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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Japan's moment of crisis


LONDON — Harrowing pictures of the sufferings of the Japanese people and the devastation of towns and villages along the northeast coast of Honshu as a result of the record-breaking earthquake and the unprecedented tsunami March 11 have dominated the British media for nearly two weeks.

The immediate response was one of horror combined with a wish to help. The Save the Children Fund, the British Red Cross and other organizations moved quickly as did the Japan Society in London, which immediately set up a Tohoku Earthquake Relief Fund. Generous donations have been made to these funds.

Some have suggested that Japan, as one of the world's wealthiest countries, should be able to look after its own and that aid would be better used to help people in the poorest countries in the world, especially in Africa.

This argument is untenable. Britain, too, is a developed country with a reasonably high standard of living, but there are many things that the government is unable to do and pay for out of funds from taxpayers. In every society, the homeless, sick and orphaned need to be looked after.

There are thousands of charities in Britain whose work is confined to Britain. There are also many others whose work is mainly overseas. They should go where there is an urgent need, irrespective of the wealth or poverty of the country. Many people in northeast Japan who have lost everything need are poor and deserve whatever help Japanese and foreign peoples can offer.

The stoicism of the Japanese people in face of these disasters has been commendable. The low incidence of looting and virtual lack of disorder have been the subject of favorable comment.

General Japanese preparedness to cope with natural calamities has been noted, although there was some surprise that food and fuel were in such short supply in the disaster areas. This was generally ascribed to the destruction of communications and the bad weather that had hampered rescue efforts. Some suggested that Japanese bureaucracy had stood in the way of flexible responses.

Reports of the plight of the victims soon became overshadowed by the problems at the Fukushima nuclear plants. There was admiration for the courage and tenacity of the workers and firefighters in trying to bring the plants back under control.

The media, however, picked up on the doubts expressed by Japanese citizens about the attempts by Tokyo Electric Power Co. to calm fears about the atomic radiation spreading beyond the initial exclusion zones. Panic has to be avoided.

British scientists have played down the likelihood of radiation levels in the Tokyo area rising to levels that are dangerous to health. This would be easier to argue if there had not been past obfuscations by government and industry officials about nuclear safety.

The longer-term effects of Japan's triple disaster are still being assessed. These will inevitably be greatest for Japan, but they will have implications for other countries as well.

It was encouraging to see that central bankers had taken significant steps to counter action by hedge-fund speculators and to help prevent further rises in the value of the yen, which would make early economic recovery in Japan more difficult.

Cuts in electricity supplies in Japan as a result of damage to power plants and port facilities will have an impact not only on Japanese life but also on Japanese manufacturing output.

Because Japanese components are used in so many products assembled or manufactured elsewhere in the world, disruption in supplies from Japan will have an impact on production in other countries. Globalization means that we are all, to some extent at least, in this together.

Japanese demand for oil and gas for power plants will have an effect on world prices and supplies particularly at this time of instability in the Middle East.

The eventual fate of the damaged Fukushima reactors is not yet known. Will they have to be buried in concrete and abandoned?

The more important question is how this accident will affect nuclear power generation not only in Japan but also in the world. It will be difficult for Japan to replace nuclear power, but if nuclear power plants are to be retained, the Japanese people will need to be reassured that they will be safe in the most severe earthquake imaginable and protected against tsunami of the magnitude of that caused by the recent earthquake.

This will inevitably be very expensive, but need not be ruled out as impossible. Japanese engineers have access to the best technology and equipment. An essential element in giving such reassurances must be certainty that information is not being withheld from the public because it might be embarrassing or damage profitability.

This requires a real cultural change and proper public accountability.

The Japanese accident will inevitably lead other countries to reassess their nuclear power programs.

The Fukushima disaster and its implications should be assessed calmly and all relevant factor including costs, financial and environmental, given due weight. Friends of Japan ask whether this triple disaster will galvanize Japan's political leadership.

Japan has had so many prime ministers in recent years that even dedicated Japan watchers find it hard to name them all. Japanese people will no doubt respond positively to the Emperor's call for mutual cooperation.

Will this crisis lead to the emergence of new leaders willing to put the good of Japan as a whole over factional interests? Is this crisis a real and effective wakeup call?

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.


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