It’s hard to ignore more than 20,000 anti-nuclear protesters at your front door. It’s even harder in a country like Japan, where more often than not repressive tradition and political apathy combine to stifle social protest. So after Yoshihiko Noda, Japan’s unpopular prime minister, found his home surrounded by thousands of protesters for weeks on end, he finally got the message.
Last week the prime minister agreed, albeit reluctantly, to meet with representatives of Japan’s increasingly vocal and influential citizens network “Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes” (MCAN).
According to an opinion poll conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun, a major Japanese daily newspaper, almost half of Japan now sympathizes with the protesters. That statistic is all the more remarkable in a country which hasn’t seen mass social protest since the early 1960s. But the anti-nuke coalition besieging the prime minister’s home and other government sites is nothing if not broadbased, a characteristic summed up by the characters of its two leaders: a tattooed female artist and fashion designer and an ultra-conventional looking, soft-spoken white-collar worker. How did this dynamic duo come together and “politely” make themselves a force to be reckoned with? And will they really make a difference? No one knows, of course, but in the past few months Japan’s leaders have learned conclusively that these two cannot be easily ignored.
On March 11, 2011, an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and a subsequent tsunami left thousands dead in Japan and caused a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant, managed by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). The Japanese government and TEPCO for months afterward denied a meltdown had taken place and then later blamed the accident on “an unprecedented and unforeseeable tsunami,” which knocked out the power to the plant.
Last month, an independent commission created by the Japanese Parliament released a report that explicitly held TEPCO and the Japanese government responsible for the disaster. It concluded that the tsunami was forseeable and that “the accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators, and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties. They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents.” The report officially confirmed the Japanese people’s worst fears and added impetus to a growing anti-nuclear movement.
The loosely structured network of groups opposed to nuclear energy in Japan known as “Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes” (MCAN),was founded in September last year.
The leader of the group is an outspoken tattooed female artist and fashion designer who choses to be referred to by her adapted name, Misao Redwolf. (Don’t dare ask her age, because she will just glare at you fiercely.) Redwolf says, “I organized anti-nuclear protests for more than five years now, but nobody knew about our movement simply because we never received media coverage before.”
Redwolf, noting that many small groups of protesters were scattered around Tokyo, decided to bring together all the organizations to fight for the same cause. “And so we founded the MCAN.”
The first anti-nuclear demonstration in front of the National Diet building and the prime minister’s residence took place on March 29, 2012. Almost every Friday evening, between 6 and 8 p.m., protesters meet in front of the prime minister’s residence to protest the government’s decision to restart two reactors at the nuclear power station Oi, which belongs to Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO), in the Fukui prefecture.
“The protests cannot change the decisions of the politicians,” Redwolf says, “but if our voices can reach the ears of the lawmakers at the Parliament (the Japanese Diet) and influence their decisions, then we will win a unique battle.”
Her major ally in winning that battle is the mild-mannered, clean-cut, and soft-spoken Norimichi Hattori, the group's spokesman, who has captured the hearts of the Japanese public and the media.
A consultant for a small company that manufactures carrying bags for children, Hattori, 36, was not an environmental activist before the meltdown contaminated his home with radioactivity. In April 2011, he first got involved in small anti-nuclear protests. In September, after meeting with Redwolf several times, he became MCAN’s spokesman.
His black hair is cut straight and short, and even in summer he wears a white shirt and a dark suit. He looked like any Japanese “salary man” (white-collar worker).
Hattori lives in Matsudo City, in the Chiba prefecture. In mid-March 2011, heavy rains carried the radioactive particles emitted by the explosion at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant to his home. As a result, his home has become a so-called “hot spot”—a place where sediments containing radioactive fallout tend to accumulate via rainwater and other factors.
Hattori married last year. He and his wife were thinking about having a child together. However, they’ve postponed those plans.
“When we learned that our new home had become a radioactive hot spot, we were convinced not to make any children as long as we lived there. It made me very angry.”
“Between March and June 2012, there were between 300 to 1,000 people gathering at our protests. But people started to join the protests en masse after June 15, when Prime Minister Noda announced the decision to restart two reactors at the Oi nuclear power station,” Hattori explains.
The numbers of participants at these weekly protests have grown steadily, peaking at more than 20,000 at a special demonstration and protest march held on Sunday, July 29. The event concluded with the entire Japanese Diet building being surrounded by protesters in a candlelight vigil. Some estimated the numbers at more than 100,000, but even the low-end estimates, given by the police, are incredibly high for Japan.
Hattori insists that his movement is not useless: “The fact that so many people gather together for the same cause is a very rare thing. The only demonstrations well known in Japan were those organized in the 60s, and they were organized by labor unions and the participants were workers. Here and now, it’s different. You can see families, children, old people—in other words, very ordinary people from all social classes. The government cannot ignore us anymore. And now the prime minister has communicated to us that he would meet us in person.”
Redwolf said at a July 27 press conference that she was amazed that the number of people gathering had passed the 10,000 mark. “At the start, the few people who showed up stayed for a short time and went back home after 30 minutes, because they were afraid. I hate to use that word ‘normal,’ but in Japan, protesters are considered trouble-makers or radicals.”
Unlike the protests organized by Japanese labor unions or political parties, which are often very conventional, the anti-nuclear protests in Tokyo have a festive air to them. The organizers have gone to great lengths to make the protests family friendly and peaceful, even setting up “family corners” where parents and children can relax. During the recent protests, you could see fathers, mothers, small children, reggae bands, clowns, trumpeters, and performance artists. The movement has embraced a silent section of Japan, especially the housewives and mothers who feel helpless about the dangers faced by their offspring.
“We wanted to show to the ‘ordinary’ Japanese citizens that our protests do not represent a dangerous anti-social group,” Redwolf explained.
The protesters and the organizers have been exceptionally well behaved and polite. They clean up after every protest, cooperate with the authorities to make sure the crowds stay in control, and the organizers always make sure to thank the police officers for their hard work—with a polite bow and traditional greetings—when the event is done.
The Japanese government and the ruling coalition, headed by Prime Minister Noda, insist that Japan cannot survive without nuclear energy. In June, during a national television broadcast, Noda stated that Japan could not keep up its current living standards if it abandoned nuclear power.
However, Noda is being defied by members of his own political party, including his predecessor, Naoto Kan. Ex-Prime Minister Kan met with Redwolf and MCAN members on July 31, formally stating, “I promise you that I will talk to the people at the Noda cabinet.”
Less than a week after that, Prime Minister Noda’s cabinet contacted the organizers of MCAN.
During an Aug. 3 press conference, the Japanese prime minister expressed his wish to meet with the anti-nuclear protest organizers “in the very near future.”
“I can hear the protesters from my window, at the parliament,” he explained. “There are many voices being raised, including those who are against [running the Oi nuclear power plant reactors] and those who are for it. I want to hear them all and consider all the opinions.”
However, while Noda has expressed a willingness to meet the protesters, Yukio Edano, the head of METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) has vocally protested Noda meeting the protesters, noting that it would be unfair to the power industry.
In the meantime, MCAN continues to demand the immediate shutdown of all the nuclear power stations of the country and encourages a completely nuclear-free future for the country.
Hattori believes that Japan is capable of surviving without nuclear energy: “Right now, we know that we can live without nuclear energy. This summer is extremely hot, but we do not lack electricity to survive in this heat. We do have the possibility to use thermal energy, but we don’t. It’s only because the government does not want to put the nuclear industrial complex out of business that they don’t contemplate the other solutions. If we clarified these details, Japan should be able to live with zero nuclear energy.”
Yumi Seki, 69, a retired public servant, participates in each of the weekly Friday protests. “For me, if they start one nuclear power station, they will start all of them. But what else can we do instead of staying home?”
Seki was doubtful of the safety of nuclear power in her youth, but she said she didn’t know the existence of any movement with which she could have joined: “In my youth, ordinary people didn’t know how to make ourselves heard. After the meltdown, I thought to myself, I can’t let this happen again.”
Many of the protesters are disgusted and disillusioned with the mainstream Japanese media coverage of the nuclear problem. They credit the success of their movement to social media, word of mouth, and the Internet. And it is true that the mainstream Japanese media, which was the recipient of TEPCO’s annual $400 million worth of advertising, has been very reluctant to even report on the existence of the protesters until recently.
Hattori says, “The reason we are being taken seriously is not just because of Twitter or social media anymore. It is thanks to the people who made the difference by communicating face to face with their colleagues at work, with the primary-school teachers where they take their kids to school, with their old high school friends. The people who passed the information on about our movement by word of mouth made a big difference.”
On Aug. 3, a 9-year-old boy and his mother participated in the weekly Friday protest. Asked about his awareness of what’s happening in his country, the boy replied, “If we restart any one of the nuclear power plants, and if there is another earthquake, it might cause another nuclear accident which could kill all the animals and the plants and contaminate everything. We will be unable to eat the food made in Japan. Maybe not even be able to live here.”
Even a child realizes that in an earthquake-prone country with 2,000 active faults, a nuclear power plant is a dangerous thing and should be handled with considerable caution. The question is, does the Japanese government have the common sense of a 9-year-old boy or the willingness to listen to one?