Thursday, May 26, 2011

Amidst hopeful signs, activists continue impassioned efforts to stop nuclear power plant in gorgeous Seto Inland Sea

Movement supporters' kayaks lined up near site of the proposed Kaminoseki nuclear power plant, Yamaguchi Prefecture, March 2011

A movement to stop construction of a nuclear power plant near the town of Kaminoseki in Yamaguchi prefecture saw a hopeful development late last week when the governor announced that it was considering to refuse any further lease of the land for the plant’s construction. According to an article in The Japan Times:
The Yamaguchi Prefectural Government might invalidate Chugoku Electric Power Co.'s license to reclaim land in the Kaminoseki area for a nuclear power plant, Gov. Sekinari Nii said Thursday.

Nii also told reporters the prefecture will set its policy direction "while examining developments" related to the government's review of nuclear energy policy in light of the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
This news was welcomed with cautioned joy by a group of activists whom I met with in March after deciding to leave Tokyo during the initial bewildering days following the earthquake and tsunami, when the nuclear crisis in Fukushima was still unfolding. At this time, throngs of so-called genpatsu nanmin, or “nuclear power refugees”, headed westward from the greater Tokyo metropolitan area for safer climes when it appeared likely that a cloud of deadly radiation could be well on its way toward the Kanto region. At the invitation of a friend in Hiroshima, I boarded an early morning train—well aware of the irony given my destination—to seek refuge and also meet with local anti-nuclear activists, including those involved in trying to stop the Kaminoseki nuclear plant in neighboring Yamaguchi prefecture.

After spending several days and nights in an internet café glued to the news in order to try and make sense of the crisis, one of the first organizers I ventured out to speak with was Shoji Kihara, the author of a book called Nuclear Scandal, which outs the entire system whereby payouts are made to bribe people into supporting nuclear power despite its dangers. At the time, Kihara’s sense was that the Yamaguchi prefectural government would indeed eventually prohibit the plant from being built.

“It is a tragic irony, but in a sense the Fukushima accident probably had to happen in order to wake people up regarding the need for nuclear power policies to change,” he told me. “Electric power companies presently allocate nearly their entire energy budget toward nuclear power, with close to nothing at all for any sort of alternative energies. If the industry had not been so intent upon pushing nuclear power, what happened in Fukushima could have been avoided altogether. But now, people living near the Fukushima plant will experience the same cycle of worry, anxiety and fear that hibakusha have had to endure for more than 65 years, whether in Hiroshima, Nagasaki or Chernobyl.”

Several days later, I had an opportunity to chat with several more anti-nuclear activists while visiting the Hiroshima Center for Nonviolence and Peace, headed by Dr. Mitsuo Okamoto—a professor of Peace Studies under whom I studied while an exchange student in Hiroshima nearly twenty years ago. The professor's wife Tamayo is a committed campaigner against nuclear power, and through her introduction, I received an opportunity to actually visit the proposed plant site together with another dedicated member of the 'Stop Kaminoseki' movement, who travels to the site at least once every week to support the locals in their struggle.

Masahiro Watarida, my host for the day, picked me up several days later in the early morning for the three-hour drive to the plant, located at the tip of a peninsula facing the gorgeous Seto Inland Sea. An extremely kind and soft-spoken man, Watarida retired early from his nearly twenty-year career in the organic produce distribution industry in order to spend a year in the United States learning English and studying food security issues before returning to Hiroshima to become a full-time activist. He was extremely generous with his knowledge regarding the workings of the nuclear power industry and it's effects upon ordinary peoples' lives.

He told me that since the plant site was not in direct view of residents in the town of Kaminoseki, it was easier for the Chugoku Electric Power Company to buy them off and keep them quiet about nuclear power's potential dangers. “The fishermen’s cooperative from Kaminoseki sold their fishing rights around the plant site for hundreds of millions of yen, and the people have also gotten quite used to the cushy arrangement whereby the power company hands out huge subsidies for road repairs and other local projects,” he explained.

Watarida told me that the town of Kaminoseki and its environs are a “hotspot for biodiversity”, rich in seaweed and aquatic creatures such as the sunameri (finless black porpoise), and featuring one of the last pristine untouched spots in the entire Seto Inland Sea. “This was an extremely important area from around the 17th to the 19th centuries in terms of communication and transportation, so there is also enormous potential here in terms of tourism and history,” he explained. “We still have hopes that the local community here will wake up to these possibilities and stop being so dependent upon corporate handouts.”

The story was a completely different one, however, Watarida said, for those living on the nearby island of Iwaishima (mostly fishermen, and their wives), who literally find the proposed nuclear power plant site staring them directly in the face. He said that they had been loudly protesting the plant—which sits a mere four kilometers away from their island—since its inception some thirty years ago. Its fishing cooperative members staunchly refused to sell their rights to the electric power company, choosing instead to put up an impassioned fight to protect their natural way of life.

“Since the islanders of Iwaishima do not have many employment opportunities other than fishing due to being separated from the mainland, many men have gone on assignments to work in nuclear power plants in Shikoku or other parts of Japan,” Watarida explained. “They know the dirty truth of the industry firsthand, and in fact, a majority of these men have already died from cancer.”

After winding our way to the end of the peninsula, we parked the car and headed to an impressively constructed log house that a group of activists had built as their headquarters of sorts. Almost immediately, we came across a friendly looking man who was cutting down some bamboo trees. Watarida told me he was a fisherman from Iwaishima who was helping to lead the movement against the plant. When he heard I was a journalist, he remarked, “tell those people in the big cities if they need so much electricity, they can take this ugly nuclear plant and put it in their own backyard!”

In addition to the fishermen and their wives from Iwaishima, I learned that the movement had also recently gotten a fresh infusion of energy from a cadre of young kayakers concerned with environmental destruction, who began coming in from all around the country to lend their voices and support. Several of them were inside the log house when we arrived, and invited us in to chat over steaming cups of organic biwa (loquat) tea harvested from Iwaishima island—one of the local, small-scale sustainable industries that the islanders were trying to emphasize in their fight against the plant.

One of the youth, I was told, was a twenty year-old who spearheaded a ten-day hunger strike two months earlier with four other young activists in an effort to try and stop construction of the plant. The young man, whose name was Naoya Okamoto but was known mostly by the nickname "Kin", told me that he knew absolutely nothing at all about nuclear power until a year prior; but after learning about it from a friend who had heard a speaker on the issue, he knew he had to act. “Radiation affects young people the worst, but most youth have no idea about this issue,” Kin said. “I wanted to do something to try and change the world before I turned twenty, and I figured that a hunger strike might work in terms of shocking people into paying attention to this critical problem.”

Right to left: Kin,Watarida, and another young movement supporter

After finishing our tea, we made our way down a steep path to the plant site at the peninsula’s tip. Although a moratorium was called on further construction at the Kaminoseki site following the disaster at the Fukushima plant, the Chugoku Electric Power Company tried to find a loophole by sending a crew to the site to conduct “research”, which consisted of blasting dynamite into the ground and then clearing the rubble. “Clearly, this is not ‘research’; it is construction,” Watarida observed. “Just one more of the company’s lies.”

Ignoring both the posted signs and the periodic loudspeaker outbursts telling non-workers to stay away, we proceeded to the water’s edge. Coming down the path, we held on to bamboo railings that had been crafted by the man we ran into earlier, whose name I learned was Yoshito Kanata. We found him sitting on the edge of a kayak, drinking a beer.

“The people who are supporting this plant have been completely brainwashed by money, and are now totally dependent on it,“ he told us after motioning us over. “On Iwaishima, we fish for our own dinner, because nothing tastes better than something you have worked for and gotten through your own sweat and hard work.” He snorted with laughter, raising his beer into the air, but then grew serious again. “If this plant is built and something goes wrong, the entire Seto Inland Sea will be completely destroyed.”

Watarida told me later that Kanata once worked at a nuclear power plant on nearby Shikoku Island, but found the conditions so horrifying there that he lasted only one month, and never returned.

We sat for awhile, watching a bora fish arcing across the bay in a series of graceful, energetic leaps. “These islanders know how to live in harmony with nature, and we need to learn from them,” Watarida finally said slowly, looking off into the distance. “The seashore—it’s a part of the commons.”

Masahiro Watarida points toward Iwaishima from the proposed plant site

Yoshito Kanata standing next to construction clearly underway

Back at the log house, another activist named Yota Nakayama was busy e-mailing and making telephone calls. He said that after the Fukushima accident, he had been contacting the Chugoku Electric Power Company and the Ministry of the Economy every day to demand that construction at the Kaminoseki plant be stopped immediately.

When I told him that I was from Arizona, he told me he had been to the Hopi and Navajo reservations several times as a participant in the Longest Walk, an event organized to raise awareness and facilitate social action regarding various issues facing Native Americans. He was in touch with friends who were on the walk, and told me that when they learned of the disaster in Japan, they had just arrived onto the Hopi reservation.

We both noted that the timing of this was an interesting convergence in light of the Hopi Prophecy, which is a message passed down through several generations that tribal elders decided to release publicly after being horrified to learn that plutonium and uranium taken forcibly from their land (an act that they described as “carving out the earth’s vital organs”) were used to create the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki—themselves actions that were part of the prophecy.

Their message described how humankind had come to stand at the crossroads of two possible futures, depending on which actions were taken: either peaceful sustainability or total annihilation. I had learned about this from a 1986 documentary film titled Hopi no yogen (The Hopi Prophecy), a classic among social activists in Japan that I had seen the previous year at an arts festival. Unsurprisingly, some were now saying that the recent disaster in Japan was further evidence of the world now having arrived at this moment of truth.

After chatting a bit more with the group, Watarida and I made the drive back to Hiroshima—stopping first on the waterfront in Kaminoseki, where a young man called Nobu—a long-haired musician who was one of the core activists from the log house—had gone to play his guitar and sing in the hopes of reaching out to locals with his message. Although he rarely attracted an audience, he said, still he continued going to sing in the town every day in the hopes that even one local would be touched by his music and consider joining the movement.

Nobu singing for the cause in Kaminoseki

Nobu's melodies were hauntingly beautiful, and while we listened—each of us sitting apart from each other along the dock with our own thoughts, and yet very much together—I felt an incredible sense of oneness with this group and its purpose. I wanted to stop time to keep the feeling, to explore the region further, to go deeper with the connections I had begun to forge. I knew, however, that the time was approaching for me return to Tokyo in order to move on with life—in whatever direction that would turn out to be.

This post was excerpted from 'Finding Hope in Hiroshima,' a photo-essay presently awaiting publication. Kimberly Hughes is a Tokyo-based writer, freelance translator, and university educator. Her writings may be found at


Phyllis Hughes said...

We can only hope that your efforts, and those of the others who are working against nuclear power companies' transgressions, will not be in vain!

Kante Luis said...

thank you