The Joban Line was directly hit by the massive tsunami wave in 2011, sweeping train carriages away. Though parts of the line were quickly reopened that same year, two sections of the line—between Tatsuta and Odaka stations, and between Soma and Hamayoshida—remained closed, with passengers served by buses for some of the stations.
However, the operator, East Japan Railway Company (JR East), and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, have been keen to reopen the whole line as part of the northeast Japan reconstruction efforts. The Joban Line represents a valuable source of income from both passengers traveling between Sendai and Tokyo as well as freight.
Following decontamination measures, rail services resumed from Iwaki to Tatsuta in late 2014. However, north of Tatsuta lies the areas located within a 20km radius of the devastated Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which is widely considered a no-go zone.
In July this year, JR East resumed services on the 9.4-kilometer stretch between Odaka and Haranomachi stations as the evacuation order was lifted for the southern part of Minamisoma City, though few residents are willing to return to a community so close to the contaminated area. Media reports suggest only 10-20% are coming back to live in the area.
On December 10th, the previously closed 23.2-kilometer northern section of line between Soma and Hamayoshida reopened for rail services. It means passengers will now be served by a further six stations on the section, though three of these (Shinchi, Yamashita and Sakamoto stations) had to be relocated inland by up to 1.1 kilometers as an anti-tsunami measure. Along with the construction of elevated tracks, the total cost of the latest reopening is said to be 40 billion yen ($350 million).
However, the legacy of the Fukushima disaster is a lingering distrust for government and corporate claims about radiation. Activists allege that authorities and JR East are putting profits and the appearance of safety over the genuine health of rail workers and passengers. Just as with the gradual lifting of restrictions on entering the areas around the Joban Line, reopening the railway is, they say, an attempt to encourage evacuated residents to return and tourists to visit even though health risks may remain.
On December 10th, around 50 activists from Doro-Mito and associated groups opposed the Joban Line reopening by demonstrating at the Sendai branch of JR East in the morning. A small number of train drivers from the union also went on strike that day. This was coordinated with other protests and actions in Fukushima City and Tokyo at JR sites. At an afternoon protest outside the JR East headquarters in Shinjuku, central Tokyo, around 150 unionists demonstrated.
These are just the most recent examples of actions by this network of medium-sized yet feisty unions, which have waged several strikes and protests since JR East began reopening parts of the track following the 2011 disaster. Unionists have fought to block the reopening in order to protect the well-being of workers as well as the general public.
Other unions and labor groups have apparently remained silent on the Joban Line issue, as have the major anti-nuclear power protest organisations. The mainstream media has also given the Joban Line protests almost no coverage, though the reopening itself was extensively celebrated.
Doro-Mito and Doro-Chiba are the largest groups in a network of militant unions called Doro-Soren, affiliated with the Japan Revolutionary Communist League. Other smaller unions have been established in Tokyo, Fukushima, Niigata and elsewhere. While the overall numbers of unionized workers remain only in the hundreds, organizers hope to create a national union in the future.
The unions have held small strikes on the Joban Line issue alongside their regular strikes and protests against labor conditions, as well as participating in general rallies against the restarting of nuclear power plants in Japan. In this way, the issues of neoliberalism and nuclear power have become aligned in a new and invigorating way.
The Doro-Soren network is also associated with NAZEN, which was formed in August 2011 as a youth group to fight the nuclear industry. The various groups have taken part in annual protests at Fukushima on the anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami, regularly mobilizing over 1,000 demonstrators.