Tsunami Strikes Japan at Time of Recession

A devastating tsunami swept across Japan’s northeastern coast at a time of significant economic hardship for the East Asian country. (Updated)

A devastating tsunami triggered by the biggest earthquake on record in Japan probably killed more than a thousand people along the country’s northeastern coast on Friday. A wall of water of up to thirty feet high swept across rice fields, engulfed towns, dragged houses onto highways, tossed cars and boats like toys, reaching as far as six miles inland in Miyagi Prefecture.

The 8.9 magnitude temblor, which was centered near the regional capital city of Sendai, was the heaviest to struck the island nation in recorded history. The earth continued to twitch with aftershocks on Saturday, punctuated by a pair of strong earthquakes in the early morning, including one with a magnitude of 7.1 and another with a magnitude of 6.8.

Thousands of residents were evacuated from an area around a nuclear plant north of Tokyo after fears of a radiation leak but officials said problems with the reactor’s cooling system were not at a critical level. An atomic power emergency was declared to enable authorities to implement crisis measures however and an explosion at the facility was reported on Saturday.

Underscoring grave concerns about the plant, the United States Air Force, which has three bases in Japan, delivered coolant on Friday, according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The Japanese government’s chief spokesman said that the metal container around the reactor was not damaged in the explosion and that radiation levels in the area had actually decreased after the blast.

Other nuclear plants and oil refineries were shut down while one refinery in Chiba Prefecture was shown ablaze on Japanese television. The intense fire in the waterfront area east of Tokyo could not be reached by firefighters because of the heat.

An irrigation dam was reported broken in Fukushima Prefecture, north of the capital. All that was left of many structures in the city of Minamisōma were their foundations. Only concrete and steel buildings appeared to have withstood the wash.

Auto plants and electronics factories closed while millions of homes and businesses were without electricity. Several airports, including Tokyo’s Narita, and all sea ports suspended operations while rail services halted. At least one bullet train carrying hundreds of passengers in the Miyagi region had been derailed while four were missing in the coastal areas.

Japanese politicians pushed for an emergency budget to fund relief efforts after Prime Minister Naoto Kan asked them to “save the country.” Kan surveyed the disaster area by helicopter for several hours on Saturday.

Eight thousands troops were dispatched to aid in the recovery and the government asked the United States military for assistance. Some 38,000 American soldiers are stationed in Japan along with an equal number of family members and civilian personnel.

President Barack Obama told the Japanese prime minister that his country would assist in any way. Five US Navy ships were en route for Japan; two were already docked in the harbor of Yokosuka. Neither of the American ships was damaged, said the Pentagon. The USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike group, at sea in the western Pacific and on its way to Korea at the time of the quake, was underway for Japan to assist in relief efforts.

Japan is one of the most heavily indebted nations in the world. The long-term effects of repeated short-term government interventions in the private sector during the “lost decade” of the 1990s have resulted in a huge public debt that exceeds GDP twofold.

Trapped in low growth and a corrosive downward spiral of deflation, the economy has contracted significantly despite being one of the world’s largest. Last year, Japan experienced mild negative growth.

As a result of its high standards of living, the country is also coping with a large aging population and mounting financial pressure on its public pension system.

Japan’s financial sector and infrastructure are well developed but remain subject to political interference. Last year, to prevent the soaring currency from impeding a fragile recovery, the government began to pursue an active monetary policy to protect the competitiveness of Japanese exports.

This post was updated with corrections and new information.