TOKYO – This is Japan's summer of discontent. Tens of thousands of protesters — the largest demonstrations the country has seen in decades — descend on Tokyo every Friday evening to shout anti-nuclear slogans at the prime minister's office. Many have never protested publicly before.
"I used to complain about this to my family but I realized that doesn't do any good," said Takeshi Tamura, a 67-year-old retired office worker. "So I came here to say this to his office. I don't know if we can make a difference but I had to do something, and at least it's a start."
The government's much-criticized handling of the Fukushima nuclear crisis has spawned a new breed of protesters in Japan. Drawn from the ranks of ordinary citizens rather than activists, they are a manifestation of a broader dissatisfaction with government and could create pressure for change in a political system that has long resisted it.
What started as relatively small protests in April has swollen rapidly since the government decided to restart two of Japan's nuclear reactors in June, despite lingering safety fears after the meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant triggered by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
As many as 20,000 people have gathered at the Friday rallies by unofficial police estimates, and organizers say the turnout has topped 100,000. Officials at the prime minister's office say their crowd estimate is "several tens of thousands." Either way, the two-hour demonstrations are the largest and most persistent since the 1960s, when violent student-led protests against a security alliance with the United States rocked Japan.
The protesters include office workers, families with children, young couples and retirees.
"No to restart!" they chant in unison without a break. "No nukes!"
Despite the simple message, the anger runs much deeper, analysts say.
"It's not only about nuclear," says writer and social critic Karin Amamiya. "It mirrors core problems in Japanese society, and the way politics has ignored public opinion."
Distrust of politics runs deep in Japan, and many think politicians are corrupt and only care about big business. Some voters were angered when the government rammed through a sales tax hike in July that had divided public opinion and the ruling party. The government has also done little to reduce the U.S. military presence on the southern island of Okinawa despite decades of protests there, under the security alliance that had initially triggered violent student protests.
In a country not known for mass protests, the nuclear crisis has galvanized people to an unusual extent. Unlike other issues, it cuts across ideological lines. For Japanese from all walks of life, it has shattered a sense of safety they felt about their food, the environment and the health of their children.
That helps explain why the long-standing frustration with government exploded in protests after the restart of two reactors in Ohi in western Japan. They were the first of Japan's 50 reactors to resume operation under a new regime of post-tsunami safety checks.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was criticized for making the restart decision behind closed doors and calling the weekly chanting and drum-beating outside his office "a loud noise." An apparently chastised Noda met with rally leaders, who have proposed talks, allowing them inside his office compound for the first time Wednesday. Noda also met with leaders of Japan's influential business lobbies afterwards.
"It's not a loud noise that we are making. It's desperate voices of the people," said Misao Redwolf, an illustrator who heads the weekly protests, as she demanded Noda immediately stop the two recently resumed reactors and eventually abandon nuclear energy. "We'll continue our protests as long as you keep ignoring our voices."
Noda promised to listen to the people's voices carefully before deciding Japan's long-term energy policy, but refused to stop the two reactors.
Protest leaders said they don't expect anything to happen just because they met Noda, but at least hold on to their hope for a change.
"All these years, lawmakers have only cared about vested interests, and that was good enough to run this country," Kiyomi Tsujimoto, an activist-turned lawmaker, said at a recent meeting with protest organizers. "The government is still seen doing the same politics, and that's what people are angry about. I think (the demonstrations) are testing our ability to respond to the changes."
Masanori Oda, cultural anthropologist at Chuo University who heads a drum section of the protest, said many Japanese also contributed to prolong such a system "very convenient" to politicians by not getting angry or standing up against unfavorable policies.
"Now more Japanese are learning to raise their voice. Japanese politicians should develop a deeper sense of crisis about the situation," Oda said.
Separately, an even larger rally, joined by rock star Ryuichi Sakamoto and Nobel laureate author Kenzaburo Oe, drew 75,000 by police estimates on July 16, a public holiday. Organizers put the crowd at Tokyo's Yoyogi Park at nearly 200,000. Thousands also ringed Japan's parliament after sunset on July 29 and held lit candles.
Smaller rallies have sprung up in dozens of other cities, with participants gathering outside town halls, utility companies and parks.
"Obviously, people's political behavior is changing," says Jiro Yamaguchi, a political science professor at Hokkaido University. "Even though a lot of people join demonstrations, that won't bring a political change overnight. The movement may hit a plateau, and people may feel helpless along the way. But there could be a change."
Already, there are signs of change. Many lawmakers have converted to supporting a nuclear-free future amid speculation that a struggling Noda will call an election in the coming months and that nuclear policy will be a key campaign issue.
A new party, established by veteran lawmaker Ichiro Ozawa and about 50 followers who broke away from Noda's ruling party after opposing the sales tax hike, has promised to abolish atomic energy within 10 years. Some lawmakers have launched study groups on phasing out nuclear power. A group of prefectural, or state-level, legislators has formed an anti-nuclear green party.
The government was also forced to step up transparency about the method and results of town meetings to better reflect public views on energy policy to determine the level of Japan's nuclear dependency by 2030. The options being considered are zero percent, 15 percent and 20-25 percent. That already delayed the energy report for several weeks, and officials set up a new panel Wednesday to discuss how to factor in public opinion in policies.
"If we carry on, we could get more people to join in the cause around the country," said Mariko Saito, a 63-year-old homemaker from nearby Kamakura city, who joined the protest outside the prime minister's office on a recent Friday. "I'll definitely vote for an anti-nuclear candidate. Their nuclear stance would be the first thing I'll look at."
The rallies are peaceful compared to the 1960s, when activists wearing helmets and carrying clubs threw stones and burst into the parliament complex. One died and dozens were injured.
Today's protesters hold flowers or handmade posters and even chat with police officers.
"It's almost like a festival," journalist and TV talk show host Soichiro Tahara wrote in his blog. "The people have finally found a common theme to come together."