Could Fukushima provide catalyst for Japanese youth to reach criticality?

By Carl Stimson

Calls to protest bring thousands, the conventional press is shunned and rogue academics suddenly find people are willing to listen—it would be going too far to say Japan was joining the "Arab Spring," but the nuclear crisis has shown there are limits to youth apathy in this country.

The 20 years since the bubble burst have at times seemed like an experiment to make a population as lethargic and hopeless as possible and then observe the decline. But there was always a twist that made things different than the malaise of a Tunisia or an Egypt: decent living standards. A roof over one’s head and food on the table are virtually guaranteed, and almost everyone has enough for a trendy wardrobe, a PlayStation and a night of oblivion in an izakaya once or twice a week. If you are satisfied with that, you don’t even have to work very hard for it.

There lies the rub—anyone not willing to settle for a low level of mindless materialism finds their avenues for achievement choked off more and more each year. Those who want to join the elite must throw away their teens in a cram school for a spot in a top school and a chance at one of the ever-shrinking number of escalator-to-success jobs with a major company. Poor nations with little upward mobility turn into breeding grounds for crime and political extremism. Japan—with few worries about basic health and safety—has been stuck with the chronic, rotting disease of apathy. There is plenty of anger, just check out 2 Channel on any given day, but it is a sarcastic screech instead of an indignant shout.

This has changed notably, if perhaps not yet drastically, since March 11. Faced with a public truly scared about nuclear disaster, TEPCO and government officials have found that mealy mouthed platitudes and apologies no longer get them off the hook.

In the last few weeks, the Net has exploded with people looking for and sharing information. NicoNico has transformed from the best site to see the latest drama into a broadcaster of press conferences that draw tens of thousands, underground Geiger counters on live webcams, and a platform for academics and nuclear experts the regular networks won’t give space to. People who had spent hours each day cultivating virtual eggplants on Mixi’s Sunshine Farm began to steep themselves in technical nuclear jargon; becoming conversant in becquerels, suppression chambers and the half-life of cesium-137. And they proved they were willing to leave their computer screens to take to the streets in numbers that surprised everybody on April 10 for a protest in Koenji.

Like any anti-establishment movement worth its salt, this one has developed some conspiracy theories: TEPCO is using the threat of blackouts to keep the public cowed; NHK moved all its staff to Osaka due to inside information on radiation; and my personal favorite, the United States caused the March 11 earthquake so it could strengthen its military foothold in Japan. There’s also been some bad apples calling for the heads of TEPCO employees (I doubt I would have been performing a public service by taking out that old guy who checked my meter last week) but so far no violent words have spilled over into action. The nascent activists have been characterized by the seriousness, morality and attention to detail that is typical of this society at its best.

But is this enough? With hundreds of thousands of Germans protesting against nuclear power shortly after the crisis began but only a few hundred Japanese at Tokyo demonstrations, a close friend said she was embarrassed her fellow citizens were so passive. But it seemed more complicated to me. The 1960s protest movements were one of my country’s greatest moments, but I’ve met enough hate-filled peace activists to make it clear that taking up a good cause does not automatically lead to any kind of enlightenment. On the other hand, the atmosphere of smiles and laughter at the Koenji protest made for a pleasant experience—but I doubt such action will be strong enough to bring significant change to the system.

So how will all this turn out? It seems to me that it mostly depends on the nuclear reactor gods. The young movement has probably not yet reached a state of criticality, so if Fukushima calms down soon, the activists will also cool, though the government will likely find it tough to get any new nuclear plants built. If things get worse, the movement could heat up and instead of a minor annoyance, Japan’s old boy clubs could have a major problem on their hands.

It’s clear Japan’s stifling system of interlinked corporate, government and media interests have played a major role in keeping fresh growth from rising out of the ashes of the bubble. But after three decades of the status quo, it also is apparent that those without a seat at the table have not been able to find the motivation to make anything happen. The last month has shown what happens when the balance shifts between a corrupt elite and a materially satiated public.

The writer is an American who works for a newspaper in Tokyo.

This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis (

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wishful thinking.....

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Interesting article but just speculation and nothing new - someone please tell us all something we don`t know.

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Q: "Could Fukushima provide catalyst for Japanese youth to reach criticality?"

A: Not in a million years!

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I have had a few heated arguments with other foreigners over the prospects for Japan's anti-nuclear movement in the wake of 311. The sad truth that they cannot get their heads around, is that Japan has no viable alternative solution to meet her energy demands. The second reality that seems hard to digest is the cost to replace nuclear power that the mainstream here are unlikely to be willing to do.

I am 100% for replacing nuclear power with clean solutions. But protests and the current movement lack the popular support and political insight to succeed in much more than raising a little noise. Until that movement has a tangible political and fiscal plan to replace the energy needs of Japan with a non-nuclear solution, then this movement will not be a catalyst for anything, including the drifting youth of Japan who make up a tiny portion of the movement in any case.

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Looking at 2ch to measure the pulse of Japanese youth is like looking at 4ch to measure the pulse of Western youth. And if you've ever been to 4ch you know how distorted that is.

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What is this much-talked about 2ch?

I kind of wonder, too. I think if there is going to be any change it is because of people like Softbank's Son, who has set up a fund for lobbying the gov. about alternative energy solutions. He has the financial power, the respect of business elite and also public recognition to not be shunned down.

One thing this country needs is open media. NHK and the commercial TV channels are backing the official gov. and big biz voices, and the kissha club system is a shame for democratic media practices. It is very hard for people to join any demonstrations if they don't even know that those do take place. In my country clips of an anti-nuclear demo are shown on national TV news. Not in Japan.

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There lies the rub—anyone not willing to settle for a low level of mindless materialism finds their avenues for achievement choked off more and more each year.

Stole my description of Japan as the "Mindless pursuit of Mindlessness." Like said by others, on-target, but wishful thinking. Not sure anything could shake young people here out of their apathy. Even though they'll be paying the huge costs of years of government/business fiscal failings, which mostly benefitted their parents.

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Out and about in Tokyo I've been looking for signs that the earthquake may have woken people up and energised them a bit more.

Unfortunately, in comparing the pre-earthquake days with the post-earthquake days, I see no noticeable difference and people seem as comatose as ever.

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A: Not in a million years!


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Seeing as how 0 people have died from radiation at Fukushima, I am not sure what it should be providing a catalyst for.

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no viable alternative solution to meet her energy demands

Would someone please provide the numbers that show this? And when looking at the cost of nuclear, don't forget that TEPCO had approx US$10 billion in reserve for reprocessing costs as well as for radiation clean-up costs... and that likely won't be enough in the Fukushima case.

Just heard yesterday that there is a plan to put a wind farm in Okinawa - two reactors' worth of electricity.

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I do not see young people being apathetic at all. Corporations are just not hiring, so a lot of talent is going to waste. A friend of mine is looking for new work. All the full time jobs she has checked out told her she is required to spend at least 20 hours extra a week for overtime, and if she does not like that, then look elsewhere. That is sad. One person could be hired for a 40 hour week and a part timer for the other 20.

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I have been watching the daily energy usage that Tepco posts on their site.

Current trend is that we will have blackouts before June, as people/businesses are/been increasing their usage and current figures are uncomfortably close to last years figures at times.

Add in extra temps and voila.

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sengoku38, this is not about immediate short-term deaths of humans or animals.

It's about insidious and invisible long-term poisoning of an environment, and potential chromosomal breakdown there for all life forms and for their progeny.

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Agree with EUcitizen's two main points: 1) Need a significant anti-nuclear lobby in Japan; 2) Need more open media. This place is still Japan Inc., which presupposes a greater importance of the whole over individuals' rights, wants, etc. As such, I don't think the opinions of the youth matter - they have insignificant influence. They won't change private power companies plans, judges decisions, etc. To build on EUcitizen's lobby point, I would also include the effects of global pressures (stoppage of imports from Japan, diplomatic and NPO pressures over environmental damage, etc.)

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Not quite sure I agree with the beginning of this article, how does nuclear power equate to a repressive government? Yes, many people here would do better by taking a more active role in politics/the world, but the author seems to imply that it is only by standing up to nuclear power that their voices will be heard. I'd like to see a lot more initiatives taken by the populace before worrying about nuclear power.

To begin with, would be good to develop more interest in voting, work at fielding actual candidates with actual initiatives, then work at creating a more entrepreneurial culture for people to create their own bright futures.

Stating that anti-nuke rallies are their best way to achieve "criticality" is a false dichotomy at best and nonsense at worst.

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ihavegreatlegs (Have to take your word for it.) and Nonanon -- agree with your sentiment. However, if Japan Inc. is at the root of many of the current society's problems, as you both state, then the only way to affect real change here is for the youth to stand up and push back. Not just throw up its hands and say shoganai. These folks have their whole lives ahead of them. Are they simply going to resign themselves to over 50 years of paying for others mistakes in a system they probably don't support? TEPCO's blunders are going to cost these young folks in both direct ways -- higher taxes, lower government services -- as well as indirect ones -- less foreign investment in Japan, lower esteem for Japan internationally. The fact that they aren't up-in-arms about this just shocks me. If the young folks in Egypt can topple a government, can't the ones here at least their voices?

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dont count on it. todays youth has been pushed to the side for so long they don`t care any more. and with people like ozawa shooting his mouth off can you blame them.

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There are youth in Japan? Since when?

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Did a double take yesterday seeing a guy with spiky mohawk, leather jacket, and wine bottle in hand walking near the station mid afternoon. Maybe Hells Angels-wannabe biker gangs are recruiting now that the ukelele-playing Mormon missionary kids seem to have vanished from the area. Judging by the lonesome crooners busking for love in front of darkened department store windows, don't plan on hearing Johnny Rotten/Bad Religion style critiques about Japan's royals, the prime minister, or the nuclear crisis anytime soon.

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The author of this interesting and entertaining article seems to know Japanese well but only half of what he is talking about. Begin with the title. This might have been appropriate for youth in the 1960s but this post 3/11 world is a different one. A better title that would have made a better essay would have been "Could Fukushima provide a catalyst for the Japanese public to create a critical mass opposing nuclear power generation?"

This is the question of the hour, because it has already happened. In Germany. Fukushima created a ground swell of anti-nuclear sentiment that elected the Greens and Social Democrats into power in Baden-Württemberg and ousted the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Free Democrats who had almost entirely dominated this provence since the founding of postwar West German republic. That a conservative region like this could swing to the Left overnight is amazing. Youth played a part in this but so did the average hausfrau and shopkeeper. It's not the 1960s or 70s. Trust me on this.

There has been a change of consciousness by the people of Fukushima and other areas affected by the disaster. They had trusted nuclear power and it shafted them. People had to evacuate. Farmers cannot sell their produce. Evacuees have been treated like pariahs in neighboring prefectures. You know the story. Let all questions about the future begin here.

There are a few generalizations that author makes that I need to take issue with. I would like to see some hard evidence that Japanese youth (or the Japanese in general) are mindlessly chasing materialism. There has been a quietude for decades to be sure--before the burst bubble--but there has also been a simmering dissatisfaction with the status quo. The LDP was knocked out of power. (They may be coming back in--but by way of "independent" candidates backed by then.) After Fukushima it safe to say that probably more Japanese are distrustful of authorities and so-called experts. The other night NHK addressed this issue specifically in relation to Fukushima.

There can no longer be any more "sensational" news about Fukushima. The revelations coming out now overwhelm anything the News of the World can dream up.

The author mentions "conspiracy theories" supposedly dreamt up my antinuclear people. I like to remind him that triple disaster produced a host of outrageous rumors, my favorite being about foreigners plundering and raping in Tohoku. No one has a monopoly on irrationality.

The author alludes to the uprising in he Middle East that surprised everyone bu should have surprised no one. How relevant this is to the topic at hand I honestly don't know. The people are more revolutionary than we might expect.

The author writes: "It’s clear Japan’s stifling system of interlinked corporate, government and media interests have played a major role in keeping fresh growth from rising out of the ashes of the bubble." Well, yes, but we are speaking of failure and not willfulness. And pinning down the nature of that failure is not easy. China has an infinitely more stifling system and look at how well they are doing at the moment. Somewhere Japan Inc. dropped the ball. Then the bubble burst, the recession happened and the Tohoku Daishinsei happened. Yet Seiko still make great watches and Nikon great cameras to be sure. But with the destruction of Tohoku and Fukushima Japan is in a pickle, and will be in a pickle for decades to come.

The authors says: "But after three decades of the status quo, it also is apparent that those without a seat at the table have not been able to find the motivation to make anything happen." I say: Wait and watch.

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@kabukilover- i just read one long boring article. Do you really think I am going to read 2? @Zenny-"I have been watching the daily energy usage that Tepco posts on their site"-Good lord, get a job or a life.

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Japan's youth are there future, so I hope the young are thinking about safe ways for their country to generate electricity. Going green with a trash to steam power plant would reduce landfill space. Stuff like that.

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Ah, Kaptankichigai, there is a measure of humble deference that one writer owes another before stomping on his head.

And stream of consciousness is always interesting to me.

Besides there are a few gems to be found: "People who had spent hours each day cultivating virtual eggplants on Mixi’s Sunshine Farm began to steep themselves in technical nuclear jargon; becoming conversant in becquerels, suppression chambers and the half-life of cesium-137."

I admit to being utterly ignorant of what Mixi's Sunshine farm is and how you cultivate virtual eggplants. But the point about ordinary people learning the lingo of nuclear power is a poignant one; more poignant than the writer perhaps realizes. You may see a growth of nuclear experts in the anit-nuclear movement who could come to play a significant role in the Fukushima crisis and how Japan's other nuclear plants are dealt with.

Twenty-five years after the fact, Chernobyl is still with us. Twenty-five years from now Fukushima will being haunting Japan.

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Meanwhile, May 7th thousands of people rallied around Japan against nuclear power. Something important IS happening.

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@kabukilover- alright, good point- apologies

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Kaptankichigai: Maybe the apathetic ones are not the Japanese youngsters, but gaijin such as yourself???

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Thanks Kaptankichigai!

Check the foreign press and You Tube for information about the anti-nuke demos in Japan. There is a claim that 10.000 people demonstrated in Tokyo, which I find hard to believe and impossible to verify at this point.

As I look at this article it is not as bad as I first thought. The writer meant well and he did stumble upon something--a sudden rise in protest and political activism--though he unfortunately tended to look at with a 1960s model in mind.

Buggle though he did, his article did manage to anticipate what happened this past Saturday. What will happen next is anyone's guess. Mine is that Fukushima is going to be a thorn in the side of industrial-corporate-bureaucratic-academic axis for decades to come.

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