This is Japan’s summer of discontent. Tens of thousands of protesters — the largest demonstrations the country has seen in decades — descend on Tokyo every Friday evening to shout anti-nuclear slogans at Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s office. Many have never protested publicly before.
“I used to complain about this to my family, but I realized that doesn’t do any good,” said Takeshi Tamura, a 67-year-old retired office worker. “So I came here to say this to his office. I don’t know if we can make a difference, but I had to do something and at least it’s a start.”
The much-criticized handling of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant crisis has spawned a new breed of protesters in Japan. Drawn from the ranks of ordinary citizens rather than activists, they are a manifestation of a broader dissatisfaction with the government and they could create pressure for change in a political system that has long resisted it.
What started as relatively small protests in April has swollen rapidly since the government decided to restart two of Japan’s nuclear reactors in June, despite lingering safety fears after the meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant triggered by the earthquake and tsunami in March last year.
As many as 20,000 people have gathered at the Friday rallies by unofficial police estimates and organizers say the turnout has topped 100,000. Officials at the prime minister’s office say their crowd estimate is “several tens of thousands.”
Either way, the two-hour demonstrations are the largest and most persistent since the 1960s, when violent student-led protests against a security alliance with the US rocked Japan.
The protesters include office workers, families with children, young couples and retirees.
“No to restart,” they chant in unison without a break. “No nukes.”
Despite the simple message, the anger runs much deeper, analysts said.
“It’s not only about nuclear,” writer and social critic Karin Amamiya said. “It mirrors core problems in Japanese society and the way politics has ignored public opinion.”
Distrust of politics runs deep in Japan and many think politicians are corrupt and only care about big business. Some voters were angered when the government rammed through a sales tax increase last month that had divided public opinion and the ruling party. The government has also done little to reduce the US military presence on the southern island of Okinawa, despite decades of protests there, under the security alliance that had initially triggered violent student protests.
In a country not known for mass protests, the nuclear crisis has galvanized people to an unusual extent. Unlike other issues, it cuts across ideological lines. For Japanese from all walks of life, it has shattered a sense of safety they felt about their food, the environment and the health of their children.
That helps explain why the long-standing frustration with the government exploded in protests after the restart of two reactors in Ohi, western Japan. They were the first of Japan’s 50 reactors to resume operations under a new regime of post-tsunami safety checks.
Noda was criticized for making the restart decision behind closed doors, and calling the weekly chanting and drum-beating outside his office “a loud noise.”
An apparently chastised Noda met with rally leaders, who have proposed talks, allowing them inside his office compound for the first time on Wednesday last week. Noda also met with leaders of Japan’s influential business lobbies afterwards.