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Scenes of Heisei: Voices of anti-nuclear protesters struggle to reach PM's office

People raise their voices during the 300th protest in front of the prime minister's office run by the Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward in July 2018. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyama)

TOKYO -- On Friday evenings in front of the prime minister's office in the Nagatacho district of Tokyo, Japan's political center hosting the Diet and the prime minister's office, the voices of protesters ring out.

"Halt nuclear power plants now!"

Government workers scurry home, while senior administration officials exit the prime minister's office and leave one after another in public vehicles. Before them, several hundred citizens beat drums and raise their voices. In July this year, this regular "protest in front of the prime minister's office," as it is aptly named, was held for the 300th time. However, after an early peak, the number of participants has been on the decline.

The protest began in March 2012, one year after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami and the ensuing disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) in northern Japan.

Then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was due to hold a meeting with Cabinet ministers at the prime minister's office regarding possible reactivation of the Oi Nuclear Power Plant operated by Kansai Electric Power Co. Resisting this move, citizens decided to gather and protest, delivering their voices directly to the nation's leaders.

Misao Redwolf (a pseudonym), one of the original protesters, recalled how the demonstrations ballooned in size. "As a result of notices sent out through social networking services and the influence of the media, the number of participants snowballed," she said.

Misao has been involved in activities against nuclear power plants since the 2000s, but become disillusioned with the representative democracy. She felt that under the current system, important issues for her would be put aside when elections came around, leaving organized forces to have the main say.

In front of the prime minister's office, however, people could aim their voices directly at those in positions of authority, and ordinary citizens who previously had no connection with demonstrations flocked into the area to participate.

Those newcomers and members of existing citizens groups formed the Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes held the demonstrations in front of the premier's office. In 2012, when some 200,000 people are said to have poured into the area, organizers managed to have a meeting with Prime Minister Noda, and had the administration announce a policy of having no nuclear plants operating by the 2030s.

However, as Japan approached the House of Representatives election in December 2012, people were disappointed by the administration of the then Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The rival Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) avoided turning the nuclear issue into a point of contention by stating that it would aim to establish an economic and social structure with no need to rely on nuclear power. The LDP scored an overwhelming victory in the poll.

This election marked the birth of the second administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had earlier served as prime minister between 2006 and 2007.

In 2014, the Abe Administration approved a basic energy plan listing nuclear power as an important baseload source of electricity through a Cabinet decision. Moves have since proceeded to reactivate nuclear power plants that remained offline following the disaster at the TEPCO nuclear plant in Fukushima Prefecture. This phase began with the Sendai Nuclear Power Station operated by Kyushu Electric Power Co. in the southern Japan prefecture of Kagoshima.

Around the period when this Cabinet decision was made, bills on the protection of special state secrets and the Japan's use of collective self-defense were approved by ministers in spite of fierce protests. Word of "rule by the prime minister's office" surfaced in the media.

That turn of events angers Misao. "I don't think that the administration changes what it does when voices of protest are raised," she said. "But to go this far in ignoring such voices, I don't think you can call it a democracy."

-- Power centered around prime minister's office

It was a disaster that first provided the opportunity for the current "rule by the prime minister's office." However the beginning was not the 2011 quake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, but another major temblor that occurred earlier during the Heisei period.

The Great Hanshin Earthquake centered in Hyogo Prefecture in western Japan hit early on the morning of Jan. 17, 1995, the seventh year of the Heisei period. Nobuo Ishihara, 91, who was deputy chief Cabinet secretary at the time, heard a news flash on the disaster on a portable radio while out walking, and rushed to the prime minister's office.

The office at the time was located in what is now the prime minister's official residence -- a building that had been used since 1929. "There were 10 (reported) deaths, then 20, then more than 100. I remember the prime minister (at the time, Tomiichi Murayama), saying "This is serious," he recalled.

Ishihara called the head of the Disaster Prevention Bureau at the then National Land Agency into the prime minister's office in an attempt to ascertain the situation, but they struggled to confirm the facts. "The power was down and the emergency wireless system of the Hyogo Prefectural Government Offices wasn't functioning. So no information was coming into the Disaster Prevention Bureau. The latest information came from the National Police Agency and a secretary to the prime minister who was in the area on business. It was a major issue to reflect on," he said.

The establishment of a task force headed by the prime minister was also delayed. Under the Disaster Countermeasures Basic Act at the time, the prime minister needed to declare an emergency disaster situation in order to set up an emergency headquarters for disaster countermeasures led by himself. But the prime minister's office hesitated to make such a declaration, as it had never done so before.

Because of this, an emergency disaster countermeasures headquarters headed by the National Land Agency chief initially handled the response. It was two days later that another task force with the prime minister at the helm was finally set up on a temporary basis through a Cabinet decision.

Learning a lesson from this turn of events, the law was revised to allow the establishment of such an emergency disaster headquarters without a declaration, and the centralization of power in the prime minister's office as part of the crisis response progressed.

Ishihara, who served as deputy chief Cabinet secretary under seven prime ministers, remembers one other difficulty over the transition from the Showa to the Heisei era that ended up giving the prime minister's office more power.

"Each ministry was acting under its jurisdiction with the minister at the center, and their intentions didn't necessarily match those of the prime minister's office, so there was some frustration," he recalled.

In 1997, after he had retired, he served as an expert member of a panel on administrative reform set up by then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, and suggested that the prime minister's office have a hand in personnel affairs at government ministries and agencies.

The flow that was set in motion by the panel led to the new establishment in 2014 of the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs, and the prime minister's office gained control over personnel affairs for top ministry officials.

Ishihara felt it was important for the functions of the prime minister's office to be strengthened, but has reservations about the current situation.

"The fact that the prime minister's office now takes charge of personnel affairs for the top brass has an extremely large impact. I've heard that the prime minister's office has now become too strong, and that ministries are shrinking back," he said. "The prime minister's office needs the ability to control itself."

-- Protesters at a crossroads

In the protests that were born in front of the prime minister's office after these two major earthquake disasters, the public clashed directly with authority, bypassing the "intermediate" parties of the Diet and government ministries and agencies. But after 6 1/2 long years of activities, public protesters now stand at a crossroads.

Misao says that 7 million yen to 8 million yen per year is needed for protest operations, including material and personnel expenses. This amount has been covered through donations, but the amount of contributions has fallen along with the number of participants. "At this rate, we'll only have enough to last until the end of 2019 or the spring of 2020 at most," she says. And then there is the hard task of motivating members. "Nuclear power plants aren't stopping, and I don't know if we can last another four or five years," she said.

Keiki Makishita, 53, who operates a store selling rice balls in the city of Chigasaki, in Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo, says he is interested in food safety, and took part in demonstrations and other social movements from the 1990s. He joined the earliest protests in front of the prime minister's office, and says the spread of such movements to ordinary citizens "changed the conventional form of social movements." But since then, Makishita has not been able to participate due to work commitments.

When asked what the demonstrations in front of the prime minister's office meant to him, Makishita replied, "They're a forum giving power to each individual resisting an administration that doesn't listen to minority opinions." He says that if the country ever arrives at a crucial stage where democracy is wavering, he intends to take time out from his store and return to the space in front of the prime minister's office to protest.

(Japanese original by Junya Higuchi, Political News Department)

This is Part 6 of a 10-part series.

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