Japan: acts of god do not make mortals equal

THE EARTHQUAKE which struck Japan on January 17 destroyed a large part of Kobe, one of the country’s major cities, and claimed at least 5,000 lives. Much of Japan sits right over an earthquake fault, and there was a small earthquake in a different part of the country just 10 days before the Kobe quake. However, the latest shift in the earth is Japan’s worst quake since one in 1923 which killed about 130,000 people.

It would be tempting to treat this kind of thing as being simply a natural disaster; an act of god, to use the language of the claims assessors. The effects of earthquakes can be alleviated if the will is there. In a place like Japan quakes are always a possibility and constructing buildings appropriately must be in the minds of the architects.

Yet Reuters news agency reported on January 20 that local officials were admitting that their efforts to deal with the disaster were “inadequate”. This in one of the powerhouses of the capitalist world - by no stretch of the imagination a poor country. However, spending money to counteract natural disasters or reduce their impact may not be on a profit-driven capitalist agenda. For example during the quake, the elevated tracks for local ‘bullet trains’ collapsed because the pillars holding the tracks aloft contained wood rather than being steel all the way through. I can only speculate that the wood was less expensive and increased somebody’s profit margin.

Judging from the BBC’s television pictures, most of the people made homeless or killed by the quake were Kobe’s working class. For big business, it has not been so terrible. Reuters noted that most of the city’s major business establishments were functioning again, while on January 23 the agency reported that the city’s most modern buildings - that is, those built to improved safety standards introduced in 1981 - withstood the quake. The homes of Kobe’s workers have not had the benefit of modern technology and workers paid a terrible price in lives and property as a result.

The capitalist game was given away by the economist who talked to Reuters on January 17, just after the quake struck. He said the quake might even boost the Japanese economy because of the scramble for rebuilding and repair contracts. For Japanese and perhaps foreign capitalists, the quake is a temporary setback, a commercial opportunity or both at the same time. In anything other than a socialist world, natural disasters will be catastrophic for working people.

Andrew MacKay