Are the Anti-nuclear Protests in Japan making any Difference?

As most people know by now, Japan is not a country prone to protests and demonstrations. In fact, there simply hasn't been any major protest going on in the country since the 1960's student demonstrations against the Japan-U.S. security treaty. The post-World War II Japan is indeed a country where most people are fiercely attached to compromise, self-sacrifice and moderate views. This added to the more ancient cultural tradition of hiding one's feelings has resulted in this seemingly passive, sheep-like attitude that tends to irritate most of the international community when crisis such as the Fukushima debacle occur. Since the March 11, 2011 earthquake and the following nuclear accident however, demonstrations, even though they are still relatively limited in scope and duration, have been more and more frequent in the streets of Tokyo. The legitimate question that one might ask is: Is Japanese mentality changing in the face of manifest governmental inaction and TEPCO's irresponsible behavior?

Since the nuclear near meltdown, anti-nuclear demonstrations have been a common occurrence but they have been so largely ignored by the media, mostly due to their small size, that the average Japanese person tended to dismiss them as the actions of a few left-wing activists or deranged individuals. These demonstrations have indeed very little to do with the scope of those that can be seen in Germany, France, or in the US. This has led the international community to even question the attitude of the Japanese people as regards to their own sovereignty in matters of public safety.

Having personally witnessed a few of these, I must report having felt quite saddened by the contrast between the impressive number of shoppers in the Shinjuku or Shibuya district and the pathetically reduced number of protesters. On one occasion I counted a bigger queue in front of the local Starbucks compared to the length of the protester's line.

However, past that obvious observation, and upon looking a bit closer, one can perceive some slight changes that might lead the way to the people of Japan expressing their views a bit more loudly. On September 19, no less than 60,000 people gathered in the streets of Tokyo to protest against nuclear energy. This was the biggest rally ever since March 11. It included in its ranks celebrities such as Nobel Prize-winning author Kenzaburo Oe and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, as well as for the first time, members of the powerful Japanese Trade Union Confederation (RENGO).[1][2]

This followed the first interview that former prime minister Naoto Kan gave to the Tokyo Shimbun on September 5.[3] He revealed for the first time that Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) was planning to abandon the crippled Fukushima Daiichi and Daini power plants to total meltdown, potentially leading in the evacuation of 30 million people in Tokyo and likely resulting in the end of Japan as a nation. Even upon pressure of Kan and his government, TEPCO failed to follow the government's instructions in the first days of the crisis, they displayed very poor communication and even a blatant inaptitude to handle simple things such as radioactivity measurement units. One should also mention the vanishing of TEPCO's president[4], Masataka Shimizu, for a solid month after the accident. He failed to take any part in is staff's efforts to control the situation and only reappeared a month later with nothing more than apologies.

Given this, one can expect Japanese citizen to be at least slightly upset. Time will tell if they manage to rise up to the challenge and make their views heard. The battle that is to come will encompass issues such as the dismantlement of out of date nuclear power stations, the investment in alternative energy sources, the freezing of up-coming nuclear projects, the monetary compensations to those who lost everything in Tohoku (which eventually will be paid by the taxpayer by the way...), and the decontamination of Japanese soils from radioactive contaminants. The task is huge and even though one should respect others' culture and ideas, I think that it is high time that the Japanese people put aside their out-dated medieval thinking which leads them to stoically accept fatality and the overly rely onto the industrial and governmental conglomerates that run things for them.

As we have seen last March and as was confessed by Naoto Kan himself, the stake is no less than making sure that the country and its citizens can survive the 21st century as a people and a nation.


  1. The Economist's coverage of the September 19 protests
  2. Time World's coverage of the September 19 protests
  3. Excerpts from the Tokyo Shinbun's interview with Naoto Kan
  4. TEPCO president Shimizu Masataka apologies for handling Fukushima's nuclear station crisis
Guillaume Erard
Author: Guillaume Erard
A resident of Japan for nearly a decade, Guillaume Erard trains at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo and he received the 5th Dan from Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba. He is also 3rd Dan in Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu, the secretive art that Morihei Ueshiba learned from Sokaku Takeda. Erard is the Information Director of the International Aikido Federation and the Deputy Secretary of International Affairs of the Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu Shikoku Headquarters. He is also passionate about science and education and holds a PhD in Molecular Biology.
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