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Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012

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Fallout check: A smartphone shows types and amounts of radiation on a package of "maitake" mushrooms during a Sept. 12 radiation sampling test at a Tokyo market. AP

Crisis spawns distrust as Web alliances try to push for truth


Historically, Japan has undergone major social change only when it was thrust upon the country from outside — prime examples being after its defeat in World War II and after the arrival of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry's warships in 1853 that essentially forced the country to open up to the rest of the world.

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Skeptic: Mizuho Nakayama, an Internet-savvy activist mother, shops at a grocery store near her Tokyo home on Dec. 22. AP

Grassroots activism had only limited success. It took nearly 50 years to win compensation for most victims of the chemical company in Minamata, Kumomoto Prefecture, that dumped mercury into the water, causing the rare neurological disorder that came to be known as Minamata disease.

But while the March 11 quake and tsunami also assaulted Japan from offshore, the homegrown disaster that came in their wake — the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant — has prompted a groundswell of activism among an ever-Internet savvy public less inclined to automatically defer to authority and official safety proclamations.

Indeed, the public dismay with the government's response to the March 11 disasters is driving some people to become more politically engaged, helped by ever-expanding social and alternative media.

While still fledgling, it's the kind of grassroots activism that some say Japan needs to shake up a political system that has allowed the country's problems to fester for years. The nuclear crisis has particularly hit home with mothers of small kids who fear the effects of radioactive fallout.

Mizuho Nakayama is among a small but growing number of Internet-savvy activist moms.

Worried about her 3-year-old son and distrustful of government and TV reports that seemed to play down radiation risks, she scoured the Web for information and started connecting through Twitter and Facebook with other mothers, many of whom were using social media for the first time.

The 41-year-old mother joined a parent group that petitioned local officials in June to test lunches at schools and day care centers for radiation and avoid using products from around the nuclear plant.

"It's the first time for anyone in our group to be involved in this type of activism," said Nakayama, who now carries a Geiger counter with her wherever she goes.

Nakayama's group has had mixed success: Officials in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, immediately started posting radiation levels in milk, but they say they won't start testing lunch foods until April. Still, Nakayama feels she and others in what she calls the "silent majority" are making a difference.

"Women in their 30s and 40s are busy raising children, and many also work," she said. "We're normally too busy to really raise our voices. But this time we felt compelled to speak up."

Many Japanese have been content to let politicians and bureaucrats run the country as they see fit.

But the handling of the nuclear crisis — perceived as slow, confused and less than forthright, a perception reinforced by a recent critical government report — has deepened distrust of both government and mainstream media. That has given rise to a sense that the government isn't as reliable as once thought, and that people need to take action themselves to get things done.

"People used to think of the government as something like a father figure," said Tatsuya Yoshioka, founder and director of Peace Boat, a volunteer group involved in recovery efforts in the tsunami-hit northeast.

"But people are graduating from that. We are moving toward a more active kind of democracy in which people realize they are the primary actors, not the government."

Japan still has a long way to go. The activism is small in scale, and powerful forces — a culture that frowns on nonconformists, an affluent society — stand in the way of lasting change.

In the weeks following March 11, frustration over the sketchy information coming from the government about the Fukushima No. 1 crisis drove many people to Twitter and alternative media webcasts.

OurPlanet-TV, for example, relayed footage two days after the disaster from a freelance reporter near the Fukushima plant who reported the radiation level was quite high, said director Hajime Shiraishi. Within weeks, the number of viewers jumped to more than 100,000 per day from 1,000 to 3,000 before the tsunami, she said. It has since fallen back to the 20,000-30,000 range.

University student Gohei Kogure said he generally trusted TV news before the disaster, but accessing Twitter and webcasts gave him a different perspective that has made him more informed and critical.

Before the crisis there was "too much reliance on the government," he said. "These days, you need to take more responsibility for yourself."

A nationwide network of more than 200 parent groups has popped up to urge authorities to protect children from radiation, said Emiko Itoh, a 48-year-old Tokyo mother who is helping spearhead the movement.

Most are pressing local officials to test radiation levels in school lunches and provide more detailed checks of school grounds, but Itoh and others have also lobbied senior government officials. Mothers make up the bulk of the membership, but fathers are getting involved, too.

"We're still small, but some of the mothers involved didn't even go to vote. It's these mothers who are submitting petitions and making calls and gathering signatures," Itoh said.

"I believe this will be a factor in changing the direction of our country."

She said the Internet has been invaluable in connecting parents, partly because Japan has few forums for citizens to exchange ideas. The crisis has changed perceptions of the Internet among mothers, many who previously considered it a dubious source of information.

Separately, individuals and loosely formed community groups are going around their neighborhoods checking radiation levels or sending soil samples to laboratories for testing.

The Radiation Defense Project, which grew out of a blog and then a Facebook page, says its testing has revealed several hot spots in Tokyo with trace amounts of radioactive cesium that it believes came from Fukushima, said group founder Kouta Kinoshita, a former TV journalist.

The government's management of the nuclear crisis did little to instill confidence that it will be able to tackle looming problems, including a rapidly aging population and a public debt that is twice GDP — both of which will burden the younger generation.

Still, the growing dissatisfaction may not be enough to bring about fundamental change.

Japan's affluence is an obstacle. Most people live comfortably and are reluctant to make too big a fuss, even if they're unhappy with the political leadership. Culturally, it's considered better to adjust to one's surroundings than to try to change them, said Ken Matsuda, a sociologist at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka.

"Most people aren't hungry or angry," he said. "People need a clear enemy, and there's no clear enemy in Japan. Public anger needs to hit a critical mass. It's not anywhere near that."

Some Japanese meanwhile wonder if the stoicism and perseverance that were widely praised in the aftermath of the tsunami could also be a liability. Perhaps we need to be more impatient for change, some say.

"The disasters didn't stimulate a real sense of urgency," said Ichiro Asahina, who quit his job as a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry last year after 14 years to establish a think tank and leadership institute in Tokyo.

He faults a risk-averse political culture, a reluctance to take personal responsibility and a diffuse leadership system that spreads out responsibility among too many people or departments.

"To stimulate change," he said, "we may need to confront even more severe crises."

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