This video posted from a Fukushima town-hall meeting on YouTube was brought to my attention by a colleague. It is remarkable on many levels. It shows a group of citizens listening to bureaucrats from Tokyo with less than the usual deference shown to the mandarins who have run Japan since the war.
The audience is made up of citizens who live far enough from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant not to have been evacuated by the government, but close enough to have genuine concerns about elevated levels of radiation.
They are seeking assurances about what the government is doing to ensure their safety. But faced with usual bureaucratic obfuscations, the audience becomes more and more angered. Shouts of “answer the question” and “don’t we have rights” can be heard as the bureaucrats mouth platitudes that the government is doing all it can.
The clip ends, improbably, with members of the audience chasing the retreating bureaucrats down a hallway with a vial of urine. They demand that the officials test their children’s urine samples to verify whether levels of radiation have reached dangerous levels. The bureaucrats, doubtless for the first time in their careers, are surrounded by angry citizens shouting “take that urine” and “I implore you take this urine” – a bizarre turn of events that, alone, makes the video worth watching.
Analysis of Japan too often concentrates on the supposed stoicism and social homogeneity of its people. These characteristics are not entirely fictitious. But there is a long tradition of social activism too. In the 1970s, for example, citizens’ groups had a catalytic effect on changing government policy on the environment, helping to engineer a shift that had a profound effect on the quality of Japan’s air and water.
The tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis is also stirring up citizens’ anger and action as this video shows. This is directed not just at the government of Naoto Kan, whose popularity has slumped in the polls, but also at Tokyo Electric Power, the operator of Fukushima and chief representative of what has come to be known disparagingly as the “nuclear village“.
There is now a lively citizens’ debate about the future of Japan’s energy policy, about levels of compensation for evacuees from Fukushima and about whether more political power should be devolved from Tokyo. There is also widespread anger at the perception that the government is more intent on testing beef
for radiation levels – to assure customers and protect farmers – than it is on testing people. It is too early to predict the coming of age of Japan’s civil society. But it is certainly possible that the March 11 tsunami will prove something of a turning point.