Japan Stages Unprecedented Protests Over Nuclear Energy -- But Very Politely

  @ibtimes on July 16 2012 4:51 PM
Monday Nuclear Protest In Tokyo
Demonstrators gathered in the tens of thousands in Tokyo on Monday to march against the use of nuclear energy and the restart of the country's reactors. Reuters

Can political protests really be effective if they aren't offensive?

Only in Japan would protests against the horrors of nuclear disaster and radiation poisoning have their own adorable (and mild-mannered) cartoon mascot.

Add to that family-safe demonstration areas, accommodation for the socially introverted, suggestions from organizers to bring drinks and towels for protesters to keep hydrated in hot weather, and a self-imposed pre-sundown curfew (8 pm) -- and the anti-nuclear, anti-government protests in Tokyo seem more like a summer outing or a pleasant outdoor excursion.

Yet, ostensibly, Japan's supremely well-behaved protesters are trying to save the country from what they say is the environmental ruin of a resurgence in nuclear energy.

The government meanwhile, says killing nuclear power in the country entirely will spell economic gloom.

Yoshiko Noda, Japan's prime minister, sounding like an irate older neighbor, derided the thousands gathered in front of his residence over the past weeks as loud noise (the protests may be tame by Western standards, but still involve chanting.)

The protesters are persistent, however. From an original group of several hundred they have grown over past months into the tens of thousands.

Japan's well-behaved nuclear protesters are already making national history. Not since the 1960s have so many gathered to protest against the government (back then participants were angry enough to violently take on police over the signing of a security pact with the U.S.).

Organizers of Monday's protests in Tokyo said 170,000 participated. The police suggest a far lower figure, only 75,000. That's still a massive showing of public opposition to the government, rare in contemporary Japan.

Originally, all of Japan's nuclear reactors were gradually shut down after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011. The last one went dark in early May 2012. A short two months after, amid political bickering and widespread public resentment, a reactor at the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture became the first to go back online, in early July.

Nuclear energy used to provide 30 percent of the electricity needed to run the country's homes, infrastructure, and businesses. The Noda government says that outright disposal of the country's nuclear industry would increase job losses, force manufacturers to relocate overseas, put undue stress on an overburdened energy grid, and jeopardize the country's economy, the world's third-largest after the U.S. and China. It is also asking the majority of the public, which past polls reveal opposed the restarts, to be more realistic.

Critics say that investing in newer, cleaner, alternative energies would boost job numbers, offset shortages, and move Japan away from a form of energy that has already caused it much grief and suffering. They are worried as well that the gradual restart indicates a long-term reestablishment of nuclear energy, being distrustful of the government's statements that the restart is only a short to medium term stop-gap.

Local governments that govern areas with nuclear reactors have been adamant to restart the plants, saying closures led to job losses. Meanwhile, strong-willed leaders in Western Japan's larger cities, such as the governor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, have built populist reputations and national renown on their opposition to nuclear power.

But creating new energy infrastructure takes years, if not decades. In the meantime stresses will likely increase, especially on smaller and mid-sized businesses, as energy costs soar. The island nation would also have to continue importing large amounts of fossil fuels, crippling formerly optimistic designs to lower carbon emissions and further pushing national utility companies into the red.

Market research company Teikoku Databank said in June 2011 that there were some 2,258 businesses in the country related to the nuclear industry. The Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, a nuclear energy promoter, says the industry directly and indirectly supported the jobs of some 47,000 people, back in 2010.

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