On June 26, less than four months after the catastrophic meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the government held a televised public hearing on the southern island of Kyushu about whether the reactor in Saga Prefecture should be the first of the nation’s nuclear plants to be reactivated after the disaster. E-mails and faxes sent by citizens would be read aloud on air. It was billed as a chance to gauge local opinion about nuclear power. The governor of Saga announced that he would be paying close attention to the hearing as he decided whether to restart the reactor.
Yet the hearing turned out to be less a public forum than a piece of badly executed political theater. On company orders, employees of Kyushu Electric Power and its subsidiaries sent in e-mails pretending to be citizens urging restarting of the reactor. According to an independent commission, the source of those orders was the governor himself.
This was not an isolated incident. In hearings dating back to 2005, officials at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency worked with power company executives to fabricate public support, in some cases planting nuclear proponents in audiences and supplying preapproved questions.
In the days after the March 11 disaster, the government, power companies and, in some cases, the media worked together to withhold information and downplay the danger. Officials in Tokyo delayed releasing data from the computer models that predicted the spread of radiation from the plant. As Yoichi Funabashi, the leader of the Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident, told the Asahi Shimbun, “The government later decided the public were still children who would panic if given the true information.”
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As with Hurricane Katrina, the meltdown at Fukushima rendered citizens suddenly dependent on the institutions they blamed for the severity of the disaster. After the terror of March 11, the public faced the risk that radiation from Fukushima Daiichi could cause more damage than the tsunami itself, leaving parts of the country uninhabitable for decades. The radiation presented an urgent threat to public health and an epistemological crisis. If the public could not rely on government or media experts, how could they know what was true? Was the water safe to drink? Could babies still be breastfed? Concerned mothers who turned to the pink pamphlet issued by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare found only cartoons of smiling pregnant women and reassurances that there was no danger outside the designated exclusion zones. Others turned to blogs, Twitter and alternative media, like the website of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, which streamed news conferences on the state of the reactor and seminars that educated the public on how to take their own measurements with dosimeters and Geiger counters. People posted measurements online as they educated themselves about radiation, learning about the relative dangers of cesium, strontium and plutonium isotopes, internal and external radiation, sieverts and becquerels. It was the beginning of a grassroots movement that has reinvigorated activism in Japan and given birth to new forms of political resistance.
One month after the earthquake, 15,000 protesters gathered in Koenji, a neighborhood in Tokyo. “There was no sophisticated strategy for this protest. There were no prominent leaders,” said political theorist Chigaya Kinoshita. “But I’ll never forget the anger and determination I saw in the protesters’ expressions.”