Antinuclear Citizens
Sustainability Policy and Grassroots Activism in Post-Fukushima Japan
Akihiro Ogawa



“The Djang Might Kill All Over the World”

On April 7, 2011, the Sydney Morning Herald shared a story from Yvonne Margarula, a senior traditional leader of the Mirarr people of Kakadu in Australia’s Northern Territory. In the Dreaming of the Mirarr people, a sacred, dangerous power called the Djang is unleashed when it is disturbed on their land. The newspaper quoted Margarula’s late father, Toby Gangale, who had warned the Australian government in the late 1970s that the Djang “might kill all over the world” if it were disturbed at Ranger, a uranium mine being built in Kakadu.1

Despite opposition from the Mirarr, the traditional custodians of the land, uranium export from Ranger to Japanese nuclear power companies began in 1981. This exportation was a direct outcome of Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka’s visit to Australia in 1974 to promote the Australian government’s commitment to develop the mine and supply Japan with uranium. The decision was made without consulting the Mirarr, who wanted the multibillion-dollar Jabiluka uranium deposit on their land to remain undeveloped and be incorporated into Kakadu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site (see Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation 2014). Their request was ignored, and a long protest ensued, but to no avail. In a letter dated April 6, 2011, to Ban Ki-moon, the then Secretary-General of the United Nations, Margarula wrote, “Given the long history between Japanese nuclear companies and Australian uranium miners, it is likely that the radiation problems at Fukushima are, at least in part, fuelled by uranium derived from our traditional lands. This makes us feel very sad.”2

On Friday, March 11, 2011, at 2:46 p.m. local time, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake shook Japan.3 Reactor Units 1, 2, and 3 at the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were operational at the time, and emergency shutdowns were activated. The tremors damaged the electricity transmission facilities and cut off the plant’s external power supply. Diesel generators were automatically activated to supply emergency power, and fuel-cooling operations began in all six of the plant’s units.

At approximately 3:37 p.m., a fifteen-meter-high tsunami wave hit the plant. It destroyed the emergency diesel generators, seawater-cooling pumps, electric wiring system, and the power supply to various units, and it damaged the reactor buildings, machinery, and equipment. The tsunami also carried off debris, vehicles, heavy machinery, oil tanks, and gravel.

At 7:03 p.m., Prime Minister Naoto Kan declared a state of nuclear emergency (Genshiryoku kinkyū jitai).4 A state of nuclear emergency is declared when a spatial radiation dose rate of 500 μSv (microsieverts) per hour or more is detected near the boundary of a nuclear facility, when a criticality accident occurs, or when reactor coolant is lost during reactor operations and all emergency core cooling units fail to operate.5 The chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, issued the following statement:

At 4:36 pm on March 11, 2011, at the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO)’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, an event corresponding to the provision of Article 15, Clause 1 and Paragraph 2 of the Act on Special Measures Concerning Nuclear Emergency Preparedness occurred. In order to prevent the spread of a nuclear disaster, we recognize that it is necessary to implement emergency measures. Thus, based on the provisions of the same Article, we have declared a nuclear emergency.


At present, no radioactive substances have been found to affect areas outside of the facility. Therefore, residents and visitors in the target area do not have to take any immediate special action. Please stay in your home or current location. Do not rush or begin to evacuate. Disaster prevention administrative radio and television can provide you with up-to-date information.

Again, we repeat that radiation is not actually leaking out of the facility. Keep calm and wait for further information.6

Edano said that the government had declared this state of emergency as “a precautionary measure” (Cabinet Office 2011a).

At 8:50 p.m., Fukushima Prefecture issued an evacuation order for 1,864 people living within a two-kilometer radius of the power plant. At 9:23 p.m., the national government issued an evacuation order to those living within a three-kilometer radius and instructed those otherwise living within a ten-kilometer radius to stay home.

At 5:44 a.m. the next day, March 12, the national government issued an evacuation order for people living within a ten-kilometer radius. The towns of Futaba and Okuma, both of which host the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and the neighboring towns of Tomioka, Naraha, and Namie ordered a total evacuation of all residents.

At 3:36 p.m., following a large aftershock, a hydrogen explosion blew the roof off the Unit 1 building, and the walls surrounding the pool where spent nuclear fuel rods were kept for cooling collapsed. A video of that moment—white smoke from the plant accompanied by the sound of explosions—was taken by an unmanned camera installed by the local Fukushima Central Television on a mountain seventeen kilometers away in likely one of the first captures in history of the exact moment when a nuclear power plant exploded. Five minutes after the explosion, the footage was televised in Fukushima Prefecture, and it was distributed nationwide approximately an hour later. At 6:25 p.m., the national government issued an evacuation order for people living within a twenty-kilometer radius of the plant.

Further hydrogen explosions occurred at Unit 3 at 11:01 a.m. on March 14 and at Unit 4 at 6:14 a.m. on March 15. Unit 3 was considered a greater threat because it had been burning a mixed fuel known as MOX since 2010, which contained plutonium-239, a more dangerous radioactive material than depleted uranium-238. According to a Japanese government report (Prime Minister’s Office 2011a, VI-1) to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a total of 1.5 x 1016 becquerels, or 168.5 times the cesium-137 of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb (as per Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency 2011), was released due to these explosions. By March 14, approximately 470,000 people had been evacuated from their homes in Fukushima and the neighboring prefectures (Cabinet Office 2012). Meanwhile, foreign media, such as the Guardian (March 16, 2011), carried stories featuring the “Fukushima 50,” a group of workers who stayed at the crippled nuclear power plant, including plant engineers, policemen, firefighters, and self-defense forces. Everyone struggled to contain the disaster.

Kyodo News (March 31, 2011) reported that nearly a thousand bodies had been found within a twenty-kilometer radius of the plant. The police measured high levels of radioactivity in a body found in Okuma, about five kilometers from the plant: the needle of the Geiger counter, which can measure up to 100,000 cpm,7 jumped past this range when placed near the body. Meanwhile, twelve people had been killed by the earthquake and tsunami in Okuma.8 Prime Minister Kan later wrote that he had been considering the evacuation of fifty million people living within a 250-kilometer radius of the plant, including the Tokyo metropolitan area (Kan 2015, 27). Kyodo News (December 30, 2020) reported that the Kan administration had unofficially approached the emperor and his family to evacuate to Kyoto or further west, but the emperor declined the idea.

On April 12, 2011, the national government raised the Fukushima accident’s severity rating to 7 (major accident)—the highest rating possible on the IAEA’s International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale—thus making it the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986, which was also rated 7. Ten days later, the national government designated evacuation zones depending on radiation dose levels and distance from the plant, creating “no-go zones” (Keikai kuiki) within a twenty-kilometer radius, “planned evacuation zones” (Keikakuteki hinan kuiki), and “evacuation-ready zones in case of emergency” (Kinkyūji hinan junbi kuiki).9

Two months later, on May 12, 2011, TEPCO finally admitted that the meltdown had commenced in Unit 1 within approximately five hours of the tsunami on March 11, and that the meltdown then began in Units 2 and 3 on March 14, 2011. In September 2011, power was restored to the plant site and the cooling systems restarted.

As of March 10, 2021, National Police Agency (2021) figures state that 15,899 people were killed and 2,526 went missing in the Great East Japan Earthquake. A further 3,767 people died from related causes, including stress-related illnesses, interruption of medical care, and suicide (as of September 30, 2020; Reconstruction Agency 2020). These numbers do not include those who suffered from death or sickness, such as cancer and leukemia, related to radiation exposure. That such radiation damage is passed down through generations makes matters worse. The triple disaster—earthquake, tsunami, and consequent radiation leakage—threatened the entire country. In this book, I call this event the “March 11 disaster.”

The Djang might kill all over the world—these words have repeatedly echoed in my heart since then. Has humanity opened a Pandora’s box?

Figure Intro.1 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant Unit 3, which exploded on March 14, 2011. Photo taken by TEPCO on March 21, 2011. Courtesy of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc.

A State of Nuclear Emergency as a “State of Exception”

Japan’s state of nuclear emergency had still not been lifted as of March 11, 2021—the ten-year anniversary of the disaster.10 This state of nuclear emergency is similar to what Giorgio Agamben (2005, 2) called a “state of exception” for social and political engineering, defined as a special condition in which the juridical order is suspended due to an emergency or crisis that threatens the state. In this situation, the sovereign or executive power prevails over all others, and a nation’s basic laws and norms can be violated by the state for the duration of the crisis. This concept can be traced back to the French Revolution (2005, 4). In the modern-day context, a state of exception is a primal form of government and a paradigm in contemporary politics.

Agamben (1998, 15) identified the state of exception’s point of departure within Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology (Schmitt 1986) and argued that “the exception is that which cannot be subsumed.” The Japanese word sōteigai—meaning something which is unexpected or presumably difficult to imagine—was used often after the March 11 disaster to explain the overwhelming magnitude of earthquakes and tsunamis. It can be applied to social and political life in post-Fukushima Japan, as Agamben (1998, 16) suggested: “The exception appears in its absolute form when it is a question of creating a situation in which juridical rules can be valid. Every general rule demands a regular, everyday frame of life to which it can be factually applied and which is submitted to its regulations.”

A crucial case of the suspension of judicial order following the March 11 disaster was a policy decision made by the Japanese government on April 19, 2011, to drastically increase the official “safe” radiation exposure levels for residents in Fukushima Prefecture to 20 millisieverts (mSv) per year above background from the original 1 mSv per year (MEXT 2011). The 1 mSv per year threshold is defined under the Nuclear Reactor Regulation Law (Genshiro tō kisei hō) and the Radiation Hazard Prevention Law (Hōshasen shōgai bōshi hō). This reality seems even more incomprehensible when we consider that this new standard applied only to Fukushima Prefecture residents. The revised limit of 20 mSv per year had previously been the limit for nuclear experts or scientists who worked with nuclear radiation regularly. Under Japan’s state of nuclear emergency, 20 mSv per year, a measurement twenty times higher than the normal limit, became the new official limit or the “new normal” for radiation exposure for regular civilians in Fukushima.

As Agamben (1998, 170; emphasis in original) claimed, post-Fukushima Japanese society and politics represented “the structure in which the state of exception . . . is realized normally. The sovereign no longer limits himself . . . to deciding on the exception on the basis of recognizing a given factual situation (danger to public safety): laying bare the inner structure of the ban that characterizes his power, he now de facto produces the situation as a consequence of his decision on the exception.” An immediate consequence of such an exception is “bare life” (Agamben 1998, 4), which refers to the existence of subjects who are denied political and legal representation under a state of exception. As Agamben suggested, I would argue that Fukushima residents lived in a state of “bare life” because state powers sublimated conceptions of zoê or “the simple fact of living common to all living beings” to a bios or “the form or way of living proper to an individual or a group” (1998, 1). “Bare life” under the sovereign exception is captured in a specific relation to sovereign power, which Agamben termed a “relation of exception” (1998, 18) or “relation of ban” (1998, 28). Agamben (1998, 17–18; emphasis in original) argued that “the most proper characteristic of the exception is that what is excluded in it is not, on account of being excluded, absolutely without relation to the rule. On the contrary, what is excluded in the exception maintains itself in relation to the rule in the form of the rule’s suspension. The rule applies to the exception in no longer applying, in withdrawing from it.”

In the context of the March 11 disaster, those who most immediately exemplify the plight of bare life are the residents of Fukushima, particularly children and pregnant women, who are more vulnerable to the effects of radiation. The state of exception legally exposed them to twenty times more radiation than previously permissible. However, the 20 mSv per year benchmark falls on the scale recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), a pronuclear lobby. Ten days after the March 11 disaster, the ICRP (2011) declared that it would continue to recommend the choice of reference levels in the band of 1 to 20 mSv per year, with the long-term goal of reducing reference levels to 1 mSv per year. However, to protect the public during emergencies, the ICRP recommended that national authorities set reference levels for the highest planned residual dose in the band of 20 to 100 mSv per year. Consequently, the new annual 20 mSv threshold became the dominant paradigm in post-Fukushima Japan and has defined Japan’s new normal since the March 11 disaster.

Japan’s policy change prompted Toshiso Kosako, a University of Tokyo professor and radiation safety specialist who was appointed as a special advisor to the cabinet shortly after the March 11 disaster, to resign. Kosako criticized the government’s decision to set this new threshold, which would apply to infants and schoolchildren among others, asserting that any measures taken by the government should be based on law and justice. He noted that the government had not followed the associated laws regarding Nuclear Emergency Preparedness or the guidelines and manuals for nuclear emergency, and he emphasized its short-sightedness, which resulted in a slow resolution.11 Kosako tearfully said, “It’s a ridiculously high acceptable dosage, and if it is accepted, my scholarship is over. I refuse to see my children playing [in such an] environment” (Asahi Shimbun, April 29, 2011).

By raising the safe annual radiation limit, the Japanese government was able to downplay the dangers of the radiation exposure and avoid evacuating contaminated areas. Admittedly, it was not technically or financially feasible to deliver on a total cleanup commitment to reduce the annual effective dose of radiation to below 20 mSv per year. According to Asahi Shimbun (November 11, 2011), the Japanese science ministry possessed maps that showed aerially measured accumulations of radioactive cesium from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that had spread to eighteen prefectures in eastern Japan.12

Surviving this new reality requires people to prepare with new, workable, and sustainable imagination, subjectivities, technologies, and knowledge. This book documents Japan’s micropolitics on nuclear policy and ordinary people’s struggles in everyday life while surviving this new normal in post-Fukushima Japan.13

Antinuclear Citizens

This book analyzes the impact of Japan’s nuclear policy through the lens of civil society, centering on conscientious citizens as agents for policy change in the field of post-Fukushima Japanese nuclear power. Those I call “antinuclear citizens,” activists who played a significant role throughout Japan’s antinuclear movements in the post–World War II era, have remained at the forefront of change. Social movements are change-oriented political formations and conduits for active citizenship, whereby subjects transform themselves into “citizens” through claims to justice (cf. Isin 2009). Further, the advocacy of social-movement identities and new conceptions underpinning democratic practices may also allow social movements to play an important role in the transformation of the public sphere (cf. della Porta 2013). Instead of merely protesting the government’s nuclear policy or demanding that the government abandon nuclear power plants, today antinuclear citizens take specific actions for social change. They are key agents in building a nuclear-free, sustainable way of life. Thus, this book addresses a key question: How have grassroots civic actions centering on sustainability shifted national and global agendas?

A consistent topic in my exploration is how citizens access policymaking to shape governance. Current scholarship highlights the growing influence exerted by civil society over public affairs (e.g., Scholte 2007; Kohler-Koch 2010; Sikkink 2011; Rashid and Simpson 2019; see Fujioka and Nakano 2012 for a Japanese context). Civil society is a public sphere that broadly comprises nonstate institutions and associations critical to sustaining modern democratic participation (Ogawa 2009, 2). It is an arena where grassroots activists have access to public affairs via policymaking and, thus, a hybrid sphere. For example, Japanese civil society encompasses various actors shaping the dynamic public sphere and who are not limited to institutionalized groups such as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), nonprofit organizations (NPOs), and neighborhood associations.14 It also incorporates issue-focused social movements, including peace, antinuclear causes, the environment, labor, and human rights. Citizen initiatives have enhanced the democratic, legal, moral, and technical standing of regulatory agencies with planetary constituencies and jurisdictions (Scholte 2007).

I credit civil society with three major contributions to public affairs. First, civil society is an instrument of greater transparency and heightens social accountability for improving the governance of public institutions. Such mechanisms comprise citizens’ advisory boards, community councils, participatory budgeting, public expenditure tracking, monitoring public service delivery, and consumer protection (Anheier 2017, 5). As the background for accountability, civil society is the glue binding increasingly diverse societies, strengthening the nexus between social capital and economic development, and creating social cohesion and democratic structures (Putnam 2000). Second, civil society is increasingly a part of new types of public governance (Osborne 2010; Pestoff, Brandsen, and Vamstad 2012) and provides a promising, relatively well-defined alternative to either a continued reliance on new public management or a return to classical public bureaucracy (Torfing and Triantafillou 2013). For example, my research on Japanese NPOs (Ogawa 2009, 2015, 2020, 2021) documents the role of civil society in human services provision as a form of “co-production” (Pestoff 2006)—the core of new public governance thinking in contemporary advanced democracies. Coproduction is a substantive policy tool used by governments that prefer collaborative forms of governance to implement policy goals. Third—and most relevant to this book’s argument—civil society is a source of innovation for identifying real problems and presenting them to governments, policy elites, and public audiences. Its members’ experiences are embedded in everyday life, and, thus, civil society is capable of spotlighting better, more sustainable solutions. In the context of incidents such as the March 11 disaster, civil society shapes new “terms of political debate,” which can “frame issues, define problems and influence agendas” (Sheingate 2003, 188), infuse new ideas and grassroots insights into Japanese nuclear governance, and even help generate a new policy paradigm that aims at a postnuclear society. In fact, civil society’s contribution to the policymaking process can have distinct practical value through its processing of key assets such as technical information, knowledge, and expertise (Rashid and Simpson 2019, 67). In times of crisis, civil society has been effective and powerful, and it can be even stronger when it is tasked with getting an issue onto the policy agenda (Robinson and Murphy 2013).


1. The story of the Djang is an oral legend. One of the very few written sources that mention this legend is in Tatz (1982, 136–37).

2. The gist of the letter is available as a media release from the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation website. April 7, 2011. library/mirarr-resolve-against-uranium-mining-strengthened-by-fukushima.

3. The timeline was compiled based on the National Diet’s Official Report of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (National Diet of Japan 2012), as well as TEPCO’s press release documents at cc/press/indexold-j.html, and the official updated information about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant by Fukushima Prefecture at portal/cat01-more.html, both accessed April 30, 2020.

4. This action was based on the Act on Special Measures concerning Nuclear Emergency Preparedness. The National Diet Library in Tokyo holds a simple digital record of this declaration (Prime Minister’s Office 2011b; see also National Diet Library 2011).

5. The March 11 disaster marked the first time that the Japanese government had to declare a state of nuclear emergency. The system for the declaration of nuclear emergencies was originally established following a previous nuclear accident on September 30, 1999, in Tokaimura, a village in Ibaraki Prefecture, approximately 120 kilometers northeast of Tokyo. This village hosts numerous nuclear technology research facilities operated by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, among other agencies. The Tokaimura case was a “criticality” accident or a “state of a nuclear chain reacting medium when the nuclear fission chain reaction just becomes self-sustaining” (see IAEA 1999, 1) that occurred in a reprocessing plant operated by JCO, a subsidiary of Sumitomo Metal Mining Company. The Japanese authorities classified the accident as level 4 on the IAEA International Nuclear Event Scale, indicating the event did not have any significant off-site risk. A reflection report published by the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center stated, “This criticality accident was the first of its kind in Japan, and it was the first example where people died of acute radiation injury in the course of carrying out tasks as part of Japan’s ‘peaceful use of nuclear energy’” (Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center 2001, 1). See also Takagi with the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center (2000), Cavasin (2008), and NHK (2006).

6. After making the declaration, the prime minister established the Nuclear Emergency Control Headquarters in the Cabinet Office and the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters on-site. The relevant prefectural governors and municipal mayors set up disaster control headquarters. Additionally, the Joint Nuclear Emergency Response Committee was established at the local emergency response base facility, and information was shared with national and local levels, TEPCO, and the defense minister, enabling the dispatch of Self-Defense Forces for disaster relief. The prime minister issued instructions alongside this Declaration of Nuclear Emergency, including evacuation orders, and designated areas where specific measures were required. Eventually, once the nuclear disaster is deemed to have ceased and emergency measures are not required, the prime minister would hear the opinion of the Nuclear Regulation Authority and end or continue the state of nuclear emergency accordingly.

7. CPM, or counts per minute, is a measure of the detection rate of ionization events per minute.

8. The updated number of individuals who were killed by the earthquake and tsunami is available at jp/soshiki/jumin/1007.html, accessed September 5, 2021. The number was relatively small compared with other disaster-stricken areas.

9. Later, in December 2011, following confirmation of the cold shutdown conditions of the nuclear reactors after the March 11 disaster, the Japanese government reclassified the areas under evacuation orders as follows: (1) difficult-to-return zones (>50 mSv per year), (2) restricted residence zones (20–50 mSv per year), and (3) zones in preparation for the lifting of the evacuation order (<20 mSv per year). This classification was effective as of April 1, 2012. The government lifted an evacuation order over part of a “difficult-to-return” zone in the Fukushima Prefecture towns of Futaba, Okuma, and Tomioka in March 2020. The update is available on the Fukushima Prefecture homepage: accessed April 30, 2020, at site/portal/cat01-more.html.

10. On March 21, 2016, in response to a question raised by Seiji Osaka, a member of the House of Representatives (2016), Prime Minister Abe announced that the state of nuclear emergency was not likely to be lifted for the time being if the current situation was considered comprehensively. As this book goes to press, Japan’s emergency status is unchanged.

11. An English translation of Kosako’s resignation statement is available in the Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus article “20 Millisieverts for Children and Kosako Toshiso’s Resignation,” December 31, 2012, -Asia-Pacific-Journal-Feature/4661/article.html. I have slightly edited the language here for clarity.

12. According to officials mentioned in Asahi Shimbun (November 11, 2011), radioactive cesium has contaminated areas as far west as the border between Gunma and Nagano Prefectures and as far north as the southern part of Iwate Prefecture. The combined concentration of cesium-134 and cesium-137 exceeded 30,000 becquerels per square meter in certain areas of four municipalities in southern Iwate Prefecture and in parts of four municipalities in eastern Nagano Prefecture.

13. Although this book is not a comparative study of disasters or nuclearity, my insights are built on continuing scholarly interests in global politics on nuclear power and its impact on the social and cultural life of human beings. Key research projects include Rosenberg (1980), Downey (1986), Fradkin (1989), Douglas and Wildavsky (1982), Zonabend (1993), Gusterson (1998, 2004), Hecht (1998, 2012), Wellock (1998, 2021), Dalton et al. (1999), Petryna (2002), Masco (2006, 2021), Brown (2013), Kuchinskaya (2014), Intondi (2015), Stawkowski (2016), Goldstein (2018), Harvey, Krohn-Hansen, and Nustad (2019), Ialenti (2020), Kaur (2020), and Orsini (2020). I have also integrated major Japanese works on nuclear power and the March 11 disaster which have not been translated into English, including Taketani (1976), Takagi (1999, 2000), Kamata (2001, 2012), Takahashi (2008, 2018), Kainumra (2011), Nakagawa (2011 [1991]), Yoshioka (2011), Imanishi (2013), Tsuneishi (2015), and Yamamoto (2015).

14. In the Japanese context, NPOs are civic groups established under the 1998 NPO Law (formally the Law to Promote Specified Nonprofit Activities, enacted in 1998). Meanwhile, NGOs are categorized as civic groups that are active on international issues, and most are registered under the 1998 NPO Law. Neighborhood associations are major community-or territory-based social organizations in Japanese society.