Overcoming the Fourth Disaster

The earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis have wrecked Japan’s reputation as a safe exporter and attractive tourist destination. This damage to Japan’s international standing threatens to become a fourth national disaster. Toyoda Masakazu, chairman of the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, suggests four policies for avoiding the worst.

The earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis have wrecked Japan’s reputation as a safe exporter and attractive tourist destination. This damage to Japan’s international standing threatens to become a fourth national disaster. Toyoda Masakazu, chairman of the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, suggests four policies for avoiding the worst.

More than two months after the events of March 11, Japan faces a fourth major disaster, following the natural catastrophes of the earthquake and tsunami and the ongoing nuclear crisis in Fukushima. This time, it is Japan’s international reputation that is threatened.

A friend from China visited Tokyo in mid-April. He said his family and friends had told him he must be crazy to think of visiting Tokyo at such a time, but work commitments left him with little choice. Thanks to his fluent Japanese, my friend knew from the Internet that there was not really any problem—but even so, he said, he couldn’t help feeling uneasy as he stepped off the plane at Haneda Airport. Rationally, he knew perfectly well that radiation levels in Tokyo were no higher than normal. A person would be exposed to more radiation on a flight to New York. But even so . . . People are funny creatures, he said with a shrug of his shoulders.

On a map of the world, Japan may look like a small country at the eastern tip of Asia. In fact, the long, thin archipelago stretches fully 3,000km from Hokkaidō in the northeast to Okinawa in the southwest. The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station lies roughly one third of the way down the archipelago, starting from the northeastern tip. The British and US governments have recommended much larger evacuation zones than the ones actually in place—but even these recommendations only called for people within an 80km radius of the power station to evacuate. Tokyo is 220km away. In spite of this, many people overseas seem to believe that the whole of Japan is covered by a radioactive cloud.

Tourist Numbers Down in Kyoto and Kyūshū Too

Although some important components factories remain out of commission, the Tōhoku region in general is making a speedy recovery. Those who lost their homes are beginning new lives in temporary housing, and work is underway on reconstruction plans built primarily around natural energy that should make the region more attractive to young people again.

However, fears about radiation contamination are increasingly having an impact on Japanese exports and tourism. Several countries have refused to accept agricultural and industrial imports from Japan, and in mid-April the number of foreign tourists was down by two thirds compared to the same period last year. Tourist numbers have also dropped dramatically in places even further from Fukushima, including Kyoto (350km west of Tokyo) and Kyūshū (900km west of Tokyo).

Accurate Information—From Government and Grassroots Sources

Here are four policies that Japan should introduce as a matter of priority. Both public and private sectors will need to work together to address the situation. First of all, the government needs to publish accurate and detailed data on radiation levels. This started online in mid-April. Second, the government or similar regulating bodies should issue certificates of non-contamination wherever necessary to guarantee the safe pedigree of exports. This too has already begun: Large corporations have been carrying out their own measurements and making this information available to consumers. Third, the government needs to provide detailed explanations of the situation to foreign governments. Once adequate information was provided, the United States, European countries, South Korea, and other countries dropped restrictions on imports and shipping from Japan. The fourth step will be to encourage foreigners themselves to provide information. One example undertaken already was the initiative to invite a group of Korean bloggers to visit Kyūshū and provide useful information and reports online, reassuring people that the natural scenery and attractive towns in that southern island were unaffected by the disaster and that there are no problems with safety. Tourist numbers have begun to recover as a result of such efforts.

Unfortunately, the fact remains that radiation continues to leak from the power station in Fukushima. But the Tokyo Electric Power Company has issued a roadmap for stabilizing the situation within nine months, and radiation levels have already been significantly reduced.

Japan received messages of good wishes and encouragement from people all over the world in the aftermath of the disaster. By mid-April, international donations came to more than \90 billion. I understand that Japan will receive more foreign aid than any other country in the world this year. I would like to express my own personal thanks for this assistance, as a Japanese citizen. If the private and public sectors join together to provide the necessary information to the people of the world, I sincerely hope that we may yet succeed in avoiding a fourth major disaster. (Written on May 16, 2011.)

In This Series
The Earthquake and the Japanese Energy Situation
Overcoming the Fourth Disaster (May 16)
Japan’s Steadily Improving Energy Situation (April 4)

Toyoda Masakazu

Toyoda Masakazu

Graduated from the Law department of the University of Tokyo, then earned a master's degree at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University. Since entering the Ministry of International Trade and Industry in 1973, has worked on energy issues at the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy and the International Energy Agency. Has served as director-general of the Trade Policy Bureau, vice-minister for international affairs, secretary-general of the Strategic Headquarters for Space Policy, Cabinet Secretariat, and special advisor to the cabinet. At present, is chairman of the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan.