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Japan’s Anti-Nuclear Movement at High Tide

SNA (Tokyo) — On the day before the planned restart of the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant in Kagoshima Prefecture, the Shingetsu News Agency is re-releasing the 22-minute documentary it made during the summer of 2012. Looking back from today’s perspective, we can now perceive that the anti-nuclear movement was at its high tide at that period. Although the anti-nuclear protests grew steadily after the March 11, 2011, Fukushima disaster until they reached the scale of tens of thousands of people in the summer of 2012, thereafter they began to fade. The “revolution” that many activists spoke of at the time failed to occur.

And yet, as the Shinzo Abe administration returns the nation to nuclear power, public opinion polls show that majorities still oppose the use of nuclear energy in Japan and that supporters are only around the 30% level. The anti-nuclear activism has faded, but the public opinion on the matter hasn’t altered much between the summer of 2012 and the summer of 2015.

Take a few minutes to watch the video above to recall the spirit of the times in Japan as it existed just three summers ago.


Narrator: The whole world knows how the story began. A massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, triggered a series of events that lead to the worst nuclear disaster so far in the 21st century. A meltdown of three separate nuclear reactors. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced to abandon their homes, creating eerie ghost towns, practically devoid of human life. The Tokyo Electric Power Company, called TEPCO for short, is the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi Plant. They have repeatedly claimed that the disaster is not really their fault, because the scale of the tsunami was beyond reasonable expectation. In fact, however, later revelations proved that experts had indeed warned them of the dangers, but that the company repeatedly declined to take the expensive countermeasures that would’ve been needed to mitigate, or even entirely prevent the nuclear disaster.

Investigatory panels, employed by the government itself, have now judged that the Fukushima Daiichi disaster was more the product of human error than a necessary result of the earthquake and tsunami—and yet not a single person has been held accountable, nor has TEPCO ever been forced even to reveal all of its internal information on how the disaster came about. In short, the same people who created the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear catastrophe are the very same people who are still in charge today, and are calling for the Japanese nation’s nearly fifty remaining nuclear reactors to quickly be restarted.

Radiation has contaminated the land. Is the food safe to eat? Is the water safe to drink? Can TEPCO and Japan’s other monopolistic energy companies be trusted to serve the public interest? Are the government regulators competent to oversee the utilities, and to protect the Japanese people from further harm? Most Japanese fear that the answers to these questions may be “no,” and that they cannot trust their leaders to tell them the straight truth. Little wonder then, that many of the normally mild-mannered Japanese are starting to become angry.

And as the months have passed, provoked by an unresponsive government and by unaccountable business executives, this anger has now blossomed into a massive nationwide grassroots movement against nuclear power.

Among the participants were many who came as entire families, to express their strong feelings in opposition to the continued use of nuclear energy.

Man Holding a Child: We came here to stand against nuclear power. Politicians and TEPCO have been truly irresponsible. The current administration just dismissed us and restarted the nuclear reactors. This has made us very angry and the people will show it through our numbers out here.

Narrator: There were also many who asserted that Japan’s nuclear power industry has corrupted the nation’s politics and its major political parties—and is even tied to US power in the international sphere.

Man Wearing Hat: Behind both the former and current ruling parties, there are the military and nuclear industrial complexes. They have been the suppliers of money up until today. This includes the United States. The government does not really belong to the people.

Narrator: But to learn more about the thinking of those ordinary Japanese citizens who have turned against nuclear power, we had to go to the outskirts of the capital region. In a pleasant coastal area, about an hour from Tokyo by train, is this beach community. This is an unassuming and normal-looking muffin shop, but this evening it has become the headquarters of a community of activists, trying to grope forward towards a strategy by which to convince their government to shut down all of it its nuclear reactors and to focus the nation on the development of renewable energies.

It was a striking occasion in many respects. Many people flowed in and out of the four-hour meeting. We estimated that there were eventually more than forty participants by the time proceedings closed. It was a diverse group, from energetic business owners, to pregnant women, to university students. Most of the time was spent with each person offering their own stories about how they had come to join the anti-nuclear movement. Many of them said they did really know what they could do to change their nations energy policy, but after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, sitting home and doing nothing was simply no longer an option from them.

Woman: We were able to share our thoughts with each other. This put us in touch with our own thoughts and feelings. It also makes us stronger to know others feel the same way. I was very happy to have the opportunity to participate.

Narrator: But it was also a meeting about strategy and ways that ordinary people could carry on their resistance against a government that was refusing to hear their voices—and to respond sincerely.

Man with Glasses: We all have the same goal here. But there are many roads to that goal. There are many means to achieve it. But it is wonderful to be able to confirm our goal in common.

Narrator: The growing strength of the anti-nuclear community was evident, as experiences were shared, protests were planned, and new information was distributed. There are, however, deeper complexities to the issue of nuclear power in Japan as well.

This part of the story makes us much further from the capital city of Tokyo. Indeed what we are hunting for now can only be found along the remote areas of the Japanese coastline. We are heading toward a nuclear power plant.

This may look like an idyllic Japanese coastal village. Indeed, it is a place where many people live off of the sea. Some of them are fishermen, and others operate pleasure craft for tourists that come from all over. But although there are no big signs or a sense that everything is amiss, about a hundred yards up this nondescript road lies an unexpected facility.

Michael Penn: We are now at the Oi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukui Prefecture. As you see, we have reached the guard gate and can go no further.

Narrator: The Oi Nuclear Power Plant features the very first nuclear power plants to be switched back on after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. And thus the police stood ready at the gates, watching our every move as we watched them. They have already confronted dozens of anti-nuclear activists at this very spot, and their orders were to let no one, not even media representatives like us, sneak a peek at the power plant beyond the tunnel.

But really, it was the people in the village next to the nuclear power plant that we were most interested in. After all, if a reactor should ever have a meltdown or other major accidental leak, these neighborhoods would be the first to become a ghost town, like those that we have seen in Fukushima. And bearing in mind that geologists are now reporting that an active earthquake fault lies in immediate proximity to this place, aren’t these people concerned about the prospect of nuclear doom?

Country Man in Hat: Originally, the nuclear plant has been here thirty or almost forty years. So, those four reactors have been here a long time. The local people here are used to them. So when it comes to restarting the reactors now we aren’t really worried.

Narrator: He went on to say that the continued operation of the plant was necessary for the economy of the local community. Indeed, it is often the case that it is the municipalities in which Japan’s nuclear power plants are located where political support for them is the strongest. And why not? Not only do they bring high-paying jobs to otherwise isolated and poor communities, but they also dish out development funds for the construction of modern town offices and lavish sports facilities, and much else.

This is Play Park Oi, a recreational area reportedly constructed by funds donated by the power company which operates the local nuclear reactor. It’s hard to miss the monument standing in the center of the park, celebrating the peace and prosperity that nuclear power allegedly brings. But here too, the current struggle is in evidence, as anti-nuclear activists have scribbled graffiti on the monument and in other parts of the park. This city mascot now totes a fan with a simple question: “Why nuclear power?” Nearby is the anti-nuclear activists camp, which they call “Occupy Oi”. We asked an activist why he was living here.

Camping Activist: Although the Oi nuclear reactors have actually been restarted, I am here to show my will against this action. For that reason, I am here.

Narrator: Most of his colleagues had already left the camp because the reactivation of the Oi nuclear reactors at the beginning of July represented, for the activists, a battle lost.

But as any struggle has its reverses and setbacks, the final decision must come from here: Nagatacho, the realm of Japan’s politicians.

Remarkably, the influence of Japan’s so-called “nuclear village” is so strong that both the ruling party and the largest opposition party have adopted a pro-nuclear energy stance at a time when 60-70% of the general public has now come into the anti-nuclear camp. This lack of political responsiveness to the will of the people is frustrating to even those politicians who have strong links to the citizens’ movement. They note that popular protests have historically had little impact on Japanese government policies.

Ryoichi Hattori: When you think of popular movements in Japan, there are the 1960 and 1970 demonstrations against the US-Japan security treaties and such. I, myself, am of the 1970 security treaty protest generation. But this time, it is a bit different, I think. We have women, young mothers, all kinds of citizens participating in this movement. We are calling it the “Hydrangea Revolution.” We are really seeing this movement spread throughout society. This has given us hope.

Narrator: Even national politicians like Mr. Hattori, offer harsh criticism of the behavior of Japan’s political administration and it’s business leaders.

Ryoichi Hattori: In regard to the restart of the Oi nuclear reactors, Prime Minister Noda said it was to protect people’s lives. He said that the utilities might fail to provide electricity and this could destroy our whole industrial base. But this is a complete lie. It’s a lie. But if there is a possibility of electricity shortage in west Japan, they are still able to meet their needs from elsewhere. The whole country can help them out. The government itself admits this fact.

Narrator: Mixed into the crowds at some of the larger popular protests, there are other national politicians as well who say that they are outraged as individual citizens of the nation. They believe that the government and TEPCOs energy policies are based on lies.

Hiroshi Kawauchi: An insufficiency of electricity, the idea that without nuclear power, we will have an energy shortage, its a lie and… the idea that without nuclear power, electricity rates for customers must be raised. This is another lie. Whether we use nuclear energy or don’t use it, there is enough electricity and there is no need to jack up the rates for customers.

Narrator: It may be somewhat surprising to note that so far the protests are just getting bigger and stronger in the months since the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe occurred. The shock of last years events seems to have given way to a deep determination to force the government-big business combination to bend to the will of the people. Where once they trusted and followed, now the Japanese people are making a firm demand of their leaders that nuclear power cannot be part of the nation’s future.

Older Man: The fearfulness of nuclear power has been shown in Fukushima, America’s Three Mile Island, Chernobyl. It is an extremely dangerous matter. Japan has more than fifty nuclear reactors. Whenever an earthquake comes again, there can be a new disaster. There can be another tsunami too.

Female Protester: I have relatives and others who live near Fukushima Daiichi and Hamaoka nuclear plants. Since Japan is a major earthquake and disaster country, I’m really worried about them.

Older Man with Flag: There are profiteers of the nuclear energy industry, the power companies with their monopolies. Although nuclear power is profitable for them, for the Japanese people there is no benefit at all. We should be more focused on the lives of the people. Life is more important than their profits. Humanity demands that we make a different choice.

Female Protester: Speaking just from what I have studied, big businesses and nuclear reactors makers make profits and have tied up together. the government receives money from these groups and because of this… we are forced to rely on their nuclear power.

Protesting Man with Headband: The worst thing about Japan is the government, big businesses, universities, mass media. They have become a single structure. this has to be called the ‘nuclear village’ in Japan. But if you ask us, it is a nuclear mafia… a mafia. They combine together to protect each others’ interests, but the lives of ordinary people are not considered. All of these various institutions just look out for themselves, but the people have gradually become aware of this structure and we are now standing up to confront it. Even when you look around the world, there are citizen’s revolutions. Now in Japan we are having our own citizen’s revolution. This is something never before seen in our postwar history.

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