As the red sun rises in Tokyo, its residents, still in their beds, reach for their smart phones to check the day’s forecast. Swiping the screen feverously for hour-by-hour predictions, they turn to second opinions — large folders full of weather apps — reassuring themselves with all the times Yahoo! Weather got it wrong, until eventually they resign themselves to the fact that they’re in for another 34 degree day, with 80% humidity.
Realising their fate, the residents of Tokyo issue a collective groan, and their groan is imitated by the cogs of industry as they slow to a snail’s pace. Japan’s first summer without nuclear power since 1967 has taken on a symbolic importance in the eyes of the public, representing the first real obstacle to a nuclear-free Japan.
The debate over whether Japan should go cold turkey on nuclear power has dominated the news cycle since ‘311’, the Japanese name for the Fukashima nuclear disaster that occurred March 11, 2011, where five nuclear reactors were destroyed, leaking large pools of radioactive water and contaminating food and drinking water. It is fraught with mutual distrust—allegations of corruption and gross negligence have been levelled at the political and bureaucratic elite, which has in turn accused the body politic of naiveté and a desire to commit economic hara-kiri (ritual suicide).
In recent days, public disillusionment has reached breaking point with an estimated 200,000 people congregating outside Prime Minister Noda’s luxury apartment in Shinjuku, Tokyo on June 30 to protest plans to restart the Oi reactor in Western Japan. Oi will be the first reactor to be brought to criticality since May 5 when the last of Japan’s fifty-four reactors was shut down.
Officials claim that Oi was the first to pass the necessary ‘stress tests’, simulations that test a reactor’s ability to withstand various disaster scenarios, but the public evidently remains unconvinced, mobilising against the government on an unprecedented scale.
‘It’s not like the Japanese to protest anything’, said Phil Huey, an American expatriate living and working in Tokyo. ‘It’s not that they aren’t political active, they are, they’re just much more reserved in their criticism [than in the States]’. Indeed, Iori Mochizuki suggests that the recent anti-nuclear demonstrations represent the single-greatest act of public dissent since the 1868 Meiji restoration. ‘Japanese is finally starting to be aware that they have been quiet for too long’ (sic).
‘311’ and the government’s ineptitude in managing the relief effort have caused a rift with the ways of the past in the face of what the public perceives to be an immediate existential threat. And while the demonstrations have remained largely peaceful, there have been several incidents of protesters resorted to more radical measures, including the construction of a blockade to prevent labourers from accessing the Oi plant so as to bring the reactor to criticality, an act which provoked a swift and brutal police reprisal.
As Japan relies on nuclear power for approximately 30 per cent of their energy needs, Kansai Electric estimates an energy shortfall of 15 per cent over the summer months. Industry has been unrelenting in stressing the immediate effects on individuals if the Japanese public refuses to compromise, and speak of Japan losing its technological and innovative advantage to China and Korea, appealing to its repressed national pride as well as its sense of economic rationality.
The arguments put forward by the business lobby and politicians are not lost on the Japanese public, especially those with a stake in Japan’s continued productive capacity. After posting its first annual trade deficit in 31 years, Japan is acutely conscious of its precarious position in the global economy. Many prefectures are completely insolvent, including former industrial powerhouse Osaka prefecture, and thus highly dependent on the continued support of manufacturing.
‘This is a bad time for Japan to be without nuclear power’, said Atsushi Kitami, ‘but it is necessary to ensure the safety of our people’. Kitami, a 22 year old civil engineering student at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, spoke to Tharunka as he watched the morning news and ate breakfast before class.
He said, between mouthfuls, that he is sceptical of what he calls the government’s “honne”, which translates roughly to ‘hidden intentions’. Like many of his fellow students, he believes that the government caters more to corporate interests than to the national interest, but he still supports Noda’s more gradual plan to phase out all nuclear power by 2030, filling the void with renewable energies like wind, geothermal, and solar.
While most of the subsistence measures being taken are in the form of record imports of liquid natural gas and petroleum, the Japanese public are also taking the burden on their shoulders with austerity campaigns. In the face of crippling blackouts, the public has redoubled its efforts to conserve electricity. Posters that depict cute animals installing low-wattage bulbs, solar roof panelling, and using hand fans instead of air-conditioning units, are ubiquitous, as are slogan-shirts and television public service announcements.
Although Japan has managed to reduce their electricity usage by ten per cent, the harsh summer sun is like an Edenic serpent to a society that sees excess and frivolity as dishonourable. To many Japanese, air-conditioning is not a luxury or a convenience, but a bare necessity like food or shelter.
‘Voluntary measures will not work’, says Tomo Wada, ‘Tokyo will not tolerate discomfort’. To this end Prime Minister Noda appealed to the public fear of blackouts, stating that ‘Livelihoods should never be threatened by failing to restart nuclear reactors’. Recognising that impersonal, technocratic language fails to move the public, the threat to human life is now relied upon to increase support for the Oi reactor, ‘If a sudden blackout happens, some people’s lives could be jeopardized’.
At the end of a long day I talked to a Sapporo University student about these complex in a small, un-air-conditioned bar packed with exhausted businessmen, their collars limp with sweat and unbuttoned. She had a sombre look on her face when I mentioned the possibility of blackouts. ‘I do not use my air-conditioner’, she said, reflexively as it were, ‘if the power goes out, many old people in the south will die from the heat’. And as we sat there, waving our laminated drink menus at our faces like makeshift hand-fans, we drank deeply and sweated like pigs and waited impatiently for the sun to go down.