Japan quake: Changed world for industry, one month on

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Anti-nuclear protesters in Tokyo, 10 April
Image caption,
The quake has sparked anti-nuclear power protests

At a factory owned by Furukawa Electric, just south of Tokyo, workers are trying to make the most of the electricity they get.

That means working night shifts and on Saturdays.

"Cable manufacturing requires continuous electricity, so rolling blackouts affect us badly," said Shinji Taniguchi, production manager of the factory.

"So we increased the number of our employees who work at night when there are no power cuts."

Demand for electric cables has risen since the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck on 11 March.

They are used in everything from cars to planes to construction sites - including the reconstruction of the quake-hit area.

"As a manufacturer of electric cables, we can only play a minor role but we want to help bring the light back to the Tohoku area," Mr Taniguchi said.

However, electricity is not the only crucial ingredient that they have been struggling to get hold of.

"Our big concern is how to secure raw materials, because we used to get them from Fukushima," said Mr Taniguchi.

"We had to look for alternative suppliers in other parts of Japan or from overseas. Now everyone is fighting over limited resources.

"But we have a responsibility to supply electric cables so we are doing as best as we can," he added.

'No more blackouts'

The power cuts have been extremely unpopular among businesses.

So the government is asking major power users, such as factories, to cut their peak consumption by a quarter.

Without these cuts, demand for electricity could outstrip depleted supplies by the summer.

The president of Furukawa Electric, Masao Yoshida, is also the chairman of the Japanese Electric Wire and Cable Makers Association.

He says the new plan at least gives his industry certainty.

"It is definitely good news that there won't be any more rolling blackouts," Mr Yoshida said.

But can Japan's factories maintain full productivity with 75% of electricity that they got before the quake?

"It will be tough," said Mr Yoshida. "But this is an unprecedented disaster so we have to share the burden."

"We have three months to prepare before demand for electricity skyrockets in summer. I am sure we can all work together to save enough energy," he added.

Over the past month, words such as cooperation and unity have been repeated by many business leaders and politicians.

The people's attitude towards sharing the pain of the survivors of the earthquake and tsunami has been evident.

But one month on, Japan's period of mourning is coming to an end.

As the Japanese celebrate the start of spring, the mood of self-restraint, or jishuku, is giving way to the spirit of "All Japan".

People are coming together to help rebuild the Tohoku area.

If the price is a change in lifestyle or business practices, it seems that is a price many Japanese households and firms are willing to pay.

Five-year power shortages

But for how long does Japan need to live with less electricity? Until the summer? For six months? Or until the end of the year?

"I expect electricity shortages to last for three to five years," said the country's economics minister, Kaoru Yosano.

Image caption,
Japanese people and companies may be willing to pay the price of a change in lifestyle

"During that time, we need to make sure that productivity of our factories doesn't drop, because the manufacturing sector is crucial to Japan's economic growth," he added.

Mr Yosano said the Japanese people would have to save energy at home, as he recalled what he had had to endure in the past.

"When I was a child, there were only two light bulbs at each household. No fridge, no air-conditioning," he said.

That may be slightly extreme, but the minister urges people to renew their old appliances or keep early hours.

"The Japanese people are wise, so if we explain clearly, I am confident they will cooperate," the minister added.

'Safer country'

But as residents of this rich nation get used to life without so many neon signs, public anger towards nuclear power generator Tokyo Electric has been growing.

On Sunday, one of the biggest anti-nuclear protests took place all over Japan. In Koenji, Tokyo's residential area, several thousand people participated.

"This is the first protest that I have attended," said Sanae Takeshita.

"But I am here because I think we should get rid of nuclear energy. We should focus less on being one of the biggest economies in the world and focus on having a safer country," she added.

So will Japan be relying less on nuclear energy?

"Nuclear power remains an important source of energy," said Mr Yosano. "This disaster will not change that because Japan does not have any natural resources."

Japan currently gets a quarter of its electricity from nuclear power plants.

"Whether we plan to rely on it less, I think we should not have the debate until things settle down and people regain their calmness," Mr Yosano said.

He may be hoping that it will not take too long to regain people's trust in nuclear energy.

But footage of the ongoing battle at the Fukushima nuclear power plant is way too powerful for people to forget in the immediate future.

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