When the massive Tohoku quake struck on Mar. 11, Yayoko Shinohara, owner of a small grocery store on the main shopping street of the now devastated Namie town, grabbed the day’s earnings and escaped to safety with her husband.
When the couple returned two days later what they had feared most had come true – the street, including their shop, had been reduced to ruble and their home, just two miles away, also lay in ruins after it was hit by the huge tsunami that swept the area.
“We had worked hard for decades to be able to have a stable life which disappeared in just a few minutes. Now we face an uncertain future,” Shinohara told IPS while waiting in line to sign up for temporary shelter.
Two weeks after the quake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale left more than 8,000 dead and tens of thousands homeless, Japan now faces the mindboggling task of resurrecting towns and cities that have been turned into wastelands, leaving thousands unemployed.
For economists the key to pushing the recovery process forward is the injection of large amounts of state funds, a prospect that Shigeru Yamada, a business consultant and former banker, points out is no easy feat even for the world’s third richest country that is already grappling with increasing poverty linked to unemployment rates of over five percent.
“The disaster has dealt a blow to Japan’s economic growth which was struggling already,” Yamada pointed out. He also cites the ballooning national debt – that is already twice the size of the five trillion dollar economy – as another obstacle to allocating sufficient funds.
This week, the cabinet office here estimated the economic cost of the earthquake on the seven affected prefectures at 309 billion dollars and warned that Japanese exports and industrial output would spiral downward – setting a growth rate of 0.5 percent.
The prediction is accompanied by reports of badly hit industries in the Tohoku region – auto parts factories have halted production due to power shortages and farms are destroying vegetables contaminated by radiation from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plants.
Social scientists warn that the hardest hit, apart from the directly affected population in Tohoku, will be the working poor in the country who represent the human face of Japan’s economic recession.
The Tokyo metropolitan government said this month that 15 percent of the capital’s population of nine million is now dependent on welfare handouts.
In January, figures released by the government depicted equally alarming statistics with more than two million households receiving welfare after companies – forced to restructure to compete with cheaper products from other Asian countries – cut jobs.
Soji Tanaka, a sociology expert at Nihon University, explains that the face of poverty in Japan is changing as able and educated people of all ages become vulnerable – a situation that can only get worse as social spending faces the risk of further cuts.
“Poverty is a social issue but the future of social spending is uncertain given the need for state funds to support quake hit areas,” Tanaka predicted. Japan’s poverty threshold is set at an annual income of 18,000 dollars per household – with the national rate of those below that line at 17 percent.
A warning sign, Tanaka told IPS, is statements by the government that point to an upcoming review of the child care allowance of 150 dollars – extended from last year to support families with children less than 3 years-old.
The situation is “serious” and is a “setback” for sectors such as farming and fisheries – two sectors that are the backbone of the regional economy, said Seishi Kitamura, head of the Tohoku Bank.
Shuichi Iwadoki, owner of a fishing company, said “I lost everything expect my life”.
Pointing to a blank spot on the earth, which he said was once his company, Iwadoki says he hopes to receive low interest loans from the Japanese government to start fishing and manufacturing again in Kesenuma, a town on the coast of Fukushima.
Local donors however, say, charity, a new phenomenon in Japanese society that has raised its profile during the past year to help the poor, has also become a crucial source of funds for recovery.
Yuko Sei, spokesperson of the newly established Tiger Mask Fund, a charity comprised of local donors who support poor youth, is a case in point. “We started our work because the state cannot provide sufficient funding to help needy people,” she said. “Japanese have to learn to rely on each other to survive.”
March 29, 2011 (IPS)