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Warm bums and nuclear activism in Tokyo

  • 11 May 2012

Last weekend, I took a walk around my new neighbourhood in Tokyo, and ended up near Tokyo Dome just as a baseball match had finished. Caught in the motion of a tight crowd, I drifted to where a wheelchair-bound woman sat, singing at the top of her lungs 'Genpatsu tomeyou!'; in English, 'Let's stop nuclear power', to the tune of 'We Shall Overcome'. She sang savagely, making those around her uncomfortable in the way that loud sincerity tends to.

Such protests have been a common sight in Tokyo of late. And the public's large-scale rejection of nuclear power has been heard. Last Saturday, Japan's last functioning nuclear reactor was switched off for good. It's the first time since 1970 that Japan has been nuclear power-free.

I arrived in Japan from Bougainville six weeks ago. In Bougainville, I had been living without white goods, and, for parts of the day, without electricity.

I adapted fairly easily to hand-washing and cleaning, to patiently waiting out the blackouts. At one hungry point of a blackout, I considered baking eggs under the glare of the equatorial sun. Instead, I ate a pineapple. I wasn't comfortable with someone else washing my dirty clothes, so a lot of the time I just dealt with the new and interesting odours my clothes conveyed. No one seemed to mind.

Living without convenience revealed the privilege of my upbringing. I adapted. We always adapt.

Tokyo, then, came as a shock. I arrived at Narita airport after dark, and let the flat escalator do the walking as I was zoomed through the gates, beneath a banner that repeated, 'Japan. Thank you. Japan. Thank you.'

I took the train into central Tokyo, my bum warmed by the heated seats. Each time we stopped at a station, the train's engine shut down briefly, and the bum heater switch off for a few seconds. Over the loudspeaker, I heard, 'Setsuden chu,' the catchphrase meaning, 'We're currently using less electricity,' which is posted all around the city, part of a campaign to emphasise corporate and community roles in reducing energy consumption.

During my first few days here, I was horrified by the dazzling lights and endless vending machines. It was grotesque. Having paid exorbitantly for power in Bougainville, I couldn't stop