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Businesses, supply chains shut down in Japan

A businessman uses his mobile phone as he walks past an electronic share price board in Tokyo on March 16, 2011.

Kai Ryssdal: The Emperor of Japan's been on television. The Prime Minister and the chief cabinet secretary, as well, each trying to calm a very frightened population, which has been both physically and economically dislocated.

Once again, we turn to our correspondent Rob Schmitz. He's on the line from Yamagata, Japan. Hey Rob.

Rob Schmitz: Hey Kai.

Ryssdal: First of all, Rob, where'd we track you down? Where is Yamagata?

Schmitz: Well, I'm just outside the radiation zone from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. I flew in to the closest airport to the reactors, so as you can imagine, there weren't many people on my plane. But one guy I met, his name is Hayami Setoguchi, he owns a business in Sendai -- that's the city on the coast that was close to the quake's epicenter. Mr. Setoguchi sells prosthetic limbs. He tells me that almost all businesses in Sendai are wiped out. Those that weren't damaged by the quake and the tsunami, the supply chain to the city is gone, so they have nothing to sell. Setoguchi's getting calls from hospitals all over the region for his products, so he decided to drive to the nearest airport, fly to Tokyo, and then fly back today. Since air, road and rail are cut off from Sendai, this guy is slowly moving his own supply chain. So I asked him what he thinks will happen to Sendai's economy, and he just stared at the floor.

Hayami Setoguchi speaking in Japanese

Schmitz: So here he's saying that he can't imagine how it's going to be. Before we think about that, he said, we need to have food and water and an infrastructure. He said he was going to have to wait for half a day tomorrow just to buy gas to drive back to his business in Sendai. They're rationing gas here to 2.5 gallons per car.

Ryssdal: So what are people doing, Rob? Are they staying put in shelters? This guy is obviously out and about, but is anything moving there in the local economy?

Schmitz: It's not moving very much. I mean, most people are staying put and rationing how much food they eat. It seems incredible in a country this developed, but in a matter of less than a week, parts of Japan have lost everything essential for an economy to run. In the lobby of my hotel this evening, I saw this group of guys wearing matching green jumpsuits; they were a bridge inspection crew and they were going around determining which bridges in this region were still safe. They told me that people they saw in towns up and down the coast where the tsunami hit can only find food in an evacuation centers, and even then, it's a few biscuits a day with a little water.

Ryssdal: You had to bring your own water to the hotel, do I have that right?

Schmitz: I did. Some parts of this area that I'm in right now don't have water because they need electricity to pump it, and a lot of places don't have electricity. But there's another concern about possible contamination of the water because it's somewhat close to the nuclear reactors that are failing right now.

Ryssdal: As you go about reporting out this story the next couple of days, and you talk to businesses, what are they going to be saying about the future, about when things somehow are going to get back to normal?

Schmitz: It's difficult for them to even think about this right now, because they're trying to survive. But you know, when you think about the future, this is a country that rebuilt itself phenomenally after World War II, and I think a lot of people here remember that. A lot of people have pride in their country here. I think that underneath all of this, they're very optimistic about Japan's future, despite what's happening right now.

Ryssdal: Marketplace's Rob Schmitz in Yamagata, Japan, west of the earthquake zone in Sendai. Rob, thanks a lot.

Schmitz: Thanks Kai.

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