Post quake, Japan struggles for normalcy

Tokyo is fighting for a comeback despite fears of radiation exposure, another earthquake, and a looming energy crisis.

Tourism in Japan has taken a severe blow since the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck on March 11, 2011, killing over 20,000 people [GALLO/GETTY]

TOKYOSix months after the earth beneath their feet rumbled and the sea reached inland, wiping out entire neighbourhoods, the Japanese are doing what they do as a matter of cultural pride: They’re persevering.

In the densely populated capital – hundreds of kilometres from the damaged Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima – life has returned to its regular rhythm, though perhaps only superficially so. The store shelves, left bare in the days following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, are full, and gone is the ghost-town feeling that gripped the city as fears of radiation exposure spread as fast as news of the meltdown itself.

But the triple disaster has left its mark in the form of fears of another major earthquake, radiation contamination and worries about a looming energy crisis.

These things weigh on the minds of locals and have kept foreigners away from the country, which adds a factor of economic pain into the equation. The constant stream of ganbatte (can-do) messages broadcast over the airwaves and screaming out in posters can’t make up for six months of worry.

The Asakusa Kannon Temple, one of the city’s grandest tourist and cultural attractions, is usually crammed full of tourists jockeying for the perfect spot to shoot the majestic gates of Tokyo’s oldest temple.

But even on the sunniest days during what ought to be high season for visitors, the temple is hardly bustling, with most of its few visitors being Japanese.

Joseph Hung and Vivenne Su, from Taiwan, are among the few foreign visitors in the market near the temple.

“We’re not worried the radiation will affect us here,” said Hung, 26. But then, he’s not taking any chances either.

“We will only be in Tokyo and only for five days.”

That kind of mindset is bad news in these parts.

Nippon: No-go zone

While more subtle issues linked to fallout from the March 11 disasters linger, probably the most immediate, and obvious one, is the severe decrease in the number of tourists and other types of foreign visitors (such as students) here.

Follow Al Jazeera’s coverage of Japan’s disaster

Tourism has dwindled in Japan, where under normal circumstances, hotels could name their fees and anything amounting to a serious discount is generally unheard of.

Now, hotels and tour groups in Tokyo are offering major discounts in the hopes that a good deal will make potential visitors forget about things like earthquakes and leaky nuclear plants. The industry is simultaneously facing the double challenge of trying to offset the Yen’s rise against the US dollar.

“Even top-class hotels have reduced their prices,” said Yonehara Ryozo, president of the Institute for Japanese Cultural Exchange and Experience, who is among those tasked with getting things back on track.

Indeed, a four-star hotel room in the city’s glittering Ginza district can now be had for between $120 – $150 a night, including all taxes. Not convinced? How about free breakfast and a room upgrade? No?

Ryozo figured as much.

He’s fresh from a meeting with representatives of the Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO) – the umbrella group his organisation belongs to – and they are trying to figure out how to sell tourism in Japan to tourists from the US, Canada and Australia.

According to the JNTO’s latest figures, there were 36 per cent fewer tourists visiting Japan in July compared to the same month last year. Data collected from 68 travel agencies in the country indicates that the loss of revenue varies month to month, down as much as 71 per cent some months.

Turning this situation around is a daunting task, especially given that the government has never really had to sell tourism in Japan, a clean, low-crime country with plenty of natural beauty and a fascinating culture. The place hardly needs a sales pitch. Now, the best they can come up with is to focus on promoting Kyoto over Tokyo – it’s in the Kansai region, well south of the tsunami-damaged and radiation-contaminated Tohoku region and even the Kanto region, which includes Tokyo. They’re also reducing prices for the tours by around 30 per cent. They’re willing to try anything, really.

Ryozo said that prior to the earthquake, his organisation had 20 – 25 groups per month (a group can range from 1 – 50) during the winter months, and just before the earthquake, he had reservations for 40 groups, some stretching out through to September. But after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, they all cancelled.

“After that, nothing,” said Ryozo, adding that, one of the groups, he said, rebooked their trip opting for a tour of Kyoto instead. But the other 39 never rebooked.

Even the free trip that he’d arranged for a contingent of Russian travel industry professionals in May was rejected. And the dozens of groups of visiting language students that would ordinarily book tours through Ryozo’s organisation have also vaporised. This summer, only three students signed up for the tours.

Currently, visitors booking cultural tours through his group are at 10 per cent of what they were in the previous year. His bookings are sparse – mostly corporate clients looking for fun, cultural activities for their employees to check out after a convention or a training session. But he’s not sure it will be enough.

“I’m not optimistic at all.”

This isn’t going to be what folks like Takaoka Masahiko want to hear. His Senbei rice-cracker stand on Nakamise Street is in a precarious holding pattern. Business for his is about 60 per cent of what it used to be, and he’s not sure if he can sustain the stand, which has been there for 100 years.

“This is not normal … this is my first experience with something like this. I really hope it gets better soon,” he said.

Further down the street, Miyasaka Miwa, said her shop wasn’t selling half as many Yukatas and kimonos as it did before the earthquake.

“We’re not so aggressive with ordering, so even our suppliers and manufacturers are being affected,” she said.

Eye on Daiichi

In the days following the initial fires and explosions at the Daiichi plant, operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), mothers in Tokyo snapped up bottled water for their children or they packed up and heading south in an effort to limit their children’s exposure to radiation. The initial wave of panic has passed, and life has returned to normal.

However, to those still tracking the situation, troubling questions remain over contamination from the Daiichi site and broader issues of the safety of relying on nuclear power in such a seismically active island nation.

Nuclear contamination is still a concern [EPA]

The government has tried to alleviate those concerns by subjecting the country’s nuclear plants to additional safety testing, and TEPCO has returned to burning fossil fuels to make up for the energy shortage following the meltdown.

Hideyuki Ban, co-director and secretary general of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Centre (CNIC) worries that the urgency of dealing with the dangers of nuclear power will fade in public consciousness as time places distance between the present and the meltdown at Daiichi plant in Fukushima.

His group is maintaining an online campaign as well as organising protests to keep the issue alive, aiming to collect 10 million signatures during its “Sayonara Nukes” protests, a series of marches around the country starting on September 11.

“We now know that what the government was saying – that the nuclear plants are safe – is not true. Maybe there is a slight chance, but there are more than 50 nuclear plants all over Japan and we now know that accidents could happen at any one of them,” said Ban.

The pro-nuclear campaign maintained for so long by the government, has relaxed somewhat in recent months. “It’s a sensitive time now,” said Ban, and the multi-billion Yen campaign to sell nuclear power as a clean and safe alternative seems to be on hold. Still, the 41 nuclear plants currently being inspected will resume operations within months.

This is something anti-nuclear activists are hoping to avoid. They want to keep the plants shut down for at least another year. Long term, the CNIC, which has been operating since 1975, aims to move Japan away from nuclear power and towards renewable energy, shutting down all 54 nuclear power plants.

“The government should listen to the points made by the minority, because the possibility of a tsunami and earthquake had been known by the government’s own researchers, and TEPCO knew about it, but they have done nothing,” Ban said, referring to what the nuclear industry calls the “unforeseeable” theory (how can they prevent an accident that couldn’t be predicted?).

“In the next few years, it’s clear that we will see impact on children from the radiation – this is very serious. Like Chernobyl, the government will not admit the connection between illnesses and Fukushima,” said Ban.

So even though the estimated death toll for the earthquake and tsunami hover somewhere around the 20,000 mark – including those who are still technically “missing” – there’s a chance that the nuclear meltdown will make the March 11 disaster an even deadlier one, with a slowly unfolding rate of casualties.

But what to do about it at this point?

Given that expanding the evacuation zone beyond the current 20 km radius to the more ideal 60 – 80 km away from the leaking plant is nearly impossible as it would involve moving nearly 1.5 million people, there’s only one thing left to do: Keep a watchful eye on the situation. It’s telling that he’s not counting on the authorities to do so.

“Over the next few years, the media should keep chasing the story,” said Ban.

Follow D. Parvaz on Twitter: @DParvaz

Source: Al Jazeera

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