“Freedom of assembly and association as well as speech, press and all other forms of expression are guaranteed.”
— Article 21, Constitution of Japan

“I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”
— Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”

On Dec. 10, the controversial state secrets law went into effect. Supported by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, his right-wing Cabinet, large sections of the bureaucracy (especially the Foreign and Defense ministries), the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren) and the police, and praised by a U.S. government furious at WikiLeaks and the revelations of Edward Snowden, the new law was condemned by virtually everyone else as one of the most serious threats to Japanese democracy in decades. Up to 80 percent of the public opposed the law, according to media polls in November and December last year.

Of particular concern — and relevance — to civil society are the sections of the law allowing for the classification of government efforts to prevent domestic “terrorism,” or “designated harmful activities.” What these will mean in practice is unknown. However, activists worry the new law will protect the state if it decides to crack down on any group that gathers in the streets, the public assembly hall or the Internet in protest of official policy. The country, they fear, is repeating the mistakes of the 1930s and heading toward fascism.

Public protest in Japan is often not as visible as it is in, say, South Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, the Middle East, Europe or the United States. Nevertheless, there are historical examples of people taking it to the streets in ways that greatly alarmed — and influenced — government officials. In September 1905, a riot erupted in Tokyo’s Hibiya Park when crowds gathered to protest the terms of the Portsmouth Treaty, which had just ended the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. In 1918, as World War I was raging, riots broke out over wartime inflation and price-gouging by the industrialists, even as wages remained stagnant.

For today’s Japan, however, it’s the 1960 anpo demonstrations against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty that are most remembered — fondly, it seems — by older Japanese involved in citizens’ movements, and with anger and sometimes fear by those on the right. In addition, protests in the 1960s over Minamata Disease led to a national awareness about the environment. That, in turn, led to the creation of the Environment Agency in 1971, which became the Environment Ministry in 2001.

Since the return of Abe — grandson of Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who was forced to resign due to the 1960 demonstrations over the security treaty — public protests over government policy in several areas have received a great deal of attention. In particular, the battles over what to do about nuclear power and the Futenma base are decades long and not always visible on the surface.

Nuclear deterrent

In July 2012, Kansai Electric Power Co. restarted two nuclear reactors in Fukui Prefecture, the first to be turned back on since the March 11, 2011, earthquake, tsunami and triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The result of that decision was some of the largest public protests since 1960. Outside the prime minister’s residence, weekly demonstrations occurred, as people from all walks of life, most of whom had never done anything like protest publicly, vented their frustration toward the country’s “nuclear village” of politicians, bureaucrats, academics, corporate leaders and media who ignored public sentiment and demanded the nuclear power plants be switched back on.

Yet today, the passions of 2012 have largely faded from public view, raising questions about just how effective public protests against nuclear power really are. With talk about restarting idled plants in Kagoshima, Fukui and elsewhere, critics also wonder if the movement has ever really done any good, or if it’s just protest for form’s sake.

Aileen Mioko Smith, a Kyoto-based anti-nuclear activist who has battled Japan’s nuclear power lobby since 1981, admits much more could have, and can be, done to protest effectively for political change. However, she says the traditional anti-nuclear movement is not without important victories.

Prior to March 2011, the country’s national dependency on nuclear power for electricity was about 30 percent, and there had been plans to raise it to 50 percent. Had it not been for the traditional protest movement that preceded 3/11, Smith says, Japan would have followed the path of France, which relied upon nuclear power for about 75 percent of its electricity in 2013.

“The luxury we have in Japan today of debating whether or not we can get to zero for nuclear power is something we owe the traditional anti-nuclear movement,” Smith says.

“If Japan’s nuclear dependence had been much higher, at the level of France for example, there would not have been a choice. We’d have had to turn the plants back right after Fukushima,” she says. “A higher reliance on nuclear power before 3/11 would have caused even more economic hardship than is already the case based on a 30-odd percent reliance. In a way, Nippon Keidanren needs to thank the anti-nuclear movement. Our efforts have abated more economic hardship than would have been the case otherwise.”

Yet the real challenge is, where to from here? Smith worries the traditional anti-nuclear movement in particular has done a lousy job of taking advantage of the national groundswell against nuclear power since March 2011.

“The traditional anti-nuclear movement is very weak on tactics, especially when it comes to reaching this newer group of people who have only been protesting nuclear power since Fukushima,” Smith says.

For example, anti-nuclear groups often hold very long meetings focusing on highly technical issues. However, things such as nuclear’s impact on the economy also need to be addressed.

“People in the movement can be purists and think money doesn’t matter. There is a tradition among activists that we don’t talk about money, and that ‘safety’ and ‘morals’ are important,” she says. “Well, safety and morals are important. But people’s safety and morals are jeopardized if the economy is jeopardized.”

Age is also a problem. A traditional local anti-nuclear meeting is typically comprised of people largely in their 60s, 70s and 80s. Younger people do show up, Smith says, but usually for only one meeting and they often feel excluded from the smaller, older group.

“The old-timers have been at it so long that talking among themselves has become a habit,” Smith says. “During the meeting, somebody might suddenly remember that young people are present, and they’ll be asked to say something or take on some role. But then, discussion among the old-timers gets intense again, and everybody forgets about the younger people.”

In the case of all of the “new” protesters who showed up in 2012 to protest against nuclear power, activists have become aware of the need to keep them coming back and engaged. The demonstrations in front of the prime minister’s residence included people from all walks of life. Ultimately, however, the rallies became boring and repetitious, Smith says, arguing that protesters might have retained an interest if the demonstrations offered greater variety. Still, at the end of the day, the kind of public protests the media loves to cover aren’t really the way Japan works.

“There are quiet protests going on,” Smith says. “There’s a quiet underground movement that takes many invisible forms and it eventually leads to de facto change. That, in turn, eventually leads to policy change. It’s not necessarily a noneffective way of protesting.”

Covering all bases

Public protest in Japan is arguably most visible in Okinawa, where a strong anti-base movement is using both traditional methods and modern means to block the construction of a replacement facility for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. For nearly two decades — and despite the efforts of nearly a dozen prime ministers and three U.S. presidents — the new offshore runway facility off the waters of Camp Schwab, on the northern end of the main island in Nago’s Henoko district, has yet to be built.

The core anti-base protesters are older; many were children during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. Not a few want the prefecture to declare independence, citing Okinawa’s different culture and history from the four main Japanese islands. Others are protesting less the overall U.S. military presence on Okinawa and more the Futenma base in particular. And others still, especially politicians and business leaders, see protesting the bases as the only way of bargaining with Tokyo for economic development aid.

The Okinawa protest movement also attracts large groups of people from outside the prefecture. In recent years, it has reached out to politicians, journalists and citizens’ groups in Washington. Anti-base Okinawan politicians, Diet members and citizens’ groups have traveled to the American capital to brief U.S. congressional members, their staff and a few Washington Japan experts and media sympathetic to their cause.

Satoko Norimatsu, director of the Vancouver-based Peace Philosophy Centre and co-author of the 2012 book “Resistant Islands: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States,” has helped raise international awareness of the Okinawa anti-base movement, organize visits of Okinawan delegations to the U.S. and bring the base issue to the attention of film directors such as Oliver Stone and Michael Moore.

“I don’t think Okinawan activism can be compared to that of Japan,” Norimatsu says. “Okinawa’s (activism) comes from centuries of colonization, oppression and abuse. It’s a relatively small community and has a strong sense of national/ethnic identity. Many protest efforts come from Okinawa’s long-standing situation of being isolated and abandoned by much of the Japanese mainland media. This is the reason (the Okinawa anti-base movement) is motivated to move beyond Japan, their colonizer and oppressor, and reach out for international support.”

Like the traditional anti-nuclear movement, the traditional anti-base movement is rapidly aging. Protesters tend to use the same tactics they did back in the 1960s — which turns off younger Okinawans and mainland Japanese who move to Okinawa. “I think young people come to places where they can participate, feel respected and have fun, not to places where they have to listen to boring speeches of old people one after the other,” Norimatsu says. “In this regard, I don’t see much difference between Okinawa and mainland Japan.”

Urban-rural divide

To a certain degree, protests over nuclear power and in Okinawa also symbolize two competing value systems and political philosophies that are increasingly defining protest movements around the world: the urban-rural divide. In Japan, the divide is symbolized in the media by the protests over the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which is currently being negotiated by 12 countries. The TPP debate is ostensibly about the trade of traditional goods, but it also touches on fundamental issues such as how much autonomy national and local governments should have over their economies.

For Japan, though, TPP protests are centered around agriculture and the powerful and politically-connected Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives (JA Zenchu). If many protest movements in Japan are outside the status quo, the anti-TPP movement is more “inside,” in the sense that its adherents have a lot of political support among politicians at all levels, especially in rural areas, and many members of the bureaucracy.

While street protests are part and parcel of the anti-TPP movement, organizers have also reached out to Washington, exchanging information with U.S. NGOs and politicians who oppose the treaty. The anti-TPP movement also has the support of many local media, especially in Hokkaido, Tohoku and other heavily agricultural areas, which cover the issue in greater detail and with deeper context — and skepticism — than national outlets based in Tokyo and Osaka. The result, so far, is that TPP opponents have succeeded in preventing Tokyo from giving away the farm, if you’ll pardon the pun, in negotiations. The protesters have consistently frustrated the pro-TPP camp of urban-based economists and pro-TPP politicians and businesses in New York and Washington, as well as Tokyo and many of Japan’s major cities. They are quick to paint those opposed to the pact as a minority of stubborn elderly farmers who are out of touch with the new, globalized world. Yet whether or not the anti-TPP movement can continue to prevent a deal is likely to be one of the major issues of early 2015, as pressure increases on Japan to conclude a deal and voters go to local polls in April.

Big Brother is watching

People who protest publicly in Japan typically attract the attention of the state, especially the police. At some protests, participants don white flu masks and pull down their hats to make it harder for police filming the protest to identify them. Police officers have been known to do the same thing for the same reason — to keep their identities “secret.”

The police keep tabs on different kinds of protest movements in a yearly report on public safety issues. In the 2014 report, which was issued earlier this month, protest groups were divided into two categories: “right wing” and “extreme left wing.” Between January and October, the report says, 1,240 right-wing groups involving 3,320 people publicly protested against China’s claims to the Senkaku/Daioyu Islands. What’s more, around 3,600 people in about 1,500 groups protested over the issue of “comfort women,” denying that any coercion by the military had taken place and calling on Japan to sever diplomatic ties with South Korea. The anti-Korean group Zaitokukai was mentioned for the first time ever in the 2014 report, with the police promising to keep a closer eye on it in future.

Other public protests cited were those directed against nuclear power restarts, the U.S. bases in Okinawa and Japan, the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, the collective self-defense agreement and the state secrets law.

Thus, participation in public protests in Japan runs the risk of social marginalization, as well as possible legal trouble — “the nail that sticks out (by protesting) will be hammered down.”

While police in any country monitor public protests, peer pressure in Japan and the provisions of the new state secrets law encourage citizens to remain passive — at least when it comes to protest that the status quo does not openly or tacitly approve.

“Japanese have a weakness against the establishment, authority and the bureaucracy,” Norimitsu says. “Anything they think is ‘above’ or ‘beyond’ them is the biggest obstacle to effective civil protest and engagement. Japan does not need an education system that tells students how to behave; what students need is a class on ‘citizenship’ — namely, how to be an engaged, responsible and empowered citizen. I believe that includes the ability to stand up and protest.”

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