Civil society rising

By Daniel P. Aldrich | March 9, 2012

Tens of thousands filled the square as the echoes of the speaker at the podium boomed through huge speakers. Some came in anger, others in grief, but all agreed: It was time for a change.  Many carried banners, others carried drums; some had taken their children out of school to attend.  No, this wasn’t Tahrir Square; it was Tokyo, Japan, on a chilly Monday last fall. Ever since the devastating earthquake and tsunami that crippled the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, Japanese civil society has become less, well, polite. The compounded disaster has energized segments of Japanese civil society — long seen by observers as more advanced than their counterparts in other developed nations — to be more proactive, innovative, vocal, and even contentious about everything from personal safety to nuclear power. These changes in civil society can be seen in four main areas: mass protests, local and national referenda and petitions, renaissance of citizen science, and public uproar instead of rituals of assent.

Protests. Until recently, Japan’s large-scale protests were mostly in the past; activists speak nostalgically of the huge rallies against the US-Japan Security Treaty in the 1960s. And back in the mid-1990s, large numbers of residents marched in protest of the rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl at the hands of US marines. But over the last year, civil dissent has become a routine feature of Japanese society. Mass, modern-day, anti-nuclear protests have been held countrywide, including large-scale rallies, such as the two-day Nuclear Free World conference that was held in Yokohama in mid-January, which drew more than 12,000 participants, and the semi-regular Tokyo rallies, which draw upward of 40,000 participants, with organizers calling for continued direct action. Protests have also included smaller-scale events, such as the activists who, in the fall of 2011, set up and occupied tents on the properties of the civil servants who regulate and promote nuclear power in Tokyo’s Kasumigaseki district; they have remained ever since despite threats of eviction. Anti-nuclear groups — including the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, Green Action, Nuclear Power Sayonara Network, and the National Network of Parents to Protect Children from Radiation — meanwhile are working to mobilize citizens against nuclear power through formal and informal civic engagement.

Referenda and petitions. More than five million citizens have signed a new petition against nuclear power in Japan, asking the government to shut down all atomic plants permanently. An Osaka-based group has filed for a referendum on nuclear power after collecting the requisite signatures — more than 2 percent of voters in the city. Along with the Osaka citizens’ group, other groups and organizations in Tokyo and in Shizuoka are seeking the approval of local assemblies to hold nuclear referenda. Citizens’ referenda have no binding legal power in Japan, but past referenda on nuclear power have still had a lasting effect. In Maki village in the mid-1990s, for example, a referendum resulted in strong anti-nuclear messaging and wins for those who sought to end siting processes in their communities. Along with local-level referenda on nuclear power, some groups and activists have pushed for an advisory-style national referendum on nuclear power based on a similar process held in Sweden in the 1980s. Such a national referendum would be a first, and it could push the government to consider new ways in which citizens can be more fully integrated into decision-making procedures on nuclear power.

Citizen science. Many observers noticed that the radiation data following the accident at Fukushima were released slowly and with little explanation of the consequences. Others took the complaint further, claiming that the government and public utilities deliberately sought to reduce public alarm by withholding critical information. Deciding to take matters into their own hands, a wide swath of citizens across Japan joined together for a creative-commons-based project known as SafeCast. SafeCast encourages citizens to use their own radiation-measuring devices to measure levels of radioactivity and post that data directly to the forum. Personal-radiation devices, like do-it-yourself Geiger counters, can be created with modified smart phones and personal computers along with standard, off-the-shelf radiation detectors. This crowd-sourcing on Japan’s radiation levels has resulted in more than one million pieces of data published in an open forum that provides a dynamic map of radiation levels throughout the country. This form of democratization of data collection and analysis provides a new channel for citizens to move beyond the opaque nuclear industry institutions of the past.

Dissent. While many scholars have argued that citizens in Japan privatize protest or seek to avoid direct conflict with authorities, the vast disaster at Fukushima has brought out open backlash against bureaucrats in very public forums. Many citizens feel that the government has failed to demonstrate sufficient flexibility, openness, and transparency in its response to public concerns. Residents in Fukushima and elsewhere have vocally expressed their outrage with authorities at heated public exchanges and town-hall-style meetings — events which are often taped by citizens and then posted to YouTube. Hugh Gusterson, in his book People of the Bomb: Portraits of America’s Nuclear Complex, deemed interactions in which scientists and other authorities go through the motions of public forums, but leave little room for questioning from citizens on scientific and technical matters, “rituals of assent.” Given that past meetings between Japanese state representatives and civil society on issues of nuclear power often resembled rituals of assent as a matter of course, this public outcry is a sea change in Japan’s style of interaction.

These four new methods of state-civil society interaction in Japan illuminate not only an anger about the way that government and private-sector authorities have handled the 3/11 disaster, but also shed light on a broader dissatisfaction with a continued exclusion of civil society from the policy arena over the past decades. Through mass protests, petitions, citizen science, and direct — and often uncomfortable — confrontation with the state, Japanese citizens are pushing for a new, more vocal role in policy making. With Japan sitting at the crossroads of energy policy and struggling with the issue of restarting its fleet of nuclear power plants, the voices of citizens who bear the externalities of national energy policy are all the more critical.

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