Japanese Leader Meets With Antinuclear Protesters
Published: August 22, 2012
Mr. Noda, who angered demonstrators by dismissing their weekly rallies as “loud noise,” had been under public pressure to meet with them face to face.
The demonstrators are calling for a shutdown of the reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant in western Japan — the first reactors to be restarted since the nuclear accident at Fukushima in March 2011 — and for Japan to decommission its 54 other reactors. They say the reactors are not safe to restart, given the country’s frequent earthquakes and the government’s failure to prevent the Fukushima disaster.
The rallies outside Mr. Noda’s office in the heart of Tokyo have grown from several hundred to tens of thousands since the prime minister gave the go-ahead for restarting the Oi reactor in July. “Saikado hantai!” — “Oppose the restarts!” — is now the rallying cry at the protests, which the police say have swelled to almost 100,000 people, although organizers say the turnout is almost twice that.
The meeting on Wednesday was broadcast on a live video link from the prime minister’s office.
“We wish we could have brought more of the people who gather outside your office every week,” the leader of the movement, an illustrator who goes by the name Misao Redwolf, told Mr. Noda, who sat stern-faced across from the group of protesters.
“Anger is erupting against your administration for failing to heed the lessons of the Fukushima disaster and pushing ahead with the restarts,” she said. “This is not a loud noise. This is the voice of the people.”
Mr. Noda said the government would take a wide range of opinions into account before drafting the country’s future energy policy. A committee of experts is debating various scenarios, from phasing out nuclear power entirely to keeping enough reactors running to provide 20 to 25 percent of Japan’s power needs. Before Fukushima, nuclear energy supplied about 30 percent of Japan’s electricity.
Mr. Noda defended his decision to allow the Oi restarts, but said that Japan intended to downsize its civilian nuclear program. There was no bow and no smile, protesters noted afterward.
“We will make diligent efforts to ensure safety,” Mr. Noda said. “In the mid- to long-term, we will reduce our dependence on our nuclear reactors.”
Public opinion polls have found growing support for phasing out nuclear power. A government poll of about 7,000 people, the results of which were released Wednesday, found that a record 46.7 percent of respondents supported eliminating nuclear power as a source of electricity, and another 15.4 percent thought it should account for just 15 percent of Japan’s needs.
Last month, a candidate backing an antinuclear agenda made a strong showing in a governor’s race in a western prefecture that was considered a conservative stronghold, surprising the political elite. With nationwide elections expected later this year, some politicians — including heavyweights like former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama — have made appearances at the rallies, though they have been accused of opportunism.
The protesters, meanwhile, have taken pains to present their rallies as orderly, peaceful and attended by a diverse group of Japanese. They are eager to distance themselves from the last wave of protests etched in the public memory, in the 1960s and 1970s, which were led by sometimes-violent radicals who opposed a security treaty with the United States.
Organizers have been cordoning off family-only areas at the rallies, which start every Friday at 6 p.m. and end on the dot at 8 p.m., with participants urged to take their trash home with them. An antinuclear mascot called Monjukun sometimes turns up at the rally, to the delight of children there.
Still, the police presence has been heavy at recent rallies, with officers wheeling in steel fences and preventing people from filling the wide boulevard in front of the prime minister’s office, citing safety concerns. A group of prominent lawyers issued a public statement this month condemning the police in Tokyo for what they called “excessive security.”
“Our Constitution protects the right to freedom of speech, but Japan has historically over-policed any attempts to exercise that right in public,” said Nobuo Kojima, a Tokyo lawyer who attends the rallies each week to watch for police misconduct.
“From what I’ve seen, the protesters have been well-behaved, and it’s hard to believe the police aren’t in fact trying to shut the rallies down,” Mr. Kojima said.