Photograph: Kjeld Duits
The Accidental Protester (Jacinta Hin)
It’s Friday, late afternoon. Time to shut down the computer and join my friends for the weekly evening protest.
For the past few months I’ve been attending the Friday demonstrations in front of the Prime Minister’s official residence. Also known as the Ajisai (Hydrangea) movement, we’re protesting against both the restarting of the Oi Nuclear Plant, and nuclear energy in general. A newbie no more, I now have the routine firmly under my belt.
Kokkai Gijidomae Station, exit 4, turn right and walk around the block to one of the demonstration lines still open for late-comers. Friendly policemen along the route point us in the right direction. We know the drill, and losing our way is not an option: nothing is left to chance. Police and organizers work side by side to lead the masses to narrow protest lines, restricted to two-thirds of the pedestrian walkways, the rest zoned-off for regular pedestrians, and protesters leaving early. Some might balk at our orderly behavior, but I appreciate the determined unstoppable peaceful predictability of it. For me, this is Japan at its best.
6 pm. The protest begins. A little hesitant at first, like an orchestra tuning its instruments, the voices in the crowd soon find one another and unite in the common, familiar rhythm that will continue for the next two hours. I’m shouting like the best of them, my voice surprisingly loud for the soft-spoken person I am. We know our lines well. They’re embedded in our souls and carried in our hearts.
I feel at home among my fellow protesters. It’s here, at the protests, that I’ve become more grounded in my anti-nuclear stance. I only have to look around me. What I see is not a group of protest radicals, but the faces of the people of Japan. Parents, and grandparents, worried for the future of their offspring; young people, some who might be ready to start their own families; salary workers, students, company owners, housewives, Buddhist monks. The list goes on. Even the occasional policeman chants along now and then, as an observant friend noticed one evening (albeit, for obvious reasons, with lips moving ever so slightly).
6.30 pm. The atmosphere is positive and peaceful, almost festive. A middle-aged office worker arrives, still in his business suit. He takes out a self-made banner from his briefcase: a couple of sheets of A4-sized copy paper which he has stapled together. On the banner, an anti-nuclear slogan carefully written out in typical white board colors: blue, red and black. I imagine that perhaps only this afternoon, on the spur of the moment, he decided to join today’s protest. Wanting to contribute something, he put together what he could with the limited materials on hand.
I’m moved by his action. People like him inspire me, remind me why I am here. As does the 93-year old man who never misses a Friday, and the foreign nun I spot later that evening, holding her anti-nuke banner up high in the air, talking in between her devoted shouts with everyone around her. Or the blind couple who keep coming back week after week. In fact, I salute every single person at the protest, first-timers and veterans alike, each one of them showing up because they have something to say and because they believe their presence matters.
If we don’t come out to be seen and heard, we won’t be noticed. If we remain silent, we will not be counted. But we will be just as accountable: keeping quiet will determine our future just as much as will speaking up.
The Friday protests are making a difference in the anti-nuclear movement as a whole. In between the large demonstrations, supporters keep the momentum going, and encourage everyday people, whenever they’re ready, to find their voice and to speak up: to vent their anger, and express their desires and hope.
These are indeed revolutionary times in Japan, nothing less than a movement of awakening. The anti-nuclear demonstrations are altering the country’s political landscape. Media is no longer ignoring the protests. Following recent public hearings on future energy policy, the government was even forced to acknowledge that most Japanese now want to phase out nuclear energy to zero.
The once silent majority is not so silent anymore. People are becoming aware of the total costs of electricity. The price of Fukushima is too high. Few people believe that in earthquake-prone Japan accidents like Fukushima cannot happen again. Many, if not most people are now deeply distrustful of government, nuclear bodies and plant operators.
8 pm. The protest ends. A final shout and we are off. I bump into a Japanese friend who tells me there is a second demonstration against the controversial appointment of Shunichi Tanaka as the chairman of the new nuclear regulatory commission. An hour later I find myself firmly planted between my friend and a young Japanese woman, our hands locked in a human chain around one of the ministries.
It’s late. My arms hurt. I am hungry and thirsty, but utterly content. I am right where I want to be.