Japan is traumatised by the suffering and devastation caused by the earthquake and tsunami.
Thousands have died. Millions have been left homeless—in the snow, without power or water, fleeing in terror of radioactive contamination—in the world’s third largest economy.
International news agencies resorted to clichés normally used to describe catastrophes in poorer countries, while financial speculators drove up the value of the Yen.
The mayor of Minami-Soma, a town near the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, told a newspaper, “This is a man‑made disaster.”
Of course capitalists and politicians are not responsible for earthquakes or tsunamis.
They may share the shock ordinary people feel. But the ruling class’s response to such disasters, and who suffers most from them, reveals the way the system works.
And Japan has been here before. In 1995 a smaller earthquake in the city of Kobe killed 6,000 people.
Motorway bridges collapsed with cars on them, islands built on landfill subsided into the sea and subway tunnels collapsed.
Power cables, erected cheaply, fell onto roads and prevented rescue efforts.
This was not inevitable. Construction industry bosses, linked to the ruling right wing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), ignored building regulations.
Some survivors found themselves being helped by concerned local yakuza—the mafia—before the emergency services got there.
This time the tsunami did the most damage, partly because eastern Japan lies on a known fault-line—Kobe was thought “safe”.
Today the nuclear power plants are a bigger problem.
The initial response was left to the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco). Information about the accident was late coming and contradictory.
A former company executive says Tepco waited before using seawater to cool the reactor because it would permanently harm their long-term investment in the fuel rods.
One official said, “They failed in their initial response. It’s like Tepco dropped and lost a 100 Yen coin while trying to pick up a 10 Yen coin.”
The possible results of this profit-led shortsightedness are terrifying.
There have been some improvements to building regulations since.
But there has also been the introduction of neoliberal policies favouring big business.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s inequality sharply increased.
Even before the current crisis hit, around one third of the workforce—mostly young people—were on temporary contracts earning less than the equivalent of £500 a month.
Some 15.3 percent of the population lived below the poverty line.
The crisis hit Japan hard—on some measures it has suffered the deepest recession of any major economy.
Unemployment remains the highest it has ever been and government debt is much higher than Greece or Ireland.
In the 2009 election voters kicked out the LDP, which had ruled the country almost continuously since 1955.
The victory for the centre left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) reflected a hope for change. Yet the DPJ has not been very different to the LDP.
The party is supported by some trade unions and NGOs, but also includes people who want Japan to be more militaristic and neoliberal.
The previous prime minister was the super-rich grandson of a former LDP prime minister. He resigned after breaking his promise to oppose the hated US military base in Okinawa.
The current prime minister, Naoto Kan, faced a possible financial scandal just before the tsunami happened.
While the government has not faced any strikes or mass movements, there have been signs of a wider discontent.
These include protests by people made homeless due to unemployment and the founding of new unions for temporary workers.
There is also a growing discussion about the working poor and the gap between rich and poor.
The unfortunate truth is that in the aftermath of this catastrophe the gap is likely to become even more pronounced.