It's hard to imagine how Ruiko Muto became the voice of the Fukushima protest movement. With her soft manner and wavering voice, she calls herself something of a hermit: Brewing her grass tea, stewing acorn curry and reading under an oil lantern, she lived a Thoreau-like existence.
That was before the radiation from the stricken reactors reached her. Now her phone rings all the time.
"I used to love being outside," says Muto, whose lodge-like home in rural Tamura, Fukushima Prefecture, is 42 kilometers from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. "Now I don't open the windows or hang the laundry outside." Nor does she get much peace with reporters and professors knocking at her door.
Muto, a former special needs instructor, caught the attention of the country last September when she took the microphone on behalf of a busload of Fukushima residents at an anti-nuclear demonstration in Tokyo. The speech, uploaded to YouTube (and subtitled in English), was viewed by thousands, and eventually reached one of American academia’s best-known Japan scholars--Norma Field of the University of Chicago. The professor came out to Muto’s version of Walden Pond in Fukushima to convince her to tell her story halfway across the world.
“How could I go? I can’t speak English and I have a weak dog and frail mother to take care of. Besides, I hate speaking in public,” says Muto, who nonetheless appeared as a keynote speaker at the “Atomic Age II: Fukushima,” organized at the University of Chicago, on May 5. “I haven’t had many chances until now,” she adds, because she’s always preferred non-violent actions such as hunger strikes.
Like many, the 58-year-old made her first stand against nuclear energy in Japan soon after the Chernobyl accident of 1986. She joined demonstrations and laid down in front of trucks delivering material to nuclear construction sites. Unlike many, Muto has carried on until now.
“We protested, we went to court, but in the end nothing changed,” she says.”So many lost heart and dwindled away. Meanwhile the number of reactors grew.”
Japan counts 54 reactors in total, with four in an inoperable state. All 50 operable reactors are currently offline for routine maintenance or safety concerns, but the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is pushing to restart two reactors at the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture.
“We’ve never had a chance to look back until now," Muto says. "After what happened at the Fukushima plant I first thought, ‘Finally, it’s time for change’ but instead the government is set on restarting.”
That gutting disappointment, she says, is far most difficult to bear than the radiation infiltrating her home.
Yet the reluctant orator is still fighting. On June 11, Muto led a group of 1,324 plaintiffs to the Fukushima courthouse to file a lawsuit against TEPCO and the Japanese government, for criminal negligence resulting in death. It’s not the first such attempt: Last July two journalists went to Tokyo prosecutors but received no reply.
A case would be practically impossible: Prosecutors would have to prove that radiation emitted so far has resulted in injury when, officially and scientifically, the consensus is that the radiation is too miniscule to affect health.
“At the very least, we've accomplished something if we can point out this absurdity," Muto says.
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