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Despite Fukushima disaster, anti-nuclear activists fight uphill battle in Japan

Even though most Japanese now oppose nuclear power, activists say building a strong movement has proven difficult.

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“The one common point for all the groups in our network is protecting children. I think if we made nuclear power a theme some groups would fall away,” said Ito.

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 How far can the activists go?

That stance has led some to question how much political clout the newly-minted parent-activists can actually have. 

“It’s fine to go around with a Geiger counter and see if your child’s playground is radioactive, but how do you go from that to getting the laws to change so that this kind of thing can’t happen again?” asks University of California Berkeley professor Susan Holloway, who studies Japanese families and education.

Tohoku University sociologist Koichi Hasegawa echoes her concern.

“Logically this is a political issue, but the activists don’t have a political strategy. It’s more about expressing anger and improving the [immediate] situation,” says Hasegawa, who has studied the anti-nuclear movement since the late 1980s.

Some parents say keeping the focus personal is a political strategy, however.

“In this country, as soon as you mention the term ‘anti-nuclear,' ” the political system stops working. But everyone can work together on the point that they don’t want their children irradiated,” says Miho Abe, a Web producer and mother of two who founded a radiation-protection group in Yokohama.

Ms. Abe spoke at a Yokohama anti-nuclear conference recently, but said she kept her attendance secret until the event ended for fear local politicians she was working with on radiation issues would drop their support.

Even when it comes to radiation, she tries to keep a low profile. 

“I spread information mostly by word of mouth or on the Internet. If you start holding meetings, you’re seen as an extremist,” she said. 

Yoshinari Harada, a farmer and teacher who belongs to a radiation-protection group in Miyagi Prefecture, said the social pressure to stay quiet is even stronger in rural areas – including those, like his, with relatively high levels of contamination. 

“Before the disaster, people who brought up the issue of nuclear power were considered eccentric. Things haven’t changed much,” he says.

Ito hopes the national network she helped form will allow parents like Harada and Abe gain strength from each other and influence national policy related to radiation.

As for the movement to abolish nuclear power, Mioko Smith says organizers still have to figure out how to tap the undercurrent of political discontent and anti-nuclear sentiment that has spread through mainstream Japan since the disaster.

“11,500 people showed up [at the Yokohama conference] and they weren’t just sitting there bored, ” she said. “We’re talking about what we can do with that energy.”

IN PICTURES: Japan nuclear fallout

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