The police were outside the Ishinomaki Central Community Center, but they weren’t expecting trouble. Half a decade after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the air seemed to have gone out of the protest movement against atomic power. A year ago, the demonstration had been twice this size. Three years before, there’d been five times as many protestors. Now, the small crowd was mostly made up of aging leftists and graying Japanese hippies, holding out stubborn indignation against the electric utility TEPCO, which had run the Fukushima nuclear complex before it was disabled by a wall of seawater on March 11, 2011, and all but destroyed by the ensuing triple meltdown.
Inside the community center, Masami Yoshizawa, a cattle rancher from Namie town in Fukushima prefecture, stood at the front of a gym holding a microphone. Behind him hung pictures of his radiation-contaminated land and hand-made banners that read: Sayonara nuclear power!; Make TEPCO pay the damages!; Raise your voice — we don’t need nuclear power!; Unite to save lives, or die trying. In his rough, rural speech, he talked about his flight to Tokyo to confront the power company, about returning to Fukushima to live as a refugee. He wouldn‘t die in the temporary housing. He would resist.
“Daycares, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools — the buildings are still standing, but they’re all closed!” he fumed into the microphone. “The kids can’t come back, so the young people won’t either. In the future, maybe one in 10 will return to Namie. Out of a town of 20,000, maybe 2,000, mostly old men and women. What kind of town will that be? Will there be stores? Will there be hospitals? We don’t know. Will there be places to work? Will we be able to grow rice or vegetables?”
The gymnasium wasn’t air-conditioned. The doors were open to the breeze, and a woman near the front fanned herself with a plastic uchiwa. When Masami paused to point at the pictures, you could hear people shifting on the fake leather seats. The local organizers had set up tables along the back wall, where vendors sold tea and rice balls. He’d been speaking for an hour without notes but was just rounding into the thunderous part of his talk.
“After March 11, we don’t have a village to go back to. We’re weighed down with resentment. We have to unburden ourselves. We’re not responsible for the disaster — it can only be TEPCO’s responsibility. We’re victims, refugees, nuclear survivors. Why must we destroy ourselves, be scattered about?”
The history of nuclear power in postwar Japan was a twisted matter in itself, beginning even as Hiroshima and Nagasaki were being rebuilt, even as a fishing trawler steamed into Tokyo Bay in 1954, having passed through the plume of a US “Bravo” hydrogen bomb test on the Bikini Atoll — the Lucky Dragon’s crew had been exposed to radioactive fallout and so had its catch, though this wasn’t discovered until the fish had already been sold at market, causing widespread panic. After World War II, with the nation’s coal resources depleted from decades of strife, Japanese leaders were eager to take part in the Atoms for Peace project, an Eisenhower-era program to promote Cold War alliances and emphasize the civilian uses of nuclear technology. Under the initiative, the United States shared nuclear knowhow, trained foreign technicians, and even loaned out fissionable material. In the mid-1950s, the Japanese government and the country’s electric utilities launched a public relations campaign about the benefits of atomic technology to reassure its nuclear-wary citizenry; one of the last vestiges of these promotions was a sign above a road leading to the Fukushima Daiichi plant: “Nuclear power is the energy of a bright tomorrow.”
But as long as there had been atomic energy projects in Japan there had been opposition to them. In Ishinomaki, the activists listening to Masami in the gym were the latest incarnation of the kind of grassroots movements that had once gathered 20 million signatures for an anti-nuclear weapons petition in 1955 and mustered 1,000 fishing boats to protest a nuclear recycling facility in Tokaimura in 1965.
While anti-nuclear movements could cut across the political spectrum, they most often found their locus on the left. The conservative Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, which had dominated Japanese politics since the war and tried to put down the student protests in the ’60s and ’70s, was also the main driver of pro-nuclear policies. It was also seen as the party of big business, and what the conservatives often saw as the fast track to development the liberals saw as collusion, a view that seemed born out by TEPCO’s unresponsiveness during the disaster.
“Us baby boomers have the power,” yelled Masami. “The nuclear disaster was terrible, but how can we seize it, take this chance to flip the switch? I’m bursting with energy. I think I must’ve taken it from inside the nuclear accident. What kind of fight do the people have to put up to end the era of nuclear power? We saw it in the ’70s, in the student movements, when that many people really stand up — that scene — it’s different now, but isn’t there a connection?”
His face reddened under his farmer’s tan. With his five-o’clock shadow, his hair graying around the temples, his shirt tucked into blue jeans and cinched with a worn leather belt, he projected an air of rough masculinity; he stood ramrod straight, his beaten fingers clutched the microphone, and a map of capillary veins pulsed on the back of his hand. His voice cracked, but this emotion was only heightened by his coarse aspect. To watch this tough man breaking, you couldn’t help but be affected. At some point, his speech had lost its logical progression — from anecdote to lesson to call to action — and now he willed his audience to be moved.
“We all have to take responsibility. This will be the theme of the rest of my life, my struggle for the rest of my life. From now on, I’ll go around in that speaker car and tell my story. I’ll keep those cows. I’ll keep them until the end, ’cause I’m a cattleman. Ore wa ushikai. My cowboy. My resistance.”
In his open defiance of authority, Masami was something of a throwback. He’d been caught a half-dozen times for driving to his land in the exclusion zone around the Fukushima plant and had hauled his radiation-exposed cows to rallies and unloaded them over the objections of cops. While Japan had seen its share of upheaval during the Vietnam War era, it had been years since a single issue focused protestors across the country with the intensity of the anti-nuclear movement in the wake of the meltdowns at Fukushima. In the weeks after March 11, thousands crowded into the streets in front of TEPCO’s headquarters, beating drums and shouting slogans. In Ishinomaki, locals were focused on the nuclear power plant in the neighboring town of Onagawa, which had been the closest nuclear station to the quake’s epicenter, but survived the tsunami largely undamaged due to its higher seawall. The utility that operated the plant had made a request to restart its reactors, and the government seemed to be trying to move beyond the disaster.
“3/11 isn’t over,” Masami said as he neared the end of his speech. “We all have to stay aware of that. The 2020 Olympics are just an attempt to make us lose that awareness … But, honestly, the disaster areas aren’t happy about the Olympics. In the disaster areas, all kinds of people involved in the reconstruction are packing up and going to Tokyo.”
After the audience had folded up their chairs and neatly stacked them against the wall, about half of them filtered outside and gathered at the bottom of the stairs in front of the community center, where the police leaned on their red-and-white traffic batons like canes. A man wearing a pair of sandals, an ankle bracelet, and djembe drum that hung from a strap around his neck tapped out a beat, and the protestors took up chants, alternating sayings as a kind of warm up. A few people donned sandwich boards with anti-nuclear slogans, or unfolded sheets of paper printed with characters in black ink that read: We won’t allow the Abe government! One man had a laminated sign with a cat’s face that said, Why war, meow?
After several minutes, Masami’s van pulled out behind a police car, leading the march into the street. Masami sat in the passenger seat, speaking into a microphone connected to the loudspeakers mounted on the roof — two silver cones as big as bullhorns facing front and back. Hitched behind the van was a two-wheeled cart that carried a wire sculpture of a bull given to him by an art professor at Kyushu University.
The drumming and chanting and Masami’s voice echoing over the loudspeakers preceded the protest, and a police car’s spinning lights led the march as it crawled through Ishinomaki. It was a Saturday, and people on the sidewalks in front of the stores turned to watch the spectacle. Among the protestors, one man played an acoustic guitar as he walked, and a woman shook a noisemaker; a second loudspeaker van brought up the rear, its sides painted with human-like figures with wings for arms and the words “No nukes” spelled out in vines and flowers.
This kind of strident view was something of an outlier, as the fierce anti-nuclear sentiment that followed the disaster had faded. If polls were to be trusted, the country was divided on the issue of atomic energy, with a majority of people acknowledging the necessity of nuclear power in the medium-term but hoping to see the nation become less reliant on nuclear reactors. Immediately after the disaster, Prime Minister Naoto Kan had proposed phasing out nuclear power, but a little over a year later his center-left Democratic Party of Japan was swept from office. The succeeding, center-right Liberal Democratic Party, led by Shinzo Abe, took the position that nuclear was a “baseload power source.”
Those on the Japanese left insisted the country was too prone to natural disasters to host a fleet of nuclear reactors, and that the corporations and utilities that controlled the atomic power industry were too corrupt to be allowed to continue to operate. No one had died in the meltdowns, but many, including hundreds of young children, had been exposed to radiation that could put them at risk for chronic diseases. Moreover, after being forced from their homes, in the fragmentation and isolation that followed the evacuation, many evacuees had taken their own lives.
The first leg of the march wound through the districts next to the Kitakami River — abandoned buildings, empty lots, and the skeletons of new houses marking the tsunami’s impact — but before long the route led into Ishinomaki’s center and passed in front of the city hall, a three-story slab that had once been a shopping mall. The policemen on foot hurried ahead, stopping traffic with their batons and motioning pedestrians across the blocked intersections. As the march left the small downtown, the spectators melted away. Chants echoed away between empty houses: “We don't need nuclear power! Genpatsu is like a house with no toilet … Leave the wealth of nature. Leave it for our children! Leave it for our grandchildren!”
In a society where “social harmony” is often the watchword for stifling conformity, the marchers had a kind of courage. They carried on during a year when they knew the crowd would be small, when the nuclear issue didn’t seem as crucial as it had four years earlier. The tsunami and Fukushima disaster had stunned the nation, but time hadn’t stopped. China was becoming aggressive in asserting its territorial claims in the seas to the south, the United States was demanding Japan play a bigger role in its own defense, and the country continued to be hampered by glacial economic growth, a shrinking population, and a swollen national debt.
Sure enough, the anti-nuclear protestors were pushing a whole array of agendas. Some carried signs protesting Japan’s increasing militarization, the relocation of American military bases in Okinawa, and the new state secrecy laws, which many saw as a crackdown on press freedoms. This was a microcosm of politics on the national level, where the center-left party had fallen into disarray.
Infighting among the leadership, especially party bosses Ichiro Ozawa and former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, revealed new seams in the left. Before they’d been in power, Japan’s liberals were able paper over their differences, but as the leftist parties had joined forces they also watered down their agenda, reducing the distance between themselves and the conservatives. After winning office, unable to prioritize or enact policy, internecine conflict flared up. In the 2014 general election, the Democratic Party of Japan failed to garner even a quarter of the vote. A year later, the Left was still a mess.
The sayonara genpatsu protesters knew this. You could see the resignation on their faces as they marched the last few meters of the route, ending up in front of the Ishinomaki Labor Hall. Masami parked in a lot across the street and walked over to join the crowd, standing with his hands clasped behind his back as the organizers thanked everyone for coming.
Less than year after the protest in Ishinomaki, the Democratic Party of Japan merged with two smaller parties, but the resulting bloc hasn’t shown any sign of being able challenge the center-right government. Meanwhile, even as countries like Germany and Switzerland ramp down their nuclear programs, the Abe administration remains committed to atomic energy and continues to pursue the dream of a closed fuel cycle, doubling down on ideas like fast breeder reactors and spent fuel reprocessing. The Ishinomaki activists still organize their sayonara genpatsu events, and, facing reelection, the governor of Miyagi prefecture has yet to endorse the restart of the Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant. To the south, in Namie town, just a few hundred meters inside the exclusion zone around Fukushima Daiichi, Masami Yoshizawa’s herd of irradiated cattle roam a green valley, beneath high-voltage power cables that span his ranch and once conducted electricity all the way to Tokyo. A couple times every month, Masami bumps down his long driveway in his speaker car, heading for Shibuya or Yoyogi Park or Sendai. And somewhere the Japanese Left marches on.