Meet 281: Japan’s Anti-Nuke Lone Ranger turning protest into art

282 takes a stand.  ©Lilia Sonntag
282 takes a stand.
©Lilia Sonntag

Soft-spoken and shy, one Japanese man comes off as extremely eccentric at first sight. Far past sundown and in Tokyo’s humid summer night, he hides his face behind a pair of dark sunglasses and a white face mask. His real name is unknown, but you can call him 281_AntiNuke—or if that’s too much of a tongue twister, 281 or Nuke-san for short. As unassuming as he is—if you ignore the white face mask and the sunglasses, which stands out far too much—many are fascinated by him. One documentary maker has made him the subject of his upcoming film. He has been featured in publications such as The Economist and Rolling Stone Japan. A documentary is soon to be released on his mini-crusade. He’s left his mark all over Tokyo: large anti-government, anti-nuclear stickers which have been stuck mostly on public property. His work is even good enough to be highlighted at a Tokyo art space called The Pink Cow. But with all this fame come danger: Japan’s online right wing community have made him their next target. Sending him constant death threats, they are determined to unmask him and have him arrested in order to silence him.

While Japan’s online right wingers—or netto uyoku—target him, 281 targets TEPCO and the Japanese government for their irresponsibility following the events before and after the Fukushima meltdown, but his anger at the two has never always been there. One can understand that anger as the Japanese government and the nuclear industry began to push to move nuclear reactors back on-line while almost every day  new revelations of disastrous radiation leaks and mismanagement from the Fukushima Nuclear power plant—run by TEPCO–are reported.

Before March 11, 2011, 281 lived the average life of a Japanese male.

“Before the earthquake my art was limited to drawing art for myself or for my friends. I didn’t really live my life as an artist,” he said.

His participation in the political sphere was virtually nonexistent—at least minimum if one counted the fact that he dragged himself to a voting station whenever an election came around.

His attitude towards politics took a 180 degree turn after the nuclear accident. The weeks following the meltdown were registered with shock, but soon that feeling was replaced with outrage.

“As I watched news reports from foreign media outlets, it took me at least two weeks to understand the situation, but I was slow to notice what had happened,” he said.

Inspired by artists such as Taro Okamoto, whose depiction of the effects of an atomic bomb are famously shown on a mural in Shibuya station, and Chim Pom, who added to the mural after the accident, 281 wanted to find an outlet for his anger and a way to contribute to the anti-nuclear movement. It was then that he turned to street art.

But his art came with a risk.

Nuclear Rain--nobody wants it.
Nuclear Rain–nobody wants it.

“They (the right wing) love to search. In other words, they try to gather information on the Internet.”

As word of his street art spread, Japan’s netto uyoku—online nationalists—have mobilized to take him down. While there are those who would classify his works as art, others denounce them as prank posters and vandalism. Revealing his identity can mean arrest for defacing property. 281 hides behind his disguise and when meeting The Japan Subculture Research Center, warned us against photographing anything identifying features. His main means of contact with others is through Twitter. Still, that hasn’t stopped Japan’s net uyoku from sending him death threats or even putting his official website offline. His scheduled appearance at the opening party for his art showing was canceled at the last moment—despite assurances that there was a back entrance through the kitchen should the art space be overrun by anyone wishing to carry out a death threat.

Although activists like 281 who risk their safety to put on their message, the anti-nuclear movement is a losing battle. On December, 2012, the pro-nuclear LDP was voted back to power, and Shinzo Abe was given another chance to lead Japan.

“I was shocked and disappointed at Abe’s win,” 281 said.

When Abe made his comeback, shutting down and dismantling Japan’s nuclear power plants was taken off the agenda. The LDP are staunch supporters of nuclear energy, and during their campaign to take back the lower house, they stated that they would restart all of Japan’s offline reactors after ensuring that the facilities are safe. Last December, the LDP was voted back into power, giving them a majority in the lower house. The number of seats for Japan’s traditionally anti-nuclear left-wing parties dwindled to almost nothing.

“It was as if everyone forgot the accident,” 281 said, in response to the willingness of voters to bring back the very people who champion the benefits of nuclear energy.  For months, the Abe’s cabinet has enjoyed a support rate hovering over 70 percent.

The truth is written on the alley walls.
The truth is written on the alley walls.

281 is also fighting to keep his art seen on the streets. Many of his stickers in the Shibuya area have been covered up by other graffiti from other artists or scratched off, likely by the owners of the buildings themselves. This defacement of his work, 281 says, is symbolic of how the government and TEPCO have tried to cover up and erase the nuclear meltdown.

Nonetheless, the criticism, threats, and the near disappearance of the anti-nuclear movement in Japan doesn’t stop 281. At night this nameless, faceless activist roams the streets putting up his art and hoping that his message will be heard. Last month his work was featured in a public art space, The Pink Cow, for the very first time. In addition to his earlier pieces such as the little girl in the raincoat—of which 162 different variations exist as of now—other pictures show how 281 is branching out and addressing non-nuclear issues. For example, one piece which invokes images of Nazi Germany shows Abe standing on a hybrid between a campaign car and a military tank. Beside him is a solider manning a machine gun. Other pieces criticize big companies such as Uniqlo for corporate greed or former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda for his strong support of raising the consumption tax.

While the memory of the nuclear meltdown fades from the public consciousness, 282 walks a lonely road to remind people what has happened and warn them of what may happen again.
While the memory of the nuclear meltdown fades from the public consciousness, 282 walks a lonely road to remind people what has happened and warn them of what may happen again.

Although the crowds which once loudly denounced nuclear energy in front of the Prime Minister’s building no longer gather with the force they had a year ago, this lone artist will continue to oppose a source of energy that he believes Japan must give up. He is waging a quiet war using the streets of Tokyo as his art gallery, his battleground and his voice. Judging by opinion polls which suggest that most Japanese people do not trust the nuclear industry or nuclear power, he is speaking for more than just himself.

Special thanks to Roth Management for coordinating the interview http://roth-mgmt.com/

All photos were taken by ©Lilia Sonntag. 

281_AntiNuke’s work can be seen at http://www.281antinuke.com/ or on https://twitter.com/281_