One of the basic jobs of any journalist is to cover public demonstrations. Not only do they make for great stories, they also provide the reporter with a chance to play amateur social anthropologist by observing how the individuals and groups involved interact with each other, and the public, before, during and after the protest itself.
As the nuclear power plants owned by Kansai Electric Power Co. and other utilities head toward restart, we’ve heard much about the return of the nuclear power village. However, we’ve heard less about the traditional, elderly and semi-professional antinuclear activists also making a return, so to speak.
After the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent nuclear crisis in Fukushima Prefecture four years ago, a broad range of citizens in Kansai and the rest of the country chose to start protesting nuclear power. They weren’t the typical, sometimes jaded activists of the past who have decades of experience demonstrating. They were simply earnest citizens spontaneously exercising their democratic rights, and the way they interacted with the seasoned marchers was interesting.
The traditional antinuclear movement was taken aback by the newcomers. Set in their ways and suspicious of outsiders, some older activists were contemptuous of any protest they themselves didn’t organize. Other veterans were blatant self-promoters more interested in doing TV interviews or pontificating in high-brow magazines than in actually protesting, and didn’t want to share the media limelight.
With the restart of the Sendai No. 1 plant in Kagoshima Prefecture, it’s clear that, while millions of people from all walks of life remain opposed to nuclear power and will still take to the streets to protest, the traditional antinuclear movement, thankfully, has not disappeared. The problem is, it’s unclear if the old activists have learned anything new these past four years, or if they even want to engage the broader public.
The great thing about the organic protests that came after the Fukushima disasters is that those involved made extensive use of social media and worked hard to be inclusive and easily understood. They did not instinctively see, as too many older protesters do, either the mainstream media or the broader public as sworn enemies with whom deep conversation should be avoided. They saw stopping nuclear power as an urgent civic duty all Japanese ought to participate in — not as a lifelong quasi-profession taken on by the self-chosen few.
Many who first protested against Fukushima continue to protest today using inclusive, modern methods. But from the Sendai plant to Kansai and beyond, long-term activists are back in the forefront of protests.
Thus I look forward to receiving hand-drawn paper flyers and notices at “citizens rallies” that can be understood by anybody off the street with an advanced degree in nuclear engineering, a fair bit of knowledge about Japanese law, and decades of experience following the issue. And let’s not forget the three or four hours of long-winded speeches from the veterans that follow — the ones with little or no Q&A from audience members. Yes, “succinct” and “broad public debate” are concepts too often missing from the traditional activist lexicon.
With two Kansai Electric Power Co. plants in Fukui Prefecture close to restarting, the Kansai region will likely be the next major battleground for the pro- and antinuclear movements. No one denies that the old guard’s experience, knowledge and commitment is crucial to effective opposition. But people, especially young people, in Osaka, Kyoto, Nara and Kobe also need to see a movement that includes fresh faces, one that innovates by being inclusive, media-savvy and egalitarian.
The traditional antinuclear movement resembles too many of Kansai’s small- and medium-sized enterprises: behind the times when it comes to image and technology, unwilling to change business practices, and interested only in serving old customers. Social and political innovation is the key to the movement’s survival, and will help influence the future of nuclear power. Not only in Kansai, but across all of Japan.
View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.