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Activists challenge Japan's "nuclear village"
The quiet resolve of Japanese citizens in the aftermath of last year’s triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and reactor meltdown quickly turned into frustration as the government failed to adequately respond to the worst nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl in 1986.
In the nearly one year since the March 11 earthquake, Japan has suffered a bevy of problems, from rolling blackouts and currency woes, to radiation fears, all under the tutelage of a central leadership that has failed to inspire public confidence.
So much so that Japan changed prime ministers last August – now the sixth in five years – amid a pivotal period in the country’s history. Yet the crisis in leadership, lack of transparency and revelations of nuclear safety oversights have also facilitated activism in a civil society that typically emphasizes cohesion over confrontation.
The fallout from Fukushima and the bungled response have spurred an increasing number of citizens to challenge the bureaucracy and nuclear industry as health and safety concerns still linger. Local areas are undergoing a rapid shift toward renewable energy. And citizen groups – many of which are led by women — are also leading the charge for a more direct democracy by attempting to hold what would be an unprecedented national referendum on the use of nuclear power.
The grass-roots effort is partly in response to Japan’s revolving door politics. The current ruling party, the Democratic Party of Japan, swept into power in 2009 following a landslide election that ended nearly a half-century of political rule by the Liberal Democratic Party. But the hope for change quickly turned into a familiar ebb and flow: new leaders taking the reins promising reform, only to fall victim to parliament’s political gridlock. That sense of disenfranchisement and anger over the Fukushima fallout is changing the landscape of Japan’s lackluster civic participation, which has lagged behind other industrialized countries.
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