Danielle Sabaï and Pierre Rousset
Lying as it does at the meeting point of four tectonic plates, the Japanese archipelago is no stranger to natural disasters. Without being able to predict the date, Japanese seismologists knew that a major earthquake threatened the coast of Miyagi and Ibaraki Prefecture. It happened on March 11.
An earthquake of rare power, it caused a devastating tsunami and has surpassed the worst disasters in modern Japanese history. Over several hundred kilometers, the coast has been completely devastated, with entire villages and towns wiped out. The number of dead and missing is increasing and it will undoubtedly exceed the twenty thousand already announced.
The determination and endurance of the Japanese have largely been highlighted by the international press eclipsing all other realities. The inhabitants of the prefectures affected feel abandoned by the central authorities. Relief has been slow to arrive. The humanitarian disaster looming in Japan, in addition to recent disasters in Pakistan, Australia, the Indian Ocean, Haiti, and New Orleans, reminds us that it is not possible to rely upon governments to manage such crises.
And if this disaster were not bad enough, Japan also faces another one that is not remotely natural. The question is not whether a nuclear catastrophe will happen: it is already happening. The entire area around the plant in Fukushima has been condemned, and will remain so for a very long time. The radioactivity released day after day in the atmosphere has begun to contaminate the winds and precipitation over part of the archipelago. Contrary to what the Japanese authorities claim, there is already an accident of level 6 or 7, much worse than Three Mile Island in the United States (1979, level 5), and closer to Chernobyl in Ukraine (1986, level 7). At the time of writing, the situation remains out of control.
The question now is how far the nuclear disaster – or rather disasters – will develop. It is hoped that the plant workers, firefighters and soldiers sent to the front to try to cool radioactive storage pools and reactors manage to avoid the worst. Many ’liquidators’ in Fukushima have already paid with their lives for the criminal irresponsibility of the nuclear lobby, as was the case for tens of thousands of ’liquidators’ of Chernobyl without whom it would have been impossible to prevent a level 8 accident. In 2011, as in 1986, we owe them a great deal.
Throughout its history, Japan has faced many destructive earthquakes and tidal waves. In 1995, an earthquake measuring 8 on the Richter scale destroyed much of Kobe city in southern Honshu. The ineffectiveness of the emergency response was then seen as a national tragedy. It was believed that Japan was now better prepared. However, one of the most striking aspects of the current crisis is the government’s inability to provide a rapid and adequate response to the plight of populations in affected areas. Relief for the victims has only arrived in dribs and drabs. Nearly 500,000 people who were evacuated from high-risk areas around the nuclear power plant in Fukushima and who themselves crammed into shelters could count themselves lucky when the temperature dropped below zero degrees. Tens of thousands of people remain isolated in the devastated towns without water or food or electricity. Hospitals in the region are severely damaged and are no longer able to care for those rescued. The threat of an epidemic is ever-present.
It is doubtful that the lessons of previous disasters have been drawn. Japan, however, is not Haiti or Pakistan but the third largest economy in the world. But let us remember the tragic helplessness of the government of the United States after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005.
Inequality increases instead of being reduced in times of humanitarian crisis. This has been the case during every major disaster experienced in recent years whether tsunamis, earthquakes, wars, or economic collapses … By undermining public services, demonizing solidarity and making insecurity into a virtue, capitalist globalisation and neoliberal policies throw more oil on the fire of injustice. Whatever one might say about its traditions, Japan is no exception to the rule. The propertied and powerful try to make workers, the poor, the powerless pick up the bill.
The government of Naoto Kan is at its lowest point in the polls (17.8%). A year and a half after his historic victory against the Conservatives, who had been in power since 1955, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has abandoned any intention to pursue a policy focused on improving living conditions, protection of pensions, the creation of a social safety net, and reforming the political system as announced in his election campaign. The current disaster gives him temporary respite, but his handling of the crisis should not give anyone any illusions. Witness the way he has clearly and in concert with the company responsible for the Fukushima plant – Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) – consistently downplayed the nuclear “accident”, which was officially considered a level 4 and then eventually, level 5, when everyone could see that it was more serious than Three Mile Island.
According to data currently in its possession, the Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity (CRIIRAD) thinks that the “plume” that was due to reach France on Thursday last week will not pose a danger.
Antinuclear solidarity, financial solidarity …
Unlike France, Japan is not a military nuclear power, and its population suffered the fire bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the most serious of war crimes. However, in the post-war period, it has been like France the victim of a pro-nuclear consensus among the elites that has marginalized and prohibited any form of democratic choice over the issue. Japan has, like France, been held hostage by the nuclear industry.
Chernobyl showed in 1986 what happens when a nuclear state is in crisis. Today, Fukushima shows where the thousand small and big lies of nuclear management lead the day the unexpected happens. However, all states one time or another face crises, and the unexpected is inevitable. If we do not put the kibosh on the nuclear industry, Chernobyl and Fukushima are our future.
Faced with such a test, international solidarity is a common struggle against a common danger, to break the grip of the elite pro-nuclear consensus. That is what our Japanese comrades argue in a separate appeal.
Millions of people living in areas affected by the earthquake, the tsunami disaster and Fukushima are surviving in extremely precarious conditions. In this too, they need our support. Major NGOs in France have ruled there was no need to raise funds for solidarity; Japan is a rich country. Financial assistance would only be justified as a remedy for third world failed states. They have apparently learned nothing from the social drama of New Orleans, whcih was hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Even in “developed” countries, the poorest are the least rescued, and workers must pay the bill for the crisis. Who can leave the risk areas or receive fuel or medicine? Who will be able to find a job tomorrow among those whose businesses have been destroyed – and under what conditions?
We want to send a little material assistance in a situation where the needs are immense. We want this aid to go primarily to “those from below”. We want these contributions to help to strengthen activists and social movements so they can play a role in the crisis and defend the interests of the powerless during the time of reconstruction. In this way we want to link emergency humanitarian action with the ongoing social struggle.
With this in mind the association Europe Solidaire Sans Frontiers has launched an international appeal for financial solidarity. The ESSF has links with various groups in Japan. For now, the money collected will be sent primarily to coordinate independent trade union active in the particularly affected region of Miyagi / Sendai and Fukushima: the Zenrokyo (National Council of Trade Unions). This particular centre has established links in France with Solidaires (in particular South-PTT). We want to work with other initiatives engaged in the same type of work, with Via Campesina and Attac, for example.