A month after the earthquake, Japan struggles

Alcohol distributor Hisago Takanohashi, far right, with colleagues.

Kai Ryssdal: Japan got a most unwelcome reminder this morning that today's a month since the earthquake. A magnitude 7.0 aftershock shook the northeast part of the country today. Almost anywhere else in the world, 7.0 would be called an earthquake in its own right. But the more the earth moves, the more the effects spread beyond just the immediate area of the quake -- and the harder it is for Japan to recover.

From Tokyo, Marketplace's Scott Tong has more on how the last month has changed lives and businesses.


Scott Tong: A middle-aged man sits in a Tokyo park, clutching a bottle of liquor. It's not what you think.

Forty-six-year-old Hisano Takanohashi is an alcohol distributor. He sits on a picnic blanket, a dozen coworkers around him. Typical salarymen. They're sipping the company's product: a 50-proof wheat alcohol called shochu.

Laughter

Don't let the laughter fool you. Times are bad: Takanohashi's sales have fallen 80 percent in the month since the disaster. Here in Tokyo, night life has tanked, and people are staying home.

Hisano Takanohashi: This is normally a very happy time of year.

Normally, this park would be packed in early April; it's cherry blossom season. But tonight, the lanterns on the cherry trees hang dark, 'cause Japan is rationing electricity. Most people know about the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. But 19 other plants are offline, too. And everyone in Japan is hurting.

Takanohashi: Salarymen are all affected by the power outage. The trains aren't reliable any more. So people go home early, instead of going out. My own commute went from two hours a day to four, since they canceled the express train.

Trains in Japan are so reliable you can usually set your watch by them. Not now. Takanohashi, like many others, is critical of the beleaguered Tokyo Electric Power Company.

Takahonashi: The power company says maybe today we'll have a blackout. But they don't tell us exactly when. If they did, restaurants could plan. But if you don't know when the power will be on, nobody can stay in business.

Andrew DeWit: This is going to drag on and on.

Andrew DeWit teaches political economy at Rikkyo University in Tokyo.

DeWit: So the longer this goes on, the more damage the country receives.

DeWit says this is going to dent Tokyo's reputation -- its brand as a financial center. Already, some multinational companies have moved workers to places like Hong Kong, where there's no radiation fear. And the lights are still on.

DeWit: You had this massive departure of foreigners, especially concentrating in finance. A lot of those people aren't going to come back.

But Tokyo locals, like booze distributor Hisago Takanohashi and his pals, are going nowhere. In a bit of dark humor, he jokes this may be the last supper, as in the last company outing before the firm goes under and he frets about that other threat -- radiation.

Takanohashi: The American government says we should stay 50 miles away from the plant. But the Japanese government says 20. We don't trust our government.

Hmm, a salesman not trusting someone else. And Takanohashi's next point comes as another twist.

Takanohashi: If I ingest radiation and get cancer in 20 years, that's OK. I'll be old by then. But it's my two daughters I'm concerned about.

A street performer wanders over to Takanohashi's group. The salarymen want something cheerful. So the musician plays banzai: So happy I met you. Hope we stay together.

Hisano Takanohashi and his fellow salesman are selling themselves a little happiness -- in a city effectively under curfew. The government's new plan is for businesses to cut power use by up to 25 percent -- for who knows how long.

In Tokyo, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: Scott's back on the show Wednesday with more stories of individuals trying to help get Japan back in business.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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