TOKYO — William Zeller, a petty officer second class in the U.S. Navy, was one of hundreds of sailors who rushed to provide assistance to Japan after a giant earthquake and tsunami set off a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011. Not long after returning home, he began to feel sick.
Today, he has nerve damage and abnormal bone growths, and blames exposure to radiation during the humanitarian operation conducted by crew members of the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan. Neither his doctors nor the U.S. government has endorsed his claim or those of about 400 other sailors who attribute ailments including leukemia and thyroid disease to Fukushima and are suing Tokyo Electric, the operator of the plant.
But one prominent figure is supporting the U.S. sailors: Junichiro Koizumi, former prime minister of Japan.
A year after the Fukushima disaster, anti-nuclear fervor led tens of thousands of demonstrators to take to the streets of Tokyo near the prime minister’s residence to register their anger at the government’s decision to restart the Ohi power station in western Japan. Public activism has dissipated since then, though polls consistently show that about 60 percent of Japanese voters oppose restarting the plants.
“The average Japanese is not that interested in issues of energy,” said Daniel P. Aldrich, professor of political science at Northeastern University. “They are anti-nuclear, but they are not willing to vote the LDP out of office because of its pronuclear stance.”
Sustained political protest is rare in Japan, but some analysts say that does not mean the anti-nuclear movement is doomed to wither.
“People have to carry on with their lives, so only so much direct action can take place,” said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo.
Anti-nuclear activism “may look dormant from appearances, but it’s there, like magma,” he said. “It’s still brewing, and the next trigger might be another big protest or political change.”
Some recent signs suggest the movement has gone local. In October, Ryuichi Yoneyama was elected governor in Niigata, the prefecture in central Japan that is home to the world’s largest nuclear plant, after campaigning on a promise to fight efforts by Tokyo Electric to restart reactors there.
Like Koizumi, he is an example of how the anti-nuclear movement has blurred political allegiances in Japan. Before running for governor, Yoneyama had run as a Liberal Democratic candidate for parliament.
Koizumi, a conservative and former leader of the Liberal Democrats, may have led the way.
“Originally, the nuclear issue was a point of dispute between conservatives and liberals,” said Yuichi Kaido, a lawyer and leading anti-nuclear activist. “But after Mr. Koizumi showed up and said he opposed nuclear power, other conservatives realized they could be against nuclear power.”