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March 24, 2011

Columbia Experts Discuss Impact of Japan Earthquake

Less than two weeks after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck Japan, three Columbia University professors shared their expertise as part of the university event, “The Economic, Health, and Political Consequences of Japan’s Earthquake.”


Less than two weeks after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck Japan, three Columbia University professors shared their expertise as part of the university event, “The Economic, Health, and Political Consequences of Japan’s Earthquake.”

More than 200 people attended the March 22 panel discussion in Uris Hall, which was sponsored by the School’s Center on Japanese Economy and Business, Columbia Law School’s Center for Japanese Legal Studies, Columbia University’s Program for Economic Research, and Columbia’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute. The event was moderated by Curtis Milhaupt, professor of Japanese law and comparative corporate law and vice dean of Columbia Law School.

David Weinstein, the Carl S. Shoup Professor of the Japanese Economy, spoke about the economic effects of the disaster on Japan’s economy. To put the Tohoku earthquake in context, Weinstein, who is also the associate director for research at the School’s Center on Japanese Economy and Business and executive director of the university’s Program for Economic Research, referenced the aftermath of Japan’s Kobe earthquake in 1995. The Japanese economy rebounded within a few months of that quake, in which 6,434 people died and physical damage to homes and businesses was extensive.

“Developed countries with robust economies tend to bounce back fairly quickly,” Weinstein said. “While the human toll is horrible, aggregate economic impacts are likely to be much less severe.”

The location of a crisis makes a difference, too. Events that change physical geography affect where people live and what they produce. But “this earthquake and nuclear event happened in relatively remote areas, which also lessens the impact on the Japanese economy,” Weinstein said.

The main roadblocks to a speedy recovery are electric power and unresolved radiation issues. The current problems at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant suggest that the nuclear power industry will be most affected by the crisis, Weinstein said. “I think there will be a general assessment of nuclear power. It will be very hard for Japan to build that next nuclear power plant.”

To further explain the effects of the nuclear crisis, David Brenner, professor of radiation biophysics, offered a brief presentation of how a nuclear reactor works and described the events that crippled the Dai-ichi plant. He also outlined the potential health hazards posed by radiation, stressing that the 50 to 200 workers who have remained at the plant and are working to keep the reactors under control are likely to experience the most significant side effects, including potential fatalities.

The general population, on the other hand, is not likely to be as affected, though radioactivity has shown up in food from the region near the stricken plant and in Tokyo’s water supply; both will need to be monitored for some time, Brenner said. Despite fears voiced in the press, he does not think radiation from the Japanese plant will reach the United States.

In spite of these obstacles, Gerald Curtis, professor of political science, said Japan’s rallying response in the wake of World War II suggests that reconstruction of the country’s hardest hit regions could energize the Japanese people to move forward after this crisis, too.

Weinstein agreed that Japan’s own history provides a prime example of how a country and economy can recover following a catastrophe. “The rebuilding will come from the people themselves,” he said.

However, the quake might have also served to strengthen the already secure US-Japanese relationship, Curtis said. “In a curious way, the United States and other countries have been reminded of just how important Japan is to the world economy.”

For information on how to locate people in Japan’s quake zone or donate to relief efforts, visit news.columbia.edu/japanearthquake.