YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — About 1,600 people protested the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington’s presence in Japan during an annual rally across the street from Yokosuka’s base gates Wednesday evening.
The peaceful demonstration, which flowed along Route 16 behind police barricades on the opposite side of the street from the Navy’s most populated base in the Asia-Pacific region, comes at a time when popular opinion of the United States in Japan remains relatively favorable. But there remains a deep public mistrust of nuclear power as a result of ongoing radioactive leakage from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.
“America says that the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier has never had an accident, but that is safety dogma, like the nuclear power plants in Japan,” said Shinichi Obara, secretary general of Kanagawa Peace Activity Center, one of the protest’s organizers.
The protest was among the largest since the USS George Washington replaced the conventionally powered aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk at Yokosuka in 2008.
George Washington, currently away from Japan on patrol, is the only U.S. aircraft carrier with an international homeport.
Japan shut down the last of its 50 operable nuclear reactors for maintenance on Sept. 15, leaving the George Washington, when in port, as Japan’s only remaining online reactor.
“We are protesting against the fact that a nuclear reactor is located in areas near the nation’s capital,” said Yasunari Fujimoto, secretary general of Peace Forum, another organizing group.
In an Asahi Shimbun poll in June, 58 percent of respondents said they opposed restarting Japan’s nuclear reactors, while only 28 percent supported restarts. The remaining respondents were unsure. Despite the opposition, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, which remains popular because of economic reforms, plans to eventually restart many of the reactors.
Although the nuclear issue came to the forefront, it wasn’t the only one for protesters Wednesday. Some protested jet noise at Naval Air Facility Atsugi, or generally opposed the U.S.-Japan security alliance.
Obara also noted that this year’s protest marked the 40th anniversary of U.S. carrier presence at Yokosuka, when the USS Midway arrived.
A Pew Research Global Attitudes released in July showed 69 percent of Japanese holding a favorable view of the United States. The figure is down from the 85 percent in 2011, following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, and the U.S. military’s participation in aid efforts. However, the figure is far higher than its 2008 nadir, when only 50 percent said they had a favorable view of the United States.
A 2012 Gallup poll conducted for Japan’s foreign ministry showed that 84 percent of Americans perceived Japan to be a dependable ally, which was in line with other polls in recent years.