Japan's catastrophes 灾难来袭日本 Nature strikes back大自然的报复
Can fragile Japan endure this hydra-headed disaster?脆弱的日本能否抵御多重灾难的冲击?
UP A shallow river, five kilometres from the Pacific coast in Japan’s north-eastern Iwate prefecture, lie the remains of a town. Crushed wooden houses now resemble matchwood, scattered in every direction over swampy wasteland. A purple car is partially submerged in mud. The piles of debris reach two metres high.
Only on close inspection do you see that it was never a town at all—at least not there. It was a rice paddy. The houses, shops, cars and people belonged lower down the valley. But the town is gone, washed away. Its debris settled on the field, high up the valley, that was the tsunami’s high-water mark. That is all that physically remains of Rikuzentakata.
Rikuzentakata, a former whaling town, once held 23,000 people. Several hundred are confirmed dead, but at mid-week perhaps thousands more were still missing. All tried to flee, as they were trained to do, when the tsunami warnings sounded in mid-afternoon. But this was a town of old people, as fishing villages here invariably are. Many just could not make it. Their fate was shared by perhaps tens of thousands of people living in ports, coastal towns and tiny cove communities across the north-east. Some, though, were spared. Above a washed-away hamlet clay-tiled homes are still standing, and a garden with tenderly coiffed trees. Even higher up is a small cemetery.
Japan, which shows its love of nature in its reverence for trees and seasons, also knows the awesome power of the physical world—and fears it. Its orderly and law-abiding people know they live on one of the most geologically violent archipelagoes on the planet. The earthquake that struck on the afternoon of March 11th had a magnitude of 9.0, the biggest in Japan’s recorded history. It was so strong that, even in Tokyo’s shock-absorbing skyscrapers, office workers cowered beneath their desks and then raced out into the street, only to be hit again by the whump of aftershocks.
As the quake lifted the ocean floor, it triggered a tsunami (the word is Japanese) that breached with ease some of what were considered to be Japan’s best coastal defences. As of March 17th the police said at least 14,000 people were dead or missing along the coast, though that fails to account for the tens of thousands who are unreported to the authorities, supposed lost, in places like Rikuzentakata. As many as half a million are in emergency shelters, shivering through a bitterly cold snowstorm that has added to the sense of crisis. Because of damaged roads, petrol shortages and bungling bureaucrats, many lack essentials such as food, water, toilet paper, nappies and kerosene for heating. A shocking number appear to be in their 90s, looked after by people who are themselves grandmothers and grandfathers. Amid the debris in Rikuzentakata, a 62-year-old woman wearing trainers was prodding around for her 94-year-old aunt. The president of a nearby construction company had tried to help the aunt escape, but he too was washed away. Her niece had been searching fruitlessly for her every day since March 12th.
Appalling as these people’s plights are, they have been eclipsed for most of the week by fear of an altogether different sort: that of a meltdown in the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear-power plant, some 240km north-east of Tokyo. Nuclear experts say the potential danger to human health from the three stricken reactors has so far been blown out of proportion—especially when set against the wider-spread suffering of the tsunami victims. But there is a gnawing sense that Japan, the only country to have suffered mass radiation from atomic attack (and hence an expert in its consequences for long-term health), may be on the verge of another nuclear nightmare. Inevitably, the latest crisis will renew debate about the wisdom of building nuclear-power plants on such unstable and exposed terrain. Experts, however, can barely imagine Japan meeting its energy needs without them.
A government under siege四面楚歌的政府
The palpable fear of the unknown can be heard in the words of Katsunobu Sakurai, the mayor of Minamisoma. His town straddles the 20km exclusion zone surrounding the Fukushima plant, as well as the 30km circle in which as many as 136,000 people are being urged to stay indoors to avoid radiation. Speaking by telephone to NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster, on March 16th, he said that people were now “trying their best to stay calm”, but many would flee the area altogether if they could only find fuel to make the journey. He said the most basic supplies were running short because outsiders were not willing to transport them to the danger zone. Whenever he is interviewed, he begs the government for help.
The government, though, is besieged on many fronts。 Naoto Kan, the prime minister, entered a crisis of hydra-headed complexity with feeble popularity and little public respect。 Until Mr Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan took power in 2009, Japan had seen its institutions of government corroded by 55 years of one-party rule; and one of the biggest bones of contention had been the nuclear-power industry.
Generally the safety record has been good, considering the number of plants and their length of service。 But when there have been accidents, a shameful record of cover-ups, lackadaisical crisis management and an inbred complicity between regulators and utilities has given the public ample reason for skepticism.
The first response of Mr Kan, a former civil activist, has suggested that he is reacting more openly, though he hardly exudes authority. If his presence has been hit-and-miss during the crisis, that cannot be said of his steadfast chief of staff, Yukio Edano. Mr Edano has produced frequent updates on the unfolding nuclear crisis, while avoiding sowing panic among the public. In his blue overalls (now standard kit for Mr Kan and his team), he looks to many the epitome of the stalwart line manager.
Reduced to this只剩这些
But if the Fukushima crisis worsens, Mr Kan’s ability to lay blame for the mishaps on the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the owner of the power plant, will wear thin—not least because the government has set up a crisis committee with TEPCO that appears to put the company firmly in charge. Also, there is the lingering danger of panic. Foreigners with families in Tokyo have reacted most nervously. As the radiation has risen they have taken bullet trains to Osaka, in western Japan, and flights out of the country, quietly supported by their firms and embassies.
Most residents of greater Tokyo—at 35m, the most populous metropolitan area in the world—have shown much more stoicism, partly because the authorities and media have remained calm. Despite radiation fears, aftershock warnings, power cuts, train disruption and half-empty supermarkets, many queued patiently on March 15th to meet their tax deadlines. But the next day, reflecting the seriousness of the situation, 77-year-old Emperor Akihito gave a rare televised address to express his “deep concern”. He had been quiet until then, despite messages of support coming in from royalty around the world.
For the authorities, one increasingly apparent danger is that the nuclear drama is distracting them from what should be an equally pressing priority. They need to find a way to move supplies to the stricken towns and villages in the north-east. Takeshi Niinami, chief executive of Lawson, Japan’s second-largest chain of convenience stores (which lost 68 stores in Friday’s disasters, with more than 100 staff unaccounted for), says that the urgent priority is to renew fuel supplies to Tohoku, the north-eastern region and the scene of the disaster. Without fuel, he says, local factories have been unable to produce rice balls and other food supplies; nor is there enough petrol for food brought from elsewhere in Japan to be trucked to the hardest-hit areas.
Mr Kan has ordered 100,000 troops from Japan’s Self-Defence Forces to the region, but according to Mr Niinami their task is to find dead bodies rather than distribute supplies. He has urged the authorities to divert passenger planes to help airlift provisions. Others in the affected region blame the bureaucratic mindset of civil servants for blocking the flow of emergency supplies.
Layered over the humanitarian and nuclear drama is yet another mounting concern: the effect on Japan’s economy. It is in a parlous state, suffering from slow growth, high debt and relative decline (see chart). Many economists at first suggested that things were not as bad as they looked. Of course, there would be a short-term dip in growth. But as reconstruction began, growth would pick up again. The international impact, too, would be limited. Supply-chain disruption would cause some problems, especially in the electronics industry, but overall the expected boost in Japanese imports as it rebuilt would help the rest of the world.
That, at least, is what the history of recent Asian disasters suggests. The tsunami of December 2004 and the Kashmir earthquake of October 2005 involved death and destruction on an even wider scale, yet had virtually no impact on growth rates. That was largely because the victims were mostly poor people who added little to GDP. But even the Kobe earthquake of 1995—the second-biggest ever to hit a modern urban area—had a surprisingly modest effect. Within 15 months industrial production in Kobe had almost reached pre-quake levels, and Japan as a whole suffered only one quarter of declining output.
A second reason to expect the economy to cope is that although the area affected by the tsunami and quake was vast, it contains no Kobes. It is less populated and less industrialised. According to calculations by economists at Nomura, an investment bank, the three worst-hit prefectures (Miyagi, Fukushima and Iwate) account for just 3.6% of Japan’s economy, though electronics factories are clustered there.
Adding in neighbouring Nagano, Ibaraki and Niigata prefectures, which were much less damaged, brings the affected area’s contribution to GDP to 10.8%. That is a big chunk. But Tomo Kinoshita of Nomura nevertheless estimates that the direct negative hit to Japan’s GDP would be limited to between 0.25 and 0.5 percentage points in the first quarter, and 0.5 and 1 percentage point in the second. Another bank, Goldman Sachs, estimates the cost of the damage at ¥16 trillion ($202 billion), or about 4% of GDP. Spread over a few years of reconstruction, that should easily be affordable—a drop in the ocean of Japanese public indebtedness.
However, first guesses about the disaster’s impact have been overtaken by further disasters. The nuclear crisis at Fukushima broadens the economic danger in at least three ways. First, the perceived risk of radiation may close businesses, deter investment and hamper rebuilding. TEPCO, with its shares hammered, now faces worries about its creditworthiness. And selling nuclear-energy technology abroad—Toshiba, Hitachi and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries all produce reactors—is one of the linchpins of Mr Kan’s growth strategy.
Second, electricity rationing may keep output depressed for longer than originally anticipated. Only a week after the quake, Tokyo was facing rolling blackouts. And third, the nervous mood makes financial panic more likely. Over three days the Bank of Japan announced plans to inject a total of ¥55.6 trillion into financial markets, to avoid a collapse in investor confidence and keep credit flowing. On March 14th and 15th shares on the Tokyo exchange fell by over 16%, their worst two-day fall since 1987. They have recovered somewhat since, but the yen also strengthened to record highs against the dollar. A nuclear meltdown may yet lead to a financial one. That would add another international risk—financial contagion—to all the other dangers looming over Japan.
Supply-chain concerns are mounting as it becomes apparent that more Japanese factories may be closed for longer than first thought, and that a surprising number of gizmos assembled in China, South Korea, Taiwan and elsewhere depend on Japanese components. There were also fears that the price of oil, which at first fell a bit because of an expected drop in Japanese demand, might be driven even higher as Japan makes up for the shortfall in nuclear power, at a time of tensions in north Africa and the Middle East.
Phoenix in the east东方凤凰
The tasks facing Japan are staggering. But a country does not live on a geological time bomb without some accommodation by the national psyche. The legacy of centuries of rebuilding cities, temples and homes after tsunamis, fires and earthquakes has provided many Japanese with a fatalistic streak. In the past they have often risen to the task of rebuilding; it provides a sense of national purpose.
Twice in the past century, Tokyo has re-emerged out of the rubble. After the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, in which 143,000 people died, the recovery turned poisonous; amid the wreckage, sword-wielding Japanese set about wantonly killing Korean immigrants. Democratic shoots were trampled, and nationalistic passions eventually drove Japan to war. Two decades later, in 1945, destruction came from American bombs. The zeal to rebuild was again remarkable. Within a generation, Japan had turned—peacefully this time—from one of the chief recipients of World Bank aid into an industrial superpower.
The past 20 years of stagnation and deflation—albeit with high levels of conspicuous consumption—have left many yearning for a new sense of purpose. It is perhaps a chilling reflection of this that comments by Shintaro Ishihara, the right-wing governor of Tokyo, harking back to imperial days by calling the disaster “divine retribution” for Japan’s culture of “greed”, have found some resonance, especially among elderly Japanese. Others will be furious.
More thoughtful voices propose more constructive ways to forge a new sense of purpose. Many foreigners have expressed deep admiration for the calm resilience the Japanese have demonstrated this week. A university professor, stuck for 25 hours on a short train journey to Tokyo as a result of the earthquake, wrote a long piece on Facebook about the patience of his fellow passengers, the solicitousness of the railway staff, and the spotless toilets. “If you have to spend 16 hours in a stationary train and an additional nine hours getting home, do it in Japan,” he wrote. Japanese people say they take heart from such commendations.
As for the future, Hideaki Shiroyama, a public-policy expert at the University of Tokyo, says a big indication of Japan’s willingness to shake off its lethargy will be the inevitable debate on nuclear energy that emerges from the disaster. Part of the public scepticism about the industry, he believes, stems from a regulatory structure that remains mired in the past. The industry is fiercely tribal, and regulators are too close to the utilities. Even before the emergency, he says, calls from within the industry for change went unheard.
Similarly, he says Japan’s policy towards rebuilding fishing communities such as Rikuzentakata will be a chance to think creatively. An enlightened response would be for many of the demolished communities to be abandoned for ever, because in Japan’s greying society their residents are mainly pensioners. It would make more sense to rehouse them in higher-density communities closer to shops and hospitals. But even those whose houses have been destroyed by the tsunami are loth to leave—these are ancestral plots that are meant to stay in the family. And the fishing grounds are rich. Since Japan instinctively solves any economic problem by throwing concrete and dollops of public money at it (tight as money is), the elderly will probably get their way.
The rebuilding, as well as the discussion about Japan’s future energy sources, might be easier if the political system encouraged debate and compromise, rather than partisan gridlock. To rebuild Japan, the public spirit shown by citizens in the face of today’s catastrophe needs to inspire the political class, promoting collaboration and unity. As Mr Kan says, Japan has to pull together. If the earthquake helps Japan repair its social fabric and recover its sense of purpose, it may yet bring something other than tragedy in its wake.