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Why Aren’t Japanese Protesting?

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New Leaders Forum

Why Aren’t Japanese Protesting?

Despite the unpopularity of Naoto Kan and his government, the Japanese public has remained relatively quiet.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan is about as popular as the Arab World leaders that have been ousted this year, yet the people of Japan haven’t so far demonstrated their disapproval in a significant or violent manner.

Massive demonstrations might not be the preferred method for expressing disapproval and ejecting incompetent leaders in Japan, but should the public sit and wait until the next upper house election, which is expected in the summer of 2013, without demanding dissolution of the Diet (the country’s parliament)?

According to a poll conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun last month, more than 50 percent of respondents disapproved of the way Kan and the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government handled the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, and the ensuing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Although a more recent poll conducted by Kyodo News found that about 70 percent of respondents supported Kan’s decision on May 6 to halt the operation of the three reactors at the Hamaoka nuclear power plant, Kan and his government remain extremely unpopular among a sizeable majority of the public. Japanese asked to give their verdict on the government have characterized the DPJ’s leaders as everything from ‘incompetent beyond belief’ to possessing ‘negative IQs.’

Such views appear to be gaining ground as criticism of the current leadership becomes more vocal. On May 19, Takeo Nishioka, President of the House of Councillors, wrote an op-ed published by the Yomiuri Shimbun demanding Kan take responsibility for the crisis response and resign immediately. On May 23, following a couple of smaller demonstrations in Tokyo, about 500 people from Fukushima gathered in front of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, to protest over guidelines the Ministry set for acceptable radiation levels in school playgrounds. One parent shouted: ‘Don’t turn our children into guinea pigs!’

Still, overall, the Japanese public has remained quiet and cooperative. Individuals and corporations are showing their willingness to help by coming up with ways to save electricity and accepting the prospect of higher taxes (although there are concerns over higher electricity bills).

Foreigners may see this relatively passive response as part of Japanese culture. But there are practical considerations as well. For one, the Japanese public sees stability as more important than protest in responding to the country’s needs right now. In addition, they anyway can’t find a strong alternative to Kan should he be forced out—the Liberal Democratic Party remains unpopular, and a coalition government doesn’t seem viable, for now at least.

Of course, some see in the Japanese response a kind of fatalism, suggesting the public has already given up. But this seems wide of the mark—since the earthquake, the Japanese people have created significant momentum for recovery efforts, with the disaster-hit region having been flooded with aid and volunteers.

The Yomiuri polls suggest that most people expect Kan to step down before the current Diet session ends in June. Yet there’s also a sense here that Japanese also have themselves to blame to for choosing the current leadership, and also for failing to educate themselves properly over nuclear power before the Fukushima disaster unfolded.

Without effective organization and leadership, the momentum that has been built-up in the recovery effort will eventually dissipate, and could ultimately be wasted. To ensure that it isn’t, Japanese will have to show their determination to take responsibility for their own futures, and be prepared to use their voting rights wisely when next given the opportunity.

Kazuyo Kato is an associate programme officer at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo.