|One of Many Protests in Japan|
TOKYO — Beating drums and waving flowers, protesters in Tokyo and other major cities rallied against the use of nuclear power on Saturday, three months after a devastating tsunami set off a nuclear crisis.
Anger over the government’s handling of the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant has erupted in recent weeks after revelations that the damage at the plant, and the release of radioactive material, was far worse than previously thought. Mothers worried for their children’s health, as well as farmers and fishermen angry about their damaged livelihoods, have been especially critical of the government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan.
The disaster has also prompted a national debate about Japan’s heavy reliance on nuclear power despite the country’s history of devastating earthquakes and a deep public distrust of the nuclear industry. In perhaps his sole move that has won popular support, Mr. Kan ordered the shutdown of a separate nuclear power plant in central Japan until it can bolster its tsunami defenses. But recent politicking in a gridlocked Parliament has added to the public’s disenchantment.
“We now know the dangers of relying on nuclear power, and it’s time to make a change,” Hajime Matsumoto, one of the rally’s organizers, told a crowd in a central Tokyo square that eventually grew to about 20,000 people, according to organizers’ estimates.
“And, yes, I believe Japan can change,” he shouted, as the crowd roared back and people pumped their fists in the air.
Supporters of the rally here in Tokyo, and in coordinated events in many other cities in Japan, say the demonstration was remarkable not because of its size, but because it happened at all in a country that so values conformity and order.
“The Japanese haven’t been big protesters, at least recently,” said Junichi Sato, program director of the environmental group Greenpeace Japan, who said he had organized enough poorly attended rallies to know. “They’re taking the first steps toward making themselves heard.”
Many in the crowd said they were protesting for the first time.
“I’m here for my children,” said Aki Ishii, who had her 3-year-old daughter in tow. “We just want our old life back, where the water is safe and the air is clean.” Her daughter wore a sign that said “Please let me play outside again.”
Hiromasa Fujimoto, a rice and vegetable farmer, said it was his first protest, too. “I want to tell people that I’m just so worried about the soil, about the water,” he said. “I now farm with a Geiger counter in one hand, my tools in the other.”
“It’s insane,” he added.
And while the rally started in a typically orderly way — “Let’s all remember good manners!” organizers said at the start, as protesters lined up in neat rows — the crowd eventually took a more rowdy turn.
As protesters congregated in a Tokyo square after several marches through the city, there were some confrontations with the police. A police officer who refused to give his name explained breathlessly that protesters had not been given permission to congregate in the square.
“Disperse immediately!” police officers shouted through megaphones.
“Shut up and go away!” a young man screamed back.
About 9 p.m., however, police officers forcibly moved in to break up the crowd. There was some pushing and shoving, but no serious skirmishes.
Still, Mr. Matsumoto, the organizer, looked elated. “Who would have thought so many people would turn up?” he said. “I think that Japan is on the cusp of something new.”
But some passers-by were less enthusiastic.
“What can they really do?” said Airi Ishii, 21, a shopper who had stopped to watch the rally with her boyfriend. “It looks fun, but if you think anything will change, it’s naïve.”