Japanese opposition to nuclear power builds as Government restarts reactors

By Simon Scott

After the damage to Fukushima all Japan's nuclear reactors were closed down, but restarts began in June. Photo / AP
After the damage to Fukushima all Japan's nuclear reactors were closed down, but restarts began in June. Photo / AP

A year and a half has already passed since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, yet calls for a nuclear free Japan seem to be getting louder by the day.

No longer just a few outspoken voices in the wilderness of political apathy, popular opposition to nuclear power is building momentum and is now one of the largest people-power movements seen in Japan for a long time.

In the aftermath of Fukushima, all of the country's nuclear reactors were eventually closed down - the last, Reactor 3 at the Tomari plant in Hokkaido, went offline on May 5 this year.

Yet Japan's nuclear-free days were to be short lived and on June 15 Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced the planned restart of two reactors at the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui.

By July, 2nd reactor No 3 was back online - less than two months after Tomari was closed down - and reactor No 4 reached criticality on July 19.

The swift time frame of the restarts, and the perception that the Prime Minister made such an important decision behind closed doors, acted to galvanise and consolidate the already growing anti-nuclear movement.

Norimichi Hattori, spokesman for the Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes (MCAN), an umbrella organisation which loosely binds Tokyo's various anti-nuclear groups, says attendance at protests before June was relatively low.

"Between March and June 2012, there were between 300-1000 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," he said.

Protests in front of Noda's official residence have now become a weekly Friday event in Tokyo and sometimes draw crowds of up to 20,000 people.

In July, a huge anti-nuclear rally was held in Tokyo's Yoyogi Park and has been hailed as Japan's largest political demonstration in decades. It is estimated up to 170,000 protesters attended.

Several Japanese celebrities have attached themselves to the cause, including Oscar-winning musician Ryuichi Sakamoto and novelist Kenzaburo Oe, who both spoke at the event.

Oe, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1994, has long been involved with anti-nuclear politics and dealt with the subject of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a number of his books.

Oe believes Japan has an "ethical responsibility" to entirely abandon nuclear power after experiencing a disaster the size of Fukushima, in the same way the country renounced all war in its post-World War II constitution.

"The Government allowed the Oi nuclear reactors to restart and it's going to allow more reactors to restart.

"We feel we have been insulted by the Government - we have to stop it."

Oe has also been critical of the Japanese for accepting the party line that nuclear power was safe.

"The people of Japan decided to leave everything in the hands of the experts and we trusted them.

"That structure endured, and then ended in tragedy in Fukushima.

"The people of Japan used to consider themselves the beneficiaries of nuclear power, but now they're the victims."

The anti-nuclear movement has deep roots in Japan, but before Fukushima it was largely focused on weapons rather than nuclear power.

According to professor Mikio Haruna, from Waseda University, there was little protesting about nuclear weapons in the decade after World War II, because the United States occupation forces actively suppressed information about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But in 1954, after the occupation ended, a Japanese tuna fishing boat was contaminated by nuclear fallout when the US tested a hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll, in the Marshall Islands.

All 23 of the crew members suffered from serious radiation sickness and one died seven months later.

Haruna believes this incident sparked a powerful anti-nuclear movement in Japan, but it wasn't until Fukushima that people began to seriously oppose nuclear power.

"Japanese people tend to separate power plants from nuclear weapons or military use, but after Fukushima many people changed their thoughts overnight," Haruna said.

This new post-Fukushima protest movement is unique in that it seems to transcend not just ideological lines, but also bridges the generation gap.

At nuclear protests in Tokyo, it is not uncommon to see conservative-looking, elderly Japanese in floppy sun hats and polo shirts marching side-by-side with bare-chested, dreadlocked students banging bongo drums.

Musical performance is an increasingly common element at these Tokyo protests and often marches take on the air of a moving dance party as DJs, rock groups and various other musicians perform live from the back of a ute.

Tokyo-based musician Goro "Baron" Nakazawa regularly attends anti-nuclear rallies and sometimes performs with his ukulele for the crowds.

Nakazawa believes music brings a positive energy to the protesting and keeps anger and hatred at bay.

"Music and performance helps create a happy mood during the political protests," he said. "I hope playing music helps people to enjoy protesting.

"The more they enjoy it, the more people gather and the more demos will be created over a longer period of time."

As well as bringing an end to nuclear power in Japan, Nakazawa also hopes to encourage people to think more deeply about their lives and the kind of society they live in.

"I hope people will stop for a moment and start to think about their life with nuclear power," he said.

"I strongly feel protesting against nuclear power should not only be about just protesting against its possible dangers, but also be a way to make people realise what is really happening behind our life."

- NZ Herald

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