Tens of thousands of anti-nuclear protesters who have been gathering noisily outside the prime minister's office in Tokyo the past months on Friday evenings will get to make their case in person.
Although he has declined to meet with the organizers in the past, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda now is suddenly all ears.
"I am eager to listen to (the opinions of) those who are against (the recent restarts of two reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture)," Noda told reporters on Aug. 3. "I hope (the meeting with protesters) will take place in the not-so-distant future."
Officials are arranging for Noda to meet with representatives of the Metropolitan Coalition against Nukes, an association of 13 citizens' advocacy groups and individuals who have championed the weekly protests. The meeting is expected to take place as early as next week.
Officials initially thought that the weekly protests would wither away once the reactors at the Oi nuclear plant were restarted, according to a source at the prime minister's office. The No. 3 and No. 4 reactors resumed operations in July.
Noda has declined requests from protest groups for a meeting in person, although the number of demonstrators has greatly swelled since they started at the end of March with just 300 participants.
"There is no precedent of (a prime minister) meeting participants of every single demonstration," Noda said. "There is no telling if doing so is the best way."
But officials changed course because the target of the weekly protests have turned from the government's June 16 decision to restart the Oi reactors to Noda's alleged indifference to public opinion.
"It's such a huge sound," Noda told a police officer who was guarding him as he turned his head in the direction of protesters' chanting on June 29. That remark provoked anger, and the protests swelled further.
At the time, the Noda administration was also facing criticism over its plan to raise the consumption tax rate and the U.S. military's plan to deploy MV-22 Osprey transport aircraft to Japan. Part of the criticism was coming from within the ruling Democratic Party of Japan.
Noda finally decided to meet protesters in person after former Prime Minister Naoto Kan and other politicians advised him to do so.
In the past, prime ministers' meetings with protesters have helped boost their public support rating.
In May 2001, for example, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi met representatives of a group of former leprosy patients who had won a lawsuit, on the district court level, to demand compensation from the government for its past segregation policy. Koizumi admitted to the government's responsibility and said, immediately after the meeting, that he would not appeal the ruling.
Koizumi's decision to override the bureaucrats' recommendation to file an appeal helped boost his public image.
Noda, however, has no intention of shutting down the Oi reactors that are back in operation.
"Noda could call on the protesters to jointly draft basic legislation for the phase out of nuclear power," a mid-ranking lawmaker from the ruling party said.
But Noda cannot afford to drift too far from remaining ostensibly neutral on the issue at a time when the government is holding public hearings across Japan on its energy policy, including what the ratio of the nation's dependence on nuclear power should be.
Noda's meeting with protesters could add fuel to public anger depending on how he handles it.
"Noda would get the credit if he were to say he will halt the nuclear reactors," said an aide to Noda. "He can't, given the current circumstances, so the protest organizations will simply say, 'You are just meeting with us as a token gesture.' "
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