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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Young and old rally as nuclear fear galvanizes a usually sedate nation


Japan's usually sedate society is angry and getting organized against nuclear power, with the kind of snowballing protest movement not seen for decades.

News photo
Taking it to the streets: People shout slogans last Friday during a rally denouncing nuclear power outside the official residence of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. AFP-JIJI

Weekly demonstrations outside the Prime Minister's Official Residence attract tens of thousands of people and a rally in Tokyo last week drew a crowd that organizers claimed was 170,000 strong demanding an end to atomic power amid the reality of Fukushima No. 1.

And as the numbers swell, there are indications the country's usually inflexible politicians are getting worried and just might start paying attention.

"Before the disaster, I had never thought of taking part in rallies," said 22-year-old Yusuke Hasunuma, referring to the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

"But now I find it very exciting. It's great to take action with other people who feel the same," said Hasunuma, who has become a regular at the Friday evening protests in Tokyo's political district.

"No one used to care before" the disaster, said Masaki Yoshida, a mother of three who was forced from her home in Fukushima by the radiation-spewing plant.

"But people now think keeping their mouth shut means saying 'yes' to nuclear power."

Protesters' demands are simple: Japan should abandon atomic power, a technology that industry, government and regulators had sworn was safe until the 9.0-magnitude earthquake on March 11, 2011, sent towering tsunami crashing into the Fukushima plant.

One by one the country's nuclear reactors were shuttered for safety checks, and by May 5 this year the technology that had provided a third of Japan's electricity needs was idle.

But amid warnings the country's industrial heartland could run perilously short of power over the hot summer, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in June ordered the restarting of two reactors.

That galvanized businesspeople, housewives, parents with young children and a large number of elderly people, who came to the conclusion that taking to the streets wasn't so radical.

Analysts say this marks a sea change in the public attitude that demonstrations are things that happen in other countries or belong to the past.

In the still-poor and war-battered 1950s, a current of anti-U.S. sentiment, particularly among radical students, sparked often violent rallies where clashes with police resulted in injuries and at least one death.

Back then the protests were over an agreement allowing America to have military bases in recently pacifist Japan.

"The current antinuclear rallies are different from the ones against the U.S.-Japan security treaty," which had an ideological and political agenda, said Yoshikazu Sakamoto, an honorary professor of politics at the University of Tokyo. "Now ordinary citizens are participating.

"Many of them just feel distrust of and frustration with the government."

Kiyoshi Abe, a professor of media and communications studies at Kwansei Gakuin University, said that the large number of elderly people is a key characteristic of the recent movement.

"I think many of those who experienced World War II and particularly the misery of the atomic bombs are participating," Abe said. "Elderly people worked hard and kept silent for the sake of the country's recovery from the war, but they seem to have realized that what they dreamed of is different from what they are seeing now."

Abe said that unlike the sometimes bloody riots in other countries, the large presence of seniors appears to being having a calming effect on rallies here.

And they are very ordered: Protesters stick to the antinuclear message and go home in an orderly fashion at the appointed time.

But the demonstrations' regularity and sheer size — even taking the police estimate of 75,000 people for the July 16 protest — is giving the government pause for thought in a country where for decades the political elite has largely ignored popular opinion.

As crowds gathered on July 16, Noda told a TV program he would "listen attentively" to the voices raised in the debate.

"Nuclear energy is becoming an issue that divides the nation," he said in an unusually candid assessment.

However, the University of Tokyo's Sakamoto said the political classes may be able to wait out the protests.

"People may abandon the current movement if nothing changes following recent efforts, and the country could return to its usual apathy," Sakamoto said. "Citizens' movements in Japan are still in a transitional phase."

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