In December 2007, I was invited to Japan by faculty at Meiji Gakuin University to speak about student nuclear abolition activism in the United States, and more specifically at the University of California (UC), the institution from which I recently graduated. My lectures focused on the University of California’s historical and pivotal role in the development of nuclear weapons for the United States government, student resistance to the UC’s management of nuclear weapons laboratories, and issues of privatization of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex and greater military industrial complex. My trip began in Tokyo, where I had the opportunity to speak on two separate occasions, first during a symposium on nuclear weapons issues organized by the Institute for International Studies at the Meiji Gakuin University campus in the nearby city of Yokohama. As my first audience was made up primarily of young University students, without extensive knowledge of nuclear weapons issues or much experience in student activism, I tried to focus my first talk on the basic narrative of UC management of nuclear weapons laboratories and student resistance to the continuation of lab management. So as to elucidate the substance of my lectures and to contextualize the primary purpose of my trip, I’ll briefly recount that narrative.

The UC has managed the two primary nuclear weapons laboratories in the U.S. since the labs’ inception in 1945 (LANL) and 1952 (LLNL), through contracts with the United States Department of Energy. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were built through The Manhattan Project by a team of UC scientists, led by UC Berkeley physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). Every nuclear weapon which has ever been built by the United States was developed by UC-employed scientists at LANL in New Mexico, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California. LLNL was established with the specific mission of developing the hydrogen bomb. The perpetual management of the nuclear labs by the UC Regents, the governing body of the University, has faced resistance among UC students and faculty for decades.

The faculty and many students in Japan were interested in the state of the nuclear abolition movement among students in the United States, and while I could not offer them much in terms of a cohesively organized, widespread, student nuclear abolition movement throughout the country, there does exist a growing network of young nuclear abolition activists, known as the Think Outside the Bomb network, which convenes through a series of conferences organized through the Youth Empowerment Initiative at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. Regarding the issue of student nuclear abolition activism, I was happy to speak about the technically informed and focused abolition movement at the University of California, which has historically focused on the UC’s direct structural connection to the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. This movement has additionally derived the support of several local non-profit organizations including, for the last five years, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s UC-Nuclear Free program.

In the spring of 2007, students and their supporters at UC Santa Barbara convinced the UCSB Associated Students Legislative Council to unanimously vote to establish a committee known as the Student Department of Energy Lab Oversight Committee (DOELOC). The primary purpose of the committee is to inform the UC student body, faculty, and surrounding community about the UC-managed nuclear labs through research and investigation and to give students an institutionalized means for overseeing the activities of the nuclear labs to which their University’s name is attached. Students involved in the DOELOC intend to facilitate its official establishment on other UC campuses in the near future.

In an attempt to pressure the UC Regents to sever the University’s ties with the nuclear weapons laboratories, the UC student movement for severance with the labs organized a non-violent direct action in May 2007. The action involved hundreds of UC students and community members, at least 40 of whom underwent varying levels of fast, ranging from liquid only to total abstention from all sustenance besides water, for nine days. While I was a UC student at the time, and despite my shared desire for nuclear abolition and UC-nuclear lab severance with those who did take part in that action, I chose not to fast. However, my proximity to and support of those who were involved proffered me much insight into that action in particular, as well as the opportunity to become further involved in the UC student nuclear abolition movement in general.

At Meiji Gakuin’s Tokyo campus, I had the opportunity to speak to an older, more technically informed audience made up of scholars, NGO representatives and older University students. Within that context, I was able to speak to the phenomenon of privatization sweeping through the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, the U.S. military, Academia, and other traditionally public spheres. After six decades of sole UC management, the U.S. Department of Energy revoked the UC’s status as sole manger of the nuclear labs, and put the labs up for bid. The University of California subsequently partnered with Bechtel, Washington Group International, and BWX Technologies, major firms already engaged in the most extensive operations throughout the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, and won the new contracts for the management of LANL and LLNL. Lab management now falls under the auspices of two limited liability corporations with even less transparency and even more immense lobbying power than the labs experienced under UC’s sole management. These new contracts are indicative of the further monopolization of the nuclear production chain, from enrichment, to design and infrastructure construction, to production, to waste disposal.

The privatization of the laboratories is part of a greater phenomenon of military privatization occurring under the Bush Administration. This development is worrisome as privatization of conventional and nuclear military production and operations creates a greater structural imperative for war, the expansion of military and nuclear activities, and the testing and use of conventional military and nuclear products, as these firms, like any other corporations, have imperatives of profit and growth to fulfill. During the question and answer period following my talk in Tokyo, I was asked by an audience member to clarify what I meant by “privatization of national laboratories,” as he professed that such a phenomenon in Japan would be “unheard of.” Furthermore, I was told later by my translator that he had a difficult time translating the concept, since the actual linguistic structure of the concept appeared to be a contradiction in terms. I didn’t have many answers for them besides the basics of government contracting and corporate subcontracting, as I’m similarly dismayed by the contradiction inherent to the concept of “privatized, national laboratories.” But I could offer them one point: As more governments adopt the neo-liberal economic prescriptions coming out of Washington, Japan not excluded, privatization may be coming to a public institution near you. Throughout my tour of Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Yokohama in Japan, I had the opportunity to speak with many people, young and old, regarding these issues.

I also met many Japanese peace activists throughout my travels working on a wide variety of important campaigns, all interwoven with the common threads of nuclear abolition and demilitarization. Several organizations and many individuals are working to strengthen and promote Article Nine of the Japanese Constitution — through which the Japanese government has officially renounced war as a tool of foreign policy — and extend its spirit and legal framework abroad. Additionally, there is a thriving movement against the continuing occupation by the United States military, through its maintenance of several military bases stationed on the Japanese archipelago. Demilitarization activists are working to prevent the expansion of these bases through non-violent direct action, focusing their attention especially on the controversial base on the island of Okinawa. I was truly inspired by the dedication and bravery of those who shared their stories and struggles with me, and I found rejuvenation and strength in the existence of a global network of individuals all working for a very different world.

Nevertheless, as an American, I found it personally difficult to travel through a country almost entirely destroyed through American firebombings and atomic bombings of Japanese cities during World War II, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, not to mention the continuing occupation by the United States in the form of ever-expanding military bases. I spoke to many young Japanese citizens who shared with me their experiences of the same sense of responsibility and remorse when traveling throughout China and Korea, countries which were exploited and ravaged by Imperial Japan. I recently encountered the same phenomenon when traveling throughout South America and befriending young German citizens carrying the weight of their country’s history on their shoulders. In a world that seems closer together and smaller every day, young people are finding it necessary to acknowledge the unpleasant history of their homelands, both as a means of healing as well as disassociating themselves, as individuals, from those horrible legacies.

Indeed I find it difficult to go anywhere in the world today without the reputation of the current and past foreign actions of my country’s government, no matter what their contextual justification may be, hanging over my head, despite my own personal disassociation with many facets of that government as my legitimate representative. While I was welcomed with open arms throughout my travels in Japan, most especially by those individuals who lived through the bombings and subsequent occupation, and are most aware of the current imperialist exploits of the U.S. government, I always felt like I ought to apologize even for that which I’m not personally responsible. I never did offer an apology on behalf of the U.S. government, as I’m not its delegate, but I hope that through my words and actions, my counterparts across the Pacific were reassured that there exists a movement in my country that parallels their own, and that the actions of the U.S. government less and less represent the will of its people. Throughout the rest of this piece, I recount some of my experiences traveling through Japan as a young abolitionist. I offer a critique based on my own conception of the problems, to which Japan is no stranger, which urgently confront my generation and the very existence of our world.

Kyoto, Japan, the country’s center of religious worship and cultural history, allows one to witness first-hand the all-too-familiar struggle that plagues the world’s centers of cultural heritage: the maintenance of indigenous tradition and culture in the face of corporate globalization. The spires of its many temples and shrines rise majestically above the city, sharing the skyline with apartment complexes and department stores, and drawing throngs of eager worshipers and international tourists at their foundations. Especially throughout the blooming of the cherry blossoms in the spring and the kaleidoscopic withering of the maple trees in autumn, the afternoon crush threatens to exceed the capacity of the anachronistically narrow, cobble-stoned alleyways between the sites. Yet it serves as a boon to the many local sweet and craft shops fortunate enough to have staked out a location close to the various site exits so as to justify the annual rent appreciation. Unlike the relics of ancient cultures throughout the Western world, which increasingly unabashedly share their plazas with the golden arches and feature a Starbucks or two within sight, Kyoto continues to struggle to maintain its local authenticity and historical heritage even as its intensively-branded center expands outward. Kyoto was one of the largest population centers in Japan to be mostly spared the U.S. B-29 fire bombings during World War II, which killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians and almost wholly destroyed the infrastructure of most Japanese Imperial cities — subsequently reconstructed under occupation by the allied powers, and primarily by the United States. As money poured into the reconstruction projects in post-war Japan, the introduction of the Capitalist market system and Western lifestyle by the United States and Western Europe allowed for the type of development of the new Japanese economy to largely parallel the corporate structure of Western business. Kyoto’s visible perseverance in maintaining ancient cultural traditions and infrastructure is therefore an increasingly unique and important phenomenon both throughout the country and around the globe in the face of destructive warfare and increasingly pervasive corporate globalization.

Kyoto has also lent its moniker to the first, albeit relatively modest, international treaty on reducing global carbon emissions in the form of the Kyoto Protocol, negotiated in Kyoto in 1997 but not coming into force until early in 2005 following ratification by Russia. However, without the support and participation of the United States, responsible for more than 25% of overall carbon emissions, the treaty will not suffice to significantly alter the course of global warming. Given the United States’ superpower geopolitical status and highly disproportionate consumption rates, any sweeping international initiative regarding any global issue, from global warming to the disarmament of nuclear weapons, requires multilateral cooperation and benevolent leadership by the U.S. government. Unfortunately, the United States’ rogue history of arrogance and unilateralism — displayed most prominently through gunship diplomacy and the usurping of various international treaties and UN resolutions on test bans, environmental preservation, nuclear disarmament, and demilitarization — has resulted in a lack of overall human progress toward a more just and peaceful society.

The eco-systemic finitude of the Japanese archipelago has its share of environmental woes, from over-fishing in its surrounding waters to the noxious air quality over Tokyo throughout the last century. But in a way microcosmically representative of the entire globe, the obvious finitude of Japan’s ecosystem has not prevented the corporate globalization model based on limitless quantitative economic growth from being allowed to continue practically unabated, just as it is around the world. And in response to its historical air pollution crisis and ever-increasing need for domestic power generation to fuel its growth, Japan relies on nuclear energy for over 30% of its energy production, presenting the seismically active and heavily populated island nation another pressing set of problems. Japan’s nuclear plants have experienced fires, reactor failures, spillage and leaks of radioactive materials into the environment, as well as the same exorbitant investment costs in reactors and enrichment facilities and the same lack of any safe means of permanent nuclear waste disposal that plagues the entire world. Despite the sustained existence of the same disastrous issues that the global nuclear energy industry and affected communities have always faced, many industry officials around the world continue to speak of a nuclear renaissance and tout nuclear energy as a clean solution to global warming despite its catastrophic history of environmental contamination.

The irony was not lost on me as I took advantage of the high-powered electric Shinkansen (bullet-train) on which I sped across the country, peering out the window across rice fields, farming towns, industrial cities, and a picturesque mountain landscape, on my way from Kyoto to Hiroshima, the site of the world’s first glimpse of the nuclear age. On first face, the Shinkansen appears as a beacon of mass transit technology in a chaotic sea of carbon-spewing automobiles, allowing commuters to speed across long distances safely and efficiently, decreasing street traffic congestion, with a carbon output far below that of aircraft or car travel. In its current manifestation in Japan, however, the technology is largely dependent on centralized sources of high-yield energy output; and when proponents abroad sell the idea of high-speed rail and point to Japan’s Shinkansen as a model, the idea is often coupled with the derivation of power through nuclear energy, all under the guise of fabricating a greener infrastructure with a smaller carbon footprint. Certainly, mass transit need not be tied to nuclear energy, and the Shinkansen is a modern engineering marvel for human transportation. But as high-speed, mass transit technologies require such massive flows of electricity, interested parties should be wary of the de facto partnership made conceptually between the technologies in some promotional literature as well as the actual overlapping interests of companies like Mitsubishi and Hitachi. Both of these corporations are primarily responsible throughout Japan and in some areas abroad for the design, construction, and maintenance of both nuclear reactors and high-speed rail infrastructure. High-speed mass transit technology should be part of a solution to global warming, but nuclear power never has been, and never will be.

Upon exiting the Shinkansen terminal in Hiroshima, I was immediately received and whisked away by my hosts through the busy streets of Hiroshima. On first face, the modern, bustling façade of the city is little different from the rest of the urban centers throughout Japan. It at first appeared that without some knowledge of the historical significance attached to the city, the unique and horrific history of the area would be hidden in a familiar sea of corporate billboards, busy salary-men shuffling silently through the streets on their way to work, and stylish young mall denizens ogling designer jeans in the windows of Western branded shops. Hiroshima hosts the growth of the same corporatized veneer spreading throughout the world through the vehicle of globalization, promoting the fetishization of a young, branded, bourgeois aesthetic and a culture of consumerism as the foundations of a new global youth culture premised upon immediate gratification and a skewed conception of civilized progress—a vision completely divorced from the physical limits of our Earth’s ecosystem. The same linear conception of progress as continuous growth, completely divorced from the reality of eco-systemic finitude, coupled with an anthropocentric value system promoting a vision of endless human mastery over the environment, allowed the world to be catapulted into the Nuclear Age and has helped sustain it throughout the decades. During my stay in this incredible city, however, I would come to learn that Hiroshima will never allow its citizens or the rest of the world to forget the city’s terrible history as the site of the world’s first human experiment with atomic weaponry. For in the wake of atomic terror, a new consciousness of peace and actual societal progress based on truth, compassion, and liberty from oppression was formulated, and a highly unique and increasingly rare public space was created and enshrined in the center of a city so that its citizens could hand down the city’s history and knowledge through the generations. Even after the last of the Hibakusha has passed on, the world will never be allowed to forget what happened on August 6th, 1945 at 8:15am in the city of Hiroshima, Japan, because the city’s very infrastructure is devoted to spreading its message of peace and hope that a different world, without the threat of nuclear weapons and all that they signify, can and must be realized.

I spent my first hours in Hiroshima guest lecturing on nuclear weapons issues and youth activism in the United States to a peace and international studies class at Shudo University. I was assisted by a young translator involved with Hiroshima’s “Never Again” campaign, which helps to empower young people to spread Hiroshima’s message of peace and disarmament. In my experience, Japanese university students are in many ways very similar to their counterparts across the Pacific Ocean. A few are interested in politics and change of the status quo, but unfortunately, most can barely wait to leave campus, grab some KFC or a mocha latte, and go to the mall. In Japan, I encountered many of the same impediments to social change I encounter in the United States. Certainly, many young citizens of advanced industrialized countries are simply not aware of certain issues or have been denied the tools of critical systemic analysis required to piece together the geopolitical history necessary for an informed understanding of current events and issues. Even if they are aware of local institutions’ ties to warfare, the existence of military bases, or the practices of various military contractors with operations in their communities, they are unsure of what to do with that knowledge or whether they even should be doing anything at all. After all, critical systemic analysis of global issues and events can be downright depressing, and there is an entire world of opportunities for distraction for middle and upper class urban youth within advanced industrialized countries who have a bit of cash in their pockets.

Just as in cities around the world, and in the metropolises of Tokyo and Yokohama, where I had spoken at both campuses of Meiji Gakuin University, Hiroshima’s downtown district keeps plenty on offer for the distraction of Japanese youth. They are similarly bombarded with glossy ads from every direction, which beg them to sink comfortably into the contrived bourgeois lifestyles depicted in storefronts and on the sides of buildings. In a country that is 98% Japanese, the ads often glorify the images of tall, blonde, Caucasian women in glamorous drab, seductively urging young shoppers to the various brands’ closest outlet stores. The almost kilometer-long downtown district of Hiroshima consists of an intensively branded strip of multinational outlets as well as Pachinko centers serving the lucrative and ever-growing gambling phenomenon across the country.

The existence of these sensorially and emotionally stimulating centers of consumerism throughout the cities of advanced industrialized countries fills a void present in urban youth, which I would argue, is largely rooted in disempowerment. I often encounter young people who, while they may not possess a critical systemic understanding of global issues and events, know at some intuitive level that something is very wrong in their world. And I often meet knowledgeable, studious, young people who care deeply about the state of the world and the precariousness of our future. They understand that the confluence of a plethora of ecological disasters, disease, mass migration, war, exploitation, and the production and existence of many thousands of nuclear weapons in the world shrouds our generation in insecurity about our own future and the future of our Earth. But they are hopeless about change; they feel powerless. Or the situation is just too big to worry about when compared to the slew of personal difficulties one faces each day in just trying to survive. They have to work, go to school, care for sick or elderly family, and still have some fun somewhere in between. That leaves little time for changing the world. So for many, it’s so much easier to forget about it all and follow the simple advice given by President Bush to scared Americans within days of the attacks on September 11, 2001: go about business as usual and go shopping.

But as corporate-driven globalization attempts to convince the world that it is just carrying out the inevitable, linear path of historical progress and that it is so much more convenient, cooler, and more fun to just go with it, there exists a dedicated, growing counter-movement for peace and justice, also globalized, working for a very different world. As one of the fulcrums of the global peace movement, Hiroshima draws thousands of tourists every year to an increasingly rare, central public space preserved for the critical reflection, intellectual expansion, and emotional expression of global citizens maintaining hope for a world free from nuclear weapons and imperialist war. Mere blocks away from the bustling downtown district, the Peace Park offers an expansive memorialization of the U.S. atomic bombing on August 6th, 1945. That bombing was followed by the Soviet invasion of Manchuria on August 8th, 1945, and a second U.S. atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9th, 1945.

Various monuments dedicated to victims of the atom bomb are erected throughout the tranquil park, including a memorial for the incinerated children who were not in school that day because they were commissioned by the Japanese military to build fire breaks. There is a memorial dedicated to the Korean slaves, approximately ten percent of those killed by the atomic bomb, who were incinerated while toiling in the factories of the Japanese imperial military. And there is, of course, the memorial for Sadako, a young, female survivor of the atomic bombing who, like many other survivors, contracted radiation-induced leukemia shortly afterwards. She believed, according to an old Japanese tale, that if she could fold one thousand paper cranes, that her wish for peace would come true. She died of her radiation-induced sickness before she could finish her project. But her story lives on, and children around the world still fold paper cranes in her memory and as symbols of hope for a world without wars and bombs.

Each day throughout my stay in Hiroshima, I stood for a while and meditated in the area of the preserved A-bomb memorial dome, one of the few buildings near the hypocenter not completely obliterated by the atomic fireball unleashed across the city. That daily ritual during my stay in Hiroshima kept me centered and the space provided in memorial of the bombing offered me something that is less and less allowed for in urban centers throughout the world: a safe space to just feel. As the A-bomb dome and the peace park are in the center of the city, Hiroshima’s citizens cannot go a day without a reminder of their city’s history. But the preservation of the dome, its surrounding, reflective space, and the museum have helped the city to heal and empower itself as a center for change and anti-war activism. Current events and issues seen through the eyes of a citizen of Hiroshima must pass through the filter of its own history, proclaimed truthfully, and bestowing upon the successive generations the responsibility for its preservation.

Only by way of an accurate internalization of our history can we hope to understand our contemporary world and its processes. Our historical knowledge allows us to sift through the rhetoric of elites and build a systemic understanding of our world that informs our interpretations of events and determines our reactions to them. The expansive and open public space in the middle of the city provides Hiroshima’s citizens and it’s visitors something which everyday is disappearing throughout the urban centers on Earth: a safe, public space, without distraction, where occupants are actually encouraged and trusted to come together and feel and think critically, and where one’s anger, outrage, and sadness at the fact that human beings could commit such horrific acts against each other are allowed to seep out and be psychologically processed through acknowledgement and comfort from the very infrastructure of the city. Through that processing and recognition, people are allowed to heal, giving their spirits renewed determination to focus on action for systemic change.

Nicholas Robinson is the Program Associate at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. He graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara in Spring 2007.