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.”

According to Kinoshita, the nuclear protest movement was challenging not only collusion between the government and the nuclear industry but the culture of activism in Japan. Organizers like Hajime Matsumoto, whose group calls itself Shiroto no Ran, “Amateur Riot,” have turned the protests into something festive, local and loud. Drawing inspiration from the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, a new generation wants to replace the top-down hierarchies of traditional activism in Japan with a more horizontal structure. “The common basis for the movements,” said Yuko Tonohira, co-founder of Todos Somos Japón, “is that we’ve all agreed that the time of a wealthy few profiting from the sacrifice of many has to be over. In the case of Japan, the presence of nuclear power plants is the exact illustration of that unequal system…. With or without the accident, nuclear power is built upon the sacrifice of human lives for the profit of the few.”

At the September 11 rally in Shinjuku, partly organized by Amateur Riot, Kojin Karatani, one of the country’s leading public intellectuals, delivered a speech that would not have been out of place in Zuccotti Park or Tahrir Square: “Since I began coming to protests I’ve often been asked, ‘What can protest change?’ My answer is, Protests can change society…. By protesting, we create a society in which protest is possible…. When the people cannot protest, they are not sovereign.”

In that sense, the revival of protest has created an alternative public forum, quite unlike the fake public hearing in Saga. In an October NHK poll, nearly 70 percent of Japanese were in favor of reducing or eliminating the country’s nuclear plants. Organizers in Tokyo and Osaka have gathered the hundreds of thousands of signatures required for a local referendum in each city on whether to allow regional power companies to keep nuclear plants in operation. Nobel Prize–winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe, a longstanding critic of nuclear power, is leading a nationwide petition drive against it. The petition declares, “With the issues faced by the survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still unresolved, we now have also become victims of nuclear energy. At the same time, we have become perpetrators of its damage.” By February the drive had gathered some 4.2 million signatures.

Sheer numbers are not everything. The most powerful protest in Japan might be that of a solitary man, Naoto Matsumura, the Fukushima farmer who is determined to remain at his home within the exclusion zone, a protest that has meant exposing himself to potentially lethal levels of radiation. He views himself as hibaku, a word that commonly refers to the victims of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Some might see in Matsumura’s self-sacrifice an echo of Thich Quang Duc, the Vietnamese monk who set himself on fire at a Saigon intersection in 1963 to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. “If I die here,” Matsumura said in an interview, “perhaps it will be a good reminder to people of the consequences of letting corporations and corrupt politicians get away with cover-ups, exploitation of the local people and criminal negligence.” Though aware of the risks, Matsumura doesn’t view himself as a martyr. The focus of his protest is not the spectacle of his own destruction but the ruination of what has been left behind in the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. His photographs and videos show the carcasses of cows decaying in their stalls, dogs maimed by forgotten traps and the one person who has remained, tending to the abandoned animals. “I don’t think the people of this region are angry enough,” Matsumura says. “But they’re getting there.”