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Performing Antinuclear Movements In Post-3.11 Japan

David Novak
UC Santa Barbara

NOTE: The material in this post has been published. For an extended discussion of the project described in this article, please see: Novak, David. 2017. “Project Fukushima! Performativity and the Politics of Festival in Post-3/11 Japan.” Anthropological Quarterly, 90:1(225-254).

The summer of 2012 oversaw an explosion of public protest in Japan, specifically aimed at the restart of nuclear reactors that been shut down following the tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi on March 11, 2011. Each Friday in Tokyo, a growing crowd gathered in front of Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko’s office compound, beating drums, and chanting antinuclear slogans. On July 16th, the Sayonara Genpatsu (“Goodbye Nukes”) rally and concert featuring author Oe Kenzaburo and musician Sakamoto Ryûichi drew 170,000 people; later in July, huge crowds surrounded the Diet Building with a human chain.[1] In “sound demos,” protesters formed small brass bands and samba drumming groups, chanting “SAIKADO HANTAI! GENPATSU IRANAI!” (“OPPOSE THE RESTART! WE DON’T NEED NUCLEAR POWER!”). On June 29th, citizens surrounded the Diet Building with a human chain estimated at over 100,000 people. Noda initially dismissed the protests as “just noise,” but increasingly claimed to be “listening carefully” to the “unheard voices” of public dissent.[2] Noda met with antinuclear movement leaders in August 2012, and in mid-September, even as several plants went back online, the Japanese government announced a radical shift in national energy policy to phase out nuclear power entirely by the 2030s.

The vagaries of the plan did not satisfy activists, or quell general public anxieties about the restart of several plants across Japan. Many government and corporate sector statements insist that the plants are fundamental to Japan’s future, and Abe Shintarô — the Liberal Democratic Party’s victorious candidate in the December 2012 elections for Prime Minister — considers the protest movement uninformed and irresponsible. One of Abe’s first actions was to drop plans for the nuclear phase-out, less than one month after the policy was announced (despite a nearly 80% public approval rate). Protests have become subject to increasing police attention; public assembly rules in Hibiya Park now prohibit large gatherings, and some online activists have been arrested. Daily life in Japan has been radically disrupted. After the disclosures of deliberate cover-ups and misrepresentations of the extent of contamination, trust in the national government and in the energy supplier TEPCO has plunged. Everyday language in Tokyo now includes terms like microsievert and Becquerel; many citizens carry homemade Geiger counters, check “contamination maps” on the web, and only purchase food that has been independently tested for cesium exposure; the latest smartphone, SoftBank’s Pantone 5, includes a radiation meter module; the underground hit of summer 2012 was Rankin’ Taxi’s remix (with the Dub Ainu Band) of “You Can’t See It, and You Can’t Smell It Either”.

Public gatherings and music festivals, as well as mediated forms of popular music, have been crucial for communicating the antinuclear message in a near blackout of media coverage.[3] Japanese public groups and artists such as Shirôto-no-ran, Chim Pom, and Illcommonz enacted prominent antinuclear performance actions, including weekly drumming gatherings; brass bands and samba groups appear at every protest to rally the crowds. Meanwhile, renowned rap group Scha Dara Parr performed in Hibiya Park dressed as TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power) officials, bowing in mock apology to the audience before launching into an ironic celebration of radioactivity.[4] Audiovisual documentation of protests and performances circulated widely through social media, including Twitter feeds and the alternative streaming channel Dommune.[5]

In Japan, where social life is heavily influenced by structures of corporate hegemony, rationalized public consumption and rapid absorption of technological advancements, 2012’s wave of antinuclear activism and antigovernment sentiment may seem completely unprecedented (and, like the global Occupy movement in 2011, to have arisen from nowhere). But protests in opposition to technological developments and governmental policies have long been crucial, if under-documented, factors of public discourse in Japan. The “sound demos” adopted in the antinuclear movement developed as a “reclaim-the-streets” tactic in anti-war and anti-globalization movements in the early 2000s. Street performances have been crucial to local resistance politics since the 1960s protests against government collusion with U.S. military and economic agendas, and in historical political actions against nuclear technologies, in both weaponized and energy-based contexts. Public concerns with nuclear science became crystallized in artistic, poetic, filmic, and performance-based interpretations of the historical traumas of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the same time, musical productions of Noise, punk rock, and hip-hop helped concentrate general public concerns with an increasingly corporate and technocratic Japanese national culture.

This research project will document the radical shift in the perception of nuclear energy in contemporary Japan since 3.11.11, specifically as it is enacted in sound demonstrations and antinuclear music festivals. I hope to show in this project how the public understanding of technological risk around nuclear power extends from adjacent social contexts of artistic creativity and self-expression. My earlier work in Japan was partly concerned with the role of music and popular culture in representing the “technoscientific angst” of postwar Japan, both locally and in transnational reception (Sassower 1997). In my forthcoming book, I document the destructive creativity of technology among Noise musicians, circuit-benders, and other techno-punk performers and show how underground popular culture expresses submerged anxieties about contemporary social progress in Japan (Novak 2013). Noise has also been crucial in establishing regulations on population movement and public assembly in urban centers, especially in “sound demos,” and music festivals, all of which echo in national discourse since 3.11.11 (Novak 2010). How do music, sound and noise foster and contribute to open public dialogues about the benefits, risks and social impact of technologies? To make noise and disturb others is a social taboo in Japan. But in the confusing wake of the Tohoku disaster – compounded by obfuscations and deliberate cover-ups by Japanese government, power companies, and media outlets – the pretense of national harmony was thrown into a noisy disorder. The growing concern with nuclear power has become a flashpoint for ongoing public debates that broadly critique Japan’s postwar technological progress, as well as the nation’s track record in establishing public safety and social wellbeing. Underground art and popular musical forms have encouraged recognition of nuclear technologies and their potential and already realized effects on humanity, and it is already clear that the 2011 and 2012 sound demos and musical festivals have been crucial for raising public consciousness about the antinuclear movement.

Following up from my first research trip in 2012, during which I attended several antinuclear demonstrations and organizational meetings in Tokyo and Osaka, I will conduct the next phase of this project through an NSF-funded Seed Grant in the interdisciplinary Center for Nanoscience and Society at my home institution of UCSB.[6] In particular, I will focus on the annual performance festival Project Fukushima! which has been uniquely successful in bringing national audiences to the disaster-affected region. In 2011 and again in 2012, my longterm interlocutor and colleague Ôtomo Yoshihide joined forces with poet Wago Ryoichi and punk rock legend Endô Michirô for a performance festival intended to provoke public discourse about the future of the partly-evacuated city (the name of their hometown, Ôtomo said, should not become a generalized reference to nuclear accident — “another Chernobyl”). Only a few months after the meltdown, this group of underground performers brought audiences in the thousands back to Fukushima; noise musicians performed on stages, events were conducted in the streets, on local trains, and even in a public bath; the audience sat on a gigantic furoshiki cloth tapestry to protect the festivalgoers from the irradiated ground. International performances were organized in cities around the world to coincide with the festival, and some were streamed live or otherwise linked into the Japanese events.

In addition to his role as primary organizer and performer in Project Fukushima!, Ôtomo is the author of editorials about the role of arts and culture in the response to the Fukushima Disaster, and gives regular public talks about cultural activism (as well as widely-circulated blogposts and tweets). In one of his most widely-circulated lectures, entitled “The Role of Culture: After the Earthquake and Man-Made Disasters in Fukushima,” Ôtomo expresses his ambivalence about the possibilities for recovery, but also challenges listeners to band together to imagine a new future, and to use the cultural resources of imagination provided by art and culture to envision a new path forward.

Through a specific regional case study, this project will address global contexts of technoscientific anxiety in relation to nuclear power, and consider the role of cultural practitioners in making perceptions of science and technology sensible in public performance. Through this emerging research, I hope to show how public discourses and conflicts over Japan’s future energy policy, political governance, and environmental and man-made disasters are generated and contextualized though sound, music, and noise.


[1] For background on the human chain protest, see,, and

[2] For “unheard voices,” Noda used the term “koe naki koe,” literally meaning “voices with no voices.” Ironically, this phrase is politically resonant with Japan’s 1960s protest culture and for antiwar and antiestablishment demonstrators, among whom it was typically used to suggest something like “the silent majority.”

[3] NHK, Japan’s national broadcast station, and the Yomiuri newspaper, for instance, barely mentioned most antinuclear events, even when crowds were independently estimated from 50 to 150 thousand people. Sound demos and music-based protests have also been part of Okinawan resistance movements, where live music festivals re-occupied Henoko Beach to protect the site from the construction of a United States military base.

[4] For further examples, see Manabe 2012 and her contribution to this conference.


[6] This material is based, in part, upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Cooperative Agreement No. 0938099. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. I am also grateful for developmental support from the Northeast Asia Council (NEAC) of the Association for Asian Studies for funding preliminary field research.


Hayashi, Sharon and Anne McKnight. 2005. “Goodbye Kitty, Hello War: The Tactics of Spectacle and New Youth Movements in Urban Japan.” Positions 13(1):87-113.

Manabe, Noriko. 2012. “The 2012 No-Nukes Concert and the Role of Musicians in the Anti-Nuclear Movement.” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol 10, Issue 29, No. 3.

Noda, Yoshihiko. July 11, 2012. “Listening carefully to a range of views.” Accessed August 21, 2012.

Novak, David. 2013. Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation. Durham, NC. Duke University Press.

__________. 2010. “Listening to Kamagasaki.” Anthropology News 51(9):5.

Ôtomo, Yoshihide. 2011. “The Role of Culture: After the Earthquake and Man-Made Disasters in Fukushima.” Lecture at Tokyo University of the Arts, April 28. Trans. Isozaki Mia.

Sassower, Raphael. 1997. Technoscientific Angst: Ethics and Responsibility. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Yamazaki, Masakatsu. 2009. “Nuclear Energy in Postwar Japan and Anti-Nuclear Movements in the 1950s.” Historia scientiarum 19/2: 132­–45.

David Novak teaches in the Music Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He works on global circulations of media and sound technologies and is the author of Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation (Duke University Press, 2013).

  1. Nicolas Sternsdorff permalink

    This sounds like a very exciting project. As I was reading it, it struck me that it might be worth thinking about age/generations as a factor in how music is used to protest nuclear power. Just like you mentioned, the musical sections of the protests have lively drummers, samba bands or rappers, and they tend to attract a somewhat younger crowd.

    On the other hand, last year for the 1-year commemoration of 3/11, there were a day of events in Koriyama, and towards the end the evening turned musical. At this event, which wasn’t as young as some of the protests, I remember hearing John Lennon’s imagine and peace songs from Okinawa. Other groups I’ve seen do enka and more ‘folksy’ versions of anti-nuclear music.

    I’ve also seen this play out in how people call out “genpatsu iranai, etc.” at marches. Some of the newer musical styles incorporate the slogans and the public’s response into the music, while other marches use the truck at the front loaded with loudspeakers and one person calling the chant for everyone else to follow.

    It would be interesting to see if there’s some generational gap in music/noise production, and how they feed off each other. Have you come across opinions on this?

  2. Chihyung Jeon permalink

    Thank you for sharing your exciting work.

    I like the idea of using music and noise as a tool to convey public opinions and as an analytical tool for examining public angst regarding nuclear power.
    I’ve seen photographers’ works on Fukushima or staged performances as a form of protest, but have not had the chance of “hearing” the sound demo/events (because I live outside Japan and only get these news on print). But the soundscape around the Prime Minister’s office must have been impressive.

    Reading your post just made me curious:
    In Japan, is the nuclear power associated with any specific sound/noise in public memory? Or is it rather characterized by its silent presence?
    In other words, can the “sound demo” be understood as a protest against some nuclear sound or against the very silence of it?

    Chihyung Jeon
    KAIST, South Korea

  3. Hi Nicolas,

    Thanks for your insight! I completely agree that age/generation is an important factor in the organization and enactment of recent antinuclear protests, and you’ve pointed out a lot of the ways that this has played out (e.g, by incorporating “genpatsu iranai” chants into the music, etc). It’s significant that these protests have encouraged open-form styles — samba bands, drum corps, brass bands, and so forth — which are not necessarily song-based, but allow for ongoing jams, call-and-response participation and a more porous boundary between musicians and crowds, rather than a more directed or staged performance. The membership of groups themselves are not always structured by age per se… a lot of the drum and brass groups include members from 20 to 50, so it’s not necessarily younger people at the core. But it’s clear that the festival/party/sound demo protest, and especially the inclusion of rap and dance music, was driven by a new generational style of younger protesters. There’s a little more edge, a little more irony, and little more carnivalesque flair. Part of this is coming from techniques adapted from the transnational anti-globalization movement during the 1990s and 2000s, which connected Japanese activists with emerging reclaim-the-streets actions and a closer connection to popular subcultures and more spectacular modes of performance and media interventions.

    Musical style in Japan, like in other commodity-driven media economies, is instrumentally tied to generation, so the choice of something like rap or reggae or Okinawan folk or John Lennon is going to be pitched toward certain demographic subgroups. But in the main, it’s a question of how to reach across generations to express a general public dissent, and most organizers are aware of the need to be broadly inclusive. It was crucial for the 2012 antinuclear protests that they were not necessarily driven by any particular generational group, and that many different sectors of society were present (prominently, for example, groups of marching mothers with children in strollers) to give a sense of the social breadth of public concern with nuclear power. That said, it is true that younger groups have been behind many of the tactics that make the most noise and cause the most disturbance. The participation of drummer and brass bands, especially in the standing protests at Hibiya Park, were controversial, and some organizers expressed concern that the crowd should appear as “normal” as possible to best represent the Japanese public rather than allow the event to be characterized as a fringe subculture. Similar concerns about the fragmenting effects of radicalism are often at the core of organized protest (for example, the controversial “Black Bloc” factions in the Occupy movement, most visibly in Oakland).

    The article “Hello Kitty, Goodbye War” by Hayashi and McKnight (listed in my references) is very informative about generational differences around protest organization and the goals of diffused collective gatherings vs more narrative structures of grassroots outreach.They show how “sound demos” came to the fore during protests against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and how younger protesters used sound trucks blasting electronic dance music to gather large crowds in Shibuya. Older leftists found the party-style events unserious and unfocused, and tried to redirect participants toward a more familiar organizational structure and a more directed narrative of public education and consciousness-raising (including, as you mention, speeches delivered through a megaphone). The younger generation rejected this in favor of harnessing energy in different ways, and engaging different publics, and I think music and sound demos have been proven as an effective strategy for re-energizing protest in the wake of canonical anti-AMPO contexts.

  4. Hi Chihyung,

    Very interesting idea. I am not aware of any specific sound association with nuclear power plants. I think you are right that public sound demos, music festivals and noise-making are meant to contrast with a context of silence… in this case, it is the metaphorical silence of government, nuclear power companies, and regulatory officials, who failed to speak to public anxieties about the safety of nuclear power, even as they went forward with the restart of Oi and other power plants.

  5. Marja Ylonen permalink

    Hi David,

    Thank you for your inspiring paper that brings out interesting things about the Japanese antinuclear movement. I was not aware that opposition to technology and government is not a new phenomenon but has a relatively long history, although undocumented.

    I’m familiar with social movement and collective action studies and therefore it came into my mind that some frameworks could be useful in the analysis of antinuclear movement, for instance framing tasks (Snow and Benford) through which movement activists aim to mobilize people and to persuade them to join in the antinuclear demonstrations. In addition, formation of common identity has been regarded as one characteristic of social movement. Therefore one could ask to whom the songs are assigned, who are the target groups. Do those songs appeal to certain groups rather than others?

    In additon, one interesting thing could be to discuss the noise as a from of disturbance. What does the noise tells about the antinuclear movement and power relationships in the society? (Cloward and Piven on Poor People’s Movement).

  6. Hi David,

    So I’m completely out of my league here, but truly enjoyed your essay and the framing of your research. I find myself especially interested in the historic transition you mention from Japan’s technoscientific angst to its more recent willingness (in certain, generationally defined quarters) to embrace noise as a dominant mode of protest. What shift is there in the object of criticism? When you mention Japan’s history of cultural aversion to noise, I suppose something like the /bousouzoku/, their use of noise to challenge the establishment (and the ‘peaceful’ public’s fear and rejection of the bousouzoku) figues into this history. What other cultural precedent are there to Japanese attachments to, and aversion to noise (and the embracing of its opposite, namely silence (or calm, or solitude))?

    I suppose I’m being too much the structuralist in my comments here. But shifting to the realm of practice, I also found myself wondering to what extent the musical protests in Hibiya Park drew on other musical/sound gatherings in public spaces in urban Tokyo and its music scene. I have very limited experience in Japan—I spent most of my time here in the United States—but I was thinking of something like the /Suupaa (super) Yosakoi/ that happens in Harajuku every summer. Here you have an event that explicitly superimposes the modern upon the traditional, takes place in a urban mecca for youth, and yet is highly organized and administered. There is also a clear intermixing of the generations at that event. When you mentioned that there was in fact intermixing of the generations at the Hibiya Park protests, this got me thinking about what cultural rituals and venues are necessary to foster such intergenerational interactions, and how they might have been mobilized to constitute a new protest culture.

    Anyhow, thank you for this piece. I believe you and Manabe-san are both doing some really interesting and complementary work. I look forwarding to reading more of your work (and will be working backwards to read your past writings).

    Best wishes,

    Atsushi Akera
    Department of Science and Technology Studies
    Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
    Troy, NY USA

  7. Hi David,

    I read your project description with great interest as I think about the intersections among ‘more politicized’ sectors of the Free Software movement with genealogies of alternative music production, as well as with sectors of new-new social movements (anti-corporate globalization movements of the mid-nineties).

    How does local political manifestations express broader genealogies in and outside japan in respect to the anti-nuclear movement and the independent music production? I was curious to hear more about the connections between the Japanese noise scene with the broader independent scene (as there are different national histories and genealogies of alternative music) as well as the participation of established labor unions in the anti-nuclear demonstrations in Japan after 3.11.

    Thanks again for sharing this very insightful and productive direction for research!

    Luis Felipe R. Murillo
    @ UCLA Anthropology

  8. Hi Marja,

    Thanks for your helpful references! I am interested in your questions about the formation of a common identity among antinuclear activists, and the ways in which music and sound might play a role in framing tasks that help bring different sectors of Japanese publics into antinuclear demonstrations. I also appreciate your mention of noise as a disturbance that reveals different kinds of power relationships in society. The term “meiwaku” in Japanese is translated as “disturbance” or “trouble,” and it is sometimes invoked as part of the taboo against public protest; that citizens do not want to disrupt the balance of daily life by making noise or getting in the way of normal activity, which are essential requirements of effective protest actions. Protesters must necessarily disturb social harmony. And yet, of course, Japan is already a very noisy place — filled with the sounds of trains, cars, pachinko parlors, amplified music, and sound trucks announcing political platforms — so what kinds of noises are considered unnecessary and which unavoidable usually boils down to the position of the people (or machines) making the sound. The social perception of public noise has been a strong theme in my thinking since I began working in a working-class and homeless neighborhood called Kamagasaki in south Osaka in the mid-2000s. Noise regulations were part of the justification used by city planners to evict a large group of tent homes, driven by the amplified karaoke parties held on weekends by resident workers outside of a public park. The designation of the neighborhood as a noisy place added to its reputation as a dangerous and afflicted area, which has been increasingly subject to police regulation, partly due to noisy and sometimes violent antiestablishment protests that have taken place over the last two decades. This is increasingly a feature of policing across different contexts of protest. Noise regulations have been deployed in tamping down antinuclear protests in Tokyo and Osaka, and they were also instrumental in police actions in Zucotti Park and other Occupy encampments.

  9. Hi Atsushi,

    Much appreciation for your work in organizing this virtual conference!

    There’s a lot to say about different framings of silence and noise as part of historical and modern Japanese culture…. but I think you’ve tapped into a few great examples here. I remember bousouzoku well from my first time in Japan in the late 1980s, and how strange it seemed when they would buzz down the street at night in Kyoto. On the other hand, Japan has so many noisy social occasions. Really rowdy matsuri, and other festivals, and a general proclivity toward nigiyaka liveliness in parties and public events. As you mention, there are things like those coordinated youth dances in Harajuku (but haven’t these too been shut down as a public nuisance? That’s what people told me last summer when I came by on a Sunday…) I’m not sure, then, it’s really a shift or new mode of protest, from an aversion to an embrace of noise, or if it is something more about how citizens are grappling with techniques to demonstrate opposition to neoliberal technocracies that roll over public opinion without bending an ear…. and I think publics around the world are struggling with the need to be heard right now, from anti-austerity protests in Greece to Tahrir Square. So these are really global problems and global techniques, even if they have particular cultural resonances.

  10. Hi Luis,

    It’s true that there are some strong links between the emerging antinuclear movement and the independent music scene in Japan. In fact, the links between these different facets of social and political independence in the arts scene in Japan have been enabled me to transition into this research area from longterm work with music scenes… essentially, the same countercultural circles that organize the musical underground are composed of the people involved in socially conscious media and art projects, which are connected with political activist groups that helped generate interest in the emerging antinuclear protests in 2012.

    As I mentioned in the piece, two of the main organizers for Project Fukushima are independent musicians: Endô Michirô (from pioneering punk band The Stalin) and one of my longterm interlocutors, Ôtomo Yoshihide, who has been involved in many important experimental, noise, and improvisational projects since the 1980s. The Shirôto-no-ran group is another good example of the mix of independent media and political activism in Tokyo. Here’s their English-language page for more info:

  11. Ben Epstein permalink

    Hi David,

    Just thought I’d say that I find this to be a really fascinating study, and I hope it goes well for you. As well as going to listen to some of this musical output, I would be very curious find out how technoscientific anxiety (I think you could even talk about ‘angst’!) translates into music and how as you say culture can be a way to forge resilience in a context where silence is so… loud!

    My primary interest here I suppose is in wellbeing studies and I would like to ask you if you think that these performances and carnivalesque protests in some way help people to cope with the situation and if that in itself is a reason to carry on doing it. And indeed, in terms of social movements, was there a consensus amongst those with whom you talked about that this was about gaining a socially conscious ‘voice’ to speak out or just a kind of ‘exit’ from consensual everyday Japanese politics?


    Ben Epstein
    University of Edinburgh

  12. Hi Ben,

    I do think there is some credence to the notion that protests and performances are a way of helping people deal with and recognize an otherwise out-of-sight political conflict in a personal/sociable context. Still, there’s a lot of variation in the actions carried out about 3.11, and in voicing the antinuclear perspective. Most of the protests I observed were about coalescing an antinuclear public, which gained a lot of power in public gatherings in 2011 and 2012. These included a factor of self-recognition that helped to propel ongoing events, as those opposed to the restart were motivated by seeing their perspective reflected in a mass event. I think, too, that the centrality of embodied, space-taking protest around the world in the last few years reflect concerns with a sensibility of public social coherence that can somehow stand against the increasing invisibility and abstraction of neoliberal government negotiations of public opinion. But although this kind of sociality could be considered a mode of coping, I think the protests I observed were strongly focused towards a specific political outcome: preventing the restart of Oi and other plants and demanding that the government produce a plan for complete phase-out of nuclear power.

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