Still home in Tokyo -- safe and sound with the rest of the family -- and trying to keep up with what's happening, and what we should do.
This is a good read, from The Economist's Banyan blog
After the earthquake: Stoicism amid the debris
Mar 14th 2011, 19:23 by H.T. and K.N.C. | SAITAMA AND TOKYO
AMONG THE the panoply of disasters that has besieged Japan since Friday’s earthquake and tsunami it appears that the risks of a serious nuclear accident may be rising again. Over the weekend, the threat of a nuclear catastrophe distracted attention from the human tragedy: a string of towns and villages along hundreds of kilometres of coastline in north-eastern Japan that were buried under water or washed away.
That threat appeared to be receding. Now, however, a third reactor at the Fukushima nuclear plant appears to be in trouble, once again opening the possibility of a meltdown. Nuclear fuel rods in this reactor may have been dangerously exposed, and Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), which owns the plant, is trying to cool these by pumping in sea water.
One positive development, though, is how the government, the defence forces and the famously stoic Japanese people have responded to the disaster. Naoto Kan’s government, which was on its knees a week or two ago, has so far appeared to be on top of the complexities of the nuclear crisis, and its explanations have provided reassurance in a weekend-long nightmare that could easily have descended into panic.
During the 1995 Kobe earthquake the government dithered shockingly from the start, but this time 100,000 troops have been deployed to the stricken areas to lead the search-and-rescue effort. Their work has been hampered by savagely damaged lines of communication, and they have faced some criticism for not focusing more on helping survivors, especially among the elderly and infirm, rather than gathering the dead. Having said that, they are making it through to the worst affected areas, and are airlifting food and supplies to 450,000 evacuees. On March 14th alone, at least 2,000 bodies were found floating in waters off the coast of Miyagi prefecture—though, reportedly, the death toll in one of those places, Minamisanriku, may not be as high as the 10,000 once feared, because many residents escaped. Reports from the area reveal a level of devastation that the government’s fiscal-reform minister, Kaoru Yosano, estimates may cost more than the ¥10 trillion ($120 billion) of the Kobe quake, in which about 6,500 people died. That may be imprecise, however, because industrial Kobe is so different from the rural communities, many of whose inhabitants are pensioners, that have been devastated this time.
So far, the economic concerns in a country with one of the worst debt levels in the world have been serious, but not panic-inducing. The Nikkei 225 average fell 4.7% on Monday. On the same day the Bank of Japan sought to offset an expected decline in business confidence by injecting a record amount of cash into the financial system, and doubling the size of an asset-purchase programme. Both measures may have helped weaken the yen, but given the expected impact of power outages on industry, it may not be enough to prevent damage to the country’s fragile recovery.
Another concern is fiscal. Moody’s, the credit-rating agency, said a fiscal crisis was not imminent, despite the possibility that the quake will add to Japan’s fiscal deficit. But it said it may move the tipping point—when savers lose confidence in Japanese debt—a bit closer. In a sign of how seriously policymakers of many political stripes view the debt, there is already talk among the opposition of an emergency tax increase to pay for the reconstruction. Understandably, the government says there are more pressing decisions to be taken first.
The threats from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant continued on Monday, and there was no trading in shares of Tepco, Japan’s biggest utility; had there been they were expected to tumble at least 20%. The plant’s third reactor suffered an explosion similar to one that blew the outer casing off the first reactor on Saturday. But like the former, this was considered non-threatening and was due to a build-up of hydrogen, not of radioactive gasses. The containment vessel protecting the core was said to be undamaged.
But in a country where one third of all power is generated by nuclear energy (Japan lacks its own fossil fuels), the crisis is almost bound to force a rethink of the nuclear-energy policy. This is likely to be exacerbated by blackouts rolling around the country, which are affecting trains and forcing industries to suspend production.
Japan’s steadfast ability to endure adversity is being tested in a crisis that Mr Kan says is the worst since the second world war. Queues stretch for miles at some petrol stations, mainly because of refinery shut-downs by firms such as Cosmo. Supermarkets are short of food, and pharmacies lack iodine, which people have bought for fear of radiation. In a predictable twist, the government has put its telegenic female minister, known as Renho, in charge of selling energy savings to the public. So far, the people have shown a remarkable ability to face the prospect without grumbling—and many volunteers in Tokyo are trying to make the hazardous journey north to help their stricken countrymen. Others feel bound to stay in the capital with their families, because an official warning that another big earthquake may strike still stands.