While contamination leakage goes from bad to worse, where have Japan’s antinuclear protesters gone?

Thousands gather at an anti nuclear demonstration in downtown Tokyo, Sept. 19, 2011

In recent years, Japanese people could rarely be accused of social militancy. The country sleepwalked through the painful two decade contractions of the miracle economy, shrugged at the dreary conveyor belt of political scandals and yawned at the endless string of outrageous bon mots from the mouths of its top politicians.

Fewer than 30,000 people turned out in Tokyo to demonstrate against the U.S. led invasion of Iraq a decade ago, in contrast to the millions that thronged cities elsewhere. It took a level seven nuclear disaster to send people back onto Japanese streets in large numbers for the first time since the 1960s.

In the summer of 2012, salary men, high school students and women with strollers were gathering outside government buildings in Kasumigaseki on Friday evenings, to yell at the prime minister over rows of policemen. Organizers claimed over 100,000 people once joined what became known as the Friday night demo.

Japan’s big broadcasters and newspapers showed little interest in the post Fukushima protests until an estimated 170,000 people packed into Yoyogi Park to demand an end to nuclear power probably the largest mainland demo since the war. There was no way to ignore that.

The mainstreaming of the once defunct Japanese street protest took many by surprise. One unlikely sign it had arrived was former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama on July 20 last year wearing a cheap plastic rain mac and mixing with the noisy plebian demonstrators outside the office he once occupied. Look, the gesture seemed to say, we are all antinuclear now.

A month later, then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda reluctantly invited a dozen or so sweaty protestors into his air conditioned office to hear their case. “We will never, never, never, never give up until reactors are shut,” one of the clenchjawed activists told the politely nodding Noda. “We will never forget the accident on March 11 and what we’ve lost because of that,” he pledged.

Then everything seemed to go silent. A little over a year later, Japanese voters stunned many observers by putting the nation’s only explicitly pronuclear party back in power. Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democrats not only want the reactors back on, they’re trying to sell them abroad. Apart from the election in Tokyo of actor Taro Yamamoto, blacklisted for his criticism of the nuclear industry, the antinuclear parties were wiped out.

So has the post Fukushima protest movement burnt itself out? Not quite. Tens of thousands were back on the streets around Japan on the second anniversary of March 11 this year, though again the television cameras mostly stayed away. Outside the Prime Minister’s Office, people still gather every Friday, albeit in far smaller numbers than last year fewer than 100.

Veteran demonstrator Daizo Yoshioka accepts that the protests have peaked but disputes that activists have surrendered. “The immediate, instinctive response to the disaster, which was to get angry and take to the streets, has cooled,” he says. “But most people are still antinuclear.”

Yoshioka is right, at least according to most polls. One of the latest, by the Asahi newspaper in June, found nearly 60 percent of voters in Japan are against the renewal of atomic power. But the waters have been muddied since 2012: over half also said they expected Abe’s economic policies to improve the economy.

That priority was on most minds during the election, says Yukiko Kameya, one of 7,400 people who fled the town of Futaba when the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami crippled the Daiichi nuclear plant a few miles from her home. “A lot of people are more worried about their jobs and security than nuclear reactors, so they chose the politicians they know.”

The LDP has long been the party that Japanese fall back on when times are tough. After experimenting with the Democratic Party of Japan four years ago, many voters are now back in their electoral comfort zone. In any case, the really strong nuclear opposition comes from the young who stayed home in last December’s general election 11 million fewer people voted than in 2009.

But Kameya, who is part of the tent occupation outside the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in Tokyo, blames another deadly toxin seeping into the antinuclear ranks apathy. “Many people were surprised when the government switched the Oi reactors [in Fukui Prefecture] back on, and they gave up.” The media doesn’t help, she adds. “They’re trying to urge people to move on and forget what happened.”

Mitsuhei Murata, a former Japanese ambassador to Switzerland and a bitter Tepco critic, supports that analysis. He says the media has succeeded in creating what he calls a “business as usual” atmosphere. “The media is largely responsible for the abnormal lack of a sense of crisis in Japan and abroad,” he adds. “But the dreadful contamination of the ocean that started immediately after March 11,2011 . . . has finally surfaced.”

But Kaori Hayashi, a communications expert at the University of Tokyo, points to a deeper cultural and political malaise: the education enforced reluctance in Japan to have an opinion or take political sides. “Apathy is the social norm,” here, she says. “This attitude of course tacitly supports the status quo and the establishment. People have no concrete opinions or ideals for society. So if they learn from media that DPJ were doing badly as a government, then people immediately turn their backs to them and move back to the LDP.”

Hayashi says people who read the newspapers or watch the TV in Japan know about the problems at Fukushima and Tepco’s systematic negligence. “But such individual facts fail to bring people together. Many people were against nuclear energy at first, but the larger political motive or cause is missing, and the motivation for taking part in the demonstration did not last long and the movement subsided, unfortunately.”

It remains to be seen how the antinuclear movement will play out in the months and years to come. One reason why it is unlikely to fade completely is the lingering calamity in Fukushima, which some experts are predicting will now take a century to clean up. “This is the biggest industrial accident in the history of the world,” says Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear power whistleblower.

The enormous bill for the cleanup is likely to keep the disaster in the public mind. “Abe wants to get more nukes on line, and public pressure if the true cost comes out will provide too much backlash.”

Whatever happens, the battle will likely move off the streets. One key standoff is those tents outside METI. The government is trying to order them removed. Kameya and other say the movement will not be dismissed that easily. “Whatever happens, we’re here to stay.”

David McNeill writes for The Independent, The Economist, The Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications. Justin McCurry Justin McCurry is the Japan and Korea correspondent for the Guardian and Observer newspapers in London and Japan correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. He also writes for the Lancet medical journal and reports for France 24 TV.