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Sunday, Aug. 19, 2012
Citizens' groups propel rising wave of antinuclear activism
By ERIKO ARITA
Japanese summers are not kind to protesters. Under the scorching afternoon sun and into the humid evenings, however, tens of thousands of citizens have continued to chant against the restart of Japan's nuclear reactors.
On June 16, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda decided to restart the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture. On July 5 it became the first reactor to be restarted since the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11 of last year. However, the protesters' efforts are beginning to have an effect: Earlier this month, Noda announced that he will meet the leaders of the antinuclear protests in front of his office, where the gatherings have been held every Friday evening since March 29.
The weekly protests are among many recent demonstrations against nuclear power. The biggest of these were a protest in front of the prime minister's office on June 29, a demonstration that filled Tokyo's Yoyogi Park on July 16, and a rally that included a human chain that surrounded the Diet building on July 29.
Mirei Akagi, a 33-year-old mother of two from Saitama Prefecture, was at the Yoyogi Park protest. She said she had participated in several protests and that each time she had learned about them via the social-networking website Facebook.
"I am very concerned about the amount of radiation my children may be exposed to through the food they eat," she said. "We are responsible for the health of our children. Adults must take action to replace nuclear power with renewable energies."
Like Akagi, many of the participants that The Japan Times spoke to learned about the rallies through social media sites. Others, particularly more elderly protesters, said they were informed via traditional media outlets.
Yuichi Hayashi, a 19-year-old university student from Chiba, who learned about the weekly protests through the microblogging service Twitter, is frustrated over the lack of a response from authorities.
"Noda reportedly said, 'They're making a a lot of noise,' about the people who are angry over his decision," Hayashi said, referring to comments the prime minister made about the protesters that he found dismissive. "But these voices are not just noise."
A similar frustration was voiced by Koji Minegishi, a 56-year-old businessman who pointed out the relationships between nuclear power industry regulators and the authorities.
"The government is appointing experts from the so-called nuclear-power village to a new nuclear-power regulation committee. They are corrupt," Minegishi explained, adding that he received his information on the protests from reading newspapers.
Two collectives are responsible for the dissemination of information for the antinuclear rallies. One of them is Sayonara Genpatsu Issenmannin Akushon (Goodbye Nuclear Power, 10 Million People in Action), a coalition of older organizations, and the other is the Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes, made up of newer organizations.
Sayonara Genpatsu was responsible for the massive rally in Yoyogi Park. It consists of 60 citizens' organizations that include the long-standing antinuke group Gensuikin, the Consumers Union of Japan, celebrities such as Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, and journalist and writer Satoshi Kamata.
The collective held its first demonstration last September in Meiji Park in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, which attracted 60,000 people, according to organizers. Afterward they started planning the July demonstration at Yoyogi Park, according to Kamata.
"To attract as many people as possible, we advertised the rally by holding lectures and meetings across Japan," he said.
For the Yoyogi Park rally, Sayonara Genpatsu organizers gained permission to use the park from the Tokyo Metropolitan Park Association, before setting up 50 temporary toilets and stationing groups of medical staff there, Kamata said.
"We also planned various different courses for the march starting from the park, so we needed to gain permission from the police to use the roads. But because the police had certain demands, including that we reduce the number of lines in which people marched, we had to negotiate with them," Kamata said, adding that Sayonara Genpatsu organizers, which consists of 100 people from the 60 citizens' groups, had monthly meetings and discussed the details of the preparations.
The amount of planning that goes into large-scale demonstrations is enough to test even the most dedicated of activists, but the Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes has also taken up the challenge. The coalition, which is made up of newer organizations, held a news conference on July 27, in which its three leaders explained the human chain to be held on July 29. Misao Redwolf, a coalition leader and the head of a group called No Nukes More Hearts, said that they had been making preparations for the demonstration since April. She said safety has been their utmost priority.
"Because the number of participants in the rallies in front of the prime minister's office has been increasing, we expect the human chain to be huge," Redwolf said ahead of the demonstration that took place July 29. "We have tried to create an atmosphere that is welcoming to people who have never taken part in a protest before and we want to hold a safe demonstration. I'd like the participants to follow the guidance of our staff."
The Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes was established in September 2011 and includes a network of more than 10 groups. Redwolf, who did not disclose her real name, was joined at the press conference by Norimichi Hattori, a senior member of Energy Shift Parade, and Takeyoshi Koizumi, a representative of Genpatsu Yamero Demo! (Stop Nukes Demonstration!).
In contrast to the celebrity figureheads of the Sayonara Genpatsu movement, the three stood out from each other: Hattori in a typical salaryman uniform, Redwolf showing off her tattoos and Koizumi dressed head to toe in black. The visual impression was convincing, though — less bureaucracy and more grassroots.
Although there are a small percentage of people who want violent demonstration, Redwolf said she would stop the protest in case of such an incident. So far most of those participating in the antinuclear rallies have behaved themselves — only two people have been arrested in the protests organized by the coalition, according to Hattori. And when thousands of protesters at the weekly protest on June 29 flooded the pavement and spilled onto the road, Redwolf used a police loudspeaker to tell the masses that she had decided to cease the protest.
Hattori told The Japan Times that he has been informing the Kojimachi police station — which is in charge of the area surrounding the prime minister's office — of the coalition's weekly protests in advance.
Hattori and Redwolf have also met officials of the National Police Agency, via the introduction of politicians who support the protesters.
"We insisted that police should allow protesters to walk in the roads, and not limit them to the narrow pavements, so that we can secure the safety of the participants," said Hattori. "But the officials told us that their priority is guarding the prime minister's office, so they don't want protesters on the roads."
Since July 13, police have placed metal fences between the pavements and the roads in front of the PM's office. Although the media was told by the Metropolitan Police Department that it had decided to place the fences after consulting the coalition, this was not the case, according to Hattori.
"The police called to tell us they had decided to put the fences in place. But they never consulted with us," he said.
Hattori, who is obviously frustrated at the situation, said he lives in one of the radiation "hot spots" in Chiba.
"When the Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred, I was going to marry my girlfriend and we were planning to have a child. But we found we live in the hot spot, of which we'd never been informed by authorities and the media," Hattori said. "The anger toward them motivated me to join the antinuke movement."
Since his participation in a march organized by the Energy Shift Parade on April 24, 2011, he has been volunteering with the organization. In October, the group cooperated with Redwolf's No Nuke More Hearts group and other groups to hold the first demonstration under the banner of Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes.
On March 29, the coalition began staging protests at the prime minister's office against the restart of nuclear reactors.
From the hundreds who first participated the numbers have now grown to 200,000 on June 29, according to the coalition. Ever since the restart of the Oi reactor on July 5, the coalition says the number of the protesters has remained steady at around 90,000 in August.
The true number of people joining the protests has been a contentious issue and there is a huge discrepancy between the numbers given by organizers and those of the police. But Hattori said the reason for this is the difference in counting methods.
"The police only count people when the protest begins. But people continue to join the protest after it has begun and we count them all," he explained.
Koizumi, who by day is an employee of a cram school, is the member of staff in charge of counting the participants. He said at the news conference on July 27 that he noticed police only clicked their counters a couple of times for each moment he counted five people.
Meanwhile, now that the antinuclear movement has become a major issue, not only the authorities but also the public are starting to pay attention to whether the movement can continue to grow in the future.
Kamata from Sayonara Genpatsu, told The Japan Times that he and other demonstration organizers must seriously consider the next measures they take before the number of the protesters decreases. Kamata also noted the upcoming general election would be the turning point of whether or not Japan abolishes nuclear power.
"We need to elect politicians who oppose nuclear power and defeat pronuclear power candidates," Kamata said, adding that Sayonara Genpatsu is supporting the non-partisan group of Parliament members who aim to create a bill abolishing nuclear power.
But he said it would not be easy. The protesters don't yet have the support of the trade unions, as members of Japan's largest union coalition work for power-companies.
Hattori is more optimistic, believing that a large percentage of the public has already decided its stance on the issue because the number of the protesters is not falling rapidly and similar weekly demonstrations have simultaneously sprung up in 36 of Japan's 47 prefectures.
"The most important fact is that people have realized that it's OK to raise their voices," Hattori said. "Before this antinuclear movement began, Japan had no system in place where the opinions of citizens could be heard, because members of panels and government councils were selected and controlled by bureaucrats. I believe these protests are the start of achieving real democracy."