- Associated Press - Thursday, January 5, 2012

TOKYO Japan’s nuclear crisis has turned Mizuho Nakayama into one of a small but growing number of Internet-savvy activist moms.

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.

Most are pressing local officials to test radiation levels in school lunches and provide more detailed checks of school grounds, but Mrs. Itoh and others also have lobbied senior government officials. Mothers make up the bulk of the membership, but fathers are getting involved, too.

“We’re still small, but some of the mothers involved didn’t even go to vote. It’s these mothers who are submitting petitions and making calls and gathering signatures,” Mrs. Itoh said. “I believe this will be a factor in changing the direction of our country.”

She said the Internet has been invaluable in connecting parents, partly because Japan has few forums for citizens to exchange ideas. The crisis has changed perceptions of the Internet among mothers, many who previously considered it a dubious source of information.

Separately, individuals and loosely formed community groups are going around their neighborhoods checking radiation levels or sending soil samples to laboratories for testing.

The Radiation Defense Project, which grew out of a blog and then a Facebook page, says its testing has revealed several “hot spots” in Tokyo with trace amounts of radioactive cesium it believes came from Fukushima, said group founder Kouta Kinoshita, a former TV journalist.

Another group is collecting signatures for a petition to hold a referendum in Osaka and Tokyo on whether Japan should use nuclear power. The vote would not be legally binding, but it could send a message to policymakers.

The government’s management of the nuclear crisis did little to instill confidence that it will be able to tackle looming problems, including a rapidly aging population and a public debt that is twice the nation’s gross domestic product. Both problems will burden the younger generation.

Still, the growing dissatisfaction may not be enough to bring about fundamental change.

Japan’s affluence is an obstacle. Most people live comfortably and are reluctant to make too big a fuss, even if they are unhappy with the political leadership. Culturally, it is considered better to adjust to one’s surroundings than to try to change them, said Ken Matsuda, a sociologist at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka.

“Most people aren’t hungry or angry,” he said. “People need a clear enemy, and there’s no clear enemy in Japan. Public anger needs to hit a critical mass. It’s not anywhere near that.”

Some Japanese wonder if the stoicism and perseverance that were widely praised in the aftermath of the tsunami could also be a liability.

“The disasters didn’t stimulate a real sense of urgency,” said Ichiro Asahina, who quit his job as a bureaucrat in the economic ministry last year after 14 years to establish a think tank and leadership institute in Tokyo.

“To stimulate change,” he added, “we may need to confront even more severe crises.”