Japan’s long democratic detour via Swiss Info

Instead, the government has kept the main national power companies’ regional grid monopolies intact and has agreed to bring most of the 54 closed nuclear reactors across Japan back into operation by 2025.

The world’s third-largest economy is experiencing challenging times. Shaped by two of history’s worst man-made disasters, Japan has become a hesitating democracy suffering under the control of a nostalgic political class.

“I do not like this tour,” says Salam Nishida, a local journalist from Fukushima as we head into the so-called “death zone” at Ōtuma on the Pacific coastline.


Eleven are already back online, and there are plans to build 40 new coal plants in the next decade. 

By contrast, new renewable energy producers are only allowed to connect to the power grid with a maximum voltage of 50 kilowatts.

Multiple voices are now calling for a course correction, even within Abe’s own fragmented party.

“I am seriously concerned about our current situation,” the Japanese foreign minister, Taro Kono, recently said at an energy conference in the United Arab Emirates. And with Prime Minister Abe and many of his ministers involved in another corruption scandal, thousands of citizens demonstrated every evening last week outside government buildings in Tokyo.


“It is very hard to change anything from below in this country,” said Atsushi Yamada, another veteran journalist I met on the ten-day Japan leg of my democracy world tour.

“Our democracy has no history of strong citizens’ movements or even civic revolutions.”

Indeed, it was another man-made nuclear disaster — at the end of the Second World War — that changed the path of the country. In August 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing at least 130,000 people and prompting Japan’s surrender to the Allies. By 1947, the country had a new constitution setting heavy limitations on military capacity and ensuring basic democratic rights.

Hiroshima referendum impulse

But in contrast to another Hitler ally, Italy, the Japanese never got the chance to have a say in their new political system by approving it in a binding vote. That has fed lingering doubts.

“We do not really feel that this democracy is our democracy,” Yamada says.

In Hiroshima, the atomic bomb inspired some new sources of people power at the local level. Four years after the 1945 bombing, its citizens approved a special law to “build Hiroshima city into a Peace Memorial City”, with 71,852 voters in favour and 7,110 against.

“Since then we have fought against the use of nuclear weapons and [nuclear] energy in our society,” says local resident Reiko Hatsuya.

Hatsuya was born one year after the bombing in the middle of the contaminated debris.

“My parents and many other family members eventually became victims of this inhumane act, and I am as well,” she says.


Anti-democratic tendencies among the governing party, not unlike recent moves in the US, Turkey, Poland and Hungary, grow as the media weakens and big corporations refuse to risk their powerful positions.

After a short but unsuccessful time in government from 2009-2012, the opposition parties are deeply divided, and there is little consensus in society about Japan’s future direction.

It will take many steps to rebuild trust and vitality into Japanese democracy, if the country is to match the recent democratisation of nearby South Korea and Taiwan. And change will only happen from the bottom up by making Japan’s fascinating and well-organised local communities and cities the main driving force behind a modern nation that is truly led by its people.

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