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Japan’s web-savvy activist moms could be changing a culture
Radiation fears beget shift to a more-involved democracy
Worried about her 2-year-old son and distrustful of government and TV reports that seemed to play down radiation risks, she scoured the Web for information and started connecting with other mothers through Twitter and Facebook. Many were using social media for the first time.
Mrs. Nakayama, 41, joined a parents group, one of dozens that have sprung up since the crisis, that petitioned local officials in June to test lunches at schools and daycare centers for radiation and avoid using products from around the troubled nuclear plant in northeastern Japan.
“It’s the first time for anyone in our group to be involved in this type of activism,” said Mrs. Nakayama, who now carries a Geiger counter with her wherever she goes.
Public dismay with the government’s response to last year’s triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown is driving some Japanese to become more politically engaged.
Mrs. Nakayama’s group has had mixed success. Officials in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward immediately started posting radiation levels in milk, but they say they will not start testing lunch foods until April. Still, Mrs. Nakayama believes she and others in what she calls the “silent majority” are making a difference.
“Women in their 30s and 40s are busy raising children, and many also work,” she said. “We’re normally too busy to really raise our voices, but this time we felt compelled to speak up.”
Many Japanese have been content to let politicians and bureaucrats run the country as they see fit. Quite a few of the mothers in the new parents groups did not even vote regularly.
But the handling of the nuclear crisis has deepened distrust of both government and mainstream media. The response is seen as slow, confused and less than forthright, a perception reinforced by a critical government report this week.
“People used to think of the government as something like a father figure,” said Tatsuya Yoshioka, founder and director of Peace Boat, a volunteer group involved in recovery efforts in the tsunami-hit northeast.
“But people are graduating from that. We are moving toward a more-active kind of democracy in which people realize they are the primary actors, not the government.”
The activism is small-scale, and powerful forces stand in the way of lasting change in a culture that frowns on nonconformists.
In the weeks following the March 11 tsunami, frustration over the sketchy information coming from the government about the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant drove many Japanese to Twitter and alternative media webcasts.
OurPlanet-TV, for example, relayed footage two days after the disaster from a freelance reporter near the Fukushima plant who reported the radiation level was quite high, the website’s director, Hajime Shiraishi, said. Within weeks, the number of viewers jumped to more than 100,000 per day from a high of 3,000 before the tsunami, she said.
A nationwide network of more than 200 parents groups has popped up to urge authorities to protect children from radiation, said Emiko Itoh, 48, a Tokyo mother helping spearhead the movement.
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