Anniversary Conference, 1-2 March 2012: “Socio-legal Norms in Preventing and Managing Disasters in Japan: Asia-Pacific and Interdisciplinary Perspectives”

The “3-11 triple disasters” that afflicted Japan on 11 March 2011 have highlighted broader regulatory issues facing countries particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, including Japan’s FTA negotiation program. A few months after “3-11”, the Japan Foundation established a special grant program calling for collaborative research conferences on disaster prevention and management – seeking applications by end-September, with decisions to be reached by end-October and conferences to be concluded by March 2012. An application by a consortium led by the University of Sydney Law School was successful, allowing a major international conference to take place in the new Sydney Law School premises over Friday 1 March and Saturday 2 March 2012. Other sponsors of this event are the University’s Japanese Studies Department and the new China Studies Centre, the Centre for Asian and Pacific Law at the University of Sydney (CAPLUS), the Australian Network for Japanese Law (ANJeL), and the Law Faculty of Tohoku University (one of the University of Sydney’s longstanding partner institutions).
The conference will commemorate the first anniversary of the 3-11 disasters, and also represents ANJeL’s tenth international conference on diverse aspects of Japanese Law. It will examine regulatory issues from a variety of social science perspectives, focusing on Japan but comparing Australia (of course, especially in the wake of January’s devastating floods in Queensland), New Zealand (especially issues highlighted by the Christchurch earthquake), Indonesia (the Aceh tsunami), China and the USA (especially earthquakes and nuclear power issues).
Please “save the date”, and keep an eye on the ANJeL website and the Sydney Law School “events” website for forthcoming registration and other details.

1. Explanation of the Conference Project: “Socio-legal Norms in Preventing and Managing Disasters in Japan: Asia-Pacific and Interdisciplinary Perspectives”
a. Objectives
The project will host an international 2-day conference offering Asia-Pacific and interdisciplinary (especially social science) perspectives on disaster prevention and management issues highlighted by this year’s ‘3-11’ disasters in Japan. It aims to draw practical and theoretical implications particularly for possible regulatory reforms within Japan and future international cooperation, especially within the region. The project also seeks to build up capacity for ongoing cross-border research in these fields, even after the conference and the project formally conclude in March 2012.
b. Significance
The project is distinctive in focusing on a range of legal and regulatory issues, albeit in broad socio-economic context, with an emphasis on comparing Asia-Pacific developments. (A shorter workshop for example on “Japan in Crisis” more generally, which was hosted by the Harvard-Yenching Institute over 13-14 May 2011, did not include presentations expressly comparing regional experiences, and nor did it concentrate on regulatory frameworks related to earthquakes/tsunamis or nuclear power plants.) Our project’s regional focus is particularly important for both Japan and Australia given recent proposals, by their respective Prime Ministers at the time, to develop a broader “Asia-Pacific Community” or “East Asia Community” that would entrench better regional “habits of cooperation” in economic, security and socio-political affairs. Cooperation in developing safety protocols and disaster relief efforts are examples of community-building that go beyond the scope of conventional Free Trade Agreements, including the Australia-Japan FTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (to include now also Australia, the US and possibly Japan) which are presently under negotiation. As well as its importance for such practical or policy purposes, our project also has major theoretical significance, as outlined next.
c. Background and Themes
The project will engage with some major themes developed by Professor Michael Reich, the Taro Takemi Professor of International Health Policy at Harvard University and a leading expert in the political economy of policy-making, in his renowned comparative study of responses to chemical disasters (Toxic Politics, Cornell U Press, 1991). We will explore the potential to extend his analysis to natural as well as artificial disasters, and to the prevention (not just the management) of both types of disasters.
Thus, the project first will consider ways in which safety and related problems can progress from being “non-issues” (unknown to potential as well as actual victims of disasters) to “public issues” and ultimately “political issues”. We will examine how potential threats from earthquakes and nuclear incidents can remain unproblematic in the public eye, albeit perhaps for different reasons. For example, there may be a greater sense of fatalism in the case of natural disasters (even though developing urban areas further away from earthquake or tsunami prone areas is a choice that can be taken to prevent or at least minimise disasters). By contrast, viewing the construction of nuclear power plants as a “non-issue” may be more influenced by government or media reports of their “absolute safety”. Our project can compare how the prevention of man-made disasters has sometimes nonetheless emerged as a “public” or indeed “political” issue – including the role of the legal system in this progression, such as lawsuits in Japan appealed all the way to the Supreme Court protesting against nuclear power plants.
The project will also consider these various stages in the emergence of a “social problem” when it comes to effective responses or management of a disaster that does eventuate. A large-scale natural disaster, like a tsunami, generally cannot be ignored – especially in the short term. But aspects can remain as “non-issues”, such as effects on minority groups, so we should study how such groups nonetheless may come to see their problems as “public issues” – or even major “political issues”. As for artificial disasters, especially radiation leaks and other problems caused by nuclear power plant emergencies, long-term health and other effects may more readily remain “non-issues”. It should therefore be easier to apply to this problem more directly the framework developed by Reich for analyzing typical responses to large-scale disasters involving chemical products.
Secondly, the project will invite participants to consider specific problems highlighted by Reich which must be addressed in dealing with disasters: care (especially in the short-term), compensation (more medium-term), and clean-up (often long-term). We will again consider whether these aspects differ significantly depending on whether the disaster is natural or artificial. Our project will also consider how the legal system can affect each of these three aspects. For example, we will consider public law (such as the rights of displaced people when providing emergency care), private law (such as tort claims against the operators of nuclear power facilities), and international law (including clean-up efforts, even beyond national borders).
Thirdly, we will engage with a provocative conclusion reached by Reich in his comparative studies of responses to chemical disasters (especially in Japan, the US and Italy). He argued that factors affecting how “non-issues” become visible, and how to deal with problems of care, compensation and clean-up, are very similar even where underlying cultural or social norms are quite different (as in the three countries he focused on for his studies). Reich therefore emphasised instead the importance of politics (including economics) in generating often similar patterns of response to chemical disasters.
Our project will consider whether this is true of disaster prevention, as well as disaster management. We will also examine whether it matters that the disaster is a natural one. One working hypothesis, from the recent Japanese experience, is that the role of cultural and social norms is more significant when it comes to attitudes and behavior in preventing as well as managing the effects of natural disasters. In turn, this may explain why Japan was relatively successful in planning for and dealing with the ‘3-11’ earthquake and tsunami. The greater problems relating to the Fukushima Daiichi power plant may be due to the greater role played by (sometimes perverse) political and economic forces.
d. Expected Results
Attempting to extend Reich’s analytical framework in this way has major implications for public policy related to disasters. For example, if cultural and social norms remain particularly important in the context of natural disasters, the impact of regulatory reforms – domestically and internationally – may be limited.
In addition, our project will contribute to some persistent debates within many disciplines, including law, about “whether culture matters” nowadays in Japan – and indeed within other parts of the Asia-Pacific region. Answers may differ depending on the type of disaster, and whether we are considering disaster management rather than prevention.
Lastly, the project will build up capacity for ongoing collaborative research. The conference in March 2012 hosted by Sydney Law School will draw already on presentations and panel discussion on comparative responses to natural and other catastrophes, involving the Project Director (A/Prof Luke Nottage), over half a day on 14 October 2011 as part of the “Hagi Seminar” for 2011 hosted by Tohoku University’s Global COE focusing on gender and multiculturalism. This project’s larger conference in March 2012 will include some Seminar participants from Tohoku University, and is expected to lead to a further conference in 2013 hosted by the University of Sydney itself, which will involve natural scientists as well as social scientists. Researchers such as Professor Reich who were involved in the Harvard-Yenching Institute’s, held in Boston in May 2011, will also be invited to become involved in ongoing joint research. We therefore plan to make this project’s March 2012 conference more than just a one-off event, in order to maximize its practical and theoretical gains.
2. Methodology
Speakers and commentators at the March 2012 conference will be invited to consider the potential for extending comparative studies like those by Reich into issues raised by other types of large-scale disasters, along the lines outlined in Part 1 above. More generally, the project will identify possible relationships more generally among socio-cultural, economic and political, and legal norms in preventing and managing disasters.
To assist in this analysis, and draw more accurate theoretical and practical conclusions, we will compare the experience in Japan along several dimensions. Some speakers will focus primarily on Japan, but offer historical or literary (including media) perspectives on disasters and/or examine developments in neighbouring fields, such as environmental disasters. Others will compare experiences in Asia-Pacific countries chosen because they have suffered comparable large-scale disasters, yet differ in several ways including their “general culture” and legal systems:
– Indonesia: especially the large tsunami in 2004, and more recent natural disasters;
– China (a larger, less geographically dispersed country, with a socialist political and legal system): especially the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 and other disasters, as well as the country’s attitudes towards nuclear power generation and energy security generally;
– New Zealand (a smaller developed country): especially the Christchurch earthquake in 2011;
– USA (a large developed country, with a distinctive political and legal system): especially the Los Angeles earthquake in 1994 and the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant emergency.
Lastly, experts in international law with a strong interest in the Asian region will discuss existing and potential regulatory frameworks related to the safety of nuclear power generation, for example, including preventive measures (extending to cooperation in energy or resource security as well as climate change policy more generally) and disaster relief.
The project therefore envisages a 2-day conference divided into 4 main sessions, including a core of University of Sydney experts, including the following invited speakers:
a. Disaster-related socio-cultural and political-economic norms and practices in Japan: Prof Lewis, Dr Claremont and Dr Suter (USydney), Prof Anderson (ANU), A/Prof Wolff & Ms Fletcher-Johnstone (Bond)
b. Regulatory frameworks and other legal norms in Japan: A/Prof Nottage (USydney), Profs Kabashima and Morita (Tohoku U), Ms Steele (UMelbourne) & Dr Chun (Daito Bunka U), Mr Weizdoerfer (MPI Hamburg)
c. Regional comparisons: Indonesia (Dr Butt, USydney; representative from the BRR Institute), China (A/Prof Bath, USydney; Prof Goodman, USydney; A/Prof Zhu, Nanjing), New Zealand (Dr Hopkins, Canterbury U), USA (Prof Reich, Harvard U; Mr Burch (USydney)
d. International frameworks and cooperation: Prof Triggs (USydney) and Dr Nasu (ANU).
Others will be invited to join panels as Speakers, Discussants or Moderators; but there will not be a public Call for Papers because an aim of the project is to develop ongoing research capacity in disaster prevention and relief. Speakers will keep presentations brief (15-30 minutes each), so that other speakers or participants can act as Discussant(s), and to allow plenty of time for audience participation. Speakers will be encouraged to focus on specific case studies, a productive strategy as illustrated by Reich’s work. Conference papers will be circulated at least two weeks in advance among all speakers, to maximize opportunities for productive discussion at the conference. There will also be a panel discussion concluding one day (depending on venue availability) which will be open to the public.
3. Participating Institutions and Individuals
Applying institution:
a. Sydney Law School is one of Australia’s oldest and most-highly regarded, with over 60 full-time legal academics undertaking major research projects, as well as very large and successful postgraduate programs. It has particular strengths in international and Asian law, health law and policy, and energy law.
i. Prof Gillian Triggs (Project Representative) is Dean and Challis Professor of International Law. Research interests include the nuclear safeguards system and international law relating to energy and resources.
ii. A/Prof Luke Nottage (Project Director) is the Sydney-based ANJeL Co-Director and CAPLUS Associate Director. He specializes in Japanese law, including comparative and international regulation of product safety.
Participating institutions:
b. The Department of Japanese Studies (DJS) at the University of Sydney is one of the oldest and best-known in Australia, with 11 full-time academics researching across many areas relevant to this project.
i. Prof Michael Lewis has research interests in the intersections of social, cultural and scientific history in modern Japan. He has written major studies on mass movements and examined environmental issues in Japan.
ii. Dr Yasuko Claremont is a Senior Lecturer specializing in modern Japanese literature, comparative literature and Australian studies. She is co-organising a 30 September symposium on the Asia-Pacific War (supported by the Japan Foundation) and is speaking at its session on the impact of the Hiroshima atom bombing.
iii. Dr Rebecca Sutter is a Lecturer specializing in modern Japanese and comparative literature, focusing on issues of translation and cross-cultural representation between Asia and the West.
c. CAPLUS is a longstanding research-oriented Centre, now within Sydney Law School, with particular expertise concerning Japan, China and South-East Asia
i. Dr Simon Butt (Project Bursar) is CAPLUS Associate Director and Senior Lecturer specializing in law and politics in Indonesia.
ii. A/Prof Vivienne Bath is Associate Dean (Intl Students) and CAPLUS Associate Director, specialising in Chinese business law in socio-political context. She also chairs the Research Committee of the China Studies Centre and is ANJeL Deputy Director.
iii. Micah Burch is a Senior Lecturer specialising in comparative (especially US) and international tax law and policy, with research interests in Japan (where he has studied and run a business) and extending to disaster situations.
d. The China Studies Centre (CSC) is brings together many academic staff across the University of Sydney to advance interdisciplinary research and policy discussion
i. Prof David Goodman directs the Centre and specializes in contemporary Chinese politics.
e. ANJeL is a unique cross-institutional network, centred on the Law Schools at USydney, ANU and Bond University (with UNSW, UMelbourne and the DJJV as Affiliates). Over 400 individual members in Australia, Japan and elsewhere also help in ANJeL’s research, teaching and community outreach comparing Japanese law.
i. Prof Kent Anderson is the Canberra-based ANJeL Co-Director, and Professor of Law and Asian Studies at ANU, with particular interests in procedural law and Japanese politics. He has spoken and written on the ‘3-11’ events, and is particularly interested in the vulnerability of some socio-economic groups in disaster situations.
ii. Dr Hitoshi Nasu is ANJeL Deputy Director and Lecturer in Law at ANU, with research interests in the international and comparative regulation (including a major ARC grant on safety issues in nanotechnology, increasingly important in energy security).
iii. A/Prof Leon Wolff is ANJeL Co-Director from Bond University Law School, focusing on labour relations, gender issues and corporate governance. With A/Prof Nottage he edited and co-translated essays by one of Japan’s leading legal sociologists (Takao Tanase, Community and the Law, Elgar, 2010), and now is researching how that neo-communitarian view of Japanese law and society may help to understand the ‘3-11’ and other disasters. He plans to work on this project with Kylie Fletcher-Johnson, a Senior Teaching Fellow with expertise in occupational health and safety who has looked into effective disaster relief. Both experienced first-hand the devastating floods in Queensland in early 2011, and are interested in comparing Australia’s experience in disaster prevention and relief efforts.
iv. Stacey Steele, Associate Director (Japan) at UMelbourne’s Asian Law Centre and an ANJeL Program Convenor, specialises in comparative insolvency and financial markets law.
f. Tohoku University Law Faculty is one of Japan’s largest and most-established research-intensive public universities.
i. Prof Hiroshi Kabashima is Professor of Legal Theory, with research interests including environmental pollution and protest.
ii. A/Prof Hatsuru Morita specialises in commercial and corporate law, including studies into law and policy making processes in various fields – including post-Fukushima compensation issues related to Tokyo Electric Power Company.
Other speakers:
g. from Indonesia: representative of the BRR Institute (set up by Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, a former Indonesian energy and mines minister who headed the Aceh-Nias Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency (BRR), in order to share BRR’s post-tsunami experience worldwide – including eg China, Myanmar, Haiti, New Zealand and Japan)
h. from China: A/Prof Anxin Zhu (Nanking University) has researched and written extensively on sociological aspects of earthquakes and other disasters. He completed a PhD at Nagoya University and was a Visiting Professor there in 2011, conducting further compartive research into the disasters in East Japan.
i. from the USA: Prof Michael Reich himself will participate in person or by videolink – he is Professor of International Health Policy at the Harvard School of Public Health, and in July 2011 gave a keynote speech in Fukushima City comparing Japan’s recent responses to public health disasters.
j. from NZ: Dr John Hopkins, Senior Lecturer and Director of Postgraduate Research from Canterbury University Law School, specialising in comparative public law and regional governance issues, has first-hand experience of the recent earthquakes in Christchurch and has commented in general media as well as legal forums about the regulatory responses.
h. from Germany: Julius Weitzdoerfer, Research Associate with the Japan Unit of the Max Planck Institute for Comparative and International Private Law (and JSPS Visiting Researcher at Kyoto University Law Faculty), has published a detailed analysis (in German) of the legal challenges currently facing the Japanese judiciary, government and economy in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
4. Dissemination and Evaluation of Results
The target audience is primarily the academic community, but also policy-makers and to a lesser extent the business community. Results will be disseminated through online and print media:
a. We will engage with local and international media, as with the 2009 conference (supported by the Japan Foundation) on Asia-Pacific human rights institution-building.
b. Some of the presentations will be podcast or summarised via the websites of Sydney Law School and/or its Youtube ‘channel’. Some material also may be presented in concise form to Japanese or Australian officials.
c. Key arguments from papers or conference discussions will be summarised on the “Japanese Law and the Asia-Pacific” blog at Many of the postings on that blog, written or commissioned by Project Director A/Prof Nottage, have also been edited for the “East Asia Forum” blog at It is expected that some material from the March 2012 conference will appear also on the East Asia Forum (with 17,000 ‘hits’ per week).
d. We expect papers to be published in widely-read leading academic journals such as the Journal of Japanese Law (partly reproduced at, for which Profs Anderson and Nottage serve on the Editorial Board) and Japanese Studies. In addition, we will seek to publish a fuller set of the presentations as a volume published online and “on-demand” by ANU E-Press, co-edited by Prof Anderson or Dr Nasu with A/Prof Nottage.

Author: Luke Nottage

Prof Luke Nottage (BCA, LLB, PhD VUW, LLM LLD Kyoto) is founding co-director of the Australian Network for Japanese Law (ANJeL), Associate Director (Japan) of the Centre for Asian and Pacific Law at the University of Sydney (CAPLUS), and Professor of Comparative and Transnational Business Law at Sydney Law School. He specialises in international dispute resolution, foreign investment law, contract and consumer (product safety) law.