Taeko Nakajima is a self-described ordinary Japanese housewife. But on a recent Friday morning, she appeared in another role - as a grassroots leader of Japan's growing movement against nuclear power. Some 20 housewives, some with small children, gathered recently at a local Tokyo hall for their regular meeting with Mrs. Nakajima. Sitting on their knees on the straw tatami (mat), the women chatted over cups of green tea. But they lapsed into rapt silence as slides of the 1986 Chernobyl accident and other examples of the dangers of nuclear-power generation flashed on the wall.
Activists such as these are the core of a new, vibrant movement that has the promoters of nuclear energy in Japan worried and on the defensive.
In the last two weeks, Japan has seen anxiety lead to actual events. On July 3, an antinuclear candidate beat an incumbent town mayor in western Japan. The proposed construction of a nuclear-power plant in the town was a major campaign issue. On July 11, activists in Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost main island, called for a referendum on the region's first nuclear-power generator, scheduled to open in October.
Japan is one of the few nations to persist with building new nuclear-power plants to generate electricity, even after the Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union. Currently, some 30 percent of the nation's total electricity output is generated by 35 nuclear-power plants. Government plans envisage 40 percent dependency by the year 2000.
Housewives and youths are in the forefront of the revived national movement, largely triggered by their anxiety about the contamination of imported food with the fallout of the Chernobyl. Behind this, observers say, is the current oil glut which has dissipated the atmosphere of the energy crisis of the 1970s.
``Before [the Chernobyl accident in April 1986], the movement was seen only in a certain local area with a nuclear-power plant,'' says Taeko Miwa, a staff member at the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, which last April organized the nation's biggest rally against nuclear- power generation. About 20,000 people participated, many of them housewives with children. Far more people turned out than the organizers had expected.
Nakajima, the mother of two children, started her meetings to study radioactive effects with her neighbors last December. ``Before, I had never been the type of person to speak in front of people,'' she recalls. But, after hearing several lectures on the effects of the Chernobyl accident, ``I felt I had to do something.''
Those lectures were given by Jinzaburo Takagi, a strongly antinuclear scientist, and Takashi Hirose, a nonfiction writer. Both have authored books on the danger of nuclear-power generation which have had an enormous impact on the Japanese public.
Another of those who was influenced was Taeko Kansha, the mother of two from the western Japanese island of Kyushu. She expressed her feelings in a open letter, later published as a book entitled ``Is It Too Late?'' The book, now out in English, has sold more than 300,000 copies since last July.
``It is the future of our children that matters,'' Mrs. Kansha told the Monitor. ``I thought the reason why everyone was so indifferent was that they did not know the facts.''
Kansha's book captured, in simple, emotional language, the fears of mothers. ``Was there ever a mother in history, who had to poison every meal for her family?'' she wrote. ``Did mothers ever lace poison into food, poison that would definitely do harm in the years to come ...? This is what mothers are doing today, unaware of the fearful consequences. Since the catastrophe at Chernobyl, mothers can do nothing but select food that contains the least poison.''
The widespread concerns about food contamination made nuclear energy an issue for people all over Japan, not just those who lived near power plants. ``Reports that some imported food was rejected by customs officials due to contamination from Chernobyl fallout brought the dangers of radiation close for many people,'' says Atsuyuki Suzuki, a physics professor at Tokyo University.
Experts on nuclear-power generation believe that the leaders of this movement are manipulating their followers with inflammatory and scientifically unsound assertions. Professor Suzuki worries about the books, particularly those written by Mr. Hirose which are the most influential. ``The data lack objectivity. He is agitating people by using scary data that come entirely from antinuclear activists, including from other countries.''
``Those books are written so they are very easy to understand. When someone constantly repeats `This is dangerous,' people will eventually come to feel it is dangerous,'' says Yoichi Maeno, an official of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) who deals with the nuclear-power industry.
Feeling threatened by the impact of the antinuclear propoganda, MITI and the electric companies have started an advertising campaign to preach the necessity and the safety of nuclear-power generation.
The Federation of Electric Power Companies issued its first advertisement late last April in all major daily newspapers. ``It cost about 30 million yen [about $240,000] per paper,'' said the federation's Takeo Tamai. The companies are even finding it necessary to run an educational campaign for their own employees.
MITI's Mr. Maneo says, ``We are determined to continue advertising through any mass media until we acquire public acceptance for nuclear-power generation.''