JAPAN: Civil Society Gaining Ground Following Quake

Volunteer Minako Watanabe working at an evacuation centre. - Suvendrini Kakuchi/IPS
Volunteer Minako Watanabe working at an evacuation centre. - Suvendrini Kakuchi/IPS
  • by Suvendrini Kakuchi (tokyo)
  • Inter Press Service

'Thousands of people are joining our protests against nuclear power these past few weeks after the disaster. That is a huge change from the past when our activism was struggling for public attention,' said Sawako Sawaii, spokesperson for the Citizen’s Nuclear Information Network (CNIC), a veteran non- government organisation that has long campaigned against nuclear power.

The rising popularity of CNIC is now the driving force behind regular demonstrations across the nation against Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the stricken nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture.

'I guess it takes tragedy for the public to wake-up to the crucial role that is played by civil society,' said Professor Akiko Nakajima, an expert on post disaster construction at Wayo Women’s University. 'With confidence in the government eroding fast after the nuclear accident, people are no longer happy with officials at the helm.'

Nakajima explains that civil society progress in Japan has been up against a long conservative history that placed priority on social harmony above individual interests - creating a society based on tightly knit rules that forced conformity to official regulations. But, with Japan now struggling to stop radiation contamination from nuclear reactors that officials had promised were fool-proof, the fragility of the old system as been exposed, Nakajima says.

Japan’s anti-nuclear movement is making dynamic headway. The ‘Asahi Newspaper’ Wednesday indicated that 41 percent of those polled in a telephone survey are against or want nuclear power to be reduced - this is a dramatic increase from the 28 percent reported in a similar poll in 2007.

The data also revealed that only five percent wanted an increase in nuclear power - a startling dip from the earlier 13 percent.

Professor Fumihiro Maruyama at the National University Education Research Centre explains that inroads made by citizen networks in Japanese society have been strengthening - especially so after the Kobe earthquake in 1995 when volunteerism earned public respect following volunteer work to assist affected people.

'The Tohoko disaster as well has profiled the importance of people-to-people contact. Grassroots groups preparing food, helping the aged to walk, or bathing them in evacuation centres turned the spotlight on their crucial role. Officials just could not cope without their help,' Maruyama said.

Experts point out the Tohoku catastrophe affected farming and fishing communities that are comprised of older populations whose children live in the big cities. The aging rural community is becoming increasingly dependent on the support of outsiders.

'Traditional Japanese society, where large households helping each other were the norm, is no more. The reality on the ground is that volunteers are needed badly. Local councils are not averse to the changes simply because they have to accept reality,' said Maruyama.

Another landmark in grassroots power was observed Wednesday afternoon. The Koriyama branch of the Breast Milk Mother’s Network, based in Fukushima, held its first press conference to launch a nationwide call to pressure the Japanese government to begin monitoring radiation contamination in breast milk.

Kikuko Murakami, spokesperson for the group, explained to IPS, the group is responding to increasing public anxiety over radiation levels in the air, water and food reported from the damaged reactors. The government ordered schools and kindergartens to open this week, claiming there is no risk to human health.

'But,' says Murakami, 'with news that radiation continues to escape from the nuclear accident, the government must do more. Among our demand is for monitoring to be conducted by groups not affiliated with the government as well as pledges to guarantee the evacuation of nursing mothers after testing of breast milk have shown higher radiation contamination.'

If such demands are met - Murakami’s group have appointments with government officials - the activists will be ushering-in or at least laying the ground work for unprecedented new conditions in Japan’s nuclear policy that focuses on a bottom-up approach to revision.

Meanwhile Sawaii is delighted with the change in the public mood. But, she also points out the road ahead is still long. 'The challenge before us is to contain this growing shift in the public which could weaken as time goes by,' she said.

Sawaii says activists had to grapple with powerful and rich companies and government entities that pushed the rhetoric that nuclear energy was imperative to Japan to reduce green house gases, as well as suited to a country that had to depend on foreign oil sources. 'Now, we are bracing for new strategies used by power companies to smoothen public anxiety by promising sophisticated technologies that guarantee safety,' she said.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service