Methinks the Nation Doth Protest . . . How Much?

Politics Society

Japan, the popular consensus goes, is a country in which congruence and harmony are valued above all else. For many years I accepted this wisdom at face value and assumed that this tendency lay behind the seeming absence from Japanese society of any sort of large-scale civil disobedience, the strikes and demonstrations that are a periodic occurrence elsewhere in the world.

Gradually, though, I found that this had not always been the case. When wondering aloud to friends why visits to Narita Airport were accompanied by such stringent security checks, I learned of strife dating back to the construction of the airport in the 1960s, involving desperate farmers and forcibly seized land. There was information too about contemporaneous student activism that mirrored the youthful idealism seen across the world.

Nuclear Protests

Then in the hot setsuden summer of 2011, fear and uncertainty about the reactivation of nuclear power stations that had gone offline in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and the resulting disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power station came to a head. Dissatisfaction with what was seen as a lack of transparency on the part of both the government and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO, owner of the Fukushima plant) spilled over into a snowballing series of large (and still continuing) demonstrations, organized using the social networks that had for many become such a vital source of information amid the panic and confusion in the immediate aftermath of the quake.

These gatherings seemed to bring together a number of disparate groups: concerned middle class parents and grandparents; the calm, earnest “old left” baby boomers; the lively dancing and chanting of the new breed of “freeter activists”; religious and environmental organizations; and, interestingly, a small, far-right uyoku element taking the opportunity to rail against the then Democratic Party of Japan–led government and the social ills that they saw as a direct result of unwelcome foreign influence. The largest such gathering, on June 29, 2012, called in response to the proposed restart of reactors at Kansai Electric Power Company’s Ōi plant, is said to have been attended by some 100,000 protestors.

But still I wrote off Japan as a nation of regular protestors, especially set against the broad global context of the Arab Spring and other uprisings around the world. Then, in March this year, I started work at the Nippon Press Center, which sits across the street from Hibiya Park and near to the National Diet, the Kantei, or prime minister’s residence, other government offices, and TEPCO headquarters. In the months since, I have come to a surprising realization.

A Long History Reveals Itself

On an almost daily basis, the silence of our office is shattered by megaphone-amplified braying. The antinuclear brigade is a regular feature, along with assorted trade unions, minority groups, and the fevered tirades spouted from the black gaisensha trucks of the uyoku. Despite minimal media coverage, demos and rallies are happening after all. Diverse ones. Frequently. And although the turnout on drizzly weekday afternoons can sometimes be pitifully thin, these gatherings—which must be approved in advance by the police—do occasionally draw formidable crowds.

This is not a new development for the country. The demonstrations in June 1960 against the government’s attempts to railroad through a revision of the Japan-US Security Treaty that ensured the continuing presence of US bases in Okinawa and throughout mainland Japan brought as many as 330,000 people to the National Diet to voice their anger. There were clashes between police and student protestors and 22-year-old university student Kanba Michiko died in the crush, becoming a martyr for campus activists throughout the decade, which was also characterized by annual spring strikes.

I found out more about the work of director Ogawa Shinsuke, who documented village life in the Sanrizuka area whose land was earmarked for Narita Airport in the film shown below, and learned the true extent of the bloody battles between the police and an alliance of farmers, leftists, and students fighting to stave off the construction.

I also learned about the Gen’yasai music festival held at Sanrizuka to heighten awareness of the Narita situation, and of the involvement of many of the musicians who had brought me to Japan in the first place: Takayanagi Masayuki, Haino Keiji, and the band Zunō Keisatsu (Brain Police), whose extreme, revolutionary music was also an attempt to liberate them from the shackles of the status quo. Friends told me of parents and uncles who took part and were even arrested in these confrontations. Maybe the baby boomers weren’t so serene after all.

A Shocking Spectacle in Shinjuku

On the afternoon of Sunday, June 29, Tokyo’s bustling Shinjuku district was also interrupted by the sound of a megaphone, on this occasion wielded by a lone, elderly man. What made this particular incident stand out from the start was the precarious perch the man had selected: having scaled the girders of a footbridge connecting the station to a nearby shopping area, he sat and began his oration. 

The man spoke out for an hour or so against the government’s proposed reinterpretation of Japan’s famous pacifist postwar Constitution and the military activity this change in stance is expected to permit. At around 2:00 PM, noticing a ladder being readied to reach him, he doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire. The flames were quickly extinguished by the emergency services and the man was taken, severely burned but apparently still conscious, to the hospital. At the time of writing, he reportedly remains in a condition that precludes his being interviewed by police.

It should be noted that suicide as an act of political dissent—both from the left and the right—is not without precedent in Japan. In a saddening aside, it is also the case that in the years since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, there have been numerous reported cases of suicide among the displaced.

Article 9 and the Prevailing Mood

Already scheduled for the days following the drama in Shinjuku were large-scale demonstrations outside the Diet in support of the Constitution’s Article 9 and in opposition to the increased defense spending and potential for involvement of Japanese troops in overseas conflicts that some feared the reinterpretation of this clause might herald. Despite the sizeable crowds, the correspondingly large police presence seemed to adopt a firm but fair approach to crowd control—at least relative to similar protests I have attended in Britain. The mood among the protestors (again a mixed bunch, but this time obviously minus the right-wing element) seemed quite reserved and compliant.

The revisions were pushed through regardless, and although the cabinet has issued reassurances that the changes are nowhere near as sweeping nor as hawkish as many citizens fear, much disquiet remains.

But until the dissatisfied portion of the public can demonstrate that they are able to back up mass gatherings with decisive voting come election time, it is unlikely that their voice will resonate particularly loudly in the corridors of power. And if government policies which so far seem to be improving the economic circumstances of many (with some exceptions) can maintain their momentum, and the defense reforms prove not to be as drastic as many have feared, perhaps that will quell the deepening disquiet.

If, however, as some experts predict, recent tax increases prove insufficient to stave off a financial meltdown made more pressing by an ever-aging population, a shrinking workforce, and Japan’s astronomical national debt, perhaps the rancor will become more difficult to ignore. Japan’s iconic Mount Fuji is a famously dormant volcano. What kind of parallels can be drawn with the political will of the Japanese public?

(Banner photo: Protestors march on the Kantei to oppose the Abe cabinet’s reinterpretation of the constitution to allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense, June 30, 2014.)

Abe Shinzō nuclear power TEPCO suicide constitution Article 9 protest civil disobedience