The Meltdown of Japan

Published June 20, 2012
By Felipe Umaña
The Failed States Index

The year 2011 was a difficult one for Japan. On March 11, the 9.0-magnitude Tōhoku earthquake struck the northeastern coast of Japan, triggering a powerful tsunami that left destruction in its wake as it traveled over five miles inland. Numerous landslides occurred in the countryside and several large-scale nuclear meltdowns were reported in a number of nuclear facilities that were found to be unprepared for the strength of the waves. In the resulting calamity, the government of Japan was forced to declare a state of emergency and focus its first response teams on the afflicted northeastern areas.

Because of the extensive damage, the T?hoku earthquake and its associated disasters have quickly become the world’s single most expensive natural disaster incident in history, with costs estimated to be over USD $200 billion. Although Japan has implemented a large-scale and successful rebuilding program, the nation’s full recovery will take some time due to the severity of the destruction.

The impact of the earthquake was felt sharply in Japan’s Failed States Index score for 2011, with the country registering the second-largest year-on-year “worsening” in the history of the Index. The country’s Demographic Pressures indicator score dropped by 4.7 points in this year’s Index, consistent with the intensity of the temblors and tsunami. Though the main destruction occurred in the northeastern region of Japan and thus affected only a section of the population, the complete decimation of hundreds of thousands of homes and the subsequent uprooting of thousands of men, women, and children from their domiciles heavily deteriorated the previously stable demographic conditions. The increase in population displacement and the rush to accommodate those affected also worsened the country’s Refugee and IDP score, showing an increase of 2.9 points. Similarly, the Poverty and Economic Decline score suffered a 0.5 point uptick due to the economic hardships associated with the natural disaster and its effect on the country’s productivity.

The political indicator scores also experienced some shifts in the 2012 Failed States Index, primarily affecting the legitimacy of the state, the provision of public services, and external intervention. Japan’s State Legitimacy score worsened slightly due to Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s falling popularity during the disaster events of spring 2011. Faith in the government continued to waver as Naoto Kan survived a no-confidence vote only after pledging to resign after the country saw more recovery. The Public Services and External Intervention scores also worsened by 3.3 and 0.5 points respectively, as utility services were hindered by the damaged infrastructure and the rebuilding plans saw a marked influx in foreign assistance.

It is therefore no surprise that the world’s costliest natural disaster incident has worsened Japan’s score for the 2012 Index, slipping 12.5 points and from the “Very Stable” bracket into the “Stable” category. Of course, Japan is a resilient nation; it has scored extremely well on the Index in the six previous years and will undoubtedly convalesce as the Herculean efforts to control the aftereffects of radiation contamination and progress with the rebuilding initiatives witness substantial advancements. Countries less prepared or steady as Japan have seen steeper drops under similar conditions. Take Haiti’s Index performance after the tragic 2010 earthquake, for instance.

The performances of other similarly stable state nations in the face of severe natural disaster indicate a swift recovery for Japan. New Zealand also suffered notable destruction after multiple earthquakes shook the eastern coast in February and June of 2011. The earthquake and its aftershocks struck near New Zealand’s third-largest city, Christchurch, a few months after the more powerful – but less destructive – 2010 Canterbury earthquake, further damaging the city and resulting in one of the nation’s deadliest peacetime disasters. However, a quick emergency response and successful recovery measures implemented by the government have helped New Zealand rebound, and this recuperation is reflected on the 2012 Failed States Index. In fact, New Zealand dropped just one rank from 2011 to 2012, with less than a full point in score change. In the 2012 Index, New Zealand continues to figure amongst the most stable group of nations.

In a similar vein, Chile’s 2011 recovery on the Index – from 2010 destructive earthquake – is also noteworthy. A beacon of economic and social stability in the Americas, Chile experienced some disorder shortly after the 8.8-magnitude temblor hit in 2010. However, government reaction was quick and effective and order was rapidly restored, building a steady foundation for a very difficult, but effective, rebuilding process. For 2012, Chile remains in the “Very Stable” category.

Like other Pacific Rim countries, Japan is hardly unprepared for earthquakes and tsunamis. Indeed, the frequencies of these phenomena have very clearly impacted the architecture and infrastructure, and have helped shaped many national policies. And like New Zealand and Chile, among the few Stable nations susceptible to both strong temblors and tsunamis, Japan will likely see improvements in future installments of the Failed States Index. Therefore, even with taking into account the effects of the natural disasters and subsequent nuclear meltdowns that occurred in 2011, Japan is surely set to make a recovery in future iterations of the Index.