Print This Post
18 March 2011, Gateway House

Japan in crisis: Assessing the impact

The impact of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami on Japan could be graver than imagined but it’s an opportunity for Prime Minister Kan to take decisive action and strengthen his administration.


post image

The current picture of fallouts—humanitarian and economic, as well as radiological—from the earthquake, tsunami and now the nuclear crisis looming large over Japan could be just the beginning. There is a chance that more horrific impacts will unfold in the days to come.

More than 10,000 people are feared dead in the trail of destruction left behind by the earthquake of 8.9 magnitude upgraded to 9.0 and the subsequent tsunami. The epicentre of the earthquake lay in the Pacific Ocean, closest to the north-east city of Sendai, and the tsunami devastated the adjoining coastal areas too. Just as the country was struggling to come to terms with the impact of the natural disaster, the rapidly evolving nuclear emergency has multiplied and exacerbated woes. There seems to be little doubt that the triple catastrophe is one of Japan’s biggest challenges since the Second World War. There has been massive but not yet fully ascertained damage to life and property, even as clear and present fears of nuclear meltdown and radiation disaster evoke anxieties. The people in the affected areas are suffering from food, water, supply and power shortages, making this a humanitarian crisis of momentous proportions.

The natural disaster has complex implications for the world’s third-largest economy, already struggling to cope with political and economic challenges. The fortunes of Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s government had been adrift amid allegations of improper electoral funding and his attempts at economic reforms in the face of strong resistance from the opposition. The support rate for Kan’s cabinet had fallen below 20 percent early this year.

This disaster has set the stage for two political consequences. One, it will become a touchstone of Kan’s leadership skills and give him an opportunity to come across as an efficient and effective administrator as well as a strong leader in trying times. Kan could possibly consolidate his position not just as prime minister, but also within the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which is also undergoing internal turmoil. An immediate toppling of the current government may not happen so long as the situation remains critical, since even the opposition Liberal Democratic Party would like to be seen as assisting and cooperating with the current government hand in glove. The second consequence follows from the failure of the first in the longer term. In case Kan is unable to deliver in the coming months, odds against him and the DPJ will certainly worsen. What has been noticeable, however, in the midst of all this chaos is the emergence of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano as a much admired political figure, perhaps catapulting him to a serious contender for Prime Ministership in case Kan has to go.

Economically, the country is also surely facing a short- and medium-term negative impact on its already ailing economy. The stock markets reflected nervousness among investors even as news reports appearing in newspapers like the Financial Times noted that the disaster “spooks markets.” The prime minister suggested to the Japanese people that the country would have a restorative “New Deal-like” economic recovery in the process of undertaking massive reconstruction activities in the days to come—a point of view being echoed by several analysts. However, in considering the near-term effects, some realities need to be factored in. Recovery efforts will include the cost of reconstruction of infrastructure like roads and seaport facilities, rehabilitation of many people and rectifying the extensive and still ongoing damage to nuclear power reactors supplying electricity and power. The probability and economic and structural challenge of repairing a severely damaged nuclear plant like Fukushima is Daiichi formidable.

The crux of the solution currently lies in cooling the reactors as early as possible.   Besides, with the erratic power supplies, domestic production is likely to be hampered not just in the affected areas, but also in the rest of the country, which is facing power cuts to make up for the limited supply available.

With critical time passing by and the nuclear crisis not in sight of being abated, many countries including the United States, France and UK have begun evacuating their citizens from Japan. In sum, the cost of humanitarian as well as infrastructural recovery can be expected to be enormous. Tokyo might also have to deal with a situation arising out of any harmful effects that radiation may have on the health of inhabitants around the affected areas in case the situation at the nuclear reactors worsens or becomes unmanageable in the days to come. If indeed, this does happen the consequences would be unimaginably disastrous. Vast tracts of affected areas would be rendered uninhabitable, with a possible impact on Tokyo located not too far away. There is also a clear and unavoidable damage even to agricultural and fishing industry and an intangible but terrible impact on the environment.

If historical pointers are anything to go by both in terms of reactions to calamities around the world as well as Japan’s own rise from the ashes in the aftermath of the Second World War, it has been an  exemplary example of resilience and buoyancy. Even in the midst of the disaster, reports of disciplined calm and orderliness are emanating from Japan.

The Japanese government’s reaction and the public’s demeanour have been positive in the face of the ongoing cataclysm, which may look difficult to surmount currently. Not only has the government responded by planning to mobilize nearly 100,000 Japanese Self-Defense Forces personnel to assist in search and rescue operations and disaster relief, but it has—unlike in the case of the Kobe earthquake of 1995—welcomed foreign assistance during the current disaster.

For the first time, help from a Chinese search and rescue team has been accepted. This has indeed reflected a more pragmatic approach to handling the situation. Perhaps the major trial of Prime Minister Kan’s government will lie in the management and minimization of damage from the multiple and simultaneous nuclear reactors in crisis. The government faces some bit of a credibility problem here with suspicions that it is not disseminating the complete truth on severity of the nuclear calamity. The IAEA and the United States have clearly assessed the situation as being very serious.  Japan needs a win-win combination of public grit and discipline, along with a relatively stronger and more accepted government and leadership, to help  tide over the disastrous tsunami.

The nuclear crisis unfolding in Japan has come as a wake-up call to countries like India and China, which aim to increasingly build on nuclear power as a source of energy. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has set up a technical review committee to assess whether the Indian nuclear plants can withstand natural calamities such as the one that hit Japan. China has also temporarily suspended approvals for nuclear power plants and is moving ahead with conducting safety checks on its existing ones. These countries’ dependence on nuclear energy will continue; it is therefore important they keep a strict vigil on possible dangers from technical snags and ensure that safety checks are maintained. They are also prime targets for terror attacks, and like Japan, susceptible to natural disasters.

Appropriate resources and plans must be put in place to minimize the impact of such catastrophes – for the damage of a Japan-like disaster on either India or China, both populous, still-developing countries, is bound to be much greater.

Arpita Mathur is the Visiting Research Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

For interview requests with the author, or for permission to republish, please contact

© Copyright 2011 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited.

TAGGED UNDER: , , , , , , , , ,