The view from Japan: Anatomy of a nuclear disaster

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While the attention of the world shifts elsewhere, the unfolding crisis in Japan just keeps getting horribly worse — including the plight of people displaced, sickened, and threatened by the quakes, tsunami, and spreading radiation.

The post-quake disaster is not natural, but man-made. Blame lies with government and the privatized energy industry, of which TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Co.) is one example.

Ironically, TEPCO’s Web site features condolences from company president Masataka Shimizu — who vanished mid-crisis, missing a parliament meeting on the emergency and checking himself into a hospital.

Temporary workers who expose themselves to radiation as they struggle to contain the disaster don’t share even the benefits or job security of regular TEPCO employees. In contrast, Shimizu and 20 other top TEPCO execs pull in about $9 million a year as they “manage” the situation safely from Tokyo.

But pointing fingers at one or 20 crooked CEOs doesn’t really do justice to the problem. We’d like to think the government and international agencies monitor our nuclear installations to prevent this kind of thing from happening. But if we thought that, we’d be mistaken.

Government stands with big business. The drastic situation in Fukushima has exposed decades of government complicity, laxity and cover-ups. In an April interview, former Fukushima Governor Eisaku Sato disclosed close relationships between government ministries and TEPCO, along with a whole series of safety violations, some of them severe, that were hushed up or down-played.

The mayor of Tokai, Tatsuya Murakami, condemned TEPCO and the government for failing “to take appropriate action” during this catastrophe. He admitted that his city’s nuclear facility almost met the same fate as the one in Fukushima. When the tsunami took out a backup cooling system, Murakami said, “We were barely saved.”

Successive administrations have privatized Japan’s energy industry at the expense of public safety. Public services have also been privatized and public jobs cut. The result? Local governments are underfunded, understaffed, and unable to cope with emergencies.

After the tsunami, the government injected six billion yen into the banks to prop up business, but gave nothing to displaced workers and devastated farmers.

Takumi Eto, an evacuee temporarily relocated near my home, said, “I retired to work in the paddy fields. I wanted to stay there, because I’m old enough not to care about the radiation. But we were forcibly evicted by the Self-Defense Forces [army]. I was raising cows, so it was hard to leave them behind. I’m through with TEPCO.”

Meanwhile, the capitalist parties have joined together to use this crisis to promote regressive taxation schemes while promising not to raise income or corporate tax. Workers already hit hard by the recession, many of them jobless or semi-employed and with decreased social services to aid them, now have to bear the financial burden of the disaster, while corporations receive billions in support.

Together with TEPCO, the government is also concealing information that people need to make safe decisions. But most revealing of its uncritical support of the power industry is its fierce crackdown on protest.

At a rally I attended on March 31 with Doro-Chiba (National Railway Motive Power Union of Chiba) and Zengakuren (All-Japan Federation of Student Self-Government Association), three activists were arrested and detained.

TEPCO security personnel marched alongside the demonstrators trying to intimidate them. When the column reached TEPCO headquarters, police interrupted the peaceful march by holding up signs reading “interference with a government official in the execution of his duties.” They rushed in and made the arrests, seizing our megaphone as well to prevent the demonstration from appealing to passersby.

Adding insult to injury, TEPCO refused to meet with protest representatives who were meant to formally convey the demonstrators’ message.

The government is not only interfering with demonstrations, but illegally interfering with oppositional parties’ right to campaign. In Suginami Ward, a district of Tokyo, council member Kitajima Kunihiko has been campaigning for reelection on an anti-nuclear platform. On April 6, police arrested four of his supporters for the “crime” of allegedly putting up posters. On April 8, the police raided two of his campaign offices and searched for lists of names.

Despite the intimidation, on April 10 over 17,000 people assembled in this very same ward to reject nuclear energy.

I asked for a statement from Doro-Chiba, perhaps the first group to organize on behalf of working people in response to the man-made debacle. They answered “in struggle and solidarity”: “We share the strong anger of workers and people in the afflicted areas and are determined to strive for the rebirth of the Japanese labor movement. No job dismissals under the pretext of the great earthquake! Stop all nuclear plants in the world immediately!”

Doro-Chiba represents a militant alternative to the large trade union federations whose leaderships have uncritically supported the Kan administration throughout the crisis.

A fire of protest kindled. Media coverage has generally focused on uplifting stories from the disaster area. But this belies the reality of those now homeless, jobless, and crammed into shelters, some of whom are dying from lack of necessities.

Watch the news and you would think the Kan administration is doing a fine job. However, the workers suffering the effects of radiation and the thousands of refugees know otherwise. The delusion of safe and clean nuclear energy — promoted since the 1950s by neoliberal administrations, greedy energy corporations, their hired mouthpieces, and conciliatory labor leaders — has been shattered by the actual results of pro-nuclear policy.

No amount of government repression or media myth-making will change that fact — or eliminate the reinvigorated international movement against deadly nuclear power.

Send feedback to Jason Combs, an English-language instructor who lives near Tokyo, at

Also read: Obama and the bipartisan pack: front men for the deadly nuclear industry

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