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Series: Democracy & Sustainability

Japan's Civil Society and its Fight against Nuclear Energy

April 9, 2014 | by SUSANNE BRUCKSCH

Anti-nuclear protests in Tokyo, December 2012 © BBC World Service (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Fukushima nuclear catastrophe triggered vibrant civic engagement in Japan. Yet the clientelistic nature of Japanese politics severely undermines transparency and effective democratic control. Not even Fukushima has changed that.

The Earth Summit 1992 in Rio de Janeiro introduced the concept of social, corporate and ecological sustainability to the general public in Japan, where global environmental concerns in particular fell on fertile ground. In 1997 the Japanese government held the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, after which the international community eventually adopted the Kyoto Protocol.

In addition, the devastating Kobe earthquake in 1995 triggered a wave of civic engagement and in its wake a boom of non-profit and non-governmental organizations (NPOs and NGOs). According to the Nihon NPO Center there are about 90,000 civil society organizations in Japan today. Moreover, the Environmental Restoration and Conservation Agency (ERCA) lists more than 4,800 registered environmental organizations, accompanied by a huge number of unregistered citizens’ initiatives. Almost 70 per cent of them were founded since the 1990s.

Environmental groups in Japan wielded their greatest political influence in the 1960s and 1970s during a period of high economic growth. The infamous kogai industrial pollution incidents, such as Minamata disease and Yokkaichi asthma, led to intense scrutiny of the lopsided prioritizing of economic growth. Civil society groups benefitted greatly from wide media coverage and successful court trials.

Against this backdrop, the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and ministerial bureaucracy, with their strong links to business lobbies, came under such intense pressure that they had no other choice but to enact extensive anti-pollution laws. Moreover, the government implemented a system of financial compensation for pollution victims that strengthened the polluter pays principle.

However, in contrast to Germany, for instance, the movement failed to establish a strong green party that could advocate environmentalism at the national level. Even today, the environmental movement in Japan is highly fragmented. Most organizations are small in terms of donations and membership and focus on nature conservation or environmental education activities at the community level. According to ERCA, 80 per cent of them conduct volunteer work only at the local and prefectural level, their member numbers lie far below 1,000, and their annual budgets far below 10 million yen (about 100,000 euros).

Citizens’ groups provide information that the state keeps under tight wraps

The Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 2011 poses the most urgent environmental issue in Japan today. According to Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun more than 250,000 people are displaced due to radioactive contamination. But this has sparked a new wave of civic engagement as well. Families with children, students, pensioners, businesspeople and office workers alike now protest alongside anti-nuclear activists in the streets of Tokyo. What is more, until today more than 1.3 million people have volunteered for reconstruction work in the affected areas.

The internet and social media services like Twitter are playing a crucial role in spreading independent information on radiation hot spots, food security, and radioactive waste dumping. For instance, the Citizen Nuclear Information Center (CNIC), a non-profit organization established long before Fukushima, regularly provides neutral information. Most recently, networks of parents and physicians have been talking about about observed cases of radioactive exposure and cancer, particularly among children. Officials keep many of these delicate findings under tight wraps.

Over 10 million people have already signed the Sayonara Nukes petition launched by Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe. Additionally, private initiatives are working to promote the use of renewable energy on contaminated ground. These initiatives have been strengthened by a new system of feed-in-tariffs.

After the shocking results of a stress test of all the country’s nuclear power plants, Japan’s anti-nuclear protesters have also found a friendly ear among prefectural governors. The "No Thanks to Nukes" attitude has turned out to be the most effective tool for preventing a broad relaunch of nuclear power plants. The plan cannot go ahead without approval from the prefectural governors.

Thus, despite the country being governed by the business-friendly LDP, Japan is experiencing a de facto nuclear phase-out of its 48 commercial nuclear reactors. Currently, 31 per cent of the Japanese public prefers an immediate nuclear phase-out and 54 per cent prefers a gradual phase-out, according to an opinion poll published in July 2013 by Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun. But will this trend last? Is Japan’s civil society strong enough to keep the pressure on?

Clientelistic networks determine Japan’s energy policy

Resentment against nuclear power has existed in Japan since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even when the permanently governing LDP stressed that its ‘atoms for peace’ approach was harmless, anti-nuclear sentiment continued.

To implement its nuclear policy, the Japanese government pinpointed communities with weak opposition as targets for nuclear sites. More precisely, they strategically chose economically deprived areas with an older-than-average population. The promise of financial subsidies, greater employment, and the intentionally misleading information about risks that they provided to local civic groups, politicians and consumer co-operatives helped them gain approval.

Nuclear village is the term for the clientelistic network between nuclear-friendly politicians, the ministerial bureaucracy, monopolistic energy companies, supervisory authorities, media and research institutes in the field of energy policy in Japan. Their close financial and personal ties clearly undermine any effective safety checks. The latest Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) study for Japan precisely highlights the various facets of the Japanese political system’s clientelistic nature.

Yet in spite of this, anti-nuclear campaigns continued. Referendums in the towns of Makimachi (1996), Kariwamura (2001) and Miyamoto (2001) clearly demonstrated citizens’ refusal to accept nuclear energy long before the Fukushima catastrophe.

Fukushima changed civil society in Japan but not its sphere of influence

After the Kobe earthquake, the Japanese government began to foster civic engagement. A new NPO law was adopted in 1998 to support small-scale non-profit groups, and an information disclosure law was introduced in 2001. Moreover, governmental think tanks and administrative advisory bodies were opened up to experts with a civil society background. The Japanese government even established a law protecting whistle blowers in 2006 after a series of political corruption scandals and nuclear incidents.

Nevertheless, civic engagement in Japan remains haunted by obstacles, as the state permits almost no real access to political decision-making. State control of civil society remains strict, access to political decision-making is low, and tax relief for civil society organizations is insufficient.

While the SGI study on Japan also correctly states that media coverage and information disclosure is often shaped by voluntary censorship and clientelistic structures, it can be added that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (LDP) pushed a State Secrecy Act through parliament in December 2013. This new law seriously affects freedom of information, hampering civil society work further.

What is more, under nuclear-friendly Prime Minister Abe, the focus is switching back to economic priorities because the price of oil and gas imports remains high. Thus, with anti-nuclear protest slowly quieting down, the nuclear village is being revived.

The Japanese government put 17 nuclear power plants on a shortlist for a potential restart during the summer of 2014. With pressure from the atomic energy lobby mounting, some prefectural governors have already begun to change their minds. Japan is even consulting with Poland, the Czech Republic, Turkey and Vietnam about exporting nuclear technology for new sites abroad.

Japan’s anti-nuclear movement should prepare for a long fight.

Dr. Susanne Brucksch is a senior research fellow in Japanese Studies at Freie Universität Berlin. Her research focuses mainly on technology, energy and environmental issues.

This article is part of the series "Democracy & Sustainability", a joint project of FES Sustainability and SGI News. The series investigates the factors that influence the success or failure of sustainability policy: Two authors tackle the same question from different perspectives, and present their findings simultaneously for FES Sustainability and SGI News.

"Sustainability and Civil Society Engagement: A Gain for Democracy?"

In 2014, we'll discuss whether the sustainable development paradigm has produced democratizing effects at local and national levels in countries around the world. The articles will look into civil society engagement as an evaluation criterion for the quality of democracy.

In part 4 of our series, Ha Thi Quynh Nga and Susanne Brucksch look at environmental civic engagement in Vietnam and Japan: What's their role for democracy?

Climate Change and Energy: Is the door open for civil society? Please find Ha Thi Quynh Nga's article here.

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