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Local politicians as linking social capital: an empirical test of political behavior after Japan’s 3/11 disasters


After a massive catastrophe, local decision makers have a large number of potential sources of advice and assistance. Yet, we know little about those to whom politicians reach out at the local, regional, and national levels, and what drives the intensity of contact with these targets. Using original survey data drawn from more than 240 council members from cities, towns, and villages in the Tohoku region of Japan, we investigate the factors influencing consultation after the March 11, 2011, compounded disasters. We find strong variation in their outreach to actors, including national-level politicians, governors, prefectural politicians, civil servants, and local constituents. Controlling for a number of compounding factors, such as town size, financial capability, and personal characteristics of the politician, we find that the degree of damage in their own communities robustly influences outreach after crisis. The more damage, the more local politicians reach out to a broader network of potentially useful connections more often. Partisan and independent town council members behave differently; those with party connections (especially those with connections to a governing party) reach out more than those without. Our findings about diversity and intensity of outreach bring important implications for residents, politicians, and non-governmental organizations after disaster.

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  1. In Japan as of 2016, more than 1700 municipalities (shi, cho, son or city, town, and village) exist as the lowest administrative units with limited autonomy from the national government. Each municipality has an elected mayor as well as legislative body, called a council, and provides a wide range of basic services to local residents. The council members, who are elected every 4 years, receive a salary and engage in decision making in the local government on behalf of their constituencies.

  2. His newsletters and activity reports are publicly available on his Web site at [retrieved on November 12, 2015]. National and local political leaders also use their Web sites to show interactions with local Tohoku politicians. For instance, Nishioka Arata, a former member of the House of Representatives, mentioned on his Web site that he received a visit from council members of Rikuzentakata City in Iwate Prefecture on February 20, 2014 ( [retrieved on November 12, 2015]). Similarly, Inoue Yoshihisa, a member of the House of Representatives, reported that he visited some coastal municipalities in Iwate Prefecture and met with local council members on April 24, 2011, to hear their requests about recovery plans ( [retrieved on November 12, 2015]).

  3. His Web site also can be found at [retrieved on November 12, 2015].

  4. We look at the number of resident deaths in the tsunami for two main reasons. First, disaster injuries, while often debilitating, may not register as emotionally as deaths with both politicians and local residents. Towns and villages regularly hold memorials to the dead and annual ceremonies honoring their memories, while those who are injured often receive less attention. Next, politicians in Japan regularly attend the funerals of constituents (Curtis 1999), and such events provide public forums at which they can reaffirm their work for local residents. National representatives and local town councils can ill afford to overlook attending the funeral of constituents.

  5. We excluded the towns, villages, and cities in Fukushima Prefecture because of the ongoing nuclear accident which makes follow-up and surveying challenging.

  6. Some members in our survey ran uncontested (see the text below for details).

  7. Ono and Yamada carried out the mail survey of municipality council members from January 2015 through April 2015. Individual council members received their questionnaires indirectly through the secretariat office of each municipality council and were asked to send back their answers directly to Tohoku University by postal mail with a stamped self-addressed envelope (see Ono and Yamada (2015) for more details).

  8. As a robustness check, we also analyzed the data leaving their answers a five-point scale, but the overall results substantively remain the same.

  9. The municipality-level data were drawn from the Web site of the Fire and Disaster Management Agency in the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) in Japan.

  10. We employ the municipality-level data provided by the Ministry of the Environment of Japan, which surveyed the amount of rubble and debris brought to temporary disposal depots.

  11. Our results also suggest that the municipality merger decreased the frequency of meetings between council members and upper house members in the post-disaster period, but that, interestingly, it did not change the meeting frequency of council members with other political actors, including lower house members.


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Correspondence to Daniel P. Aldrich.



See Table 4.

Table 4 Estimated OLS regression coefficients

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Aldrich, D.P., Ono, Y. Local politicians as linking social capital: an empirical test of political behavior after Japan’s 3/11 disasters. Nat Hazards 84, 1637–1659 (2016).

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  • Political behavior
  • Japan
  • Disaster
  • 3/11
  • Vertical ties
  • Linking social capital