Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Nuclear Protests Are The New Normal In Japan


The 2011 Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear accident did not just turn the Japanese against nuclear energy, virtually overnight it has legitimized the act of public protest in a country where few people have been willing to take political issues to the streets. Lucy Craft reports from Tokyo.

LUCY CRAFT, BYLINE: Nagatacho is Tokyo's Capitol Hill, home to parliament and the prime minister. It's a part of town few Japanese ever set foot in. But in the post-Fukushima era, this is the new normal.


CRAFT: Every Friday night, the usually deserted sidewalks play host to a festival of ire, with retirees, office workers, and baby-toting moms chanting a slogan that, by now, Japan's ruling class must be hearing in their sleep: No reactor re-starts.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: (Japanese spoken)

CRAFT: As a child talks to the crowd about radiation-deformed rabbits and cicadas, Hiroko Kono and her two sons listen intently. But 9-year-old Kaname Kono already has the message down cold.

KANAME KONO: (Japanese spoken)

CRAFT: He says we have enough electricity already. We don't need to re-start the nuclear plants. The legitimization of protest marks a sea change for this conservative country. Sophia University political scientist Koichi Nakano says protesters used to be written off.

KOICHI NAKANO: In a country where order and abiding by the law are considered very important, the protesters are seen as potential threats to the existing order in society.

CRAFT: Street protest has long been tainted by Japan's experience with anti-war unrest in the 1960s, when a female student died during clashes with police. But civic activism gained a new luster after the nuclear accident, which demolished trust in institutions while magnifying the threat of radiation exposure. The surge in demonstrators is also testament to the organizational talent of protest leaders, like a woman who calls herself Misao Redwolf. A former stripper-turned-fashion illustrator, with her own gothic tattoos covering both arms, Redwolf has proven tactically skilled at winning popular support for the anti-nuclear issue.

MISAO REDWOLF: (Through Translator) Japan's representative democracy is not functioning, so we have no choice but to raise our voices. Now, we are energizing the members of parliament against nuclear energy.

CRAFT: The protesters' unrelenting and singular campaign to eliminate nuclear energy has been so powerful, Prime Minister Noda was forced to briefly grant them an audience, and government plans to re-start at least half the reactors appear to be stalled. While nuclear opponents turn up the volume, the pro-nuclear side has been strangely subdued. Paul Scalise, who's writing a book on the Japanese energy sector, says the ruling party and utilities are trying to ride out the storm.

PAUL SCALISE: The nuclear industry at Three Mile Island adopted the same strategy - say nothing, hope that it just goes away. Japan has adopted the same strategy, and unfortunately, it's backfired.

CRAFT: Despite this enthusiasm for people power, the debate over energy policy is complicated. The activists are climate change skeptics who dismiss global warming as nuclear industry propaganda. They want Japan to return to reliance on fossil fuels until alternative energies become more viable. Added to which, Japan's ruling party may soon select a new prime minister - a political distraction which could allow the protesters to dominate the airwaves for some time to come. For NPR News, this is Lucy Craft in Tokyo.


WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.