Our close relationship with the Japanese could be mutually beneficial at this time.
IF I had any sense of drama I would play up the fact that I was in Japan last week when the dreadful earthquake and related tsunami hit the east coast.
However, holidaying in Hokkaido hundreds of kilometres from the epicentre meant that, in reality, I felt little more than a couple of substantial tremors, which due to the lack of concern from the locals I took to be normal seismic activity.
Like much of the world I learned about the scale of the disaster as it unfolded on the BBC and can only pretend to have a greater knowledge of the quake’s early impact because I had the luxury of being on holiday and could commit to watching the television without interruption.
Even my trip home was relatively uneventful because we had chosen to fly to Hokkaido via Hong Kong, avoiding Tokyo, which turned out to be a major bottleneck for many travellers.
We saw the impact of that the following day at Sapporo’s Chitose airport, where thousands of people were stranded due to the closure of air traffic to Tokyo.
Nevertheless, being in the country and witnessing just a tiny element of the disaster that has brought tragedy to so many people did give me pause to contemplate both the human and economic elements of this tragedy.
Firstly, there is the direct and immediate impact. The Sendai region is variously described as being between 2 per cent and 8 per cent of the Japanese economy, the world’s third largest. So in real terms the production loss in terms of cars, steel and agriculture will be even less of a speck on the global economy than Australia’s planned commitment to a carbon tax.
However, steel making and the cars that are built with this metal are pretty important to Western Australia, so just as we have benefitted from China’s strength during the GFC, so may we be disproportionally affected by the aftermath of the Sendai quake.
That is the short term. Ultimately, once power is restored and living conditions return to relatively normal levels, the rebuilding of mainland Japan’s shattered north-east coast will absorb far more material in the coming months than that lost in production.
And it’s not just iron ore that will be affected. The energy business could change significantly as a result of this tragedy. WA is a big supplier of gas to Japan but we are also an evolving uranium supplier.
The problems at the Fukushima nuclear power plant may well nip in the bud any hopes for a big revival of that industry. The Nimby view on nukes will only get stronger as that element of the quake’s impact lingers – something that may make current and prospective nuclear energy users rethink their plans.
There is also the agricultural impact that may flow through to WA farmers.
As the footage showed, Sendai was a relatively flat coastal region suited to rice growing and the like. The giant greenhouses washed away by the tsunami allowed the Japanese to extend their growing season in this cold climate by raising seedlings earlier than the usually cold weather would allow.
But let’s get away from the hard economic facts and think about some of the humanitarian elements of this disaster.
The scale of the problem is yet to be fully quantified but the destruction of housing and exclusion zone due to the radiation threat could displace about 200,000 people for many months – especially right now when it is cold in the worst-affected areas.
That is a lot of people to temporarily relocate, even in a country of Japan’s population – some 130 million or so. Japanese homes are small, it is already crowded and, generally, refugees don’t conveniently come as singles. Accommodating families is a tough ask.
WA has little to offer in terms of humanitarian aid. We are good at fighting fires but earthquake rescues are not our thing.
However, perhaps we could marry our economic needs to Japan’s humanitarian crisis, by offering to accommodate refugees and offer them counselling and associated services.
I hope it doesn’t sound cold-hearted to say we need people in this state and Japan’s Sendai homeless come from an industrious, well-educated part of a first-world country. Steel works, car factories and intensive agriculture tend to have some very skilled people who WA could accommodate and put to productive work very easily.
Such people could come alone, reducing the burden of accommodating their families and earning the wages necessary to pay for their keep; or, better still, they could bring their families and further reduce their footprint on Japan’s disaster-affected economy.
A wave of Japanese temporary migration would be easier to manage than anything from less-developed nations.
Many Australians would have the room to accommodate a whole family for an extended period. I know dozens of people who learned Japanese when they were young – it was popular in the 1970s and 1980s. Such local skills are undervalued and could help break down language barriers.
The strength of the Australian dollar would make temporary work here quite profitable. Exposure to our climate and way of life might even attract a few of them to stay here – something I personally would welcome.
Be it short, medium or longer term, I see that humanitarian-cultural link, even with the obvious economic opportunism, as appropriate given Japan is a major trading partner of ours.
If WA were to invite 20,000 people, for example, to come and stay for at least a year, I see that as a major humanitarian gesture that would have long-term benefits for our state, Japanese-Australian relations and trade.
Of course, some would say there’s a risk that every time there is a major crisis overseas, we would be expected to match this generous offer to take thousands, no matter where they are from.
But this is not a precedent that needs to be repeated. Japan’s disaster is unique because it has taken place in a developed nation at an enormous scale. Those affected come from an economy like ours and therefore will fit our needs, which makes them easier to accommodate. More importantly, people from rich countries like Japan are most likely to want to return home when things have settled down.
The last time there was a mass migration to Australia from the developed world – excluding the UK over the past two years and what is currently taking place in Ireland – was after WWII when Australia accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Back then we needed the labour and skills too. While most of those Europeans came to live in Australia permanently, they left nations far more pulverised than any natural disaster, with cultural and political problems that were to last for decades to come.
Despite Australia’s opportunistic generosity back then, the world did not demand we continue to take the victims of war. That was our choice, as extending our hand to Japan’s homeless would be.