HARD TIMES IN THE HOMETOWN: A History of Community Survival in Modern Japan, by Martin Dusinberre. University of Hawaii Press, 2012, 247 pp., $55 (hardcover)

This superbly told tale about the waxing and waning fortunes of Kaminoseki town over the past four centuries presents some interesting local counterpoints to the more familiar national narrative.

Kaminoseki, a port on the Inland Sea in Yamaguchi Prefecture, was a vibrant trading hub in the Tokugawa Period, but suffered decline from the late 19th century against the backdrop of national modernization.

Why read about some moribund backwater in nether Honshu? Because, as Martin Dusinberre writes, “to understand how people lived with everyday decline in modern Kamonoseki is to begin to understand the hopes and hard times of small communities across the world.” This saga sheds light on how a community has responded to the changing world around it and how these forces have shaped its evolution, identity and cohesion.

After World War II, Kaminoseki enjoyed a brief recovery, but after the shift from coal to imported oil, it has been a losing battle. While the economic miracle of the late 1950s and 1960s was a national success story, the energy revolution transformed the shipping industry and eroded the port’s commercial niche. The town’s gathering troubles, including job losses, outmigration of the young and an aging population, are a familiar story all over rural Japan. This richly detailed account vividly conveys how this malaise played out over time and what it meant to successive generations.

Dusinberre, a former teacher on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program, draws on a cache of local archival materials and extensive interviews to provide a unique and compelling view into the family feuds, class resentments and political maneuvering that animate this ailing community.

Kaminoseki’s story is especially fascinating now because Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is from Yamaguchi and he is already weighing in on one of the town’s long-standing battles. Abe’s sudden chance at redemption as a political leader five years after his humiliating ouster represents a stunning reversal of fortune that, among other things, signals the revival of the town’s divisive nuclear power project.

Dusinberre masterfully recounts the ins and outs of this three-decade-long local confrontation over hosting a nuclear reactor. Local nuclear advocates argue this is the only way to revive the town.

Following the 2011 Fukushima debacle, however, the governor of Yamaguchi suspended the Kaminoseki project and prospects for resumption looked bleak. While opponents felt vindicated by exposes regarding Tepco’s numerous safety blunders, advocates saw the meltdowns as a major setback for their plan to cash in on nuclear subsidies and jobs. But now Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party are busy promoting nuclear energy despite polls showing 80 percent favor phasing it out.

Desperate leaders in Kaminoseki are gung-ho for reactors because the potential risks of nuclear power are deemed less than the certain risks of economic oblivion.

“Hard Times in the Hometown” helps us understand just how divided the community is between pro- and anti-nuclear campaigners, as both sides are convinced that the other just doesn’t get it.

Readers learn how Chugoku Electric and town leaders connived to launch the project and overcome strong local opposition. The utility’s “subtle manipulation” of civil society groups in Kaminoseki, “meant that an ordinary citizen’s pronuclear decision was as likely to be based on social, political, and even historical obligation as it was on a clear grasp of atomic energy issues.” While economic incentives were a powerful inducement, Dusinberre argues that social bonds between citizens and town elites may have been more important in orchestrating approval for hosting the reactor.

Pronuclear advocates were not leaving things to chance. Prior to the 1987 mayoral election, scheduled on the one-year anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, the town’s population “miraculously” increased. A police investigation revealed that the pronuclear lobby had fraudulently registered nonresidents as local citizens, including employees of Chugoku Electric. Despite such tawdry revelations, the pronuclear candidate won re-election, but faced sustained and angry protests. The discord also turned violent as rightwing thugs came and assaulted antinuclear activists.

Iwaishima, an island that was merged into Kaminoseki, has a commanding view of the proposed reactor site and is a hotbed of opposition. Anyone associated with the pronuclear camp is subject to murahachibu (ostracism), including merchants and a Shinto priest. Tourist maps of the island actually omit a historic shrine because the priest is a pronuclear advocate. Parishioners ex-communicated their priest in venting their collective fears about nuclear energy and frustration with their powerlessness in the face of political shenanigans.

Dusinberre found that “the pronuclear minority included not just elected councilors but men who stood at the hub of social, economic and ritual networks.” It is tempting thus to read into the reactor opposition an anti-elite movement, but the situation is more complicated. One of the key leaders of the antinuclear group was also a member of the island’s elite families. Apparently, he was miffed that nuclear advocates had not sought his support. So he funded the antinuclear movement and enjoyed his sudden power as a leader to be reckoned with. Oddly, he confided, it was a matter of saving face, not atomic energy.

In assessing how atomic power led to community fission, the author explains the importance of “entirely unrelated battles being fought through the framework of the nuclear dispute.”

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan campus.