Covid (Again?) + Last Week's Digest
Read Now

— Spectacles —

The news tells you what happened.
Spectacles explains why that matters for democracy.
Instantly receive our exclusive handbook on how to spot the biggest threats to democracy when you confirm your email!
[VID] How Japan Solved Earthquakes

On March 11, 2011, Japan faced a massive earthquake, a huge tsunami, and a nuclear meltdown. All things considered, they fared pretty well. Why?



On March 11, 2011, at 2:46pm, a massive magnitude 9.1 earthquake struck about 80 miles off the north-east coast of Japan’s main island, near Tōhoku.[1] Instead of quickly passing, the extreme quake shook the ground violently for over six minutes, shifting Miyagi prefecture a full 15 feet eastward, as the earth’s crust split apart and its rotation was measurably slowed by a force 600 million times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.

The Tōhoku super-quake remains among the five most powerful ever recorded. Yet, remarkably, almost nobody died. At least, that is, from the quake itself.[2]

About 40 minutes later, the retired 60-year-old Mr. Tanaka returned from picking up his grandson at school. While he fumbled with his cane and clambered out of his seat, his grandson leapt from the car and, looking downtown, began to scream, “The tsunami is here! The tsunami is here!” With one glance, Mr. Tanaka knew he wouldn’t make it inside to safety, so he shouted at his wife, daughter, and grandson to rush upstairs. His neighbors, unaware of the incoming wave, overheard the commotion and also took shelter, as Mr. Tanaka attempted to speed away from the flood.

He didn’t get far before the rushing waters caught up to him, lifted his car from the road, and washed him away. As he felt the road fall away from him, Mr. Tanaka says he tried to avoid panic, thinking, “Wherever I end up is where I’m destined to go. If I’m still alive by then, then everything is okay. And if I die…if the car shouldn’t withstand the tsunami, then that is the end of my life.”

After floating perilously more than a mile from home, Mr. Tanaka’s car became stuck in debris which trapped him inside. About an hour later, water began trickling into the car. Mr. Tanaka sat, sleep-deprived and verging on hypothermia for nearly 14 hours, until finally he heard a familiar voice: a neighbor calling out, asking if anyone was in the car. When Mr. Tanaka called back, the man came to clear the debris trapping him inside, helped him out, and contacted authorities. Some 5 more hours later, three firemen came and carried Mr. Tanaka to safety.

Back home, the rest of his family passed the night anxiously, worried for Mr. Tanaka and waiting for help they feared would never come. Their first hope — a military helicopter performing search and rescue — passed them over. Hours later, a neighbor found a way to the home on foot; he’d come to check about the family, and he was able to call for help.[3]

All four members of the Tanaka family survived the great black wave which in many places towered over 60 feet tall. Not all would be so lucky. Over 18,000 people perished. Many were never found.

But the Tanakas’ story is important, because it speaks to the larger reality of Japan’s crisis. Most fatalities were people over the age of 60, and a third of people who failed to evacuate did so because they required physical assistance which they didn’t have at the time. Regardless of age, in many cases, survival depended less on the presence of government rescue efforts than they did on social ties and community: neighbors and friends who stepped into the immediate aftermath and helped in situations officials could never have reached so quickly.[4]

In other words, there are few things you can do now that have better odds of saving your life—or another’s—than getting to know your neighbors.


But as important as community social ties might be in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, medium and long-term recovery and reconstruction just wouldn’t be possible without a capable government.

So what exactly makes a government capable? Well, in part, it needs its own version of social ties. Instead of the “horizontal” links between friends or neighbors, these are “vertical” links from national to local governments and individual citizens, outside experts, or civil society groups.[5]

In Japan’s case, as the immediate response period gave way to medium-term recovery, the government actually did a pretty good job using vertical links to effectively combine the efforts, expertise, and input of many parts of society, including those most affected by the disaster, reducing redundant and wasted efforts, and producing a more inclusive and effective recovery.[6]

At the prefectural—Japan’s provincial, or state—level, the importance of vertical ties was even more pronounced, and uneven. Where prefectural governments had healthy vertical ties to society and citizens, as in Tōhoku’s Miyagi prefecture, the early recovery stages were faster. Where weaker, as in Iwate prefecture, recovery was slower. And in Fukushima unclear and dishonest communication with the public made a slow post-meltdown recovery excruciating.[7]


Speaking of Iwate prefecture’s challenges, let’s take a close look at one town there, a real example which we’ll call “Coastal Town.” On March 11, Coastal Town faced some of the worst of the disaster; 60 foot waves destroyed 80% of homes and took the lives of ten percent of residents: a literal decimation.[8]

How did Coastal Town resolve to recover? In large part, it relied on uniquely strong “vertical” links to powerful officials in Tokyo. Wanting to avoid layers of red tape, the residents of the town enlisted a successful and well-connected “local son” to plead with high government officials, who offered the town a hotline to the central government and free rein to pursue their own ambitious reconstruction plans. Today, thanks largely to the effective use of “vertical” links in the community, Coastal Town has enjoyed one of the fastest recoveries in Tōhoku, despite bearing some of the worst of the disaster.

But most towns, lacking such strong “vertical” links to Tokyo’s top power brokers, have been forced to accept cookie cutter solutions, including rebuilding failed seawalls. And in Fukushima, where no one died as a result of the nuclear meltdown but tens of thousands lost their homes, accountability for the plant’s mismanagement has been hard to attain.[9]

There’s a whole long story to tell about why Japan’s extremely weird democracy caused a lot of problems in the long-term recovery, but the short version is that Japan has basically one very dominant political party—the Liberal Democratic Party—and they do a lot of politics according to old-school patron-client relationships.[10] I help you, you help me. And that kind of politics just exacerbated the unequal recoveries between towns that had and towns that lacked strong “vertical” links to government.[11]

As a result, a lot of people have, reasonably, lost trust in the government.[12]

By the way, if a video on why Japan has the world’s weirdest democracy sounds interesting, let us know in the comments.


So obviously this inequality of “vertical” links and quality of recovery isn’t ideal, but when we zoom out, it’s clear that Japan’s story is, overall, one of success.

Consider the Great Sichuan Quake which struck western China in 2008. Though its magnitude, 8.0,[13] is only about 1 point less than Tōhoku’s, that really means it was less than 1/10th as powerful.[14]

And yet, while less than 200 people died in Japan’s massive quake—remember, almost all deaths were caused by the tsunami—in China over 88,000 people were killed and 370,000 injured.[15]

Why was China’s quake so much more catastrophic than Japan’s? You might first think it’s due to population differences, but the affected areas differed in population by only about 20 times.[16] Yet 450 times as many people died in China.

The real reason was poor quality building codes which led, for example, to the collapse of nearly 20,000 government-built schools. Why was the construction so shoddy? The government response offers an explanation. While to their credit, Beijing responded with remarkable speed and vigor, this soon gave way to cruelty, as police cracked down on protests critical of the government’s building practices, arresting grieving parents.[17] It remains unclear whether the government improved construction, as they pursued an opaque, top-down response which rendered survivors powerless — all for the same reason they failed in the first place: unaccountability. The government built shoddy schools, because if something went wrong, no one in power would have to answer for the mistake. Faced with catastrophe, this held true. No one was held accountable, and apparently nothing has changed.

Put another way, “vertical” links are crucial to high quality preparedness and responses, and one extremely effective “vertical” link is the vote. In Japan unequal links may have led to unequal recoveries, but the country’s democratic system ultimately links all officials with the general public. So, the government, aware of the public’s ability to hold them accountable, set strong building codes to protect the public.

Meanwhile, no such vertical links exist for the general public in China, though a select few still have considerable sway, resulting in an even more unequal and generally worse job of disaster management.


Of course, “vertical” links between the powerful and the average joe have never been perfectly even. They aren’t in Japan today, nor are they in the US, which has its own troubled history of unequal disaster response, nor are they in any of the world’s liberal democracies.

But it’s hard to ignore the reality that where those “vertical” ties are as widely dispersed as possible—as in a democratic society with broadly equal access to the vote—preparedness, response, recovery, and long-term reconstruction all improve. In other words, democracies just handle disasters better.

Still, strong community and political connections are only so important up to a point. Without competent government, strong responses and effective recoveries are nearly impossible. This video went into production before the recent Morocco quake, but it is clear that, so far, a lack of government capacity has resulted in a slow, shambolic response, igniting a fury among the Moroccan people.[18] But protest is dangerous in a country ruled by a powerful monarch, leaving little room for accountability. Moreover, the most effective responders to the present disaster have been neighbors, friends, and family stepping in where the government has so far failed miserably.[19]

All these ideas are becoming especially important as extreme weather events proliferate around the world,[20] demanding not just well-defined plans of action on paper but societies that are capable of resilient responses, thanks to rich communal ties and accountable vertical relationships. As Daniel Aldrich, the author of the book Black Wave, which served as the basis of this video writes, "Successes at all levels—from personal through national—have come when denser, tighter connections and good governance have worked hand in hand.”[21]

It’s a lesson leaders and citizens around the world should heed.

  1.ōhoku_earthquake_and_tsunami ↩︎

  2. p. 1 ↩︎

  3. p. 32-35. The entire Tanaka family anecdote is drawn from these pages of Black Wave. ↩︎

  4. p. 38. ↩︎

  5. Daniel Aldrich, Black Wave: How Networks and Governance Shaped Japan’s 3/11 Disasters (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), p. 16. ↩︎

  6. Ibid., 133-139. ↩︎

  7. Ibid,. 110-117. ↩︎

  8. Ibid., 95-99. All following discussion of “Coastal Town” draws on this section of Black Wave. ↩︎

  9. Justin McCurry, “Fukushima: court upholds acquittals of three Tepco executives over disaster,” in The Guardian, 18 January 2023. ↩︎

  10. Aldrich, 89-90; for further discussion of patronage and clientelism in the LDP, see The Rise and Fall of the LDP, by Krauss and Pekkanen. ↩︎

  11. Aldrich, 94-95. ↩︎

  12. Ibid., 131-132. ↩︎

  13. p. 166 ↩︎

  14. p. 173 “It is worth remembering that the magnitude scale is logarithmic, so that a magnitude 9.0 earthquake is 10 times greater than a magnitude 8.0 earthquake and 100 times greater than a magnitude 7.0 one.” ↩︎

  15. Ibid., table. ↩︎

  16. About 110M were in some way affected by the China quake (Aldrich, 167) while 5.5M live in Miyagi, Fukushima, and Iwate prefectures—the areas most affected in Japan. This is an imperfect comparison but the best we could manage. ↩︎

  17. p. 168 ↩︎

  18. Vivian Yee, Aida Alami and Yassine Oulhiq, “Fury as Quake Help Finally Arrives: ‘How Many Hours Has It Been?,’” in the New York Times, 11 September 2023. ↩︎

  19. Catherine Porter, “In Wake of Morocco Earthquake, Frustration Fuels Solidarity,” in the New York Times, 12 September 2023. ↩︎

  20. World Meteorological Organization, “Weather-related disasters increase over past 50 years, causing more damage but fewer deaths,” 31 August 2021. ↩︎

  21. Aldrich, 193. ↩︎


Join the conversation

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
You've successfully subscribed to Spectacles Media.
Your link has expired.
Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.
Success! Your billing info has been updated.
Your billing was not updated.