TOKYO - Tens of thousands of protesters brought central Tokyo to a halt Monday, marching through busy streets to demand the government abandon nuclear power. Demonstrators, bused in from all across Japan, gathered at the capital city's Yoyogi Park holding "No nukes" signs amid sweltering temperatures, in the largest anti-nuclear rally since the Fukushima disaster triggered 3 reactor meltdowns 16 months ago.
Monday's event, led by Nobel-winning author Kenzaburo Oe and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, was the latest in a string of protests that have ignited the anti-nuclear movement in Japan. Protest organizers said nearly 170,000 rallied on the national holiday, though the Tokyo Metropolitan police said the number was closer to 75,000.
Japan relied on nuclear reactors for a third of its energy supply prior to the Fukushima disaster. But the public has largely turned against atomic power since, saying the reactors are not safe in such an earthquake prone country. The massive March 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami killed more than 19,000 and damaged or destroyed more than a million buildings.
"Life is more important than money," Sakamoto told the crowd gathered at Yoyogi Park. "Keeping silent after Fukushima is barbaric."
Large demonstrations are rare in Japan, a country better known for political apathy than activism. But the rallies have gained steam since Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda ordered the Oi nuclear reactors in western Japan back online earlier this month. That decision ended the country's temporary freeze on nuclear power, implemented after the Fukushima disaster. Noda has aggressively pushed to bring some of Japan's other 50 reactors back online since, saying they are critical to avoiding blackouts during the summer, when power usage is at its peak.
Anti-nuclear activists regularly protest outside the prime minister's residence every Friday night now. The gathering that began with just a few hundred in March, has swelled to thousands.
Noda has brushed off the protests so far, rarely acknowledging the crowds outside his residence, but the rallies have clearly become a huge headache - and to some extent an embarrassment.
Police have closed off some of the subway exits near the prime minister's residence, and limited the staging area for protestors to discourage them from gathering. But that's done little to keep them away. Organizers estimate more than 100,000 showed up to their last demonstration on the 13th.
"More and more people are gathering to make a point so I came here to join them in the hope that the Japanese government will hear our voices," Hiroko Sato, a 57 year-old nurse told the Associated Press.