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Aftershock: The Continuing Effects of Japan's March 11, 2011 Earthquake
(Released February 2012)

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  by Kathryn Mori & Carolyn Scearce  

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September–December: Japan's Economy and Fukushima

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The year 2011 has been a rocky one for the global economy. Instability in other countries would have presented difficulties for Japan even without the disaster in March. An exceptionally strong yen has lead to flagging profits in a largely export driven economy. In 2011, not only did the March earthquake and following tsunami destroy factories and disrupt supply chains, but later massive flooding in Thailand destroyed many more factories key to Japanese manufacture. The floods in Thailand were especially problematic for the distribution of electronics and car parts (“Japanese firms shop abroad.”). Despite these huge setbacks, according to a report released on November 14, the economy grew an annualized 6% in the third quarter, rebounding quickly from these multiple disasters (“Japan’s economy”).

One major strategy many companies seem to be pursuing is to buy abroad. Taking advantage of a yen that has appreciated 45% against the dollar in the last four years, Japanese companies are buying up many foreign companies, particularly in fast growing economies.  Many companies have large amounts of cash and very few opportunities to expand inside Japan. They are now taking advantage of the bargains created by shaky economies abroad. Unlike in the 1980s when Japan was buying up many foreign companies, they are largely focusing on solid firms in quickly growing markets. They are also relying much more on the management already in place and proven to be successful, instead of shipping in Japanese management as they had 30 years ago (“Japanese firms shop abroad”). Factories are being rebuilt and supply chains are being re-established at amazing speeds. As manufacturers are able to begin production again, exports have increased 6.2%, and an improvement in consumer sentiment has lead to a 1% increase in domestic private consumption (“Japan — Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Crisis”).

Japanese temporary housing
The temporary housings for tsunami evacuees in Shichigahama, Miyagi.

The fate of people who have lost their homes in the tsunami is a little cloudier. For the most part, their continuing difficulties have fallen out of the public attention. While both Japanese and international TV shows and newspapers featured the fate of various survivors as much as six months after the quake, silence has largely settled over the media on the subject. As the year ended, many TV shows paused to remember those who had lost their lives, but little to nothing is said of those who have lost their homes and livelihoods. One article mentions a prefecture's plans for relocation. It says that many districts which were destroyed by the quake have yet to agree on reconstruction plans (Yamashita). In Miyagi, construction of long term housing is scheduled to be completed near the beginning of 2012. This housing provides more space and security than the temporary housing (“City in Miyagi”).

Notably, more than 90,000 people displaced by the nuclear crisis in Fukushima remain in limbo.  Cold shut down of the Fukushima plant was announced in mid December ahead of schedule. Cold shut down is being defined as when water used to cool the nuclear fuel has dropped below the boiling point, which prevents the fuel from reheating. TEPCO claims that the water temperature in all three plants fell below boiling in September, but they wanted to be cautious in declaring cold shut down. TEPCO does not plan to entomb the plant. Instead they hope to remove all of the fuel and contaminated water (“Japan to declare cold shutdown”). The company hopes to start removing the fuel within two years and have it all removed within 10. This is an extremely optimistic goal since radiation levels described by one article as 'sky-high' prevent any worker from going near the unit. TEPCO hopes to use and possibly develop remote-controlled machines to aid in the clean up. They estimate it will take five to six years to seal all of the cracks and holes in the containment vessels and up to nine years remove the contaminated water. Estimates put total clean-up at around 40 years (Nagata).

There has been some negative response surrounding the announcement. The nuclear core is still extraordinarily hot. One independent expert is quoted expressing confusion as to why they choose to call it a cold shut down, saying it is, “an affront to those in the industry who really know what the term means (Okada et al). A free-lance journalist who spent more than a month undercover also casts some serious doubts on the positive picture painted by TEPCO.  He claims that conditions are far worse than admitted. He says much of the work is just for show, and that it is sloppy and likely to break down. He also suggests that workers are being pressured to exceed their radiation doses to complete work and that communication between various groups involved with the repair is quite poor (Suzuki). An independent probe also mentions poor communications as a serious issue. Regulators that fled the scene and the governments withholding information from the public are also listed as major issues (Inajima). Regardless of these issues, many are relieved to hear that the first milestone in addressing this disaster has been achieved and that steps leading to people eventually being able to return to some of their homes in the evacuation zone are finally beginning.

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