The suggestion that the government of Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio might reverse the policy of reducing the reliance on nuclear power in place since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in 2011 stirred up the still ongoing debate about atomic energy. In her new book Fukushima and Civil Society: The Japanese Anti-Nuclear Movement from a Socio-Political Perspective, Beata Bochorodycz of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland takes the measure of the formidable anti-nuclear ecosystem in Japan that opposes any revival of nuclear power.
Anti-nuclear activists outside the Japanese prime minister’s office in Tokyo, June 2012: Demonstrations have become a way of expressing oneself and an opportunity to meet like-minded people (Credit: Matthias Lambrecht)
The debate in Japan over nuclear power has heated up. In July, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio stirred up speculation that, with energy prices on the rise, his administration was poised to reverse the policy of reducing the reliance on nuclear energy as a source of electricity that was in place since the earthquake and tsunami disasters at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on March 11, 2011. The Japanese leader had asked a government panel on green transformation to consider whether new nuclear power plants should be considered. Japan sources about 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear power.
But days later, Kishida affirmed that Japan should stick to its efforts to reduce its reliance on nuclear energy. The policy has not changed, he declared, stressing that the government’s strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 would continue to focus on energy conservation and maximum use of renewable energy sources. Nuclear safety monitors, he added, should maintain existing standards and not loosen regulatory vigilance.
Kishida’s apparent pullback might have been prompted by recent polls, including an Asahi Shimbun survey in which 58 percent of respondents were against new nuclear plants, with 34 percent in favor. The PM presumably wanted to stop further decline of public support for his cabinet triggered by alleged links between his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Unification Church that have surfaced since the assassination on July 8 of Abe Shinzō, who had stepped down as prime minister in 2020.
The resurgence of the debate over nuclear power in Japan is a reminder of the impact that the Fukushima nuclear accident had on civil society in the country. My new book Fukushima and Civil Society: The Japanese Anti-Nuclear Movement from a Socio-Political Perspective, published by Routledge, focuses on the anti-nuclear movement. The book aims to answer the questions about the origins and development of the anti-nuclear ecosystem in Japan after Fukushima, examining goals, structures and membership, mobilization strategies, repertoire of action, modes of operation, and ultimately, the resulting sociopolitical changes.
The Great East Japan Earthquake, the following tsunami, and the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (NPP) had a powerful impact on Japanese society, politics, economy and culture. One of the direct consequences was the shutting down of all 54 nuclear reactors in Japan and the adoption by the government led at that time by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) of a new energy policy that envisaged closure of all NPPs by 2030.
As a large-scale critical event, the accident itself and, more importantly, the subsequent attempts to relaunch the reactors, led to the emergence of strong anti-nuclear protests, which peaked in July 2012. In December of the same year, the pro-nuclear LDP, which has dominated Japanese politics since its founding in 1955, and its longtime coalition partner Kōmeitō won the elections, and the government of Abe Shinzō adopted an energy plan that signaled a “reverse course” of a return to nuclear energy as one of the main sources of electricity. Questions immediately arose about public support for such a decision. In June 2012, social protests against NPPs attracted some 200,000 participants in front of the prime minister’s residence (Kantei) and the parliament buildings in the heart of Tokyo.
In my research, I aimed to grasp the complexity of the anti-nuclear movement’s actors, structures and relations. My fieldwork in Japan in 2013–2014 led me to uncover a dense network of groups and organizations engaged in the anti-nuclear protests. The main method of data gathering and selecting actors for investigation was the snowball technique.
Initially, I planned to focus on the most salient protest groups of the anti-nuclear movement such as Shirōto no Ran (Amateur Rebellion) and Hangenren (Metropolitan Coalition against Nukes). But as I approached the field, I quickly realized the existence of a whole universe of other individuals, groups, organizations, networks, and their coalitions that, first, seemed important for the functioning of the anti-nuclear movement and, second, had not been described as such in academic literature.
The book makes four conclusions:
First, although the triple disaster opened a window of opportunity for the anti-nuclear movement, the political opportunity structure available at that time broadened that opening and sustained it for some time. These included:
My second conclusion was that the diversity of actors involved in the so-called anti-nuclear movement exceeds traditional descriptions of both theories of social movement and civil society. The broad spectrum of actors conceptualized in this research as the anti-nuclear ecosystem extends over multiple spheres of civil society, social movements, and even the market, comprising a complex network of individuals, groups, organizations, networks and their coalitions, the political environment, and the dense web of their interrelationships.
The concept of the anti-nuclear ecosystem draws on the metaphor of “a flower of the movement” by Oguma Eiji, who uses it in reference to demonstrations, rallies and other direct forms of action that are the most visible manifestations of public discontent and grievances, and that usually draw the most media attention.
Expanding the metaphor, my research showed that the “flower” (direct action) was in fact sustained and connected to a dense web of other actors, who although maybe less visible, perform various functions in that system, by gathering and analyzing information, preparing and advocating policy proposals, providing aid to victims and NPPs workers, monitoring state agencies, providing legal assistance and leading litigation against NPPs, providing funding, mobilizing voters during elections, building international cooperation, or realizing the movements’ goals of a nuclear phaseout via other means such as introduction of green technologies.
My third conclusion was that the post-Fukushima anti-nuclear protests were the fourth cycle of the anti-nuclear movement in Japan after the end of the war in 1945. The first wave emerged in the 1950s and was directed mainly against nuclear weapons; the second in the 1960s and 1970s, in opposition to the construction of NPPs; and the third after the Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union in 1986. Whereas, in the first cycle, the main goal was to ban nuclear weapons, in later periods, the focus of protests shifted to the industrial use of nuclear energy and the elimination of NPPs. However, some of the oldest anti-nuclear organizations have remained committed to both aims.
Structurally, the first cycle was dominated by large, hierarchical and centralized organizations associated with political parties and trade unions. In the second and third cycles, the movement began to evolve towards the network structure and anti-hierarchical relations, post-material values, and new modes of protests, which also characterizes the post-Fukushima period. In the last two waves, post-Chernobyl and post-Fukushima, the narrative of a “new movement” became dominant, although, in reality, elements of the “new” and “old” coexist and often closely collaborate. In other words, the post-Fukushima wave of the anti-nuclear movement was not solely the Twitter (and other social networking services) revolution, but rather a social phenomenon comprising both new and old types of actors mobilized via new and old types of communications.
The fourth conclusion was that the influence of the anti-nuclear activities on the state and society was complex and multilayered. Although it did not lead to the adoption of a plan for nuclear phaseout (except for a short period under the DPJ government), the anti-nuclear protests and public attitudes led, for instance, to the introduction of stricter safety standards for NPPs. As a result, many electric power companies decided to decommission some of the old nuclear reactors due to the high modernization costs. In addition, the development of renewable energy sources was stepped up and the construction of new NPPs halted. These developments steered the course of Japan’s energy policy in a new direction.
Symbolically, the activities of direct-action organizations (Hangenren, Tento Hiroba, Fukushima Women, Sayonara Nukes) led to a redefinition of the public sphere at the very heart of Tokyo, especially around the political center of the Kasumigaseki–Nagatachō area, which was previously associated with bureaucratic and political power, by transforming it into a space of public contestation or even what sociologists Ann Mische and Philippa Pattison call the “civic arena”.
In terms of mobilization, Hangenren and other Kantei Mae protest organizations established a mobilization mechanism that could be quickly implemented on an ad hoc basis for other political issues as well. The protests against the state secrecy law in December 2013, against the right to collective self-defense in June 2014, and against security bills from July-September 2015 – the last two organized by the Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs) – clearly followed the form and pattern established by the anti-nuclear movement. The same was true for participants. Many anti-nuclear protesters joined the actions against these new political issues.
In the normative and axiological sphere, the struggle over the framing of protests resulted in a change of perception of direct action, which had previously been often associated with the violence and radicalism of the students’ riots of the 1960s and 1970s and with ideology-based and large hierarchical organizations, into a more peaceful image of political protest and a standard form of expressing opinions in a democratic system. Demonstrations become a way of expressing oneself and an opportunity to meet like-minded people.
Furthermore, all other groups and organizations of the ecosystem analyzed in my book brought about or contributed to social change. The research and education organizations served as providers, analysts, and channels for disseminating information on the accident, nuclear energy, and, more broadly, energy problems. The public opinion polls showed that the great majority of Japanese expressed interest in those issues. That is not to say that this is the outcome of anti-nuclear activities, but rather to underline their contribution. The representatives of organizations from this category sit as experts on various governmental committees and commissions. Other activities such as lectures, seminars, study visits and workshops on, for instance, writing public comments contributed to public education. In March 2011, they became an important source of information on radioactive contamination and an alternative expertise analysis to that in the mainstream media.
In the policy advocacy area, the anti-nuclear organizations prepared a comprehensive policy proposal, titled Our Path to a Nuclear Free Japan: Policy Outline for a Nuclear Phaseout, which was formulated by the Citizens’ Commission on Nuclear Energy (CCNE) and published in 2014. In addition, CCNE, E-shift, and other organizations carried out lobbying activities at all administrative levels, paying particular attention to local authorities. They contributed to the popularization of the civic policy proposal, disseminating knowledge, enhancing the visibility and legitimacy of the anti-nuclear movement as an alternative policy provider, and also drawing public attention to energy issues. As watchdogs, anti-nuclear groups and organizations (Citizen Watchdog Group and the Citizens’ Conference to Promote the Nuclear Victims Support Act) exert constant pressure on government agencies to make prudent decisions by attending public proceedings, petitioning, inquiring and monitoring activity. Such activities, however, appear to be more effective at the local than the national level, and at the agenda-setting stage rather than implementation.
In the legal sphere, the anti-nuclear legal professionals integrated their efforts by establishing the National Liaison Committee of Anti-Nuclear Lawyers’ Associations (Datsugenpatsu Bengodan). It assists the diversified actions such as civil and criminal lawsuits against state institutions and private companies responsible for the Fukushima accident and legislative initiatives aimed at introducing a legal framework for nuclear phaseout. Some changes in rulings on nuclear energy-related matters can be seen in the verdicts on the Ōi NPP in May 2014, Takahama NPP in April 2015, and Ikata NPP in December 2017. In all cases, the courts ruled in favor of civic groups. And, although these and many other cases are still pending, small cracks have opened in the practice of so-called judicial passivity, at least in the District and High Courts. Furthermore, prolonged lawsuits, resulting in long periods of shutdown, reduce profitability and have negative economic consequences for electric power operators.
Other types of organizations, including electoral groups, local government, international and financial organizations, private companies, and market-oriented civic initiatives, have contributed to achieving the movement’s goal in multilayer, complex ways, indirectly through financial and organizational assistance given to anti-nuclear social movement organizations and directly through the introduction and development of green technologies. The long-term effects of the movements are yet to be seen, but, as my analysis shows, the concepts of nuclear phaseout and transition to green technologies have penetrated broad circles of Japanese society and the market.
Finally, one of the most important effects of the anti-nuclear movement after the Fukushima Daiichi accident was the activation of civil society, one of the largest in scale in the postwar history of Japan and very diverse in terms of its participants and forms of activity and the effects on the Japanese state. Traditionally, such participation has been perceived as a resource that leads to involvement in other types of socially-oriented activities. Certainly, the anti-nuclear ecosystem is a formidable force in opposition to any government that might wish to reverse Japan’s policy to reduce reliance on nuclear power.
Amano, Yukiya. (2015) “The Fukushima Daiichi Accident: Report by the Director General”, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Vienna, Austria.
Bochorodycz, Beata. (August 18, 2022) Fukushima and Civil Society: The Japanese Anti-Nuclear Movement from a Socio-Political Perspective, Routledge, Abingdon, UK.
Bochorodycz, Beata; Zakowski, Karol; and Socha, Marcin. (2018) Japan’s Foreign Policy Making: Central Government Reforms, Decision-Making Processes, and Diplomacy, Springer, New York, NY, USA.
Adam Mickiewicz University