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Japan situation difficult, but reconstruction on the horizon

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U.S. airmen and sailors work together with Japanese residents to pull a vehicle out of the tree line at the Misawa City fishing port, March 19, 2011.
Photo credit: 
U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Marie Brown

Japan's massive earthquake and tsunami three weeks ago and the challenging recovery process continue to make news headlines around the world. It is difficult to separate fact and reasonable speculation about the future from the terror-filled coverage about radiation leaking from the Fukushima nuclear complex. In an effort to make sense of recent events, the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (Shorenstein APARC) convened a panel of experts for a discussion about the possible future implications arising from this complex and emotionally charged situation for Japan's energy policy, economy, and politics.

Addressing an audience of one hundred students, faculty, and members of the general public on March 30, Shorenstein APARC associate director for research Daniel C. Sneider expressed the center's deep sympathy for those affected by the natural disasters and its profound admiration for the way in which the people of Japan are dealing with the aftermath. Members of the panel echoed these sentiments throughout the event.

Michio Harada, Deputy Counsel General at the Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco, cited official government figures indicating that, as of March 28, twenty-eight thousand people were dead or missing and one-hundred-and-eighty thousand people were still in evacuation shelters. Faced with such staggering figures, Japan remains in a rescue and recovery phase, he said, but is receiving a tremendous amount of global support. More than one hundred and thirty countries have provided financial assistance, and eighteen countries and regions have sent rescue teams. Collective public spirit is currently very strong, Deputy Counsel Harada emphasized. Japan's challenge moving forward, he suggested, will be to adopt pragmatic measures to fund reconstruction projects in the areas destroyed or damaged by the natural disasters.

Understanding the situation at the Fukushima nuclear power facility and the information circulating about the potential health risks of radiation exposure is complicated, stressed Siegfried S. Hecker, co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation. He described the intricate design and structure of the reactors and outlined the sequence of events up to the present, explaining the immediate, crucial challenge of continuing to cool the reactors and deal with the leakage of radiation from them. While there are definite and potentially very serious health threats from radiation exposure and contamination, Hecker said, fear and stress about the situation could also negatively affect mental and physical wellbeing. It is too soon to know the long-term implications for energy policy in Japan and other countries, he suggested, emphasizing the significance of learning from this experience in order to improve any future use of nuclear power.

Robert Eberhart, a researcher with the Stanford Program on Regions of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, proposed that the global supply chain is flexible enough to absorb any manufacturing disruptions in Japan. He noted that in the past twenty years most of Japan's heavy manufacturing has moved overseas, and that the components made there are a comparatively less significant part of the supply chain. In terms of the overall impact on Japan's economy, Eberhart suggested that the net effect on the GDP would be neutral over the next two years, explaining that the imminent loss of business and investment in some areas would be offset by the growth of firms involved in the reconstruction process.

Phillip Lipscy, a center fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and an assistant professor with the Department of Political Science, stated that events and immediate needs during the early stages of reconstruction may have long-term affects on policymaking and the government structure in Japan. For example, the continued use of nuclear energy—a relatively clean and efficient source of power accounting for 30 percent of Japan's total energy consumption—will face public opposition due to rising concerns about safety and pressing energy needs. In addition, while Prime Minister Naoto Kan's prompt response after the natural disasters helped boost popular sentiment for him and the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), how they fare in the long term—especially with regard to the DPJ's relationship with the opposition Liberal Democratic Party and reconstruction-related modifications to its key economic policies—remains to be seen, Lipscy said.

Sneider closed the event with a comparison between the events in Japan and the April 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, pointing to criticism that the Obama and Kan administrations have received for not regulating large corporations closely enough. A prompt resolution to the dangerous—and contentious—situation at the Fukushima nuclear complex is the most immediate concern, and one that will help foretell the long-term political implications for Japan's government, he concluded.

Although there is still a long road ahead in Japan—especially until the accident at Fukushima's nuclear reactor is contained and the actual after-effects of radiation are better understood—the underlying message during the panel discussion was that Japan will indeed recover and that the terrible events of the past weeks have brought people—and even the competing political parties—closer together.