Japan’s new anti-nuclear resistance

June 21, 2011

The unprecedented participation of Japan's younger generation in anti-nuclear protests and other struggles is a ray of hope in a grim situation, reports Chris Kim.

THE TRIPLE tragedy that struck Japan on March 11--the biggest earthquake in recorded history, a deadly tsunami and the start of a nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant--stunned the world.

Days later, Germany announced it would abandon its nuclear energy plants. And two days after that, the first signs of resistance were taking shape in Japan.

On March 17, in the Tokyo district of Shibuya, some 400 workers and students were brought together by their opposition to Japan's nuclear energy sector, but they raised demands for other political and economic issues as well. This "3.17 Urgent Action" movement was born with a commitment to stopping all the nuclear plants immediately, no layoffs under the pretext of the earthquake, bringing down the government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan, and finally "Let's change like Egypt!"

The "3.17 Urgent Action" movement also took hold in Hiroshima among workers and students, and there were similar outpourings of various sizes across Japan. It's important to note that rank-and-file workers and students in Japan organized the March 17 demonstrations.

Anti-nuclear protesters march in Tokyo following the Fukushima plant disaster
Anti-nuclear protesters march in Tokyo following the Fukushima plant disaster (Matthias Lambrecht)

Mi-sun Choi, a journalist for the anti-capitalist South Korean journal Left21, noted:

Assemblies of March 17 were especially meaningful because they took place despite the Japanese government call for "self-restraint of any demonstration" due to the national state of emergency. Some NGOs and unions canceled their mobilization to demonstrate their deference to the government.

One student activist at Hosei University issued a call for international unity and action in response to the crisis: "Just as German workers united to stop nuclear power, and just as Egyptian workers united to overthrow a dictator, let us students and workers unite to change the world!"

The rally was participated by welfare workers, postal workers and teachers, who all marched together in Shibuya streets with chants of "Stop all the nuclear plants immediately," "No dismissal under the pretext of the earthquake," "Send aid not JSDF [Japanese Self-Defense Force]" and "Workers and students, unite and fight." Their march was cheered by people on the streets in solidarity.


THREE DAYS later, another demonstration took place in Shibuya. But this time, the crowd swelled to 1,500. The mobilization was a collaborative effort of anti-nuclear and antiwar organizations. Activists took the stage to speak out against Tokyo Electric Power Company, the owner of the Fukushima plants.

"This terrible devastation is a consequence of neoliberalism," declared Tanaka Yasuhiro, president of Doro-Chiba, the National Railway Motive Power Union of Chiba. "Only the united power of militant workers can change society. Let's organize these struggles across Japan now!"

Oda Yosuke, president of the All-Japanese Federation of Student Government Associations, urged protesters to make common cause. "We need to revitalize labor unions and student organizations," he said. "Our future depends upon our unity and solidarity!"

A student from Tohoku University described the situation there after the earthquake. "The Self-Defense Force blocks main roads that lead to disaster spots," explained the student. "So we are suffering from lack of food as well as other necessities. We will never forgive the government, and we will never be defeated. We'll fight and fight--to live!"

The crisis sharpened the militancy of many of the speakers. The threat that capitalism poses to the very existence of humanity was on display for all to see. "While the capitalists keep a safe distance, the workers must bear all the hardship," exclaimed one Tokyo medical worker. "At our workplace, we're collecting donations, but management ordered us to stop."

A worker from Osaka explained, "Capitalists are now planning how to make money in the wake of this disaster." The action concluded with the students and workers singing the anthem of the working-class movement "The Internationale."

The wave of protest continued in April. After 1,500 mobilized in Tokyo on April 3, the crowd swelled to 15,000 in the Tokyo district of Koenji on April 10. At a separate demonstration, some 2,500 people mobilized to demand that the Hamaoka nuclear plant in Shizuoka be switched off because the plant lies along a fault likely to produce future earthquakes.

According to journalist Alexander Brown:

The rally was characterized by the colorful costumes and props of the demonstrators. There were clowns, anti-nuclear dogs and many people with musical instruments. A full line-up of DJs and bands entertained the crowds...Solidarity actions were held in other Japanese cities and in South Korea, Canada, the United States, Germany, Italy, France and Mexico.

These protests also marked the arrival of a new generation of organizers largely new to political activism. According to Labornet Japan, "Nearly 90 percent of participants were young people in their 20s and 30s, and most of them were taking part in this kind of action for the first time and found out the mobilization through the Internet...The participation of such a large number of young people is a groundbreaking moment in the history of Japan's social movements."

Thus, in the midst of tragedy, something positive was emerging. Organizer Hajime Matsumoto expressed the enthusiasm that many shared at the sight of this new wave of protest. "Something has begun," said Matsumoto. "Otherwise, Japan will collapse."

What's more, the disarray within the Japanese ruling class was becoming increasingly stark. On April 8, Masayoshi Yoshino, a member of the Liberal Democratic Party (similar to the Republican Party in the U.S.) and a member of parliament from the Fukushima prefecture, held a news conference to declare:

As a person who has had a pro-nuclear stance, I'm totally at a loss at the moment as to whether we should continue to promote Japan's nuclear energy sector...I know in my head that I should make a decision only when we have a thorough investigation into what happened. But my instinct tells me, "No more nuclear plants."


THOUGH THE catalyst for the outpouring of protest was obviously the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, it's important not to underestimate the underlying anger felt by many prior to the crisis.

On the political level, one source of this bitterness was last year's widely unpopular decision of former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, a member of Japan's Democratic Party (similar to the Democratic Party in the U.S.), to allow the U.S. to continue to operate its military base on the island of Okinawa. During his campaign, Hatoyama had pledged to bring an end to the U.S. military presence there.

On the economic level, there has been a significant increase in the number of unstable part-time jobs that have replaced the policy of "lifetime employment," a source of stability and long an expectation of Japanese workers. Even before the 2008 economic crisis, some 44 percent of the Japanese workforce was relegated to part-time employment, and 34.1 percent were "irregular workers."

Low-wage labor in China and other Asian countries has attracted Japanese capital, eroding job security for Japanese workers. As David McNally explains in his recent book Global Slump:

Indeed, by 2000, Japanese capital had 772 production facilities in China alone...This outsourcing to China was clearly linked to a domestic loss of more than two and a half million manufacturing jobs between 1992 and 2001, when Japanese manufacturing employment dropped from 15.7 million to 13 million.

Japan has been plagued by a stagnant economy since the 1990s, and the current global economic crisis has only added to the misery facing Japanese workers. In late 2008, thousands of young Japanese workers were marching the streets of Tokyo to protest the desperate lack of jobs.

The nuclear crisis has exacerbated these tensions, as the government demonstrates that it's more concerned about the image of the nuclear power industry and "creating a pro-business environment" than it is with the conditions facing everyday Japanese people.

And as the Japanese public, along with the rest of the world, has learned the full extent of the crisis, the wave of anti-nuclear protests has continued to grow. According to a June 11 New York Times report: "Anger over the government's handling of the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant has erupted in recent weeks after revelations that the damage at the plant, and the release of radioactive material, was far worse than previously thought."

On May 7, some 5,000 turned out in Tokyo's Shibuya ward, and on June 11, about 20,000 took to the streets. Such mobilizations have already scored some victories--for example, the Hamaoka nuclear plant in Shizuoka was fully shut down May 15.

For many veteran activists, there is now optimism that the wave of anti-nuclear protests and the growing radicalization of rank-and-file workers and students might finally provide the Japanese left with an opportunity to overcome decades of fragmentation. As the Japanese government lurches from one crisis to the next, there is a potential for an explosion of social movements--in opposition to nuclear power and around any number of other pressing issues.

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