May 24, 2024

Japan Announces Emergency Budget for Rebuilding

The $48.5 billion budget is likely to be followed by more spending as Japan takes on the gargantuan task of rebuilding the section of its Pacific coastline ravaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Parliament is expected to pass the budget next week.

At least 14,133 people have been found dead, an additional 13,346 remain missing and more than 130,000 are living in evacuation centers. Government estimates put the total damage from the quake and tsunami at $300 billion.

The nuclear crisis set off by the tsunami has added to the human and economic toll. On Friday, the government banned residents from a 12-mile evacuation zone around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, where several reactors have suffered explosions and radiation leaks. A previous order urged but did not require evacuation from that zone; the government still recommends that residents leave if they are within 19 miles of the plant.

“We all share the hope that reconstruction does not mean a return to where we were, but the building of a brighter future,” Prime Minister Naoto Kan said at a news conference.

“I feel it was my fate to be prime minister at a time of great adversity,” said Mr. Kan, whose handling of the crises has been criticized sharply in Parliament and in the country at large.

Japan has rebounded from other catastrophes: The 1923 Great Kanto earthquake killed as many as 140,000 people and caused widespread destruction in Tokyo. It also is thought to have wiped out almost 40 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. In comparison, the death toll from the March 11 quake and tsunami is far lower, and the economic damage is likely to add up to just a few percent of G.D.P.

Still, Japan faces different challenges now, which could weigh heavily as it rebuilds: a rapidly aging population, a long-stagnant economy and public debt that is already at twice the size of its economy, thanks to profligate public works projects of the 1990s. That debt burden adds serious obstacles to financing the great reconstruction. Raising taxes, for which there appears to be a measure of public support, will dampen already tepid personal consumption levels. Issuing more government bonds will add to the ballooning deficit.

Mr. Kan’s grip on leadership also appears to be weakening under the withering criticism, including charges that he bungled the initial response to the nuclear crisis, causing it to worsen.

The president of Fukushima Daiichi’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, visited an evacuation center on Friday. “I have no words to express my regret,” the president, Masataka Shimizu, told the evacuees after making his way through cardboard beds and blankets. Television cameras in tow, he knelt and bowed deeply — the ultimate posture of apology in Japan.

Some refugees bowed back, but others heckled him. “We all just want to go home,” one told him quietly.

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