Thousands of anti-nuclear protesters almost encircled the Diet building in Tokyo on July 29 in the latest of more than four months of demonstrations against the reopening of nuclear plants following the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Estimates of the crowd differed wildly between the event organizers, who said 200,000 people had attended, and police sources, who unofficially claimed only 14,000 people had taken part in the human chain around the Diet building and 12,000 in demonstrations before it.
But the flashlight and candle-lit protest, an offshoot of the growing weekly Friday-night protest at the prime minister’s office, ratcheted up the pressure on a government committed to reopening nuclear plants despite widespread public opposition.
Some prominent members of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan joined the protest including Hiroshi Kawauchi, a member of the Lower House, who said he was committed to stopping the restarts.
The Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes, the organizing committee made up of 13 anti-nuclear groups, has imposed strict rules to try to ensure that the demonstrations, already the largest protest movement in decades in Japan, gain broad-based public support.
Participating organizations are not allowed to promote any other cause than opposition to nuclear power. They are asked not to hoist their flags or to hand out leaflets or collect petitions. They have to limit their speeches on microphones to a minute.
“Ordinary people find it hard to join a rally filled with flags of organizations,” said Hirofumi Harada, a 45-year-old member of the No Nukes Plaza Tokyo, which is part of the coalition. “We wanted to create a movement that would expand.”
No Nukes Plaza Tokyo was established in 1989 after the 1986 Chernobyl accident and is the oldest group devoted to opposing nuclear power in the coalition. Many of the other groups were formed after last year’s accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Harada said the rules were aimed at avoiding the mistakes of the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s.
One reason the movement lost steam, he said, was its closed nature.
The number of demonstrators increased sharply in late June after the government decided to restart two of the reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant.
“It is becoming a social movement to an extent that we did not initially anticipate,” a member of the coalition said.
On July 31, the coalition is expected to have a meeting with a nonpartisan group of Diet members opposed to nuclear power.
Despite the strict rules, the rallies in the Nagatacho district are attracting other causes. About 150 people demonstrated on July 23 to oppose the deployment of the U.S. Marines’ MV-22 Osprey transport aircraft in Japan.
In the human chain on July 29, some protesters displayed the flags of their organizations and others handed out fliers criticizing the Osprey deployment and the government’s proposed consumption tax hike.
Noda, who was in his official residence near the Diet building all day, has shown no sign of changing his position on the restart of reactors. Aides to the prime minister stressed that the country could not be run through direct democracy alone and that it is necessary for some decisions to be made in the face of public opposition.
“(Restart of reactors) is an issue that splits the nation,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said in a news conference on July 27. “I am aware of various opinions on it.”
But the protests are having an impact in the corridors of power. The administration has already decided to postpone its decision on the nation’s energy policy from late August to September or later.
Goshi Hosono, a minister in charge of the nuclear accident, admitted that the task of mapping out the nation’s energy policy is daunting.
“It takes a great deal of effort for the administration to settle on the overall energy policy,” he said.
Meanwhile, labor unions, a key part of protest movements in the past, are struggling to come to grips with the nuclear issue.
Rengo (the Japanese Trade Union Confederation), a key DPJ supporter and the nation’s largest labor organization with 6.75 million members, is split on the nuclear issue.
Although Nobuaki Koga, president of Rengo, has said that Japan needs to ultimately achieve a society that does not rely on nuclear power, some member unions say nuclear energy is important to ensuring a stable power supply and jobs.
Rengo has yet to decide a definite policy on what proportion of Japan’s total energy use nuclear power should account for in the immediate future.
The National Confederation of Trade Unions, which has about 1.14 million members including many public sector workers, wants nuclear power to be eliminated and has mobilized members to attend the protests at the prime minister’s office. However, it is keeping a low profile at the protests because members believe many citizens are resistant to labor union-led movements.
Akira Yamagishi, Rengo’s first president, said his organization should be playing a more active role in the anti-nuclear movement.
“If Rengo does not get involved in movements that are socially meaningful, it will not be able to attract members and win recognition from the public,” said Yamagishi, 83. “I want to call on Rengo to demonstrate leadership on the question of nuclear power.”
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