On July 16, over 100,000 Japanese citizens gathered in Tokyo for a massive protest against the restarting of nuclear power plants in Japan, in what is proving to be an impressive reaction against nuclear energy. This development comes one year after Japan was struck by the earthquake- and tsunami-triggered Fukushima Daichi disaster.
This demonstration was a response to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's decision to restart two of the country's 54 nuclear reactors; the rest of them currently remain idle. Protesters marched through the capital, filling the streets of Japan's political center. This proved to be the largest gathering yet since the growing anti-nuclear movement first began in March, when only a few hundred demonstrators showed up.
The citizens' argument is thus: Profit-driven pursuit of nuclear power, and even genuine economic concerns, are nonetheless putting human health and safety at risk.
The reactors that have been restarted are in the Ohi nuclear plant, where only minor safety provisions have been implemented. Larger safety measures - like building higher sea walls in the area and making the immediate area quakeproof - are planned, but won't be ready for months.
As the plant is located near the scenic Obama Bay, residents feel a heightened sense of concern, worrying an accident could contaminate the area's largest freshwater resource. Seismologists, meanwhile, have pointed out that authorities neglected to take into consideration the active fault lines around Ohi, including one that runs just beneath one of the reactors.
After an independent commission last month blamed the Fukushima disaster on human error, it seems that error may be taking place all over again, as safety precautions are seemingly thrown to the wind.
These demonstrations are exceptionally notable, because they show the Japanese in a rare state of solidarity; citizens from all walks of life have banded together to show their discontent with the continuous pursuit of nuclear energy. This type of collective political action surprised many people - including some of the protesters themselves.
"Never in my 39 years of life have I ever tried to voice my views out loud like this," remarked Hitoshi Iwata, a Tokyo office worker who took to the streets after learning about the planned protest on social networks. "I expected that the Fukushima case would turn society away from nuclear power. But when things started to move on the contrary, my sense of disappointment was so strong that I felt a compelling need to voice my protest."
But Japan, which sees one-third of its economy fueled by nuclear energy, faces a troubling dilemma. The nation has no fossil fuel reserves of its own, and has been leaning heavily on nuclear power since the 70's. Since Fukushima, reports say, Japan has been ramping up fossil fuel imports and aggressively promoting renewable energy as it tries to unsteadily carve a path to a new energy future.
And yet, fear of a national energy crisis hangs over Japan. The $66 billion cost of imports in natural gas have pushed Japan into a trade deficit. The country hopes it can cut its costs by 2016, when it will try and import gas from the U.S., rather than other parts of Asia.
As the government, in its desperation, clings to atomic energy, citizens complain that their voices simply aren't being heard; no one is listening to their health and environmental concerns.
"I'm so angry that Mr. Noda hasn't taken on the perspective of the citizens and local residents," said Yukiko Kada, governor of Shiga Prefecture in Kansai, Japan. She added that the opposition of her and a few other governors to the restarting of the Ohi plant were met with intense bullying by the government and Big Business.
Kiyoshi Kurokawa, chairman of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, may have inadverdantly suggested the need for more protests and political action on the part of citizens in the future. He wrote, "What must be admitted - very painfully - is that this was a disaster 'made in Japan.' Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to "sticking with the program." ... In recognizing [these facts], each of us should reflect on our responsiblity as individuals in a democratic society."
Photo: A protester holds an anti-nuclear slogan and a photo of Prime Minister Noda during a massive rally in Tokyo. Shizuo Kambayashi/AP