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Reading Japan's Earthquake Disaster

Three days after the huge earthquake on the sea floor off Japan, the news continues to darken, with stories of lost lives and fear of nuclear disaster. Reconciliation and restoration seem a long way off, but as one of the world's richest economies, and a people accustomed to nature's more violent side, Japan probably can shoulder this disaster better than anyone.

The horror is concentrated on the people living in the northeastern regions. The death toll is forecast in the tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced in fear of poisoning from two disrupted nuclear plants.

The affected region was not a big manufacturing area, although I did hear it does contain some important electronics plants. Headlines on the Japanese newspaper Nikkei (subscription required) say that Sony has closed six factories, while Mitsubishi Motors plans to run its plants Wednesday.

Tokyo Electric Power is planning rolling power outages, in order to forestall a major blackout. With two nuclear plants north of Tokyo off-line, their available power is down 25 percent. There are shortages of food and gasoline, and train service in Tokyo is spotty.

The Tokyo stock market was down six percent in Monday's trading, which can be no surprise. Who can say what will get worse, or better, and when? Stocks of the Japanese power companies are way off, and in global markets the share prices of companies involved in nuclear power are weak, along with reinsurance companies, which bear the big losses in natural disasters such as this. (My MoneyWatch colleague Jill Schlesinger offers investment commentary about the Japanese and world stock markets.)

The Japanese government quickly reacted with word that they would pump 15 trillion yen, or $183 billion, into the economy to provide liquidity needed to sustain and rebuild. One trillion was scheduled to be supplied on Monday morning. Japan already has major debt and deficit problems, and its economy has been slow for years.

The Times carries an account today of a serious earthquake in Japan in 1923, which was not as strong in terms of how it rent the earth, but wiped out the economy in what as a comparatively low-tech world. Then, as now, the U.S. sped to the country's aid with dozens of naval ships bearing relief supplies.

After the 1923 disaster, Tokyo was rebuilt into a world-class city. On TV news we are hearing experts from the west on the resilience of the Japanese people. The best that can be said is that Japan is a wealthy nation, and is devoting many resources to its problems, and thus should not have to go through horrors of disease and famine, and be able to get back to working order as quickly as is possible.

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