Japan: Scandal of private Japanese power industry

Now is the time to demand re-nationalisation

Following the fear generated by a mega-quake, the devastating tsunami and radioactive contamination, now the series of black-outs being imposed by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) – owners of the deteriorating Fukushima Nuclear Power Station – are causing confusion and seriously disrupting the lives of people in the Metropolitan (Tokyo) Area.

These “planned blackouts” are on an unprecedented scale. Public transport, hospitals, schools, day nurseries as well as ordinary homes are all affected by the rolling cut-offs of electricity for 3-6 hours a day, leaving out central Tokyo where the central offices of the government and the big monopolies are situated. All this is on the grounds that, "the serious damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami to power-generating ability make it difficult to meet the electricity demand in the metropolitan area. Unless the planned blackouts are implemented, it may cause an unexpectedly massive black-out in the whole area including central Tokyo with all of its central government offices".

The blackouts have provoked large-scale resentment amongst the population in the Metropolitan area and also widespread criticism of TEPCO and the government who have arranged them. The policy appears to be promoting the idea that "nuclear power is essential to our lives after all". This is despite the fact that it is TEPCO’s own nuclear power station, its own mismanagement and their failure to have timely and clear emergency measures that is aggravating the disaster.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has pointed out that the Japanese thermal power plants are only responsible for 30% of their capacity and it is actually possible to supply sufficient power with the other thermal power plants even if all of the nuclear power plants were stopped. The black-outs start to look like a big conspiracy to impress people with the necessity of nuclear power, even after this horrific man-made disaster. And this is while the TV is repeatedly showing the atrocious situation and threat to health and life from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Station.

It is true that TEPCO suffered quite a lot of damage to their key thermal power plants as a result of this earthquake but where can we get additional power from if not from the area covered by TEPCO and the Tohoku Electric Power Company (which also suffered major damage). Why can we not get excess power supplied from the areas not affected by the earthquake, namely Western Japan?

This is because of the situation very peculiar to the Japanese electric power industry: the frequency of the power grid is different in the West and the East (50Hz for the Eastern Japan and 60Hz for the Western Japan). This is what prevents supplying power from to the East from the West which did not suffer from the disaster and has sufficient power supply. This is one of the main reasons for the power black-out which severely affects civilian life. The commercial mass media gives the reason for this frequency difference as the introduction of the U.S.60 Hz grid in Western Japan and the German 50Hz grid in Eastern Japan.

Private power distribution companies separated on a regional basis during the Japanese industrial revolution of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But there are important historical facts unwittingly or deliberately left out of the public account of how things stand today.


In fact, in the late 1940s, Japan’s electric power industries, which had been separate, were consolidated under the state. The Japan Electric Generation and Transmission Company, which had exclusive responsibility for power generation across the country, was a semi-state company. Under this arrangement, the entire electricity business was integrated. Undoubtedly, it was a very important chance to unify the frequency of electric power.

After the Second World War, the All Japan Electric Workers’ Union (AJEWU) was formed mainly by workers of this Japan Electric Generation and Transmission Company. Under the leadership of communists and left social democrats, militant strike struggles were developed. This organisation had a central role in the union organisations during the labour offensive after the war.

After the defeat of Japanese militarism in 1945 there was, in the late 1940s, a short-lived centre-left coalition government led by the Socialist Party intended to further develop the nationalisation of electric power as part of its democratic reforms. However, the U.S. military occupation set out to crush this movement and supported the birth of a right-wing Liberal government.

The U.S. occupation authorities broke up the Japan Electric Generation and Transmission Company and pushed a policy of segmentation and privatisation. It is obvious that they intended to repress the All Japan Electric Workers’ Union (AJEWU) because this was the militant union confronting not only monopoly capitalism and the conservative government but also U.S. occupation. (This process is similar to the privatisation of Japan’s National Railway in the 1980s and the attempt to smash the National Railway Workers’ Union, which played a leading role in the organisation of the left labour movement.)

The strategy of the ruling class was eventually successful. The electrical industry was divided up between private monopoly companies, based on nine separate regions again, and they lost their social and public character.

The All Japan Electric Workers’ Union (AJEWU) was dismantled and became the organisation of a tiny minority. Instead of the AJEWU, the Federation of Electric Power Related Industry Worker’s Unions of Japan was established – a right wing trade union. It advocated labour-management cooperation and organised many workers of the electric power sector. It is well known that this federation promoted the construction of the nuclear power stations. On the other hand, the All Japan Electric Workers’ Union (AJEWU) was forced into a minority and existed until the 1990s. It struggled jointly with the Anti-nuclear movement until that time.

No matter what form the end of the present catastrophe will take, the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident, triggered by this large earthquake and tsunami, could still cause a serious disaster which will contaminate the neighbouring area of Fukushima and possibly, a large part of Japan and the ocean with radioactivity.

Even if the damage is limited and remediable, there is no doubt that it will cost an enormous amount of money for the restoration of agriculture, forestry and the fishing industry and the lives of the ordinary citizens. Who should be responsible for these costs? Needless to say, the electric power company (TEPCO) is responsible. TEPCO must be taken into the hands of the state again and run in the interests of the working class. Its assets and wealth should be injected into the reconstruction of industry and work to the benefit of workers and citizens.

The chaos of the power cuts in the Tokyo Metropolitan area has exposed the incapacity of the electrical industry to care for the needs of the people. Not only TEPCO, but all the electricity and power generating companies should be taken into public ownership under democratic workers’ control and management. This is the key to changing the nuclear power-oriented policy which does not care about people’s health and lives but serves the interests of monopoly capital.

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March 2011