Friday, March 11, 2011

The Japanese Earthquake: It Could Have Been Worse

The Japanese Earthquake: It Could Have Been Worse

Mar. 11 2011 - 8:12 am -

Neil Weinberg

As someone who has lived in Japan three times for a total of 11 years, who served there as Forbes’ Japan bureau chief and who married a Japanese woman, my heart goes out to those suffering through the nation’s worst earthquake in many years.

If early reports are accurate, the destruction is widespread. Fortunately, by the standards of major natural disasters, the toll of death and injury is so far relatively limited.

Here’s how a Japanese journalist friend, Yas Idei, described the earthquake to me in an email a few minutes ago from Tokyo:

“Everybody is all right. But it is certainly a mess in Tokyo. All the public transportation is stopped and everybody is walking.It reminds me a bit of the aftermath of 9/11.

When the quake hit, I was in front of a very tall building in Hamamatsu-cho [a central business district]. The building shook like in a movie scene. It was something. Then I walked three and half hours back home.”

Yas was in Iraq during the war and his still planning to head for Egypt on Sunday. My guess is the earthquake is the least of his problems.

Japan itself is forever holding earthquake disaster drills. My clearest memories of them are from watching custom-made earthquake simulation trucks that periodically set up in commercial districts. Their trailers feature a home setting, a member of the public or two are invited to climb up and then, typically, the shaking Great Kanto Earthquake of 1924 is simulate. The participant ends up on his or her butt.

Such displays aside, there’s really no way to prepare an entire nation for a disaster of the magnitude of the latest quake. It puts our place in the grander scheme of things in stark perspective.

For those with a more prosaic point of view—namely investors—my guess is that the quake won’t have much effect on Japan’s technology titans. In the Sendai region, and Tohoku to the north, with big swaths of low-lying coastal regions, the risks of widespread destruction from tsunami waves are high. But this is the backwater of Japan, not a center of commerce.

Toyota, for one, is headquartered in Toyota City in the far-away Kansai region. Many other firms headquartered in Tokyo, like Sony, Hitachi and Honda Motors, have long ago spread their operations to the far reaches of the Japanese archipelago, Southeast Asia, China and beyond. The damage to them will be limited. So too, I would guess, will be the effect on the psyche of a people who have lived with earthquakes for centuries and, recent troubles aside, have done so much with so little.

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