Japan's Mounting Challenges

“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,” says Asia Society Associate Fellow Ayako Doi.

“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 is based near Washington DC.


“While the full extent of the human and economic costs of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis in Japan remain to be seen, a leadership moment has presented itself to both the leaders and the people of Japan. Prior to these crises, there were other omnipresent concerns in Japan: low approval ratings of the prime minister, low levels of economic growth, and the rise of China, to name but a few. In this context, the current tragedy, while almost overwhelming in its scope, provides an opportunity for the nation to come together in a way not seen in recent years,” says Michael Kulma, Asia Society’s Executive Director for Global Leadership Initiatives. “Certainly there have been missteps by the government over the last 10 days as it attempts to deal with this deadly trio of disasters, but what does stand out are the stories of people making a difference, from the many rescues in the days after, to the collective calm of the nation, to the brave men and women working day and night to save the nuclear reactors from meltdown. Over the last century, Japan has had its share of natural and man-made disasters with which to deal and it has almost always come out stronger as a result. Let us hope that is the case in this most troubling of times,” Mike is in New York.


“Ten days after the worst earthquake and tsunami in Japan's history, the crisis has entered a new phase. More than 340,000 people are now living in shelters across the region -- almost 70,000 more than in shelters after Katrina. Nearly 9,000 are dead, and another 13,261 are missing. There is a severe shortage of medical personnel who can care for the large number of elderly in the shelters. There is still a massive humanitarian crisis unfolding in northern Japan,” says Asia Society Associate Fellow Alexandra Harney.

“Criticism of the government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan is mounting, suggesting that it is back to politics as usual in Japan. The government needs to strike a balance between addressing early concerns about a lack of transparency about the nuclear issue and doing the tough job of passing a budget to fund reconstruction. After the 1995 Kobe earthquake, Japan passed 16 special laws, including tax breaks, to help survivors. The country's needs this time are even greater. Whether politicians can stop their partisan bickering and pass laws will determine whether or not the Japanese public's disappointment in its leaders deepens as a result of this disaster.” Alex is based in Hong Kong.

To arrange interviews, contact the Asia Society communications department at 212-327-9271 or pr@asiasociety.org.