Anti-nuclear protests signal new activism in Japan
By MARI YAMAGUCHI, Associated Press – 1 day ago TOKYO AP — This is Japan’s summer of discontent. Tens of thousands of protesters — the largest demonstrations the country has seen in decades — descend on Tokyo every Friday evening to shout anti-nuclear slogans at the prime minister’s office. Many have never protested publicly before.”I used to complain about this to my family but I realized that doesn’t do any good,” said Takeshi Tamura, a 67-year-old retired office worker. “So I came here to say this to his office. I don’t know if we can make a difference but I had to do something, and at least it’s a start.”The government’s much-criticized handling of the Fukushima nuclear crisis has spawned a new breed of protesters in Japan. Drawn from the ranks of ordinary citizens rather than activists, they are a manifestation of a broader dissatisfaction with government and could create pressure for change in a political system that has long resisted it.What started as relatively small protests in April has swollen rapidly since the government decided to restart two of Japan’s nuclear reactors in June, despite lingering safety fears after the meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant triggered by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.As many as 20,000 people have gathered at the Friday rallies by unofficial police estimates, and organizers say the turnout has topped 100,000. Officials at the prime minister’s office say their crowd estimate is “several tens of thousands.” Either way, the two-hour demonstrations are the largest and most persistent since the 1960s, when violent student-led protests against a security alliance with the United States rocked Japan.The protesters include office workers, families with children, young couples and retirees.”No to restart!” they chant in unison without a break. “No nukes!”Despite the simple message, the anger runs much deeper, analysts say.”It’s not only about nuclear,” says writer and social critic Karin Amamiya. “It mirrors core problems in Japanese society, and the way politics has ignored public opinion.”Distrust of politics runs deep in Japan, and many think politicians are corrupt and only care about big business. Some voters were angered when the government rammed through a sales tax hike in July that had divided public opinion and the ruling party. The government has also done little to reduce the U.S. military presence on the southern island of Okinawa despite decades of protests there, under the security alliance that had initially triggered violent student protests.In a country not known for mass protests, the nuclear crisis has galvanized people to an unusual extent. Unlike other issues, it cuts across ideological lines. For Japanese from all walks of life, it has shattered a sense of safety they felt about their food, the environment and the health of their children.That helps explain why the long-standing frustration with government exploded in protests after the restart of two reactors in Ohi in western Japan. They were the first of Japan’s 50 reactors to resume operation under a new regime of post-tsunami safety checks.Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was criticized for making the restart decision behind closed doors and calling the weekly chanting and drum-beating outside his office “a loud noise.” An apparently chastised Noda met with rally leaders, who have proposed talks, allowing them inside his office compound for the first time Wednesday. Noda also met with leaders of Japan’s influential business lobbies afterwards.”It’s not a loud noise that we are making. It’s desperate voices of the people,” said Misao Redwolf, an illustrator who heads the weekly protests, as she demanded Noda immediately stop the two recently resumed reactors and eventually abandon nuclear energy. “We’ll continue our protests as long as you keep ignoring our voices.”Noda promised to listen to the people’s voices carefully before deciding Japan’s long-term energy policy, but refused to stop the two reactors.Protest leaders said they don’t expect anything to happen just because they met Noda, but at least hold on to their hope for a change.