Japanese officials led a predawn raid on August 21st to forcibly remove the protracted anti-nuclear power sit-in protest in front of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) headquarters in central Tokyo. At around 3.30 a.m., some 100 security guards and court officials descended on the so-called “No Nukes Plaza,” a collection of tents that had occupied a corner of land in front of METI in government district of Kasumigaseki since September 11th, 2011.
It had been the longest surviving example of Japan’s post-Fukushima protest movement. The weekly Friday night vigils outside the nearby prime minister’s residence have also continued, albeit with far fewer participant numbers than their peak in 2012, when tens of thousands were gathering in Kasumigaseki.
The protest tents were started by veteran left-wing activists from Japan’s postwar period, though it was supported by a younger generation of activists. It soon achieved a significant level of international attention and mainstream press coverage. The “plaza” evolved into a polestar for the movement, hosting talks, film screenings, and other events that strove to keep the debate over nuclear power in the public eye. One of the tents was even turned into a de facto art museum with Fukushima-inspired exhibits.
The administration of Yoshihiko Noda of the Democratic Party of Japan (now the Democratic Party) left the tents alone, but following the return to power of Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party in late 2012, the government made it a priority to remove the protesters. In 2013, the government filed for the removal of the tents, which were manned 24 hours a day by activists. After this was approved by the courts, the activists appealed, claiming it was tantamount to suppressing freedom of speech and the right to free assembly, which is protected by the Constitution of Japan. The court also ordered the protesters to pay a daily fee of over 20,000 (approx. $200) for using government land.
In addition to the authorities, the protesters also attracted enemies from Japan’s ultra-nationalists. Beginning soon after they were erected, the tents were subject to regular attacks by right-wing activists and groups, including one as recently as the weekend before the eviction.
In July, the Supreme Court upheld the earlier ruling that the tents could be removed, meaning the protestors were out of legal options and effectively on borrowed time. METI officials no doubt deliberately chose the early morning to enforce the eviction so as to circumvent any resistance: the protesters were supported by a number of leftist activists known for aggressive hate speech counter-protests and who could be mobilized quickly.
When officials came to dismantle the tents, five activists were reportedly inside but were powerless to stop the proceedings, which took around 90 minutes. By Sunday morning, the tents were completely removed and the area where they previously stood was fenced off. Erecting any new tents was now impossible, but activists have vowed to continue their protest by sitting on chairs and standing at the same corner. Police initially blockaded even the sidewalks for some of Sunday, in fear of a backlash from the activists, though did relent and allow demonstrators to return to the site of their protest. One activist was arrested following a confrontation with police but was later released.
The anti-nuclear protest tents came to be seen as one of the pivotal aspects of the post-Fukushima movement, which blamed METI and the government for the crisis. Occupying the site was arguably just a symbolic gesture, but nonetheless an important one for Japan, where public land is strictly controlled and police and private security are quick to pounce on people who squat. No one else dared to do this kind of protest: the Friday night vigils pack up and go home at 8 p.m., and likewise the student group SEALDs, which generated much press coverage last year for its protests against the government’s controversial security legislation, was orderly and even praised for picking up trash after its demonstrations at Kasumigaseki.
As such, the tents were a renegade and unrepentant presence in the protest culture of Japan, and a constant reminder that the problems of Fukushima have still not been resolved even more than five years after the disaster.
The timing of the removal is also significant. It came shortly before the fifth anniversary of the sit-in, as well as during protests over the restarting of a reactor at Ikata Nuclear Power Plant. Unrest currently continues in Okinawa, too, as demonstrators clash daily with hundreds of riot police protecting the construction of new United States military helipads in the jungle near Takae.