TOKYO — It has been slow for a chain reaction, but more than a year after the biggest nuclear crisis in a quarter century, Japanese demonstrations against atomic power are beginning to generate serious steam.
A string of some of Japan’s biggest protests in decades – each attended by tens of thousands of people – have in recent weeks given voice to a wave of anti-nuclear sentiment caused by the failure of the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant on March 11, 2011.
By challenging the government’s attempts to restart Japan’s nuclear industry, the demonstrations could have far-reaching implications for energy policy in the world’s third-largest economy, and thus for the sector’s global development.
On Monday, an estimated 75,000 people gathered near a Tokyo park in what was dubbed by state broadcaster NHK the capital’s largest anti-nuclear event yet.
Organizers and participants see recent demonstrations as signalling a fundamental change in attitudes in a nation where relatively few have been willing to take political issues to the streets since the 1960s.
Demonstrations are common in Tokyo, but they usually center on a narrow issue of policy or labor grievance and rarely attract more than a few thousand people.
Anti-nuclear numbers have yet to match those who joined 1960s protests against Japan’s alliance with the U.S., but the anti-nuclear cause is being driven more by individual citizens, says Satoshi Kamata, a journalist and organiser of the Monday protest.
“It’s very late, but at last it is starting,” Kamata said. “Japanese people historically have not been used to standing up for themselves, we have been a people that just put up with things. . . . Finally that is changing.”
Organizers say anti-nuclear groups are belatedly working more closely together. Recent Friday night protests outside the prime minister’s office have been led by an alliance that includes new activist groups organized by social media as well as the left-wing labor union federation Zenroren.
Such co-operation combines the federation’s experience organizing demonstrations with citizen groups’ ability to attract wider participation – but was initially hampered by a lack of mutual trust, says Yoshikazu Odagawa, Zenroren secretary general.
Odagawa says a brief period this year when all of Japan’s nuclear power plants were offline became an inspiration. “That really brought groups together,” he said.
Anti-nuclear activists are also united in anger at the decision last month by Yoshihiko Noda, the prime minister, to restart two reactors at the Oi plant in western Japan in order to prevent possible summer power shortages.
One of the Oi reactors returned to full operation last week and the other is slated to begin generating electricity at the weekend.
Many participants on Monday directed particular ire at Noda, whose popularity has been falling in recent opinion polls. “Noda! We’re angry!” one banner read. “Noda, step down!” was a common chant.
Gauging participation at recent demonstrations has been difficult. Organizer claims that 170,000 turned up looked exaggerated to journalists on the scene, but a police estimate of 75,000 reported by NHK appeared credible.
Like other recent protests, Monday’s event had to contend with sweltering weather and highly restrictive policing. Around the prime minister’s office, authorities have insisted on giving priority to traffic flow, forcing protesters to stay on congested pavements and then restricting access to the area on safety grounds.
Marchers on Monday were only allowed to set off in groups of a few hundred each and then required to walk three abreast in the outside lane of a busy city road.
Still, along with union veterans and peace activists from around the country, the demonstrations have attracted many newcomers to public protest ranging from young parents to the elderly.
Maki Sekiguchi, a Tokyo office worker attending with her husband and small child, said she had never been part of a demonstration before recently deciding to join the Friday night crowds around the prime minister’s office.
Sekiguchi admitted she was still wary of talking about protest participation with acquaintances for fear of being thought “a bit strange,” and like other participants she was skeptical the protests would persuade the government to halt reactor restarts.
But she said none of this would stop her joining future demonstrations.
“We feel we have to do something,” Sekiguchi said. “The government may not change its mind, but I still think it’s meaningful for us to do what we can.”