Reconstruction panel wasn’t ‘dancing’

Governments past and present have often set up ad hoc advisory panels to tackle enormous problems facing the country. One example is the current Subcommittee on Novel Coronavirus Disease Control established after the outbreak of the pandemic.

In 2011, the then government formed the Reconstruction Design Council in Response to the Great East Japan Earthquake following the devastating tremor and tsunami on March 11 that year. Just about a month later, on April 14, the council kicked off a series of meetings. While serving as an acting deputy to the head of the council, I thought that its structure was typical of the then ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which was loath to follow the precedents set by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that it had ousted from power in 2009.

For example, although it is common to refer to the heads of advisory committees or expert panels as “iincho” (chairperson) or “zacho” (chair), the DPJ government called the head of the 2011 postquake reconstruction council “gicho,” like the “speaker” of a parliamentary chamber. I was puzzled as to why it used the word gicho. It also named two members as acting gicho — deputies to the head. And a person who was not supposed to be included in the list of regular members was made the council’s special advisor, with the title of honorary gicho. As such, I was afraid that it was an obviously top-heavy panel.

Beneath the council was the Study Group of the Reconstruction Design Council in Response to the Great East Japan Earthquake. I initially expected the study group to be divided into multiple subgroups of experts separately covering their fields of specialization. However, no such cluster of expert panels came into being.

When the March 11 earthquake jolted areas in and around the Tohoku region, then Prime Minister Naoto Kan was under a barrage of criticism in the Diet for allegedly receiving political donations from a foreigner in breach of Japanese law. As a result of the Tohoku emergency, he narrowly averted being forced to step down, but it was clear he was no longer in a position to exert leadership as the chief of the government. The then opposition LDP and its partner Komeito kept cold-shouldering him.

Laypeople who loved Tohoku

The DPJ government assembled a team of unconventional people to serve on the postquake council — something unlikely to have happened before then in selecting members of any ordinary expert panel. The 16-member council had three prefectural governors and three disaster management and building specialists. But the majority of its members were laypeople with no expertise in government administration and disaster recovery. What’s more, most of its members were born in or closely connected to Tohoku, and thus had strong attachments to the region.

The leadership of the council comprised three political scientists, including council head Makoto Iokibe, me as his deputy and Study Group Chairman Jun Iio. Admittedly, none of us had any background qualifying us to serve on an “expert” council. I had no idea how deliberations in the council would proceed or where they were eventually headed.

Nobuo Ishihara, who served as deputy chief cabinet secretary from 1987 to 1995, contacted me to say, “It’s unknown where this council will eventually go. It’s so risky [a government-appointed panel] that you had better not get involved.”

Immediately after the council with its “group of laypeople” began a voyage into uncharted waters, it kept repeating what could be likened exactly to a scene where “the congress dances but does not progress.” Perhaps because members of the council felt overconscious of their respective roles, they tended to express their opinions as if they were on a theatrical stage — effectively identical to the situation depicted in the German comedy film “The Congress Dances.”

Members passionately presented lengthy opinions of their own, meaning it took sometimes about five hours to complete the entire council’s presentations. They hardly listened to the leadership’s calls to expedite deliberations — instead, they turned council sessions into verbal battlefields. At the time, government officials were prohibited from directly contacting any member of the council. As a result, we in the council’s leadership had a really hard time persuading members to cooperate with each other for the sake of smooth proceedings.

While the reconstruction council continued to go around in circles, I gathered that many members wanted to turn their “love of Tohoku” into something tangible. I recalled what Atsushi Shimokobe said of the Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake Rehabilitation Committee he chaired in 1995. The one-time deputy director general of the National Land Agency said, “[The reconstruction committee] would have ended up reaching no agreements if we had no members who were keen to talk about the areas they loved.”

Nonetheless, it was quite difficult to turn this love into something tangible. So, we in the leadership mobilized all the manpower of the council’s secretariat to compile what each member thought about Tohoku. We wrote each member’s thoughts on pieces of paper and classified them into groups, as we wanted to determine the direction in which the members actually anticipated going. We repeated this task in order to attentively weigh each viewpoint, rather than closing our deliberations in a way common to ordinary councils, which would wrap up after members spoke just for the sake of speaking.

On June 25, 2011, the council finally came up with a proposal entitled, “Towards Reconstruction — Hope beyond the Disaster.” All the specific recommendations for relevant areas and sectors were prepared by the study group in consultation with the government’s ministries and agencies. In contrast, the prologue, the introduction to each chapter and the epilogue were presented in poetic rhythm full of dramatic lines. This may be the first, and probably the last, such text to appear in a proposal compiled by a government-appointed council. In other words, it was a compromise narrowly agreed on by many members sticking to their “love of Tohoku” and the leadership of the council.

After the proposal was made public, those who read the prologue and other parts without knowing what actually happened in the council criticized us for being “narcissistic” or “too wrapped up in yourselves.” Some people censured the academic trio of the council’s leadership for failing to keep members from utilizing the panel as a venue for “pouring their hearts out.” Prime Minister Kan, while briefly visiting the council one day to learn how its discussions were proceeding, reportedly said to himself, “This council is going to fall apart, isn’t it?” Considering how worried Kan was about the council, I think the proposal was a reasonable solution. If we came up with a similar proposal today, 10 years later, the “reconstruction theater” might face an extreme storm of criticism on social media and elsewhere.

Defining Emperor’s duty as symbol of state

The then Emperor — now the Emperor Emeritus — acted quickly after the March 11 great earthquake. On March 16, 2011, he delivered a video message to the people in the areas devastated by the quake and tsunami. He said, “I believe it extremely important for us all to share with the victims as much as possible, in whatever way we can, their hardship in the coming days.” He thus showed his determination to live through the days of reconstruction together with the afflicted.

When the Emperor sent out his 2011 message, which is also remembered as an “Imperial broadcast of the Heisei era,” he is thought to have already begun preparations for another Imperial broadcast. This was released in August 2016, or one year after the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. In a televised address to the nation, the Emperor announced his desire to abdicate.

He started his new message by saying, “A major milestone year marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II has passed, and in two years we will be welcoming the 30th year of Heisei.” This implied his determination to end the Heisei era in its 30th year, now that the important milestone postwar year had gone. He went on to say, “As we are in the midst of a rapidly aging society, I would like to talk to you today about what would be a desirable role of the Emperor in a time when the Emperor, too, becomes advanced in age.”

The Emperor added, “I have considered that the first and foremost duty of the Emperor is to pray for the peace and happiness of all the people. At the same time, I also believe that in some cases it is essential to stand by the people, listen to their voices, and be close to them in their thoughts.”

During the Heisei era, the then Emperor and Empress frequently visited areas stricken by natural disasters, praying for those who had been lost and sharing the sorrow of the survivors. In this way, the Imperial couple devoted themselves to being close to disaster victims and the public as a whole.

In his 2011 and 2016 messages, the then Emperor, feeling increasingly conscious of the approaching turning point in time, clarified to the nation that being close to the disaster victims and the people was the foremost duty of the Emperor as the symbol of the nation. It remains unforgettable that the Emperor and Empress were wholeheartedly welcomed by survivors of the Great East Japan Earthquake, in gratitude for their prayers for the dead and missing.

While ushering in a “post-disaster” period following the Great East Japan Earthquake, the then Emperor is thought to have defined the main duty of his position, as the symbol of the nation, as “praying for and being close to” the people, and hoped to hand this mantle over to his successor.

As major natural disasters, including the 2016 Kumamoto Earthquake, hit Japan every year, the repetition of “post-disaster” circumstances has now become a commonplace aspect of Japanese society. In the Reiwa era, the novel coronavirus pandemic has presented us with a new type of disaster.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an ongoing disaster. I hope that the foremost duty to be carried out by the current Emperor, as the monarch of the Reiwa era, will be clarified in line with the approach of a “post-coronavirus disaster” situation.

Takashi Mikuriya

Mikuriya is a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo specializing in Japanese political history and a fellow at the university’s Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology. He served as acting chair of the Advisory Council on Easing the Burden of the Official Duties and Public Activities of His Majesty the Emperor, which submitted a final report to the prime minister in April 2017.