Training Women for Disasters: Gender, Crisis Management (Kiki Kanri) and Post-3.11 Nationalism in Japan via Japan Focus

By Mire Koikari

This essay explores how women and domesticity are being mobilized in Japan’s “recovery” and “reconstruction” process following the triple disasters of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. The Great East Japan Disaster, or “3.11,” has caused unprecedented destruction in the Tōhoku region, shaking Japanese society to its core, generating new social, political, and cultural dynamics, and opening up new space for people to (re)articulate their sense of selves in relation to the nation under duress. How to assess such dynamics is a contentious matter, however, as it often leads to divergent and even opposing understandings of post-3.11 Japan. For example, Daniel P. Aldrich, a scholar and long-term observer of state-civil society relation in Japan’s nuclear energy politics, describes the transformation of post-disaster Japan in the following terms: “The crisis has raised and reinforced environmental concerns and health fears, as well as skepticism about information from government and corporate sources. A civil society that for decades has appeared weak and non-participatory has awakened and citizens are carrying out bottom-up responses to the accident, effecting change with grassroots science and activism” (Aldrich 2012a: 1) The disaster has blown the top off the staid society, setting in motion new dynamics of citizen protest and mobilization. In post-disaster Japan, according to Aldrich, “[c]ivil society (is) rising” (Aldrich 2012b). In contrast to this sanguine assessment offered by Aldrich, Tomiyama Ichirō, whose scholarship has re-examined Japan’s modernity from marginalized sites and spaces such as Okinawa, warns of a resurgence of nationalism in post-disaster Japan. Noting the similarities between the currently circulating notion of “Rise up, Japan” (Ganbarou Nippon) and the World War II-era slogan for general mobilization, “For the sake of the nation” (Okuni no tame ni), he observes that the prevailing narrative of disaster, recovery, and reconstruction reinforces national unity and allegiance while stifling differences and dissent. This narrative emphasizes the readjustment of energy policies and life styles as the chief means of recovery, depoliticizes Japanese and American military mobilization in the name of “Operation Tomodachi,” and glamorizes as “national heroes” those who volunteered to step in and contain the nuclear crises at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. As this narrative emphasizes a linear progress from disaster to recovery and finally to restoration, it steers people’s attentions toward the future while suppressing critical reflection on the past. Obscured in the process are a multitude of factors that have led up to the current crisis. Among them are the symbiotic relation between the government and the nuclear energy industry, the complicity of university intellectuals in sustaining the myth of nuclear safety, and the “expendability” of marginalized, i.e., remote, economically-stagnant regions such as Tōhoku whose decline amidst Japan’s postwar “economic miracle” motivated local administrations to solicit the construction of nuclear power plants, as well as casual laborers, or “nuclear gypsies,” entrapped in a subcontracting system, whose bodies have sustained the “science” of nuclear energy production while also absorbing dangerous and often killing doses of radiation (Tomiyama 2011).2 Although incessant calls for “women’s participation” in post-3.11 Japan seem positive if rather unexpected “fallout” from the disaster at first glance, women’s mobilization amidst “Rise up, Japan” demands some critical reflection. At the confluence of unprecedented crisis, bottom-up mobilization, and a resurgence of nationalism, women’s eager participation in national affairs cannot be assumed to be entirely innocent or uncomplicated. To explore the complex dynamics surrounding women and gender following the March11 disaster, this essay examines a series of instructional discourses and practices that have circulated in post-disaster Japan. The proliferating literature of disaster preparation and crisis management defines women as the chief agents of “crisis management” (kiki kanri), casts their homes as the main theater of defense against real and potential dangers, and urges them to learn a series of skills and techniques considered essential in managing various disasters. Far from facilitating critical reflection on the social, political, and economic dynamics that led up to the current crisis and that continue to threaten Japanese society, the emerging regime of crisis management directs women’s attention to the interior space of home and entices them to embody “disaster readiness” through acquisition of the proper demeanors and disposition so as to create safety and security against current and future emergencies. – See more at:

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