“Occupy Tokyo:” Nuclear Power and Protest in Japan

by John D’Amico:

The “Occupy” movement, growing out of rising dissatisfaction with the uneven distribution of wealth in America, has been a vehicle for all kinds of disappointment.  Though initially focused on a very unique American institution—Wall Street—the movement, with its simple but compelling call for social and economic justice, found a global audience.  In Japan, where two decades of economic stagnation have provided a fertile ground for class-based discontent, the protests in Tokyo this past week took on a unique character in light of March’s tsunami and nuclear catastrophe.

For many Japanese, these Occupy protests come only as a continuation of earlier, much more intense anti-nuclear agitation throughout the past few months.  Obvious concerns with the safety of nuclear power usage in a country so often plagued by earthquakes had combined with outrage over the clear failure of corporations and government alike to properly regulate the source of 29% of Japan’s energy inspired mass protests this past September, with over 60,000 taking to the streets in Tokyo.

Anti nuclear power protests have become common in Japanese cities. (SandoCap/Flickr Creative Commons)

The Japanese public wasn’t always so vehemently anti-nuclear.  Nuclear power functioned as an engine for economic growth in postwar Japan.  As rural populations moved to major cities like Tokyo and Osaka in the postwar boom, nuclear power plants created jobs and real opportunity in the countryside, revitalizing agricultural communities throughout the countryside.  Before the events of 3/11, Japan looked to depend on nuclear power for 50% of its energy needs by 2030.  The nuclear fiasco at Fukushima prompted widespread, and previously unheard-of, condemnation from the public, leaving Japan’s leaders in a difficult position.

Heads of business and government depend on the nuclear power infrastructure to service key industries. Nuclear plants in Fukui Prefecture power the factories of globally significant corporations such as Sharp, Panasonic, and Toshiba.  But the tsunami and its aftermath crippled Japanese manufacturers. Recent flooding in Thailand, where many Japanese companies host their overseas manufacturing complexes, added insult to injury.  Nuclear energy fuels these companies’—and by extension, Japan’s—prosperity.  Popular pressure on the government to shut down plants nationwide will likely not pan out given the clear economic benefits the current nuclear power system present to both ordinary people in the countryside and some of the nation’s largest and most successful corporations.

The powers that be in Japan need the current nuclear system to persist.  Unfortunately, clumsy efforts on the part of power companies to improve the image of nuclear power are backfiring rather dramatically.  Of course, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) first downplayed the threat of the meltdown at Fukushima, stirring feelings of betrayal and resentment across Japan.  Recently, the Kyushu Electric Power Company committed an even more egregious offense in the name of preserving nuclear power’s public image: it flooded local public meetings with its own undercover employees in order to voice support for nuclear power; sent pro-nuclear emails to TV programs; and actively conspired with the governor of Saga Prefecture to manipulate public opinion in favor of reopening Kyushu Electric’s Genkai nuclear power plant.  A seemingly out-of-touch Japanese leadership doesn’t help the case for nuclear power either.  Even members of RENGO, the federation of labor unions that includes many employees of the nuclear industry, joined the protests last September.

Nevertheless, the fate of the antinuclear movement seems tenuous at best.  In this era of Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, it still remains to be seen if protest can achieve much more modest goals in Tokyo.

John D’Amico ’15 is in Pierson College. He is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger on topics relating to East Asian politics and culture. Contact him at john.c.damico@yale.edu.