Flight of foreigners adds to disaster pain

Japan can ease its economic crisis by working to bring back the visitors and expatriate residents who accounted for a significant portion of its financial life.

The Ginza shopping district in Tokyo, normally teeming with tourists, has been almost devoid of shoppers since the March 11 earthquake.
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Will I die today? Many citizens of Tokyo have asked themselves this question since the earthquake, the big one that seismologists had warned of for years, that struck Japan on March 11.

Stomach-churning aftershocks rumble every day and the capital's tense citizens expect more. A crippled nuclear plant 200km to the north that is nudging up radiation levels and contaminating the water supply is stoking much of the fear that has gripped one of the world's biggest metropolises.

Foreigners with little to keep them here beyond their jobs have already evacuated Tokyo. Millions of tourists, including those who would come in big package tours from mainland China, are staying at home.

It might seem that Japan, being a leading industrialised nation, can survive without them, but the absence of many of the almost 10 million people adding about 7 per cent to GDP every year will hurt, especially as Japan is likely to slip into a disaster recession in the coming months.

The tens of millions of people living downwind of Japan's stricken Fukushima nuclear plant watched foreigners - dubbed flyjins, a play on "gaijin", a Japanese word for foreigner - scurrying to Tokyo's airports as the reactor crisis worsened.

Downtown shopping districts usually bustling with locals and foreigners, many of them newly affluent Chinese looking to buy luxury brands, cameras and other gadgets, are quiet.

Rather than hunting for expensive bangles and baubles, the locals are also keeping out of pricey department stores.

Instead, topping the shopping lists of many Tokyo citizens are milk, rice, bread, batteries and more recently bottled water after a couple of days of rain washed some of the nuclear plant's radiation into the city's water supply.

The amount is tiny and government scientists assure the population little harm will come from drinking tap water, and that other cities around the world manage just fine with higher naturally occurring background radiation in their air and water. But to calamity-weary Tokyo citizens, not drinking it at all seems the safest option.

For retailers, particularly high-end department stores and luxury outlets, the future looks bleak. Already hammered by nearly two decades of weak domestic consumption, a shift to discount stores and the rise of online shopping, many survive on minuscule profits.

To survive now may mean having to merge with equally strapped rivals. Not surprisingly, retail stocks in Tokyo are down more than most other equities in post-quake trading.

The loss of the tourist yen will be a blow to a cash-strapped nation that can ill-afford to lose income as it searches for money to rebuild homes, roads, ports and other infrastructure along Japan's devastated north-east coast.

The recovery bill, according to the latest official estimates, could exceed US$310 billion (Dh1.13 trillion), making the disaster the world's most expensive, eclipsing the cost of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.

The crisis in Japan will pass. Factories are slowly coming back on line and as supply chains are re-established, the necessities of life will return to Tokyo's stores.

But bringing back the foreigners may take more time. Many Tokyo citizens treat the daily briefings by utility engineers or government bureaucrats with scepticism, convinced they are not getting the full story, and if the locals are suspicious, foreigners have no reason to be more trusting of the official line.

Some expatriates may choose not to come back - it happened several years ago with the outbreak of SARS - choosing to relocate to Singapore, Hong Kong or elsewhere in Asia.

The Chinese and other tourists can also easily fly elsewhere to buy the same things they shopped for in Tokyo. The Japanese city has never rivalled the cosmopolitan flair of London or New York, and even compared with Asia's other global centres, such as Hong Kong or Singapore, it feels less international. It was only the recent influx of tourists that made more neighbourhoods feel mixed.

There may be some lingering resentment among the Japanese at how foreigners appeared to run away from the country so quickly.

But if the Japanese wanta quick reversal of the isolationthe earthquake has imposed on their capital city, the best thing they can do is dust off the welcome mat, open their arms and shout a hearty welcome.