The series of earthquakes that has hit central Kyushu since April 14 pose a variety of problems for us. The Meteorological Agency has explained that this chain of temblors is unprecedented in that the location of the hypocenter has moved. But one has to realize that it was only recently in the long history of the Earth that humans began their observations of seismic activities — and that it should come as no surprise if such a pattern of earthquakes had happened frequently in the past. In short, we humans know very little about the movements of the Earth. In Japan, earthquakes can hit anytime and anywhere.
Serious questions have been raised about the Abe administration’s response to the Kumamoto quakes. The first is why it didn’t try to listen to people who were suffering from the devastation brought by the temblors. The government’s call on evacuees to take shelter indoors following the initial quake that hit on April 14 drew the ire of the Kumamoto governor, who felt that officials in Tokyo didn’t understand the feelings of local residents.
The second question deals with the administration’s policy on the operation of nuclear power plants following the quakes. The government has declared that it won’t shut down the reactors at Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai plant in Kagoshima Prefecture — currently the sole nuclear plant in operation in this country. After clearing the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s screening of the plant for a restart, Kyushu Electric scrapped its plan to build a new facility with a seismically isolated structure that would serve as a command center in the event of an emergency. One of the assumptions in judging the safety of restarting the Sendai plant was that people would be able to evacuate the area by using bullet trains and the expressway network in case of a nuclear crisis. The Kumamoto quakes knocked those transportation means out of service, raising doubts about the workability of the evacuation scenario. That alone should be reason enough to halt the Sendai plant and rethink the safety measures. We need to consider carefully whether it is wise to have so many nuclear plants in this quake-prone country.
The third question is on the government’s intension to take advantage of the disaster to achieve its political goals — instead of focusing on relief for people in the disaster zone. Right after the temblors hit, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the quakes highlighted the importance of amending the Constitution to give the government emergency powers to respond to such crises. Two U.S. Marine MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft were dispatched to transport relief supplies in an apparent attempt at what Canadian author Naomi Klein calls the Shock Doctrine — taking advantage of a disaster to push a political agenda that has nothing to do with disaster response.
It is false to say that the government’s response to a disaster cannot proceed quickly because the Constitution does not grant emergency powers. Existing laws, such as the basic law on disaster response, provides a variety of powers that enables the government to take various actions if it wants to. Requesting the Osprey aircraft had nothing to do with providing relief for the disaster-hit people. I have heard nothing about Self-Defense Forces helicopters having been mobilized to their full capacity to transport relief goods to Kumamoto. I believe that using the Osprey was only a ploy to impress the public that strengthening defense cooperation between Japan and the United States under the Abe administration’s security legislation is helping ordinary citizens.
As memories of the 3/11 disasters fade away, the Abe administration is trying to divert public attention from the damage brought by the Fukushima nuclear disaster and create the impression that everything is back to normal. Its policy of restarting nuclear plants idled in the wake of the Fukushima crisis is part of such attempts. The Kumamoto quakes have exposed the questionable nature of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s politics.
When it comes to risks to people’s lives and their safety, natural disasters at home and the weakening of society as manifested by the aging and shrinking of the population pose a much more real threat than changes in the security environment surrounding Japan. The government is about to invest trillions of yen in Tokyo as it prepares to host the Summer Olympics in 2020. What significance does building a posh new national stadium in Tokyo and pursuing large urban redevelopment projects carry when people in other parts of the country suffer from the devastation caused by natural disasters? Can the government secure sufficient financial resources for reconstruction of the disaster-hit areas?
It is difficult to criticize the government when it is engaged in efforts to help people affected by a major disaster. But objections need to be clearly raised against any attempt to take advantage of a disaster to promote an unrelated political agenda. The mass media in particular bear a heavy responsibility to do that.
Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hosei University in Tokyo.