In Disaster's Wake, Japan Defies Prediction
The unprecedented catastrophe in Japan's Tohoku region brought on by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake, the following tsunami and the unfolding crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant have produced countless stories of human tragedy, endurance and bravery, as well as of a spirit of cooperation among the people of Japan. But the destruction is so complete and the challenges are so enormous and multi-faceted that it's hard to predict what the economic and political consequences of this disaster will be, mid- to long-term.
For now, it seems to have given the government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan, whose support rates were falling to near record lows as he struggled to get a budget for the next fiscal year passed by the Diet, a jolt of life. Calls for his resignation and a dissolution of the Diet to force a general election have disappeared.
But as suffering by victims of the triple disaster goes on unabated -- and people in other parts of the country experience persistent shortages of basic commodities like electric power, gasoline and vegetables, caused in part by speculative buying -- public frustration with his government is bound to grow. Last week, Kan tried to use the national emergency to entice opposition leaders to join his cabinet, forming a sort of a national emergency coalition government, but the effort fizzled.
On the international front, the disaster hit just as the U.S. State Department fired its top official in charge of Japan for remarking that people in Okinawa are just like extortionists when it comes to extracting concessions in exchange for hosting the bulk of U.S. bases in Japan on their island. That was followed by differences of opinion between Washington and Tokyo about the danger posed by the troubled nuclear plant, with Japanese officials publicly questioning the U.S. decision to evacuate its citizens in the Tokyo area.
On the other hand, Chinese and South Korean foreign ministers met with their Japanese counterpart in Kyoto over the weekend, and agreed to step up cooperation on disaster relief, nuclear accident prevention, and reconstruction. What these initial actions and reactions bode for Japan's future relations with its key allies and neighbors is hard to foresee. Right now, just about everything about Japan defies prediction.
Ayako Doi is an Asia Society Associate Fellow.