The Japanese protest boom


It's not very often that large demonstrations or protests are seen in Japan -- or at least make the national news or are paid attention to. So when tens of thousands of peace demonstrators turned out for the Tokyo “Sayonara Nuke” rally last month, many were surprised at the jaw-dropping numbers – with estimates of up to 60,000 in attendance.

But while reporters bickered back and forth on the numbers, and photographers clamoured to get pictures of Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe and legendary electronic musician and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, I noticed another phenomena. These weren’t your average college-aged hippie, anti-global, peacenik ban-the-bomb/give peace a chance marchers (or even young zany trendy Japanese). Many appeared to be well into middle age and older.

The question arises: What’s behind the unique make-up of the protests, and what will its likely political impact be?

Birth of a movement

To understand the full story, we need to go back to 1954 -- nine years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the birth of the Japanese peace movement.

In 1954, a fishing boat called the Daigo Fukuryu Maru that was conducting business near Bikini Atoll was exposed to radioactive fallout from a thermonuclear test being conducted by the U.S. government. The boat’s chief radioman died seven months later. As many as 856 fishing boats and 10,000 fishermen were thought to have been exposed to radioactive fallout. A bungled cover-up and messy diplomatic situation arose in which the Japanese and American governments feared a wave of destabilizing anti-American/pro-leftist sentiments arising at the height of the Cold War.

But a quick payout and additional damage control did little to stop the birth of a grassroots peace movement. The groups eventually converged to form Gensuikyo, the Japanese Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs -- the leading organizer of last month’s rally. Today, the group is an umbrella organization with chapters in all 47 prefectures of Japan -– as well as solidarity with 60 national organizations including one of Japan’s largest trade unions, Zenroren.

Gensuikyo calls for a society free of nuclear weapons as well as nuclear energy. It holds a nationwide peace march every May. Their annual march, which extends from Tokyo to Hiroshima over a three-month period, also attracts local citizens along the way. In 1982, the group managed to draw 200,000 people for a nuclear disarmament rally in Hiroshima, and another 400,000 in Tokyo. Other marches have also attracted tens of thousands of people.

Surprisingly, though, these demonstrations, whose numbers are often significant, have had almost no impact on Japanese nuclear energy policy.

Why is this?

In a nutshell, lack of mainstream political alignment.

Japanese nuclear policy under the LDP

Japan, under 60 years of LDP rule beginning during the U.S. occupation, was toting “peaceful harnessing of the atom” as vital to national security. For Japan -- a resource-poor country with barely 20% energy self-sufficiency and limited sea routes -- nuclear power was touted as a solution long before discussion of “global warming” was used to justify it. The oil shock of the 1970s further increased pro-nuclear sentiments.

Two years ago, the DPJ came to power and although current Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda advocates a “re-think” of nuclear energy policy, for the time being, it's pretty much still a given.

In contrast, the parties advocating nuclear abolition have tended to come from the left, with parliamentary representation too small to yield consequential legislative effect. To make things more complicated, the DPJ managed to seize power from the LDP two years ago by absorbing a number of smaller left-leaning parties and politicians, offering a “progressive platform” while at the same time moving them to the center. Party members include security hawks as well, individuals more likely to see nuclear power as a prerequisite to national security.

But while this explains the reasoning behind Japanese energy policy, what accounts for the relatively advanced age of many of the protesters?

One answer can be found in the "jumin-undo" (residents' movements) and "shimin-undo" (citizens' movements) of the late 1960s and early 1970s. According to a paper that appeared in a journal in 1972, 4,000 such groups were in existence at that time. Of a list compiled by the Asahi Journal, of 420 groups existing during that period, 61% were identified as ecology-related. Anti-war and human rights related groups were among the remaining.

In addition, since WW2, Japan has also had a tradition of “neighborhood associations” known as "chonaikai," a vital part of community life, which allow citizens to organize, take care of their community and liaison as a vocal group with local officials when problems arise.

In the case of the activists of the 1970s, a research paper published in the Asian Journal reported that many were in their 30s and included housewives and professional people. The vast majority of groups were grassroots organizations that met at members' homes and focused on local issues related to the community. While these groups have been successful in electing independent, small and third parties to positions at the local level (including mayors and governors), in general, they’ve had a poor history of filling seats in the Diet.

As a result, it is pretty much guaranteed that beyond compensatory gestures of regulatory reform, the current protest movement won’t have much of a direct impact on Japanese energy policy. At the same time, the accident in Fukushima is now ingrained in the public’s collective conscious. Consequently, it has brought home the fact that Japan is too small an island to indefinitely rely on a technology capable of devastating its economy at the blink of an eye.

Because of this, I have no doubt that Japan will be looking to the future for technologies to replace it, but in the meantime, give or take a few years of recovery, I predict that it’ll be back to business as normal, both for the industry and the protesters as well.

© Japan Today

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Very nice re-cap & commentary on subjects you dont hear much about, nice one!

1 ( +3 / -2 )

As you say, those demonstrations would have no direct effect on the politics. The reason why the majority of people who take part in the demonstration are middle age and older is that since youth have been watching a number of futile demonstrations especially in 80s~90s, they are too skeptical about their effects. I want the government to put a much priory on seeking an alternate energy source. Thank you for the very intriguing article.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Good article, Eddie.

JTimes also ran a piece on the protests today. It included the following little tidbit that I felt was interesting.

Kono said both the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the LDP are beneficiaries of major electric utilities and naturally lean toward protecting their vested interests.

"Rather than 1 million people engaging in demonstrations, I believe it is far more effective if 1 million people went to the offices of politicians and directly told lawmakers or their secretaries their views on the issue, and tell them that unless they consider shifting sources of energy, they would not be receiving your support," he said.

I guess this would equal the American Expression of "Contacting your congress critter" But I would say do both. Protest and "contact your lawmaking critter"

The article also mentions the final goal for the protests being "to make the government present a clear road map for getting rid of nuclear power plants"

Which I think is a good and reasonable goal.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

fascinating article, but there are other facets too...there is one visible group who are large and have never been scared to protest and that is the Uyoku right-wing.Granted they can't take to the streets in the kind of numbers seen at this demo but have previously whipped up large anti US demos both on the mainland and in Okinawa, when they aren't focused on China or the Koreas. In fact one reason that there probably aren't more large demonstrations is that the Uyoku often seem to be working hand-in-hand with the police and thereby injuries often ensue.Like the group of middle aged protesters at Yasukuni who were beaten by the police and the anti-nuke protest before this big one, in which the Uyoku ssomehow knew where the police cordon would be and stood behind the police, meanwhile calling for the police to arrest and even shoot 'foreigners'...then the police did begin going out and roughing up the protesters. Just like the kempeitai during the war, the police and right-wing provide a fairly strong deterrent to people who want to peacefully protest against the government and it's policies and this happens over and over..the net uyoku demanding that police arrest people in fancy dress on the loopline parties that used to happen. (which were in some cases probably justified, but it seemed more like an orchestrated attack on the non-Japaneseness of it).

1 ( +4 / -3 )

I think they just felt obliged because the rest of the world went out to demonstrate. Kind of not losing their face since the whole nuclear problem started in Japan. It would have looked strange if there hadn't been any demos here since demos are a boom nowadays look at Greece, the Arab world, London, Germany, New York, Texas etc.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

well focusing on the NOW, NOT the past, its good they protest the Nuclear power plants. Nuclear power plants are in MANY countries & are dangerous so they/ we should use other sources of Enegy. tsunamis & Earthquakes are not stopable But should & are researched to prevent sudden disasters.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Thank God the USA still has the Neutron bomb - at least that's not being protested.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I will not debate the fact that the US has the Neutron bomb.

But whether or not it is something we should thank God for it, is in my opinion highly debatable.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Im for every country just abandoning nuclear weapons.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Very informative. Thank you for this article.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

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