Posts Tagged ‘Japan tsunami’

Small businesses ask for restraint with the self-restraint

Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

Normally this time of year people are in a party mood, what with the cherry trees blooming, temperatures rising and students on spring break. That mood has been effectively dampened by the enormous suffering up north, but recreation in general is being discouraged by several related factors, such as the call for energy conservation and reduced public transportation. Small businesses, especially restaurants, bars and events promoters, are being hit the hardest, even if their enterprises were not affected directly by the earthquake.

Sign in Ueno Park says that the cherry blossom festival is "canceled," asks for "self-restraint."

They certainly don’t appreciate the well-meaning but short-sighted official requests for jishuku, or self-restraint. Making such a request sounds paradoxical: Can self-restraint be compelled from above? At a press conference on April 1, Renho, the Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker who was put in charge of energy conservation, blasted Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara for a remark he made implying that it’s unseemly for people to want to “drink and chat” at a time like this. Renho said that Ishihara shouldn’t use his political platform to “restrain people’s freedoms and social activities,” which have negative economic consequences.

According to the Fuji TV morning show, “Toku Da Ne,” as of April 1, 1,320 concerts and other events featuring foreign performers had been canceled due to fears of radiation from the damaged Fukushima power plant. In fact, one events company has already gone out of business as a result, and that company is headquartered in Fukuoka.

Those cancellations can’t be helped. What’s more problematic is that many Japanese are being made to feel guilty about going out and spending money. Fuji TV cited a survey of 301 small businesses in Tokyo. Eighty percent said that their business has fallen off sharply since March 11. So one French restaurant decided to buck the whole jishuku movement and started advertising a 30 percent discount on all meals for the time being. They’ve been packed ever since.

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Tales of reconstruction: How do you assess damage of this magnitude?

Monday, March 28th, 2011

Last week, the central government said it would pick up the tab for almost all of the rebuilding in the coastal areas of northeastern Japan devastated by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11. This is obviously a big relief to local governments in the affected cities and towns, many of which saw entire infrastructures wiped out in a matter of minutes.

This property condemned: Building damaged in 2007 Ishikawa earthquake

The stickier problem is what to do about private property. Residents’ possessions, including homes, are spread out over vast expanses of no man’s land. To clean up the mess, laws regarding private property will have to be bent or even ignored. The government has already issued guidelines for the cleanup, even though it doesn’t necessarily have a clear understanding of the situation on the ground. But local governments are demanding something be done so that they can get to work. The governor of Miyagi Prefecture asked the Maritime Safety Agency to help it process all the boats and ships strewn over the blasted landscape. As of last weekend, the agency said it had processed 245 vessels but had only “returned” 13 to their owners. The rest were brought to a makeshift area that is causing problems since level land is desperately needed for temporary housing. But with harbors destroyed, there is no place to put the vessels while the agency identifies owners, who are then expected to dispose of them. With more than 6,000 people still listed as missing in Miyagi, something needs to be done quickly.

Continue reading about assessing the damage →

Tepco blackouts roll only so far

Saturday, March 26th, 2011

The Tokyo Broadcasting Service’s main nuclear energy pundit is Muneo Morokuzu, a University of Tokyo professor who used to work for Toshiba. Earlier this week, while a commentator on the morning show “Asa Zuba!,” he was asked by host Monta Mino about Tokyo Electric Power Company’s scheduled blackouts (keikaku teiden), which have been playing havoc with customers’ lives in the Kanto region. “These problems always have the greatest effect on the most vulnerable people,” Morokuzu said.

Home before dark: Machiya Ekimae station on the Arakawa line

His remark seems to be true, though perhaps not in the way he intended it. Since Tepco implemented power outages to save electricity after the failure of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear reactor caused by the earthquake/tsunami of March 11, certain areas of the Kanto region have been purposely subjected to occasional blackouts. The outages are supposed to be planned and announced in advance, but so far they’ve been sporadic. Announcements are made and then changed on an almost hourly basis. Originally, the idea was to have “rolling blackouts” (rinban teiden), meaning that each targeted area would have its electricity cut off in succession, which sounded like the fairest way to do it. However, it never happened that way, and now the official name of the scheme is “scheduled blackouts.” The affected areas cover Tokyo and eight prefectures, with the blackout plan collecting disparate neighborhoods into five “groups.” But the neighborhoods were never specified clearly, and even if your neighborhood was targeted for a scheduled blackout, you often didn’t know if it was really going to happen until the designated hour arrived.

Continue reading about rolling blackouts in Tokyo →

Yen surge not as strange as it sounds

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

Last week, when all those foreigners bolted the country they got a nice little windfall from the ongoing crisis if they traded in all their hard-earned yen for whatever currency they’d need to get by back home. When markets opened after that nerve-wracking weekend the U.S. dollar, for instance, had lost up to ¥5 since the week before, from 82 to 77. A lot of people were dumbfounded, since such a reaction flies in the face of so-called textbook economics. Why would Japan’s currency get stronger as a result of such a disaster? Wouldn’t people be trying to unload their yen?

Whoops!

The easiest explanation for the surge was the idea of “repatriation.” Japanese companies with investments overseas in other currencies quickly exchanged much of their holdings into yen in order to pay for reconstruction or, in the case of insurance companies, to pay benefits to people and businesses with damage policies. However, as most Japanese economists have pointed out since then, that alone wouldn’t have explained such a pronounced increase in such a short time.

According to the Mainichi Shimbun, the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 created a precedent for the yen surge. Three months after that earthquake destroyed much of Kobe, the yen was the highest against the dollar that it had ever been in history up to that point. At the time, Japan’s GDP was still the envy of the world, and investors with extra cash decided to buy yen, believing that it was sounder than a lot of other investments, especially since Kobe would require lots of money to rebuild. They were basically chasing the repatriated yen. As always, Japan’s exporters panicked. The Bank of Japan intervened to bring the yen down, but they were unsuccessful. It wasn’t until the summer, when the United States and Europe joined in the intervention, that the yen started to drop.

Continue reading about the post-quake yen. →

Are Japanese people hard-wired to hoard?

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

Last week’s earthquake and tsunami has engendered a nationwide run on retailers that has alarmed the authorities. Even in Hiroshima, which was totally unaffected by either catastrophe and isn’t in a related earthquake zone, people are said to be stripping store shelves of batteries. Renho, the Democratic Party of Japan superstar who heads the consumer affairs ministry, blasted the mentality that has led to this behavior, saying that she could understand why people might want to buy batteries and portable cookers and even bicycles, but “natto and chicken”? She stressed that it causes shortages of much needed supplies to the afflicted areas and used the word kaishime to describe these actions, which means to “corner the market,” except that she isn’t talking about companies, but individual consumers. In that regard it seems an imprecise term, but the negative connotation is what’s important.

Yes, we have no natto

This is not to say that the Japanese people care nothing about the thousands of victims, or that businesses aren’t doing all they can to help out. Banks in the affected region are allowing depositors to access their money without passbooks or cards. But there has also been a hotline set up for people in the area who suspect they are victims of binjo neage, or opportunistic over-pricing. That sounds more like what Renho had in mind when she talked about kishime, but what she meant was different — and a problem that seems almost intractable.

The problem was first made apparent during the oil crisis of 1973, exemplified by an incident that has since become a staple of TV nostalgia shows. When foreign exporters raised the price of oil by as much as 70 percent, Yasuhiro Nakasone, then the Minister of Economy Trade and Industry, was said to have advised citizens to cut down on the use of paper products. Soon thereafter, a supermarket chain in Osaka called Peacock ran a sale on toilet paper, and, responding to rumors of paper shortages, some 300 people quickly cleared the store of some 500 TP packages. The store, delighted, restocked with higher priced TP, which was snatched up just as quickly, but this time the image of housewives fighting for toilet paper was captured by TV crews and became big news. After that, there was a national run on toilet paper.

Continue reading about post-quake hoarding →

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