EDITORIAL: Anti-nuke protests offer an opportunity to move democracy forward
A myriad of lights cast a soft glow around the Diet building as dusk fell on July 29.
Thousands of anti-nuclear protesters formed a human chain around most of the Tokyo landmark in the latest of a continuing series of demonstrations against the reopening of nuclear power plants following the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
The "Encircle the Diet" rally was organized by a coalition of citizen groups.
Participants demanding the phaseout of nuclear power generation in Japan chanted slogans against the restart of idled nuclear reactors, holding candles and flashlights.
The massive demonstration came after several months of Friday night protests at the prime minister's office and the Diet building. Tens of thousands of people have joined the growing movement.
Never have so many Japanese participated in a movement against a government policy since a wave of protests against the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty swept the nation half a century ago in 1960.
This loud chorus of objections to nuclear power generation that has risen among the silent majority is an amazing change triggered by the March 11, 2011, disaster and the subsequent reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
MOVEMENT FUELED BY REACTOR RESTARTS
The weekly anti-nuclear protests in front of the prime minister's office began at the end of March with just 300 participants. The number of protesters swelled after the government decided in June to bring two idled reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant back online.
One participant in the July 29 rally, a 60-year-old, self-employed woman from the city of Shimanto, Kochi Prefecture, expressed her indignation at Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's remarks at the news conference to announce his decision to reactivate the two reactors.
"I can't forgive him for saying he had decided (to restart the reactors) for the people's sense of security," the woman said. "He should have been honest and said (his decision had been) for money."
Most of the protesters who were interviewed by The Asahi Shimbun shared the feeling that the government and electric utilities, which are in a rush to restart reactors, are hiding the truth.
First of all, they find it hard to believe the claim that nuclear power plants in Japan are basically safe.
That's hardly surprising. The causes of the accident have yet to be fully identified, while it is suspected that the Oi plant in Fukui Prefecture, operated by Kansai Electric Power Co., could be sitting atop an active fault.
We wonder how many Japanese are willing to accept Noda's assertion that the nation is equipped with a reliable system to prevent a recurrence of nuclear accidents.
The protesters are also suspicious of the claim that there will be a serious power shortage unless reactors are reactivated.
They say that there was a sufficient power supply last winter and that no shortage is emerging this summer despite repeated warnings about a power crunch.
They suspect that the real motive behind the hasty move to restart reactors is to protect the financial health of the electric utilities, which are suffering from higher fuel costs due to increased thermal power generation.
Some of the protesters accept that nuclear power generation can only be phased out through a time-consuming process.
If Noda had clearly committed his administration to weaning Japan from dependence on atomic energy and mapped out a plan to decommission reactors over time, starting with the most dangerous ones, his efforts to reopen reactors might not have stirred such a huge wave of public outrage.
DEEP-ROOTED DISTRUST OF ESTABLISHMENT
But the Noda administration's actions concerning nuclear power generation are not the only problem.
At the root of the protest movement is strong distrust of the way indirect democracy is practiced in this country.
One of the protesters, a 77-year-old woman from the city of Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, said: "Democracy is supposed to be politics based on people's opinions. Politics that ignores people's voices is nothing more than fascism."
This viewpoint has been expressed time and again at the protest rallies.
Indirect democracy should allow voters to realize the policies they favor through their elected representatives, or legislators. Many Japanese seem to feel that the nation's system of indirect democracy is not functioning properly in that their voices are rarely heeded by policymakers.
This sense of frustration appears to have been driving people into actions that seem closer to direct democracy.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster was clearly the last straw.
Many Japanese believe it was not a natural disaster but the result of human error due to failures by the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operated the plant.
They criticize the government and TEPCO for not immediately disclosing the facts of core meltdowns nor information about the release of radioactive materials from the plant into the environment.
They don't trust news organizations either, which they believe base their reports mostly on information provided by the government.
People are not just distrustful of politics. They are also critical of newspapers and TV networks, which they regard as part of the establishment.
COMPLEMENTARY ROLES OF POLICYMAKERS AND PEOPLE
The trend toward direct democracy will only accelerate in coming years.
Large-scale political movements like the one against the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty have not been seen in Japan for decades. This was most likely because Japan was preoccupied with rapid economic growth.
But Japan has entered an era of economic decline. We are now in danger of losing the wealth and even the safety we have long taken for granted.
Politicians have to be held accountable for policy problems in various areas. This is an essential part of the democratic process.
But no good would come from political confrontation between the establishment and the people, separated by the wall of the prime minister’s office and alienated from each other by mutual distrust.
Direct democracy is an effective means to ensure that people's voices are reflected in policymaking during periods between elections.
It is the job of political parties and politicians to incorporate their views into actual policies.
There is a communication breakdown between policymakers and the people. This needs to be quickly addressed by establishing a mutually complementary relationship.
One of the leaders of the coalition organizing protest rallies says the movement has prodded some lawmakers into action as the scale of public opposition to nuclear power is plain for all to see.
As the wave of protests swelled, lawmakers of both the ruling and opposition camps started joining the rallies.
A group of local assembly members have formed a new environmentalist party, Midori no To (Greens Japan), under the banner of immediate abolition of all nuclear power plants.
Some of these moves among politicians are probably attempts to garner votes in the next national election by jumping on the anti-nuclear bandwagon.
But there is no denying that people's voices are beginning to influence politics.
The organizers of the protest rallies are asking for meetings with top officials at the prime minister's office.
We think Noda should invite protesters in all age groups to his office for a discussion.
That would be a good start for fresh efforts to change "negative democracy," driven by distrust, into "positive democracy" based on trust and dialogue.