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Five years after: The legacy of the Japanese anti-nuclear movement

This month marks the fifth anniversary of 3.11–the moniker for the earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima nuclear disaster that struck northeastern Japan on 11 March 2011, killing nearly 20,000 and displacing as many as 170,000 people. In addition to mourning for lost souls, the anniversary was marked by loud anti-nuclear protests all over Japan: Osaka, Nagoya, Kyoto, Naha (Okinawa), Kōfu (Yamanashi Prefecture), Oita (Kyushu), Hachiōji, and several in Tokyo, where the weekly Friday protest around the prime minister’s residence attracted 6,000 protesters on this anniversary evening. While a small number compared with the 200,000 that this protest attracted at the height of the Japanese anti-nuclear movement in summer 2012, these protests have nonetheless been remarkable in their persistence and resilience: They have been occurring weekly for four years.

Anti-nuclear protest, Tokyo, 11 March 2016

But as the number of protesters dwindles, some might wonder what all the noise was for. Since Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) regained power in December 2012, the government policy has been to restart nuclear power plants, all of which were shut down for scheduled maintenance, then kept closed after the Fukushima nuclear accident. The dwindling numbers of protesters are a reflection of the seeming futility of protesting in light of foregone conclusions. And many English-language editorials written for the fifth anniversary bemoan Japan’s lack of progress since the epoch-making crisis and express disappointment that Fukushima is being forgotten.

Nonetheless, the post-3.11 anti-nuclear movement did leave a legacy. While most Japanese were positive about nuclear power before the Fukushima accident, surveys since mid-2011 have consistently shown that 60-70% of the population now favors a complete abolition or phase-out of nuclear power. Furthermore, public pressure, including constant demonstrations, drove the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the ruling party at 3.11, to shut down, and keep shut, the nuclear reactors until stricter regulatory standards could be ratified. The 200,000-strong protests that accompanied the restarting of two reactors at the Ōi Nuclear Power Plant in July 2012, before these standards could be put in place, showed that the public would not tolerate restarts without a fight. Shortly afterward, a new regulatory agency, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), was established. After the Ōi reactors were shut down for maintenance in September 2013, Japan lived without nuclear reactors unproblematically through two summers of record-breaking heat, raising further doubts as to the necessity of nuclear power. And both the courts and the NRA seem less forgiving of the nuclear industry. Last week, the Otsu district court in Shiga Prefecture forced a shutdown of the recently started Takahama Nuclear Power Plant, citing concerns over safety and inadequate emergency protocols. The NRA has declared the problem-ridden Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) as unfit to operate the accident-prone Monju Fast-Breeder Reactor (FBR) — feared for its use of plutonium-spiked MOX fuel and liquid sodium, which is highly combustible, as coolant — creating a path to its possible decommissioning. The FBR had been famously lampooned as Monjukun, a Twitter character personifying the reactor — which had been upheld as the pinnacle of Japanese nuclear prowess — as a sickly boy who wets his pants, effectively emasculating nuclear power.

Akuryō and I Zoom I Rockers in front of METI, 29 July 2012 protest

Monjukun ondo (dance), Atomic Café, July 2012

Most importantly, the nuclear crisis awakened (or reminded) a politically apathetic population that neither the benevolence of governmental policies, the righteousness of corporate actions, nor free expression could be taken for granted. The anti-nuclear movement that arose from anger at this discovery helped the Japanese to raise their voices. Music played a key role in breaking the silence and validating people’s thoughts and feelings. Foremost among these were the songs released early on, like Saitō Kazuyoshi’s “It Was Always a Lie,” which broke record-industry conventions by calling out Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) and other power companies by name and expressing worries about radiation in the air, water, and food. Rankin Taxi’s “You Can’t See It, You Can’t Smell It Either” made dead-serious arguments about media manipulation while invoking cringe-worthy laughter. These songs became the soundtrack to the protests that recurred from spring 2011 onwards. These protests, which often numbered in the tens of thousands, attracted a diverse group of people of multiple ages, classes, and political leanings. They established that protesting was not just for extremists and labor unions, but that ordinary citizens can come together through social networks. They also popularized the musical practices that encourage the Japanese to participate in protests, in particular the drum corps that accompany every demonstration and the call-and-response style in which rappers and protesters exchange slogans over R&B and hip-hop beats.

Rankin Taxi, “You Can’t See It, You Can’t Smell It Either”

Many of these protesters have transferred their activism to the movement against Abe’s policies, in particular the Secrecy Law, which many have flagged as a threat to a free press, and the Security Bills, which allow Japan to send troops overseas for the first time since World War II. These protests have featured greater involvement by university students, led by SEALDS (Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy), and high-school students, led by T-ns Sowl. These demonstrations often feature rapped call-and-response patterns over hip-hop and EDM beats — a continuation of the pattern first begun by anti-nuclear rappers Akuryō, ATS, ECD, and I Zoom I Rockers. Ahead of the final vote on the Security Bills in September 2015, SEALDs conducted protests every Friday in front of the Diet, alongside the anti-nuclear groups, members of which acted as mentors to the students. At the peak of these protests on 30 August 2015, 120,000 protesters gathered in front of the Diet. Protests have continued since the Security Bills passed, and they often include calls against nuclear power. Indeed, the anti-nuclear movement has effectively been folded into a more generalized movement against oligarchical control.

SEALDs anti-militarization protest, Omotesandō, Tokyo, 23 August 2015

Furthermore, the musicians who were active in the anti-nuclear movement have continued to speak out in this broader movement. Since 3.11, the Fuji Rock Festival has hosted the Atomic Café stage for discussions and performances in regards to nuclear power and other political issues. Among the hit performers on this stage has been the Ese Timers, a group featuring prominent anti-nuclear musicians Gotō Masafumi of Asian Kung-Fu Generation, Toshi-Low of Brahman, Hosomi Takeshi of Hiatus, and Tsuneoka Akira of Hi-Standard; the band is a homage to the Timers, formed by rocker Imawano Kiyoshirō after he gained infamy for recording the anti-nuclear song, “Summertime Blues,” in 1988. In 2015, Toshi-Low and Hosomi sang “Let’s Join the Self-Defense Forces,” a 1968 anti-war song that had been revived through the sarcastic 2011 anti-nuclear rewrite, “Let’s Join TEPCO.” The latter song had led to the rediscovery of the anti-war song, which could now be redeployed with new meaning. The anti-nuclear movement had inspired Japanese celebrities to make a political stand, and in turn, they and their music had inspired the people to raise their own voices. Policies may not have changed, but the people have.

Featured image: Fukushima (c) traffic_analyzer via iStock.

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