On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck northeast Japan, quickly followed by a devastating tsunami and nuclear plant crisis. For the 12 months since this triple disaster, Japan has been grappling with what then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan rightly described as the nation’s darkest hour since World War II. The Diplomat looks at Japan’s recovery efforts over the past year – at the extraordinary resilience shown by the Japanese, the country’s crisis of leadership, and what may happen next.
Japan Tsunami: 12 Months Later
March 11, 2011: a date that will forever be etched into the Japanese consciousness. A powerful, magnitude 9.0 earthquake – the fourth largest ever recorded – shakes the northern coast of Japan, triggering seven tsunami waves within a six-hour period. In the Tohoku region, the worst-affected area, thousands of houses and roads are swept away. The initial quake was so powerful that it moved Japan’s main island by 8 inches, and is said to have shifted the Earth on its axis.
But even before the full scale of the tsunami disaster is known, the country is plunged into a new crisis with an explosion at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Plant. Soon, the plant’s Unit 1 is registering radiation levels eight times higher than normal. Cooling systems at the Unit 3 nuclear reactor fail, leading to hydrogen explosions at the Unit 2 and Unit 3 reactors. Radioactive water begins to leak from the plant, and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. works desperately to bring the plant under control. Then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan later admitted that he considered calling for an evacuation of Tokyo.
As the emergency services respond, including the dispatch of 100,000 Self-Defense Forces, the government is confronted with a devastating humanitarian disaster: early numbers show 8,000 dead, 12,000 missing and 360,000 displaced. Countries around the world, including the United States, Britain, Australia and South Korea dispatch relief teams to support Japan’s response to what Kan rightly refers to Japan’s darkest hour since World War II.
A month after the earthquake and tsunami, the nuclear disaster at Fukushima Dai-ichi takes another turn for the worse. While nuclear workers have managed to stop the radioactive water leak, they decide to begin dumping 11,500 tons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean in a last-ditch effort to make room for the even more highly radioactive runoff from the plant. The move draws international criticism. The government declares that the disaster has reached Level-7, the highest severity level on the International Nuclear Event Scale and the same as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
The extent of the disaster’s economic impact becomes clear. Tokyo downgrades its economic outlook amidst growing fears that Japanese food is severely contaminated. Japan’s critical role in global supply chains becomes evident as companies around the world face production bottlenecks. The Japanese government announces a 4 trillion yen disaster relief fund.
Nuclear plant workers enter the Fukushima Dai-ichi Unit 1 reactor for the first time since the disaster. Meanwhile, plant operator TEPCO reports a record 1 trillion yen in losses, prompting its feckless president, Masataka Shimizu, to resign. Not surprisingly, Japan’s economy slips into recession, with GDP contracting 0.9 percent in the first quarter of the year.
As anti-nuclear sentiment grows, the government orders the Hamaoka Nuclear Plant to shut down two reactors. Prime Minister Naoto Kan announces a review of plans for new reactors, and calls for greater investment in green energy. Anti-nuclear sentiment spreads across the globe: facing defeat at the polls, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announces Berlin will phase out all nuclear plants. Opinion polls reveal Americans’ support for nuclear energy has tumbled.
Japanese opposition lawmakers file a no-confidence vote against Naoto Kan, which he survives by a vote of 293-152. His tenure, however, is effectively over. Japan’s political in-fighting continues out in the open, prompting growing public frustration as the country struggles to cope with the aftermath of the disaster.
It has also become apparent that Fukushima’s Unit 1, 2 and 3 reactors were not merely damaged, but in fact experienced a complete meltdown. With estimates of the radiation leak continuing to rise, the government steps up precautionary measures, including the distribution of radiation meters to affected residents.
Political turmoil claims its first victim as Minister for Reconstruction Ryu Matsumoto resigns after only a week over allegations that he made insensitive remarks to governors of tsunami-affected areas. Matsumoto had been appointed by Naoto Kan in a bid to deflect criticism of the ruling party, making the resignation even more damaging for the ruling Democratic Party of Japan.
Japanese officials begin a systematic review of all the country’s nuclear reactors, with stress tests being conducted to determine how well they can withstand natural disasters. Criticism of TEPCO becomes increasingly acute, especially with revelations that company executives had delayed using seawater to cool Fukushima’s reactors for fear of damaging them, a decision that directly led to the hydrogen explosions in March.
Japan receives a small boost in morale on July 17, when the country wins the FIFA Women’s World Cup 3-1 against the United States. The win makes front-page news and turns the Nadeshiko (women’s soccer team) into household names. A glimmer of light in a tragic year.
World leaders, including U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, visit Japan to express their condolences. Meanwhile, three senior nuclear officials are fired at the start of the month: the head of the nuclear safety agency; the head of the agency for natural resources and energy and the vice minister for economy, trade and industry. As frustration continues to grow over the scale of the tragedy and TEPCO’s inept response, tumbling public approval numbers over his handling of the crisis force Prime Minister Naoto Kan to resign, on August 26, 2011. Kan is the fifth in a string of one-year Japanese premiers.
Former Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda becomes Japan’s sixth prime minister in five years. With strong public support of almost two-thirds of the country, Noda pushes through a budget that includes a 12 trillion yen stimulus package paid for by temporary tax rises on incomes, companies, property and tobacco. Although Noda enjoys strong support, the nuclear industry faces a devastating blow to its image. On September 19, an anti-nuclear rally organized by the advocacy group Gensuikn draws close to 60,000 people to central Tokyo.
Meanwhile, the damage to the economy is made clear in the quarterly filings of Japanese automakers. Toyota announces a 13 percent fall in car deliveries, while Honda posts a decline of 24 percent. Still, Japanese supply chains look to be recovering faster than expected, with Toyota, Honda and Nissan all operating at 80 percent capacity.
Planning for a massive clean-up operation begins, with the Japanese environment ministry estimating that 29 million cubic meters of contaminated soil needs to be removed. Boats in the Pacific also spot debris from the earthquake – ranging from pieces of furniture to entire boats – slowly drifting towards the west coast of the United States. Japanese doctors also begin thyroid check-ups of children in Fukushima, amid concern that radiation could increase the risk of cancer. The economic outlook for Japan improves slightly, as the economy posts a positive quarterly growth rate of 1.5 percent, ending the recession.
But November brings bad news. Japanese regulators announce that the decommissioning of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant could take more than 30 years. TEPCO declares an expected loss of $7.4 billion, prompting the government to bail TEPCO out with $11.5 billion for the establishment of a compensation fund. A 12.1 trillion yen recovery package is passed as research finds that portions of agricultural land in Japan are so radioactive that they are no longer safe for farming, dealing yet another economic blow to the country.
Despite October’s positive growth rates, Japan’s economy shrinks in the final quarter of the year, by 0.6 percent, more than most analysts had anticipated. Insurers’ yearly financial reports reveal extensive losses. However, there’s some good news as Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda declares a “cold shutdown” of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, suggesting that the plant may have finally been stabilized.