On October 15, 2011, Occupy Tokyo protests took place in three different districts: Hibiya, Shinjuku, and Roppongi. Before the rallies began, protesters gathered in parks where organizers and participants gave speeches. They expressed solidarity with the worldwide Occupy movement, criticized a widening economic gap in Japan, and demanded a more just world. Protesters then took to the streets with their placards, drums, and megaphones to shout slogans to reclaim society for “the 99%.”
Yet, the Occupy Tokyo protests were underwhelming: they drew only about five hundred people in total. The protests also lasted only a day and did not make a claim on public spaces that could have turned Occupy Tokyo into a durable movement. At first glance, the Occupy movement that spread across the United States and Europe seemed to have little resonance in Japan.
On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that the Occupy movement did not lack resonance but was articulated in a distinct way: Japan’s Occupy movement intersected with the nationwide nuclear power phaseout movement that emerged in response to the Fukushima disaster. This peculiar articulation of Japan’s Occupy movement is best exemplified by the presence of three tents in front of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), the organization responsible for formulating Japan’s economic policies. Since September 11, 2011, activists have been taking turns to occupy the tents twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. They are protesting the Japanese government’s pro-nuclear energy policy.
The activists target the METI because the ministry has worked closely with the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and promoted nuclear power by defining it as a central pillar to sustain Japan’s economic growth. Although the government began reconsidering its energy policies after the Fukushima disaster, the METI continues to support nuclear power. For example, the METI is currently trying to authorize electric power companies to restart nuclear reactors that were stopped after the Great East Japan Earthquake as well as to help Japanese manufacturing companies build nuclear power plants in Jordan, Vietnam, and the United States.
Thus, the three tents occupying a small piece of the METI’s property symbolize a claim to democratic control of energy policies. The occupants are opposed to the way state bureaucrats continue to promote nuclear power while ignoring their voices. Indeed, many participants of Occupy Tokyo held up placards demanding the phaseout of nuclear power and calling for solidarity with victims of the Fukushima disaster. One of the protests also moved through Hibiya District to demonstrate in front of the METI and TEPCO. The protesters were demanding a nuclear-free, more sustainable society as much as greater economic equity. In fact, Japan’s nuclear power phaseout movement itself is a form of the Occupy movement, in support of strengthening the influence of the public, as opposed to bureaucracies and corporations, over government.
The Tents within Japan’s Nuclear Power Phaseout Movement
Within a week of the onset of the Fukushima disaster, a small group of people began organizing protests in front of TEPCO to demand the phaseout of nuclear power. While protests against TEPCO continued, the opposition to nuclear power spread across Japan. The Fukushima disaster not only reinvigorated the existing phaseout movements in municipalities near nuclear power plants but also prompted new actors, such as parents who feared the effects of nuclear fallout on their children, to join the opposition. A growing number of protests culminated in the nationwide “Nuclear Power Phaseout, One Million People’s Action” on June 11.
Although protests initially targeted TEPCO and other electric power companies that owned nuclear reactors, the movement began shifting its focus to the Japanese government. This shift occurred because people recognized that electric power companies could not have constructed nuclear reactors without government help. To begin with, the government allowed TEPCO to practically monopolize the production and transmission of electricity in East Japan as well as to use full-cost pricing. This legal framework encouraged TEPCO to build expensive nuclear power plants to increase profits. Thus, when protests were staged in Tokyo on September 11 to mark the six-month anniversary of the Fukushima disaster, participants formed a human chain around the METI building and demanded that the government should change its pro-nuclear policy.
On the same day, activists set up a tent in front of the METI to occupy a small piece of its property. METI officials immediately asked them to leave, but the activists insisted that the tent should serve as a space for citizens to debate issues related to nuclear power. Since September 11, METI officials have repeatedly warned the activists of eviction. Pro-nuclear right-wing activists also came to harass the tent occupants. However, the tent occupants and their supporters held on, while two more tents were added.
As of late February 2012, the tents are still standing and becoming a focal point for Japan’s nuclear power phaseout movement. When women from Fukushima organized sit-in protests in front of the METI between October 27 and 29, for example, the tents functioned as their base. Moreover, when activists come to Tokyo from other prefectures to lobby politicians or negotiate with state bureaucrats, they often stop by the tents to exchange opinions and expand activist networks. The tent occupants now have their own web site to upload blog posts and update the schedule of events taking place at the tents.
Thus, the tents have come to symbolize the effort of Japan’s nuclear power phaseout movement to reclaim control of energy policies from bureaucrats as well as from corporations. By the same token, the tents embody distinct characteristics of the movement—its organizational form and tactics as well as the difficulties that it faces.
A Network of Anti-nuclear and Environmental NGOs
Just as the tents serve as a focal point for interactions among a wide variety of activists, Japan’s nuclear power phaseout movement is a loose collection of heterogeneous actors. Roughly speaking, movement actors can be classified into two groups. The first group consists of old, protest-oriented NGOs that began anti-nuclear movements in the context of the Cold War, such as the Japan Council against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs. The second group is made up by new, advocacy-oriented NGOs, like Friends of the Earth Japan, that focus on environmental problems and policies. The composite nature of the movement is best exemplified by the NGO network “e-shift,” launched in April 2011 to coordinate activities of these two groups of NGOs geared toward phasing out nuclear power and promoting renewable energy.
The nuclear power phaseout movement, however, has been dominated by old NGOs and their supporters that tend to oppose nuclear power on moral grounds; for example, they argue that nuclear power is unacceptable because it threatens humankind. They resort to moral arguments because their activities have been anchored in memories of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This moralistic opposition to nuclear power motivates the Association for a National Referendum on Nuclear Power Plants. The Association is currently trying to intervene directly in Japan’s energy policies by lobbying Diet members to enact a law authorizing a national referendum on nuclear power as well as by collecting the number of signatures required to authorize similar referendums in Tokyo Prefecture and Osaka City.
Although moral rejection of nuclear power did help mobilize protests by appealing to people’s emotion, it also made the movement vulnerable to criticisms from supporters of the status quo. For example, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara bluntly dismissed the possibility of a prefectural referendum on nuclear power because “supporters of the referendum present no clear alternatives to nuclear power. Their opposition is simply sentimental.” To be sure, advocacy-oriented environmental NGOs have proposed fairly detailed policy plans to phase out nuclear power and promote renewable energy. However, this new wing of the movement remains weak. Even though the government passed the Nonprofit Activities Promotion Law in 1998, NGOs in Japan are still short on financial, institutional, and human resources. Only a handful of NGOs can afford to hire full-time staff to engage in extensive policy analysis and advocacy, and even these NGOs depend heavily on volunteer staff. This weakness in policy analysis and advocacy has limited the ability of the movement to influence the government’s energy policies.
Obstacles to Translating Public Opinions into Government Policies
The ability of the movement to influence energy policies is further curtailed by a small “bandwidth” for communication between movement actors and government officials. In Japan, activists often try to negotiate directly with state bureaucrats. These “government negotiations” are different from typical lobbying activities that aim to influence elected politicians. Government negotiations can be more effective than lobbying activities in Japan because state bureaucrats are more powerful than politicians in the process of policy-making. State bureaucrats still draft the majority of bills submitted to the Diet, and ministries continue to regulate activities of industries and local governments through administrative directives.
However, state bureaucrats are reluctant not only to come to the negotiation table but also to revise their position during negotiations. As former state bureaucrats repeatedly point out in their writings, Japan’s state bureaucracy is highly self-contained. After new college graduates enter a ministry, they stay within the same ministry until they retire. This system of employment prevents state bureaucrats from experiencing the world outside their own ministries, which makes them highly esoteric and rigid in terms of the administrative language that they use to handle policy issues. Thus, when state bureaucrats and movement actors manage to interact, their negotiations are often hampered by their “linguistic” difference. That the tent occupants and METI officials rarely interact—and even if they do, often talk past each other—is indicative of the small communication bandwidth between the movement and the government.
A commission is another mechanism that curtails the influence of the nuclear power phaseout movement over energy policies. In Japan, the government regularly establishes commissions consisting of experts to make policy recommendations; however, the selection of commission members is generally biased for the status quo. A case in point is the selection of members for the Commission for Comprehensive Research on Natural Resources and Energy that the METI created. Among twenty-five commission members, only eight take positions critical of nuclear power, ranging from the immediate shutdown to the gradual phaseout of all nuclear reactors. Another, more explicit bias is found in the member selection for the Evaluation Commission for Procurement Costs. The goal of the commission is to decide the amount and duration of feed-in-tariff arrangements to promote renewable energy; however, among five candidates that the METI recommended for the commission, three opposed feed-in-tariff arrangements for renewable energy in the past.
Despite these institutional obstacles, the nuclear power phaseout movement succeeded in inserting some influence. That the Commission for Comprehensive Research on Natural Resources and Energy now has eight members opposing nuclear power is a significant departure from the past, when pro-nuclear experts dominated energy-related commissions. Moreover, the member selection for the Evaluation Commission for Procurement Costs has been suspended since NGOs lobbied Diet members and persuaded many of them to oppose the proposed member selection. In both cases, movement actors used information and communication technologies (ICTs) to publicize biases in the commission member selection and to mobilize concerned citizens to leave comments on the METI’s web site and call or fax politicians elected from their districts.
The Democratizing Potential of ICTs
Indeed, Japan’s nuclear power phaseout movement depends heavily on ICTs. Movement actors, including the tent occupants, use them to disseminate information about their activities. Twitter, mailing lists, and Facebook are the most popular mediums through which organizers circulate advertisements for forthcoming protests, seminars, and government negotiations, among other events.
Movement actors also use ICTs to publicize their own news reports and expert analyses. For example, environmental NGOs regularly circulate links to web sites where they uploaded PDF files of handouts distributed at seminars and statements issued at press conferences. Moreover, Ustream Japan and Our Planet-TV live-broadcast activities of the nuclear power phaseout movement through Internet video streaming and upload recordings on their web sites; for instance, video clips of sessions at the Global Conference for a Nuclear Power Free World in January 2012 are available from Ustream Japan’s web site.
Thus, ICTs have expanded the ability of the nuclear power phaseout movement to counteract pro-nuclear tendencies in the Japanese government and mainstream media. To be sure, the movement’s expanded communication bandwidth does not automatically translate into its greater influence over energy policies. Nonetheless, the increased plurality of information in the public sphere has been an important service to Japanese citizens. From the onset of the Fukushima disaster, the government and mainstream media tended to downplay information unfavorable to nuclear power, given their extensive collusion with electric power companies. Since ICTs helped the movement offer alternative news stories and expert reports, it is now possible for Japanese citizens to be more reflective in their reading of official storylines and engage in more reasoned discussion of problems related to the Fukushima disaster.
Toward a More Sustainable and Equitable Democracy
As the first anniversary of the Fukushima disaster approaches, the nuclear power phaseout movement is planning protests across Japan. In New York City, too, Japanese and American activists are going to jointly organize “3.11 Action NYC” to demand the phaseout of nuclear power and to show their solidarity with victims of the Fukushima disaster. The flier for the forthcoming protest in New York City says, “We are outraged. We are the 99%. We demand to shut down all nuclear power plants in the world.”
Here, it is crucial to recognize how issues of ecological sustainability and economic equity are intertwined. The Japanese government is rushing to restart some of the stopped nuclear reactors primarily because Japan has created an economic system in which electric power companies would suffer huge financial losses without operating nuclear reactors. Japan could go nuclear power free today, as far as the capacity to meet electricity demand is concerned. If that happens, however, electric power companies will produce enormous amounts of bad debts for banks, the government, and, ultimately, the taxpayers to shoulder: the 99% would have to pay for a collapse of the ecologically unsustainable economy of nuclear power that benefited the 1%.
Moreover, phasing out nuclear power and shifting toward renewable energy will not necessarily eliminate the inequality between the 1% and the 99%. If the government allows electric power companies like TEPCO to retain their near-monopolistic control of electricity production, they will simply create mega-solar plants and wind farms to keep making profits at the expense of ordinary citizens. That will prevent people from taking advantage of distinct features of renewable energy sources that are conducive to community-based, more democratic energy governance. The choice between nuclear power and renewable energy therefore intersects with the choice between two systems of energy production—one controlled by corporations, the other governed by communities.
Thus, Japan’s nuclear power phaseout movement is ultimately a movement toward a more sustainable and equitable democracy. In this respect, it is an Occupy movement par excellence, albeit distinctly articulated with the Fukushima disaster.