (Karan & Suganuma, 2016), and extended displacement and community breakup exacerbated existing vulnerabilities (Slavin & Kusumoto, 2014; Kunii et al., 2016).

Less than a decade on from the 3/11 earthquake, tsunami, and reactor meltdown disaster, the long-term consequences of the disaster cannot yet be known. Evidence so far suggests the political ramifications for the central government will be limited (Samuels, 2013), but the legal and ethical consequences are still being fought in the courts (McCurry, 2016; 2017). Hopeful rhetoric claimed from the onset of the 3/11 disaster that the disaster would provide an impetus for great social, economic, and political change, a rebirth of the nation to a stronger Japan (Samuels, 2013). Whether Japan will be able to capitalize on this opportunity for long-term improvement remains to be seen.


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