ACROSS the rice-paddy fields from the Sendai nuclear plant, at the southern tip of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, Ryoko Torihara is battling to prevent two nuclear reactors being switched back on. She is in her 60s, and runs the local anti-nuclear association from her sitting room. That is a typical profile for the movement in Japan, which first gathered numbers in the 1960s. Her association has lacked the force to halt progress towards a restart of the reactors at Sendai, she admits. Sendai (with no relation to the tsunami-afflicted region in northern Japan) is set to become the first plant to start operations since the last of Japan’s nuclear fleet was shut down last autumn. The plant’s owner, Kyushu Electric, has dispatched a small army of around 80 public-relations staff to blitz local officials.
Another seasoned campaigner is Yoshitaka Mukohara, a book publisher who lost a race for governor of Kagoshima prefecture against the pro-nuclear incumbent in 2012, Yuichiro Ito. He won only half as many votes as Mr Ito. Even in the aftermath of the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in 2011, it proved impossible to win on an anti-nuclear platform when people wished to hear mainly about the government’s economic plans to better their livelihoods. One reason for the weakness of the movement in Kagoshima prefecture and beyond, Mr Mukohara says, is that its members are usually part-timers.
In Japan it took 15 months for mass anti-nuclear protests to emerge after the disaster of 2011, while thousands of miles away in Germany and elsewhere people took to the streets far sooner. When Japanese did mobilise, mainly in Tokyo, a large proportion were amateur protesters, including plenty of young mothers and unemployed youth. Their energy, and the size of rallies, diminished soon afterwards. Since then the anti-nuclear movement has largely failed to gain political traction. Its nadir came in February this year when not even the backing of Junichiro Koizumi, Japan’s charismatic former prime minister, helped an anti-nuclear candidate win an election for governor of Tokyo. The movement has proven “stunningly ineffective”, says Jeff Kingston of Temple University in Tokyo.
There are some notable exceptions, such as Green Action, a Kyoto-based NGO. It is one of the few anti-nuclear organisations able to employ full-time professional staff. Aileen Mioko Smith, its director, says that the anti-nuclear movement has enjoyed a measure of success over the years.
Local groups halted the construction of dozens of planned new reactors, including the Ashihama project in Mie prefecture, which was cancelled in 2000. Yet anti-nuclear groups have not managed effectively to lobby politicians or energy-industry leaders to shape government policy, she says, nor have they roused the general public to take action.
The fault may lie in the movement’s own structure. Eric Johnston, a journalist at the Japan Times, describes its elderly members as being out of touch with the media techniques of modern NGOs. Local groups in the regions are fragmented, parochial and suspicious of outsiders. They do not necessarily welcome the younger members who could bring fresh ideas. Potential recruits feel shut out by traditional groups’ seniority systems. And the movement is divided where it could be united. The organisations that demonstrate each year against nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain quiet on nuclear energy.
Anti-nuclear sentiment has made a strong impact in the politics of one prefecture, in addition to Fukushima itself. Last month, Taizo Mikazuki from the Democratic Party of Japan won an election for governor of Shiga prefecture after running a strongly anti-nuclear campaign. The public’s anger over the way in which Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, handled a change in national-security policy was crucial to his victory. But fears about more than a dozen reactors across the prefectural border in Fukui also played an important role. Polls of public opinion show that a consistent majority of Japanese, when asked, would prefer a total phase-out of nuclear power. With more modern and professional methods, the anti-nuclear movement might achieve more than it has.