After leaving Japan for nearly three weeks shortly a few days after the earthquake struck, I returned to Tokyo late last week. My decision to do so was based on the understanding that the spread of radiation from Fukushima had stabilized and daily radiation readings around Tokyo had returned to normal. The presence of the IAEA, WHO and a host of overseas nuclear experts gave me the impression that the situation was under control, at least in terms of crisis management. Now the question has become how long will I stay?
Three weeks ago, my strategy was to shoot first and ask questions later, given that the stakes associated with remaining in Tokyo were potentially high. I did not panic, but rather relied on my 25 years of experience living in Japan to dictate what I knew could (and actually did) happen. I have no regrets for leaving and, in fact, I would do the same thing again if faced with a similar situation today.
Many people who stayed in Japan criticized foreigners who left, referring to us as "flyjin" -- a spoof on the term "gaijin", which means "foreigner" in Japanese. The term implies that when times get tough, non-Japanese simply run away. I beg to differ. When numerous nuclear reactors are overheating, two explosions have occurred, sea water is being dumped on them as a last resort to cool them down, and the utility in charge of managing the crisis has lacked transparency in the past, I preferred to be cautious. Tens of thousands of others -- Japanese and non-Japanese alike - did the same.
Tokyo is today a very different place from only a few weeks ago. Lights in public places are dimmed to save energy and many trains have no heat at all and some even turn the lights completely off unless going through a tunnel in order to conserve energy. This is a potential sign of things to come. When I think about what will happen in June or July when the need for heat turns to the need for air conditioning, I realize it is going to be a long, hot summer throughout Japan. And it could continue this way for years, given how little excess electricity generation capacity Japan has at its disposal.
The result of losing the generation capability at all six reactors at the Fukushima facility means industry and individuals must now compete for energy.
These are among the host of unanticipated and unquantifiable consequences of the quake and tsunami. Japan faces its greatest challenge since the end of World War Two. The fingers of blame point in many directions. To what extent were the cozy relationships between government and industry to blame for not prioritizing the threat of large earthquakes and tsunami by Japan's power companies and nuclear regulators? Why must the Japanese government need to order its own Meteorological Agency to disclose its data on the projected spread of radioactive materials from the troubled Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) Fukushima facility rather than do so itself? And why is TEPCO still allowed to be the primary source of information for all issues related to Fukushima, radiation exposure, and the now regular "low-level" releases of radioactive water in to the ocean? It all boggles the mind and does not inspire confidence that the information that is being released is accurate.
Time will tell what the truth is, but for now, the reality of the magnitude of the disaster has hit home. My heart goes out to the 27,000+ people who are presumed to have lost their lives, the more than 250,000 who are homeless, and the many displaced people and industries. As of April 5th, at least 25 countries have restricted imports of farm and other food products from Japan. The impact on Japanese farmers will likely last for years.
One thing most people are not talking about yet is whether or not firms with operations in Japan can convince non-Japanese and their families to relocate here. I suspect it will be difficult to do. The result of attracting fewer foreigners to work in Japan in the future could add to the decade-long trend of "Japan passing", as people head for growth opportunities in other parts of Asia. Since Japan's population is declining, non-Japanese are needed to ease the work load and generate tax revenue that Japan's rapidly aging population cannot provide. To ease domestic and international concerns, the government seems to be more transparent in recent days. Is it too late? Has confidence already been irreparably damaged? Again, time will tell.
These are among the issues I think about every day as I consider the future. For now, I plan to stay.
David Wagner is Director of Crisis Communications for Country Risk Solutions, a political risk consulting firm. He has lived and worked in Japan for 25 years.