WisBusiness: Japan’s economy bouncing back from quake, trade envoy says

By Brian E. Clark

For WisBusiness.com

The northeast coast of Japan was devastated in March by a 9.0 earthquake and a 46-foot tsunami that overwhelmed the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

The disaster caused more than $200 billion in damage and killed an estimated 20,000 people. More than 300,000 people remain in refugee camps.

But the economy of the devastated region is rebounding and the country’s auto and electronics’ factories are producing more than they did before the disaster hit, the head of the Chicago office of the Japan External Trade Organization said Thursday during a talk at UW-Madison’s Fluno Center.

And if the country’s experience following the 1995 Kobe earthquake is any indication, Tatsuhiro Shindo said the economy of the area affected by the tsunami may come back even stronger than it was prior to quake.

Shindo told a small gathering sponsored by the Madison International Trade Association that Japan remains Wisconsin’s fifth largest trading partner and is eager to do business with Badger State companies.

Shindo expressed gratitude to the U.S. government and aid organizations for help after the temblor. He said that damaged roads, ports and infrastructure in affected areas were repaired quickly after the quake.

He acknowledged that it will take six to nine months for the affected nuclear reactors to go into what he called a “cool shutdown.” Villages near the reactors were evacuated, no crops can be harvested with 12.5 miles of the plant and all fishing has been prohibited within 18.75 miles of the plant.

But he said he wanted to dispel the impression that much of Japan was damaged by the quake and tsunami. He said the manufacturing region south of Tokyo in the central part of the country was not hit by the temblor. And he stressed that cosmetics manufactured in Japan are safe, unaffected by possible radiation leaks.

Lora Klenke, vice president of International Business Development for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., echoed Shindo and said Tokyo’s department stores and markets were bustling during a recent visit to the country.

Klenke, who has worked and studied in Japan, said Japanese consumers continue to seek out high-value, high-quality products, including from the Midwest.

The vast majority of Japanese are not “in dire straits,” she said, noting that she was often told the entire country is not rebuilding.

“That means there are lots of opportunities for Wisconsin manufacturers and producers in Japan,” she stressed, adding that U.S. companies need to do their homework and understand Japanese culture to be successful.

Shindo said Wisconsin companies in the green and clean technology areas, medical device and biotech manufacturers and makers of service robotics should find openings to meet growing needs in Japan.

He said heavy equipment makers have opportunities in his homeland. And he noted that Harley-Davidson motorcycles remain extremely popular status symbols in Japan.