In Japan, since the Meiji restoration, the family has been the essential unit of national identity. Taken to its apogee in the era of Hirohito (known ironically as Showa or “peace era” in Japan) the emperor became the nation’s father figure and the citizens, his children. Yet the popular Meiji-era slogan of being a “Good wife, wise mother” shows the more natural order of gender politics in this country. Whilst it is true that Japan only ranks 57th in the world (and falling) in terms of Gender equality according to the 2009 UN Human Development Report within the normal family unit it is probably true to say that women rule the roost.
They certainly control the purse strings of most salarymen and push the directions and ambitions of the family and its members. They are also strong in the affections and sentiments of their sons and have an innate power to further emotionalize a people that are sentimental at the best of times. When a mother speaks in Japan, people listened and what a mother wants, she usually gets.
So when a group of mothers from Fukushima set up camp outside the Ministry of the Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) on October 27th to stage a “sit-in” protest about the effects of radiation on their children, people listened. The protest, using this soft hook to also highlight a harsher criticism of METI’s ineptitude in dealing with TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Company) both before the Tsunami and earthquake of March 11th and in the subsequent handling of the disaster.
Though that particular protest only lasted until October 29th it did inspire other mothers and women from all over Japan to add their emotional weight to continuing the pressure on the government to not restart nuclear power stations, that had been off line since the quake, and actively pursue safety measure that have been lacking in existing power generation. Ultimately the popular hope is that nuclear power generation in Japan will be phased-out totally. The national mother’s protest against nuclear power proliferation and the government’s handling of the contamination issues and clean-up operations officially began on October 30th and ends today on November 5th.
To date around 300 women and a few men have attended the protest each day; coming from all over Japan to hold vigil outside the Ministry and inform passersby of the issues. The protest is small, passive and colourful. The Halloween-matched timing of the original protest still showing itself in some of the sloganeering decorations that involve pumpkins and calls to “trick and treaty”. This is not quite an occupy Tokyo event: the women protest from 9am to 6pm then go home. Anywhere else and it wouldn’t have made the news.
When around 60,000 people protested against nuclear energy on September 19th 2011 the media had to take notice. The demographics of that protest were one politicians fear. The majority were older, wealthy and half were women. Contrast that with a protest by young people a week before on September 11th that received almost no media coverage despite the passionate activism shown on the issue by Japanese youth who are usually considered (and reported) as feckless and politically naive. The lack of reporting on the issue of youthful anger at the government handling of the nuclear crisis and the seeming irrelevance of the protest in the minds of the Japanese government, despite the number of participants reaching nearly 1,000, also allowed the often brutal repression of this legitimate, if noisier, protest by the police. See Bruce Meyer Kenny’s images of the youth anti-nuclear protest on September 11th here.
Mothers are respected however and though the demands of this sit-in protest by women are almost exactly the same as the calls the young made on the powers that be in September, only one or two policemen guard the two white marquees and colourful banners that mark the protest site and their job appears mostly to be keeping the sidewalk clear of gawkers and journalists. The women protesters themselves sit neatly in lines to the back of the pavement, chatting, sewing banners or knitting. Some are here for the first time today, some have come everyday like 86 year old Michiko Saito (top photo), a veteran anti-nuclear campaigner who has been protesting nuclear issues since there were nuclear issues. Others are teachers, housewives, small business owners and shop workers; many arrive from near and far for a day or two or in some cases, where work pressures do not allow them more time, just a few hours.
It doesn’t matter how much time each woman puts in, the numbers matter, and the strong, feminine desire to make their voices heard. Each and every one blames the bureaucrats in the building behind them for the nuclear problems Japan now faces and are aghast that METI has announced plans to restart and expand nuclear power generation. They are determined to stop that happening.
According to Yuko Yatabe, one of the organizers, who has been at the ground everyday since the 30th welcoming others to the camp, no ministers or officials from METI have come down to visit the protest. The world is watching and listening yet no-one from the Ministry has thought to walk the few metres across the concrete to visit the camp. A press conference with the protest organizers did take place on Friday November 4th however. Yatabe San, who is from Ibaraki herself, says that women have come here from places are far apart as Hokkaido and Okinawa. One visitor, Keiko Ogata, even came all the way from Brazil to protest the nuclear issue in Japan.
“We have been living in Brazil for two years and my husband will be posted back here in a year’s time. But when I saw what was happening in Japan [after the earthquake on March 11th] I had to come back. Now is important. That’s why I came back now. I could not wait one year. Now is when it is important to be here.”
Environmental protest movements have a history of triggering fundamental changes in the politics and bureaucratic systems in Japan. That is perhaps why the government is keen to clamp-down on them. The result of protests like the one against Minamata disease have inconvenienced the business and political ties that enabled Japan’s massive economic revival but also led to it being declared the most highly polluted industrial society in the world at the end of sixties. Since that time various lawsuit,s and the understanding by politicians that environmentalism is good for their reputations, has forced industry’s arm and Japan has even become the world leader on controlling pollution. Complacency and out-right corruption on these issues still exists however as the problems that led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster high-lighted.
In his book, The Making of Modern Japan, Kenneth B Pyle actually likens the power of the environmental movements that gripped Japan in the sixties and seventies to the energy generated by the civil right movement in the United States. Certainly there is a feeling, expressed for example in Ogata San’s need to be here now, that this is the time when anger and moral outrage might just be able to carry-out some necessary changes. How long the energy will last is not known but there is definitely a visceral dislike of TEPCO and METI collusion in causing the Japanese to once again suffer the effects of the atom’s inconsiderate attentions.
Such anger inspired Yukie Tokura, who has worked for humanitarian NGOs is Former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Cambodia, to protest the new Japanese government plans to dump potentially contaminated food products from Fukushima on developing countries as food aid. She pulls no punches when expressing her embarrassment that her country could even consider doing something so outrageous.
“We have to protect children in the whole world not just Japan. This policy is terrible, it is cruel, it is in-human. It is unbelievable”
The artist, Rena Masayama who accompanied Tokura San in meeting with officials from the the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to protest the policy is even more forthright. Right into the faces of the polite, silent and constantly note-taking officials, she called the actions criminal.
Tokura San equally impassioned in her presentations at the Ministries, managed to bring one official close to tears as she said such a policy would allow “Japan bashing” and such heartlessness was embarrassing for her as a proud Japanese woman.
The officials mostly extended platitudes however; promising to bring the opinions and concerns of the protest to the attentions of the relevant Ministers. The meeting rooms were small cramped, the least welcoming space that could be found in offices that were still dark from power-saving measure. The cramped, bare rooms barely contained the passions of the women who sat opposite the suited men (always one older and one younger). The messages were blunt and the older men especially seemed moved by what they heard.
This food-aid policy was news to me and I find it incredulous that the Japanese government is thinking of off-loading unwanted and potentially dangerous food to the poor in other countries as if that was a generous act.
Japan has garnered a lot of good will and sympathy since the earthquake struck. Most other peoples, everywhere feel for the terrible situation that exists in Tohoku and the victims of the nuclear crisis in Fukushima. Yet if the world found-out that the Japanese government is planning on dumping possibly contaminated food on people too poor and hungry to refuse it, that generous feeling will soon disappear.
It is incredible to think people could be that heartless. Then again the Japanese government in collusion with TEPCO has been less than honest about the contamination issues within Japan itself, putting communities and children at risk by hiding information on radiation. I guess if you can treat your own people so indifferently regarding their health it is entirely possible to be even less human to those far away and nominally less important.
Hopefully the message will have gotten through by the time the protest finishes later today (Saturday). Organizers are expecting 500 to a 1000 visitors on the last day and hope their small, quiet protest will have made enough impact to halt some of the least sensible nuclear policies that are planned. I’m not holding my breath but then again this is Japan where when a mother speaks people do listen.