Rebecca Broad, Workers Party National Organiser
A magnitude nine earthquake and consequent 23 ft tidal wave, occurring 70km off the northeast coast of Japan March 11, has caused severe and extensive damage to that country. The three prefectures or states of Miyagi, Fukushima, and Iwate have sustained the most damage and loss of life. Multiple coastal towns have been completely destroyed by the tsunami. The Japanese military is heading up the recovery operation with 100,000 troops mobilised. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare estimates that 2.5 million households could be affected, and 1.6 million houses over 11 prefectures have no access to clean water. The number of estimated deaths and officially missing on March 21 was respectively 18,000 and 9,200, according to the National Police Agency. However both of those amounts are expected to continue rising. Nearly 500,000 people are living in emergency shelters and around 22,000 people have been saved by rescuers so far.
The rescue operation is struggling against fuel and water shortage, logistical breakdown, and very cold weather. Minimisation of further deaths from exposure, and lack of basic necessities and sanitation, will only be achieved by a certain degree of community self organisation, through the trade unions and other community groups. This occurred after the 1995 Hanshin earthquake and is already beginning currently through trade unions in Kansai.
An alarming electricity and possibly nuclear crisis is developing. Japanese capitalism is reliant on nuclear energy, which provides 30% of the country’s electricity. Authorities are currently struggling to contain products of radioactive decay emanating from the Fukushima power plant that was severely damaged in the quake. The case for nuclear energy is a discussion in itself. However undoubtedly, due the extremely high levels of energy involved in nuclear reactions, nuclear energy possesses the greatest ability to cause damage to humans, beyond all other methods of electricity generation. The current situation in Japan now poses the question: is the system of capitalism able to adequately safeguard against this danger? For instance, the Fukushima plant was protected by a tsunami wall able to withstand the occurrence of an 18ft wave. The wave on March 11 was 23 ft and overcame the tsunami wall. However, if nuclear disaster is avoided, the country still faces major electricity problems due to the Fukushima plant being no longer functional. The government has already organised rolling power blackouts across the country. Additionally, Japan has no coherent national electricity framework, but is run by 10 regional private power companies. Half of which are not compatible with each other. Despite a currently low level of class struggle in Japan, this still raises the question of nationalisation and reorganisation of the power companies under workers control and planning, along the more rational basis of how best to safely provide power to the people of Japan, rather than power being distributed for private profit.
A World Bank report issued Monday 21 March estimates the cost of damage as being up to US $122- $235 billion, and that Japanese GDP may be retarded by .5 percentage points over 2011. These and other economic factors may have a minimal effect on other economies in East Asia, such as Philippines and China that have close links with the Japanese economy. The main sectors affected are the financial and trade sectors. Undoubtedly, the working class and the poor will emerge worst-off from this crisis and workers will be expected to in essence pick up the bill for reconstruction.
Private contractors must be prevented from serving their own interests through post-earthquake reconstruction projects. After the Hanshin earthquake, the poor remained in substandard housing years after the event, whilst public money was channeled into large-scale infrastructure projects that failed to provide adequate housing.
Japan is a developed capitalist nation, materially able to carry out the massive rebuild required. Certain pre-conditions to ensure the normal running of capitalism, such as electricity supply, roading and logistics, and provision of housing to a politically acceptable level will undoubtedly be part of the rebuild operation. However, due to the laws and tendencies of capitalism, the interests of the market and Japanese capitalists will ultimately be given priority. In time it will be seen the extent to which the needs of the population in the damaged areas will also be met.