Representational Discontent

A crazed Tokyo governor tries to smuggle a nuclear power plant into the very heart of Tokyo. Behind closed doors, his ministers weigh the risk of a nuclear meltdown against the city’s hunger for cash, the fate of millions on their plate. Would environmentalists resist the building of a nuclear reactor right in front of Tokyo City Hall, although they all stood silent on Fukui or Fukushima? Could the false threat of blackouts be used to get the population on board? What about celebrities (tarento) -- couldn’t they be used to sell the idea?

Largely ignored upon its release, Yamakawa Gen’s 2002 black comedy Tokyo Genpatsu/Tokyo: Level 1 took a blunt knife to the undemocratic manner in which decisions about public safety around nuclear technology are made. In doing so it also highlighted how risks associated with the industry are invariably offloaded onto certain regions and classes.

In the film, the crazed governor -- actually well-intentioned -- concocts a scheme to bring a nuclear power plant to Tokyo in order to force the population to consider where it obtains its energy from and at what costs to the environment and the periphery. His goal? To instigate a debate about the dangers of nuclear energy that might lead to an anti-nuclear citizens’ movement.

In the present reality of post 3.11 Japan, the scenario is no less cinematic: rightwing governor Ishihara Shintaro is calling for Japan to develop nuclear weapons, become a military regime, and institute military conscription. Fearing growing anti-nuclear sentiment, the governor’s son Nobuteru, a representative in the fourth district of Tokyo of the House of Representatives, has denounced the anti-nuclear movement as a form of “group hysteria.” Yet the growing challenge to the cozy relationship between the power industry and Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) bent on expanding nuclear energy contrary to the wishes of the majority of the population, is taking many forms.

This week, shareholders in six of Japan’s major electric companies demanded a retreat from nuclear power, only to be voted down. Citizens are lobbying for government research monies – currently 90% of which is funneled through the nuclear industry -- to be used to develop innovative, smaller scale natural energy sources. The form of protests and debate has itself been recast in smaller forums. Salon-like venues, cafes and bars, free universities and online spaces, the music-oriented digital commune Dommune and the Free Media Lab, are redefining the discourse, and putting it to new uses.  

With the failure of representational politics, the discussion has moved on to how to build new forms of democracy that will not merely replicate or reconstruct the problematic structures in society exposed by the recent disasters. Physical public spaces, too, are being reclaimed by members of the anti-nuclear movement. Shinjuku Central Park, where the governor in Tokyo:Level 1 intended to build his reactor, coincidentally served as the starting point for a June 11 de-nuclearization demonstration.

This particular vibrant ‘sound demo’ (see video below) featured live punk and rap music on sound trucks -- some of which were powered by recycled tempura cooking oil -- and drew crowds through the packed streets of Shinjuku. In a nod to pro-democratic movements in Spain, Greece and Egypt (and to the spirit of Japanese activism of the late 1960s) the marchers ended by occupying the Alta plaza in front of Shinjuku Station -- Tokyo’s miniature Tahir Square.

Fittingly, an examination of popular cultural representations of the atomic bomb and nuclear power since the 1950s was also served up in a tiny venue. “Atomic Lounge,” a pop-up library and exhibition appeared at the collectively run artists’ space Roji to hito (Alleyway and person). From industrial films to Disney features, rock magazines to manga, it focused on the sudden disappearance of critical representations of atomic energy during the 1980s.  A larger incarnation of the“Atomic Lounge” in July will include live performances and screenings of Radioactivists, a film on post 3.11 activism.

It’s a film that the mad Tokyo governor -- in the movie, at least -- would have approved of.