Panel Examines Disaster in Japan and Aftermath

The series “Disaster in Japan: Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Power Plant Crisis” commenced on April 4 with a roundtable discussion on the current crisis in Japan that explained the state of Japan in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.


This discussion featured talks from Colgate University’s W.S. Schupf Professor of Economics and Far Eastern Studies Takao Kato, and Hamilton’s Assistant Professor of Anthropology Haeng-ja Chung and Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures Kyoko Omori.


Omori opened the discussion describing the significant amount of stress victims endured as they lost family members and possessions within the span of 10 minutes. She spoke of the potential social effects of the earthquake, including the displacement of elderly, children, and those involved in the fishing and agriculture, whose vulnerable social positions may make it difficult for them to recover.


As a Japanese expatriate, Omori noted that earthquake and tsunami drills and warning systems are typical facets of life in Japan. She was concerned about her family and friends in Japan, but had some confidence in the established safety systems. After the earthquake, expatriates such as herself used Internet technology such as Skype to communicate with family and friends.


Omori noted the misinformation and media “illiteracy” prevalent in news coverage, such as FOX News’ mislabeling of a nuclear power plant near Tokyo as “Shibuyaeggman”— which is actually the name of a Tokyo nightclub, not a nuclear power plant.


Commenting on the economic impact of the tsunami, Professor Kato observed, “Information is forthcoming and incomplete.” He speculated on what the economic effects of the earthquake might be by comparing the economic conditions of the area affected by the Kobe earthquake in 1995 to the area around Sendai affected by the March earthquake and tsunami. Most of the prefectures of each earthquake were equivalent, including the amount of national GDP each area constituted. Kato emphasized Kobe’s importance as a vital port city, whereas he described Sendai as a “branch city” where major Japanese firms have branch offices.


Kato was confident that the disaster would not have long-term economic effects, but did express a few concerns. He explained how the Tokyo Electric Power Company was damaged and lost electrical capacity, suggesting this might necessitate strict energy conservation efforts in the summer months.  Kato also discussed the future of Japan’s fiscal sustainability when paying for reconstruction. He referred to concerns regarding the high costs of reconstruction the government may incur and how spending could scare bond investors, which is not likely to happen given bond-buying trends over the past two decades. Kato cited a recent poll where more than 70 percent of Japanese citizens said they were willing to pay higher taxes to fund reconstruction.


Professor Chung closed the discussion by commenting on the ongoing crisis at the damaged nuclear reactors in Fukushima. Chung said that this nuclear disaster comes after Japan embraced the idea of nuclear power for peaceful use after World War II. She suggested that Japanese policymakers and scientists were irresponsible in over-relying on nuclear power for electricity, and said she would discuss the nuclear crisis in the next part of the lecture series.


The next event in the Levitt Center’s series on “Disaster in Japan” will take place on Friday, April 8, in KJ 102 from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m.

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