Capitalist system adds to misery of natural disaster in Japan

Japanese authorities refused to put in place adequate safety measures before the quake, and have consistently failed to prioritise the needs of the people during the aftermath.

Working people throughout the world have been appalled by the terrible tragedy that struck Japan last month, when the strongest earthquake ever recorded in human history touched off a devastating tsunami, together laying waste huge parts of this island nation and exacting a horrendous human toll of death and destruction.

As if this were not bad enough, a number of nuclear reactors, upon which Japan is disproportionately dependent for its energy needs, sustained serious damage, leading to high levels of radiation leakage and the danger of another nuclear catastrophe in the country that suffered the only use to date of nuclear weapons in wartime, the 1945 US destruction of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

By 21 March, the confirmed death toll had passed 18,000, with tens of thousands more still missing. Half a million were homeless and living in various forms of makeshift shelters, the overwhelming majority without adequate food, drinking water, lighting, heating or medicine. A further one-and-a-half million homes were without running water. The World Bank has estimated that it will take five years for the country’s economy, which has been in recession for much of the last two decades, to recover, at a cost up to £145bn, while private insurers face a combined bill of some US$33bn.

Government failure

It has been impossible not to admire the dignity, resilience and stoicism of the Japanese working people, elderly and children in the face of such an ordeal. Yet the focus on these admirable qualities has also been used to conceal the callous incompetence of the Japanese government, which, as its capitalist nature dictates, has failed to put people first, even at such a time.

On 21 March, the Guardian reported: “They withstood Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and radiation terrors. But after nine days without heat, electricity, running water, regular meals or word from their loved ones, there are signs that the extraordinary fortitude of the survivors is being worn down by a widening humanitarian crisis.

Officials in Ishinomaki in Miyagi prefecture, one of the coastal cities wrecked by the tsunami, say the shortages and a painfully slow return of services have led to rising anger at the government and sporadic reports of theft and violent crime.

‘It’s only natural that people get frustrated,’ said Yoshinori Sato, a spokesman for the city council. ‘It’s because of the stress. People are hungry and frustrated. I’ve heard about people screaming and fighting over food.’ …

The humanitarian crisis is eroding confidence that Japan – for all its wealth and technological brilliance – is capable of managing a relief effort of such enormous proportions …

In Minato neighbourhood, which was cut off from the centre when a fishing trawler was upended on a bridge, the 500 evacuees sheltering in an elementary school did not get hot food until Saturday night.

A simple meal of rice, vegetables and miso soup, it was provided by volunteers from a camping enthusiasts’ organisation – not the Japanese government. But as barber Katsuhiro Suzuki said: ‘Compared to the first days we were here, this is heaven.’

The evacuees had no food or water for the first three days in the shelter, a state elementary school. Then they graduated to meals made up of a single rice ball or a banana – which they were occasionally directed to share. More food is beginning to arrive, but the shelter now has to stretch to feed the entire neighbourhood of 2,300. ” (‘For Japan disaster survivors, trust is as badly destroyed as the landscape’)

An earlier Guardian report focused on the horrendous impact of the disaster on the country’s elderly. (Almost a quarter of Japan’s population is aged 65 or over.)

The devastating impact of the Japanese earthquake on the country’s ageing population was exposed on Thursday as dozens of elderly people were confirmed dead in hospitals and residential homes as heating fuel and medicine ran out.

In one particularly shocking incident, Japan’s self-defence force discovered 128 elderly people abandoned by medical staff at a hospital six miles from the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant. Most of them were comatose and 14 died shortly afterwards. Eleven others were reported dead at a retirement home in Kesennuma because of freezing temperatures, six days after 47 of their fellow residents were killed in the tsunami …

Although the people from the hospital near Fukushima were moved by the self-defence forces to a gymnasium in Iwaki, there were reports that conditions were not much better there. An official for the government said it felt ‘helpless and very sorry for them’. ‘The condition at the gymnasium was horrible,’ said Cheui Inamura. ‘No running water, no medicine and very, very little food. We simply did not have means to provide good care.’ ” (‘Japanese earthquake takes heavy toll on ageing population’, 17 March 2011)

Such criminal negligence and indifference make a sorry contrast with the exemplary way that socialist China responded to the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, where, despite the fact that it occurred in a poor, remote, mountainous area, whose accessibility was further hindered by the natural disaster, the People’s Liberation Army, communist party members, and people from all walks of life, spared nothing to ensure that every possible life was saved and that nobody went without shelter, food and warmth.

On a per capita basis, China is still a much poorer country than Japan. The difference lies in the social system. Under capitalism, no god is mightier than profit, whereas in a socialist society, it is people’s needs that are considered paramount.

The nuclear issue

It is these same factors that are at play in the nuclear crisis that has followed the natural disasters. The crucial issue, whatever some people may claim, is not that nuclear power is too dangerous to employ, but that the capitalist class is not fit to rule.

The Fukushima nuclear reactor was manufactured by the US monopoly General Electric (GE) and the first warnings with regard to the vulnerability of this particular type of reactor date as far back as 1972, right from the time they first went into operation. In order to save trouble and expense, these reactors did away with the traditional large containment domes, making them more vulnerable both to explosion and to the release of radiation if a meltdown occurs.

These vulnerabilities have been systematically concealed. The financial news service Bloomberg reported the testimony of Mitsuhiko Tanaka, a former worker at Fukushima, who says he helped conceal a manufacturing defect in the $250m steel vessel installed at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi No 4 reactor while working for a unit of Hitachi Ltd. in 1974. The reactor, which Tanaka has called a “time bomb”, was shut for maintenance when the 11 March earthquake triggered a 23-foot tsunami that disabled cooling systems at the plant, leading to explosions and radiation leaks.

‘Who knows what would have happened if that reactor had been running?’ Tanaka, who turned his back on the nuclear industry after the Chernobyl disaster, said in an interview last week. ‘I have no idea if it could withstand an earthquake like this. It’s got a faulty reactor inside.’ ” (‘Fukushima engineer says he helped cover up flaw at Dai-Ichi Reactor No 4’, 23 March 2011)

Seismology expert Yukinobu Okamura produced evidence two years ago that tsunamis in the area could be bigger than the reactors’ designers had allowed for. “I don’t know if all the damage could have been prevented, even if they had responded immediately when I pointed this out, but I do think they should have responded,” he said.

Jonathan Soble noted recently that “While the six reactors at Fukushima appear to have made it through the quake itself intact, vital peripheral systems failed – most importantly, the back-up diesel generators used to power cooling and other systems when the station is cut off from the electricity grid.

The generators, located at ground level on the ocean-facing side of the plant, were wiped out by the tsunami. It was ‘a risk that people have been pointing out for decades’, according to Hideaki Takemura, a veteran anti-nuclear activist … ” (‘Critics take aim at Japan’s nuclear optimists’, Financial Times, 23 March 2011)

The same article also exposed the corruption that enables companies that own nuclear plants to penny-pinch on essential safety measures:

Regulators are, meanwhile, under scrutiny for inflating the bubble of overconfidence. The supervisory Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency is part of the industry ministry, which is strongly in favour of expanding nuclear power, and retired ministry bureaucrats are routinely hired by power companies.

Only in January, Mr Kan ordered a review of Tepco’s [Tokyo Electric Power’s] decision to take on the former head of the ministry’s policy-setting Agency for National Resources and Energy as an adviser. The hiring was allowed to stand.

Regulators last year approved a 10-year extension of the life of Fukushima Daiichi’s No 1 reactor, its oldest, which began operating in 1971.

They did so in spite of finding 16 shortcomings in plant facilities, including poorly conducting radiation metres and cracked water-level gauges. Tepco was given five years to fix the most serious problems, according to regulatory filings.”

The Dutch newspaper De Telegraff reported that homeless people, minors and unskilled foreign workers have been working for years in the Fukushima nuclear plant. Citing a German broadcaster who had worked for years in Japan the paper reported that, the workers in Fukushima were seen as “disposable workers”. “Once they had suffered so much radiation that there was a health risk, they were dismissed and replaced by others.” (‘Daklozen werken in rampcentrale’, 21 March 2011)

Moreover, the cover-ups are continuing. On 14 March, the Guardian reported: “Nuclear experts have thrown doubt on the accuracy of official information issued about the Fukushima nuclear accident, saying that it followed a pattern of secrecy and cover-ups employed in other nuclear accidents. ‘It’s impossible to get any radiation readings,’ said John Large, an independent nuclear engineer who has worked for the UK government and been commissioned to report on the accident for Greenpeace International.

The actions of the Japanese government are completely contrary to their words. They have evacuated 180,000 people but say there is no radiation. They are certain to have readings but we are being told nothing. ” (‘Japan radiation leaks feared as nuclear experts point to possible cover-up’)

In contrast, China responded to the events in its neighbouring country by suspending the approval process for new nuclear power stations so that safety standards can be revised. The cabinet also ordered that safety checks be carried out at all existing plants. “Safety is our top priority in developing nuclear power plants,” a government spokesman said. (‘China suspends approvals for new nuclear plants’, Xinhua, 16 March 2011)