It was 2 a.m. on the U.S. East Coast on March 11 when Ichiro Fujisaki learned — via email — that a monstrous earthquake had struck northeastern Japan, unleashing a massive tsunami, killing thousands of people and triggering the world’s most frightening nuclear crisis since Chernobyl. In the two and a half months since then, Fujisaki, Japan’s ambassador to the United States, has spent virtually every waking moment of his life using his position in Washington to help his traumatized people get back on their feet.
Reminders of the cascading disaster abound throughout the Japanese Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue — from the souvenir baseball cap given to Fujisaki by Virginia’s Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue team to a small book of condolences signed by top U.S. dignitaries, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama.
“My heart goes out to the people of Japan during this enormous tragedy. Please know that America will always stand by one of its greatest allies during this time of need,” Obama wrote in that book. “Because of the strength and wisdom of its people, we know that Japan will recover, and indeed will emerge stronger than ever.”
Encouraging words from the president — yet the reality is that the Land of the Rising Sun was floundering in economic and political stagnation long before what’s now known in official circles as the “Great East Japan Earthquake.”
Although its citizens enjoy a high standard of living, with a per-capita GDP of $34,000, Japan’s annual economic growth had averaged only 1 percent a year for the past two decades. As a result of the magnitude-9.0 quake — the most powerful ever to hit Japan and one of the five strongest quakes in recorded history — the economy officially slipped back into recession (after recovering from the last one in 2009), having contracted for two quarters in a row. Reconstruction demand could pull the economy back up, yet even before the quake, Japan had lost its coveted spot as the world’s second-largest economy, a position it had held since 1968, with its nominal GDP of $5.47 trillion last year falling short of China’s $5.88 trillion.
“For four decades after the war, Japan experienced cozy politics backed by a robust economy,” according to Japan expert Marcus Noland, deputy director and senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “Lightly populated rural districts had a disproportionate effect on national politics. The government financed multibillion-dollar bridges to nowhere, expensive port facilities for small fishing villages and bullet trains to traverse bucolic rural areas,” Noland wrote in the Washington Post.
“But in 1990, the bubble burst. The working-age share of the population began to fall. In 1998, the labor force started to shrink, and a decade later, the country’s population began to decline.”
Similarly, Martin Fackler of the New York Times observed: “For nearly a generation now, the nation has been trapped in low growth and a corrosive downward spiral of prices, known as deflation, in the process shriveling from an economic Godzilla to little more than an afterthought in the global economy.”
Years of vast public works spending and deregulation left Japan with government debt amounting to 200 percent of the country’s annual GDP — the highest of any industrialized nation. The headline of our Washington Diplomat cover profile of Ambassador Fujisaki, published in November 2008, said it all: “Japan Confronts Economic Crisis to Prevent Another ‘Lost Decade.'”
Politically, the country has been rudderless, cycling through a number of lackluster prime ministers since Junichiro Koizumi stepped down in 2006. Even after voters tossed out the Liberal Democratic Party — which had governed Japan almost continuously since the end of the U.S. military occupation following World War II — the rival Democratic Party of Japan has so far failed to re-energize the sclerotic political system, bumbling under a series of scandals and charges of indecisive leadership.
Only five days before the quake, Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, who had been on the job for six months, was forced to resign after a political opponent revealed he had accepted illegal campaign donations from a foreigner.
The current prime minister, Naoto Kan, hasn’t become mired in scandal, although he’s received mixed marks for his handling of the crisis. Nothing, of course, could have prepared Kan or his government for the cataclysmic events of March 11. Not even a country as well prepared for disasters as Japan — which invented the word for tsunami and is internationally renowned for its strict building codes — could have foreseen the back-to-back blows Mother Nature wrought on it.
The undersea earthquake — which was preceded by a number of “forequakes” and followed by hundreds of aftershocks — was so powerful it moved portions of northeastern Japan up to eight feet closer to North America and sped up the Earth’s rotation, shortening the day by 1.8 microseconds.
At last count, the quake and resulting wall of water had killed just over 15,000 people and injured thousands more across 18 prefectures. Officially, some 13,000 people are still missing, although there may be some overlap with casualties that have already been counted. Regardless, the final death toll may top 25,000.
Losses have been pegged at $300 billion, making the disaster the most expensive natural catastrophe in world history (Standard & Poor’s estimated the rebuilding tab could ultimately run as high as $600 billion). An estimated 125,000 buildings were damaged, toppled or swept away. In Miyagi prefecture alone, 146,000 vehicles (10 percent of the total) were damaged or destroyed, and according to the environment ministry, at least 20 million metric tons of debris were scattered among coastal areas.
Entire towns and villages were swallowed by a tsunami that in some places spawned waves 120 feet high — “something seen only in Hollywood movies,” said Fujisaki. Initially, the catastrophe left 450,000 people homeless, and survivors in places like Ishinomaki and Higashi-Matsushima shivered in freezing darkness as more than 4 million people struggled without electricity.
And in a chain reaction of events that gripped the world, the quake disabled cooling systems at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant 135 miles north of Tokyo, causing fuel rods to overheat and partially melt. Three reactors at the plant were heavily damaged in the days immediately following the earthquake — prompting the government to declare and then widen a mandatory evacuation zone that forced some tens of thousands of people from their homes, perhaps permanently. Tokyo Electric Power Company has said it might be able to bring the plant under control in six to nine months, but that’s predicated on the assumption that it can cool the fuel in several badly damaged reactors.
The nuclear calamity has also forced the country — and the entire world — to rethink its reliance on nuclear power, which generates 30 percent of Japan’s electricity. Kan recently announced that Japan would abandon plans to build future nuclear reactors, saying his country needed to “start from scratch” in formulating a new energy policy.
Meanwhile, experts say the government may also need to fundamentally rethink how the country rebuilds to foster sustainable economic growth and tackle the country’s demographic crisis. Many younger survivors have already fled the devastated communities for Tokyo and other cities, leaving behind mangled ghost towns were quaint fishing and farming villages once dotted the coastline.
It takes a tough sort of ambassador to represent his country at a time like this, but Japan’s composed envoy to the United States seems cut out for the task.
“Yes, this is the biggest tragedy we have experienced since World War II, but saying it’ll take years to recover is jumping to conclusions a little. I would fervently deny that,” Fujisaki told The Washington Diplomat in an exclusive interview. “As you can see, with the resilience of the Japanese people and such a huge amount of goodwill coming from all over the world, we can be pretty optimistic about the future.”
Indeed, Japan, one of the world’s most prosperous and industrious societies, bounced back relatively well after an enormous quake struck the city of Kobe in 1995, killing thousands. The country is also one of the most disciplined in the world — reflecting a culture that values shared sacrifice and teamwork over individual gain. Those values were evident immediately after the disaster when exhausted survivors, emerging from the wreckage, waited calmly in line for hours for water.
As horrific as the triple wallop has been, there are still reasons for the country as a whole to remain positive, according to the ambassador. For one thing, “the major part of the Japanese economy was not hit — for example, Tokyo,” Fujisaki pointed out. “The industrial output of the [affected] region is only 2 percent of Japan’s total. Of course it’s important agriculturally, but Japanese factories will continue to be a supply chain for industrial goods, and they’re open for business.”
Asked about the tragedy’s impact on U.S.-Japanese trade relations — which have improved considerably in the last 10 or 15 years — Fujisaki said it’s simply too early to say.
“We are concentrating now on this earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster. I don’t know how it will be affected,” he responded. “In principle, our basic relations will not be altered, but fortified.”
Fujisaki, 63, has had a close relationship with the United States since the early 1960s, when he attended junior high school in Seattle as an exchange student. Fujisaki joined his country’s diplomatic service in 1969, and in the early 1970s, he spent one year each at Brown University and Stanford University Graduate School.
Fujisaki went on to become director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s North American Affairs Bureau and rose to the rank of deputy minister for foreign affairs. From 1995 to 1999, Fujisaki was political minister at the Japanese Embassy in Washington. He also served in Jakarta, London, Paris and Geneva before being named Japan’s ambassador to the United States in 2008.
In the days and weeks following the earthquake, Fujisaki maintained a hectic schedule, acting as liaison between Japan and various institutions here including the State Department, Pentagon, Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
“The U.S. government sent over 50 nuclear experts to Japan, and they worked day and night,” he said. “Since all the headquarters were here in Washington, I communicated directly with top officials, conveying Japanese views, wishes and information from Japan. I also tried to explain what was occurring in Japan, on radio, TV and newspapers. There was enormous goodwill in the United States, so I went to churches and gatherings to express my gratitude to these charities.”
In mid-April, right before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Japan, Fujisaki flew back home to brief Prime Minister Kan and Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto on official U.S. thinking regarding Japanese recovery efforts — leaving no time to visit the disaster area. He rushed back to Washington so the embassy could prepare for Matsumoto’s April 29 arrival here and meetings with Clinton, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, top officials of the NRC and other dignitaries.
“The U.S. has been so good in extending support to us,” the ambassador said. “Volunteer teams came from Fairfax County and Los Angeles, and more than 20,000 men and women in uniform deployed search-and-rescue missions and distributed food and water. We are not asking anything from Congress or the State Department.”
The Japanese government has allocated an emergency budget of $50 billion to begin the massive reconstruction campaign. But that doesn’t mean Americans haven’t been pitching in as well. The day we interviewed Fujisaki, 47 children from a local school presented a $500 check to the embassy. Some of that money came from parents in the form of birthday gifts. Other grassroots donations from average Americans have poured in, the result of school bake sales and neighborhood fundraising efforts.
“I think the United States has been doing whatever it can, and not only Japanese-Americans,” Fujisaki said, with deep humility. “You have done more than what anyone could expect.”
Fujisaki, whose daughter is covering the disaster as a reporter for Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper, said Japan is no longer in a crisis mode.
“We are improving,” he told The Diplomat. “We are now in the reconstruction phase. That means we have recovered all the major railways, roads and airport. More than 160,000 people are still homeless, so we have to provide food, water, electricity and shelter for them. Some lost their houses because of the earthquake or tsunami, but many others had to leave their homes because they were in the vicinity of the nuclear reactor.”
Despite his own government’s categorization of the Fukushima crisis as a Level-7 incident comparable to the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, Fujisaki said there’s absolutely no comparison.
“Many of those people will be able to go back, because it’s totally different from Chernobyl, where a reactor exploded. There was no explosion, so the level of radioactivity was quite lower than in Chernobyl, and the range of those radioactive materials has not spread out over a wide area, like it did in Chernobyl.”
Indeed, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) — the private utility that operates the crippled Fukushima complex — confirmed in May that most of the melted fuel in the three damaged reactors had remained inside their vessels, averting a “China Syndrome” scenario, a reference to a 1970s-era term describing a severe nuclear meltdown in which spent fuel penetrates the ground.
At the same time, however, recent inspections reveal that one of the reactors had sustained much more damage than originally thought, with its fuel rods left fully exposed for some time. That, in turn, will make it much more difficult for Tepco to stabilize the plant — where about 1,900 people were working as of mid-May — within its announced timeframe of six to nine months.
Tepco has also been criticized for its slow, at-times clumsy response (its president resigned in May following a $15 billion annual loss for the troubled utility company). For instance, Tepco has now belatedly acknowledged that three of its stricken reactors most likely suffered fuel meltdowns in the early days of the crisis. And shortly after the damage at Fukushima became apparent and abnormally high radiation levels were detected, authorities asked everyone living within a 12-mile radius of the plant to evacuate. (That compares to a 19-mile exclusion zone around the crippled Chernobyl plant in Ukraine; no one has lived in that zone since the 1986 meltdown). Yet the U.S. Embassy urged Americans living within 50 miles of Fukushima to leave at once — leading some Japanese to question whether they were being told the whole story.
Fujisaki, refraining from discussing Tepco’s role in the crisis, insists that his government has been truthful from the beginning and done its best in an extraordinarily chaotic situation.
“I don’t think we’re concealing anything,” said the ambassador. “The only thing we can provide are scientific facts and we should be very transparent about it. Up until now, we are making only the most cautious estimates.”
Even if there wasn’t outright duplicity, many Japanese blame incompetence, miscommunication and collusion among authorities for exacerbating the nuclear crisis. Residents and environmentalists have been warning for years that certain nuclear plants had major safety issues and wouldn’t be prepared to withstand a natural disaster — warnings that apparently fell on deaf ears.
Today, fears of radiation poisoning — and restrictions placed on locally produced food — have led millions of Japanese to don facemasks and avoid drinking milk and eating spinach and other vegetables. But Fujisaki says the disaster has not significantly dampened the country’s enthusiasm for nuclear power.
“One poll I saw taken right after the earthquake asked people if we should maintain nuclear power generation at present levels, and 51 percent answered in the affirmative. In 2007, when the same question was asked, 53 percent said yes — so there’s very little difference,” said Fujisaki, noting that Japan produces only 4 percent of its total energy needs, compared to 62 percent for the United States, and therefore will remain extremely dependent on Middle East oil for decades to come.
Even so, the government is playing it safe. In early May, Kan announced he was dropping his ambitious goal of generating half of Japan’s energy needs from nuclear power by 2030 — a plan that called for the construction of 14 new reactors — and will instead emphasize renewable energy sources like solar, wind and biomass.
“We are coping with this issue day by day,” said Fujisaki. “We are making progress little by little, trying to put things under control. It’ll take time, but I think we’re advancing.”
But not fast enough for most Japanese, who are gradually coming to the realization that “the natural and nuclear disasters unleashed on March 11 have exposed the fragility of Japan’s postwar economic order — and that a recovery will not be a return to the status quo,” wrote Hiroko Tabuchi in the New York Times.
“We cannot have recovery for recovery’s sake,” Hiroko Ota, a former economy minister and vice president at Japan’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, told the Times. “We must make this the starting point for a new economy.”
Of critical importance is Japan’s factory output. For decades, manufacturing has been the linchpin of the Japanese economy and key to the country’s wealth and high standard of living. But even Japan’s biggest companies are starting to rethink their strategies in the wake of the disaster.
Toyota Motor Corp. — already plagued by a wave of vehicle recalls and safety issues — concedes it will probably lose its title as the world’s biggest automaker this year, maybe even falling to third place behind General Motors and Volkswagen. Toyota says that even though its 17 plants in Japan escaped the quake and tsunami relatively unscathed, its domestic factory lines are working at only half volume and at 40 percent overseas, as auto-parts suppliers in the worst-affected areas struggle to restart operations.
Atsushi Niimi, Toyota’s executive vice president in charge of production, told reporters in April that the company would have to consider procuring more parts overseas. The following month, Toyota reported that its quarterly profit had fallen 77 percent, and that the disaster had slashed operating income by 110 billion yen ($1.36 billion) even though it occurred only three weeks before the end of the quarter.
Nevertheless, Toyota — whose production has been running at about 50 percent of normal globally and only 30 percent in North America — said it would begin recovering in June, with production rising to about 70 percent of normal. The company also notes that it is “carefully monitoring the situation in each region and for each vehicle model and is every day working its hardest to identify every way to restore production as much as possible.”
Meanwhile, Meiko Electronics — a supplier of circuit boards to some of the world’s biggest makers of smartphones — would no longer manufacture domestically after the quake ravaged two of its five Japanese factories. According to the New York Times, Meiko already makes 80 percent of its parts overseas and has recently begun production at a new plant in Wuhan, China.
Although Japan’s manufacturing sector has been hobbled not only by the recent disaster but also by global competition from cheaper countries such as China, many industries are proving to be as resilient as the Japanese people themselves. A survey in late April by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry found that two-thirds of 70 factories damaged by the earthquake and tsunami had recovered, while most of the remainder expect to be back in full production by summer. Sony, for example, has already resumed operations at nine of its 10 shuttered plants.
If anything, the reverberations in the global supply chain, whether it’s in auto parts or smartphone chips, demonstrate that Japan remains a crucial cog in fueling the world’s economy. For instance, Ricoh, a $25 billion maker of copiers, suffered big losses when the ceiling of its motor factory in Shibata-Machi collapsed following the March quake. As a result, an even larger Ricoh plant in the Chinese industrial city of Shenzhen had to stop production for a week.
“Ricoh is also dependent on parts from various suppliers in Japan, some of which suffered their own damage from the earthquake,” wrote Andrew Pollack in the New York Times. “That is forcing Ricoh to live off its inventory of certain computer chips and connectors. If production of those parts does not resume in the next couple of months, Ricoh might have to slow or halt production.”
And that is “exactly what we are trying to avoid,” warned Fujisaki. “We must keep the supply chain moving. If we can’t get parts to our customers, they will start to look elsewhere.”
An even bigger problem — one that has been looming for decades — is Japan’s declining population, a trend likely to be exacerbated by the recent tragedy. More than 23 percent of Japan’s 127 million citizens are over the age of 65 (compared to only 13 percent of Americans) — making it one of the grayest countries on Earth.
In 2011, Japan’s median age was 44.8 years, and its traditional reluctance to admit immigrants means the Japanese population will just keep getting older and older, increasing the national health care bill and the burden on pension funds.
And if current trends continue, Japan will barely have 100 million people by 2050. Yet with the tremendous losses caused by the March tragedy, a cash-incentive program to encourage young couples to have more babies has already fallen by the wayside.
“There are things the government has to continue doing in order to increase the birthrate, especially in a country that has no natural resources,” Fujisaki conceded. “We need to increase our birthrate. It’s one of our top priorities, but we have to do what is good for the country.”
We asked the ambassador what key lessons Japan has learned from this horrific experience.
“First, central decision-making is so important in a time of crisis,” he answered. “Second is transparency and communications, so that people will be assured — even if it’s not good news. They’ll be very nervous if they’re kept in the dark. You must provide information as soon as possible. And third, take as cautious an attitude as possible, to give assurances that you’re not taking this lightly.”
And then Fujisaki offered us some unsolicited advice of his own.
“Maybe it sounds presumptuous, but I’d say this in front of my younger colleagues: Diplomats are trained to prioritize,” he explained, as two younger embassy staffers listened intently, scribbling notes. “Four days ago, I was at a college in Massachusetts. They invited me in order to give me an honorary degree on behalf of the Japanese people.
“I told them that during your 16 years of school, you’re taught to get A’s. Forget about that. In the real world, try to be a B-getter — the first ‘B’ meaning bonds, as in human relations. In school, if you raise your hand, teachers let you speak. In society, you will not be given an opportunity. You have to know people, you have to get invited.
“The second ‘B’ is balance. Balance your priorities. In school, a math test and a history test will not come at the same time. But in the real world, anything can happen at the same time. If you scream that you cannot do 10 things at once, then next time no one will look at you. You have to train yourself to anticipate and juggle things,” he said.
“The last ‘B’ is brevity. At school, you can write a 30-page thesis and you’ll be appreciated. In the real world, everything has to be two pages or two minutes long. No one will read more than a two-page article. Get to the point. Make it short.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.