The police said there were 75,000 people; the organisers said the figure was closer to 170,000. Either way, tens of thousands of people gathered in Tokyo on Monday to express their opposition to nuclear power. On the hottest day of the summer an immense crowd of labour unions, anti-nuclear activists and ordinary people came together in Yoyogi Park to say “Sayonara Genpatsu” – goodbye to nuclear power.
They started arriving early in the morning and by midday, the approach to the protest site had been turned into a sea of people and colourful banners. They represented groups from all over Japan. Good humoured and well prepared, with sun hats on and parasols aloft, they formed what seems to have been the biggest anti-nuclear protest Japan has seen since the disastrous events of March 2011.
This is a key moment for Japan’s powerful nuclear industry. After a brief period when all 50 commercial reactors were switched off in May, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda controversially gave the green light last month to restart Oi, a nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture.
As temperatures moved into the 90s, protesters sat on the ground listening to a series of speakers ranging from the musician Ryuichi Sakamoto to the Nobel prize-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe. Some of the speakers were nearly drowned out by the news helicopters fluttering overhead but all expressed the same sentiment: enough is enough. The time has come for Japanese citizens to speak up. Neither the crowd nor the luminaries on stage could be described as radicals. Much of the crowd was on the older side, from a more politicised generation than the current one. Ryuichi Sakamoto said that it would be barbaric not to speak up after Fukushima and that life was more important than the economy.
Kenzaburo Oe described the government’s attitude as insulting. His anti-nuclear petition campaign has already gathered over seven and a half million signatures.
The crowd clapped loudly for Jakucho Setouchi, a 90-year-old Buddhist nun who said that even though she doubted change would be immediate, it was important for people to come together to express their opinions. “We have to keep saying ‘stop doing bad things’,” she said, “even if nobody is listening. We have to speak out.”
In the crowd, a man in a rainbow wig had a sign strapped to his chest proclaiming, ‘We don’t trust nuclear power. We don’t trust Noda’. Another banner read ‘Don’t pretend there isn’t enough energy’, referencing public scepticism towards the power companies and their changing estimate of just how far the shortfall would be if the reactors weren’t restarted.
A group of nursery teachers from Osaka had come up for the day to take part in the demonstration. One was wrapped in a sheet covered in messages of support from parents. “With the numbers here today, we’d like to think the government would listen but we doubt it,” said one.
The overwhelming feeling from the day was that public trust has broken down. Trust in central government and trust in the power companies. The recent independent report on Fukushima came to the conclusion that what happened was a man-made disaster, largely the result of the close relationship between the government and the power industry, and an unquestioningly obedient culture.
Rousing the ire of the Japanese public takes some doing but anti-nuclear momentum has been building. Every Friday, a crowd, now thousands strong, is gathering outside the Prime Minister’s office to make their feelings known. A candlelit vigil outside the Diet is set for 29 July.
After the speakers had finished on Monday, the marchers set off in the heat, chanting for an end to nuclear power and demanding that the government stop making decisions without public consent. It was only four hours later that the tail end of the protest was finally in sight.