In the weeks and months following Japan’s March 11th earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, government officials greatly downplayed the scope of the calamity. While the life-or-death battles at the plants themselves received wide news coverage, the subtler spread of nuclear material was mostly kept out of the public view: ironic, considering that it was the public being affected.
Only now, nearly six months after the first tremors were felt, are the people finally becoming privy to the information that they should have had all along. While the government claims that the information was not released because of its original inconclusiveness, experts disagree, saying that in the hands of the right people, pertinent data could have at the least altered evacuation patterns and water usage, saving countless people from being exposed unnecessarily to high levels of radiation. Precautions can now be taken, of course, but the damage has been done.
The withheld information, weak excuses, and seriousness of the health risks have caused the Japanese to perform an act of extreme unconventionality in their society: speaking out loudly against the government. Usually trusting and respectful in their relationships with authority, the desperateness and confusion of the situation has had citizens calling for Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s resignation for several months now, as most of the blame for misinformation has been directed at the imprudent actions of he and his officers. While attempting for a time for regain his public image by calling for the end of Japan’s dependence on nuclear power, Kan has finally bowed to the people’s request and plans to leave office within the week.
While Kan’s departure will ease the ferocity of most of the attacks against the government, the question remains as to what his leaving will mean for the future of nuclear material in Japan. While Kan certainly made numerous mistakes in dealing with the national disaster, public dissent acted as a catalyst for him to make the first moves to phasing out nuclear power, a shift loudly applauded by many long-time opponents of the energy source who until this time have gone unsupported. As many of the frontrunners to replace Kan as Minister are showing a pro-nuclear stance, this change in government leadership could push the anti-nuclear movement back to square one.
Of course, government elites are no longer the only ones who have a say in this debate. Far removed from the previous general apathy with which Japanese citizens treated the presence of nuclear power in their country, the public is becoming more informed about its potential effects and, as a result, taking a decidedly negative stance on the issue.
However, it is just as possible that once a new Minister takes office, in typical Japanese style, the people will revert to their former state of trust in the government, confident that a new regime will bring the honestly and change for which they hope. Most likely, the future attitude of the citizens will depend upon the new Minister’s first few actions: if he or she confronts the state of the nation with a free spread of information and distinct efforts to isolate the people from the nuclear effects, Japan may once again return to normal. If instead he or she continues in the same vein as Kan, however, with presentation of ambiguity and false assurances, the leaders of the anti-nuclear movement may have enough ammo to keep the people riled against a future dependent on nuclear power—only time will tell.