Tuesday, 20 December 2011

On Tyrants Only We'll Make War

I was last in Seoul during the insufferable summer of 2008, attending All Together’s Marxism conference as the Candlelight Movement shook Korean society.

Seoul’s a gloriously chaotic city, beautiful in its shambolic liveliness and, after months in the buttoned-down decorum of Tokyo, its energy and sense of fun were infectious. I have family who are Zainichi Korean and, over the years, getting closer to them has led me to get more and more fascinated and involved with Korean culture: Seoul was a sensory overload. Fundamentalist Christians shuffle up to you on the underground and whisper “embrace Jesus”; before you’ve had a chance to decide whether you will or not they’ve wandered off. Station platforms are crowded with women selling piles of everything from deliciously enticing pickles to perfectly priced socks. In summer months after business hours shopkeepers set up gas cookers outside their stores, and relax by barbequing snacks and drinking a few shots of shochu before heading home. For non-alcoholic treats you can stop at most street corners and buy peaches blended with ice and sugar. Koreans, too, for a puritanical and gauchely awkward New Zealander like me, seem emotionally liberated: after dark the pubs were full of salary men singing together and wandering around arm-in-arm. The summer felt celebratory.

That demotic, free-spirited city life wasn’t everything, though. Travelling by tube, I was struck by the straight backs of all the men, a reminder of the bullying and violence meted out as part of compulsory military training. Soldiers in uniform are a normal, and visible, part of city life. The city was a site of struggle: wherever we went we’d see the banners and placards of the Candlelight Girl, the movement’s symbol, and often stopped to spend time with little clusters of protestors camping out.

More sinister signs were to come. On the morning of Liberation Day – the day of light, celebrating when the Japanese were defeated – I left our guest house to buy some breakfast, and saw that the streets were crowded with riot police. The state had decided to crush the movement.

South Korea is, in the Western press most of the time, held up as an example of democracy. What we saw could, at the very best, be described as illiberal democracy. Our comrades in All Together base their analysis on the ‘state capitalist’ theories of Tony Cliff, and offer no support for the regime in Pyongyang. That hasn’t stopped many in their ranks being jailed for thought crimes, charged and imprisoned for translating works like Alex Callinicos’ Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx. All Together played a leading, and positive, role in supporting and shaping the Candlelight Movement and, for that reason, their conference was targeted. The university in which it was hosted had, at the very last moment, cut off the power supplies – for three days in mid-July heat we struggled through humidity with hastily-assembled generators keeping minimal heating and air conditioning at work. All Together members, who had sought shelter in a Buddhist temple following brutal police repression, were wanted figures, and, to get to the conference you had to walk past a phalanx of riot police, decked out in full battle regalia. The Saturday of the conference there was a major demonstration scheduled. We’d planned to attend but, early in the evening, conference organisers took us aside; they didn’t want us to go, C explained, because they couldn’t protect us or expect us to take care of ourselves in strange streets, and expected the violence to be sudden and intense. That night we spent, somewhat guiltily, in a local restaurant, checking our phones between courses to see how the cat-and-mouse chases of protestors and police progressed. The next morning we saw many delegates with stitches, and some still bleeding. O, our interpreter, had bruises all the way up his arm.

I’m not a physically confident person, and these details intimidated me. What sticks in my memory, though, is the joyousness of the event, the bubbling energy of the movement pointing in a different direction for Korea’s future. There were children from the crèche running about between sessions; the walls were decorated with union banners and campaign posters; the youth and energy of the crowd gave a clear sense of the forces welling up in the protest and social movements. And there was plenty of laughter. Most of the jokes got lost in translation, but some made their way through. Guest speaker Jonathan Neale, a movement veteran, a bear-like and warmly expansive American socialist, gave a talk on alienation: “I carry mine around with me as a reminder!” he explained, slapping against his belly. Jonathan’s been to many international conferences, and he can explain complex ideas in short, simple sentences – the meeting came alive.

All Together have dedicated a great deal of intellectual and political energy to analysing the origins and dynamics of capitalism in Korea, north and south. They’ve got a clear line for how to get the peninsula nuclear free: let’s start by ending the US occupation. They put their trust in workers on both sides of the border, and have never had any illusions in the regime beyond the 38th. A younger generation, impatient with the Cold War rhetoric of their elders, are less caught up in the demonology of the GNP, and the social movements in the South have freed themselves from poisonous legacies of earlier eras. At the conference, though, I was struck by how many people at question time still wanted to explore the situation in the North, and from the view of the North. After a solid diet of Western liberal accounts of Korea, it’s easy to forget that this is a nation dismembered and still at war, and one with a proud history of resistance to foreign occupation. What may seem bizarre and unpredictable from Washington or Wellington still feels dangerous from Seoul, but motives come into a much clearer view.

I left Seoul feeling happy, and having made many new friends and contacts. The Candlelight Movement looked like it would develop.

A year later, I found out my friend O had been jailed, arrested for distributing leaflets in a public place. There’s a chill over those summer memories now.


I’ve never been to Pyongyang, although friends have. A contingent from KEY – the organisation of united Korean youth in Japan – went a few years ago, searching out family members they’d never had the chance to meet until then. Those Zainichi in Japan who have refused to rescind their “North Korean” papers have made a very bold choice, and one that’s hard for many of us fully to understand. They’ve taken upon themselves many inconveniences – and have ruled out all sorts of travel, educational and employment opportunities – for the sake of a principle, and a principle around which they’ve few chances to organise. The statement in refusing Japanese or South Korean citizenship involves insisting on certain historical realities, reminding the world about colonialism, drawing attention to the justice they and their ancestors have been denied. It’s an extraordinary gesture, and one I’m glad I’ve never been forced to see if I’d have the courage to emulate.

My friend K went to Pyongyang, then, to seek out family, and to see the land she’s attached to without having been born there or even, to that point, having visited. What she saw won’t surprise, but should still upset; US-driven sanctions have led to widespread hunger. The regime’s autocratic rule prevented any real communication. The constant mobilisation for war (by no means wholly unjustified) lent the city a sinister, fearful air. It was a lonely, and difficult, trip.

Most of the “North Koreans” in Japan, though, aren’t from the north at all – their relatives are, in the main, from southern regions, and, after the war, took on northern identities for reasons of nationalism and political solidarity. In a country as regionally specific as Korea, the north really is another country.

The ruling classes of both Koreas have played shameful and grubby roles in manipulating the lives of Zainichi Koreans over these last decades. The DPRK, with the connivance of Japan’s rulers and of the International Red Cross, set up mass emigration programmes for Zainichi that resulted in many semi-forced removals from Japan. Who knows how many of those people were subsequently jailed or killed in the north. It was from Tokyo that agents of the Park dictatorship kidnapped Kim Dae-Jung in 1973, taking him to what came very close to death. Thousands of people in Korea, China and Japan are separated from family members and lovers due to the borders and ambitions of imperialism.

The Korean Peninsula is the site of an ongoing, and massive, human tragedy.


I don’t shed any tears for Kim Jong-Il. Another ruler falls in the year of revolts. Like my friends in All Together, my hopes are for a Korea united from below, by mass democratic movements of workers in both countries.

I come close to shedding tears, though, at the coverage his death has received: tears of frustration and anger. The idiocy of the mainstream media and the commentary of the so-called experts and hawkish IR figures, all concerned with Kim’s idiosyncrasies and alleged habits, don’t surprise me. More dispiriting, though, has been the memes spreading through Facebook and Twitter from friends and people who should know better. You’ll know these – Kim looking at things, jokes about Dear Leaders, Kim in Team America singing “I’m so rornery”. (The hilarity! Asians confuse their l and their r!).

Anger or contempt for a dictator I welcome, but this ridicule is dangerous. The racism mobilising it all should be too obvious to deserve mention: we have here another figure of the Asian as buffoon, as a comical figure playing out their foolishness on a European world stage their ambitions are unable to match. That this hinders thought hardly needs argued; that it effaces History, again, is worth pondering. The politics of the peninsula are frequently strange, but they’re strange for a reason, and those reasons are to do with war, invasion, occupation, starvation, and the constant threat of further US intervention. Smug liberal gloating over Kim the clown, Kim the cartoon character, reinforces all the colonialist piety that makes Western readers and thinkers, even the most well meaning, ill equipped to handle the charge and challenge of Korean material.

What images we receive, and what narrativising impulse is brought to bear upon them, matters here too: this Kim Jong-Il isn’t the one we’re trained to view, although the details of clothing here suggest points in common with Japanese life both the DPRK leadership and the Japanese would be at pains to deny.

Kim’s death opens an interesting, and, perhaps, exciting time in Korean history. He was a leader who – on his own terms – was very successful. What comes next will matter for the region, and the world. Chinese and US powers will be closely involved.

Who knows what will happen following Kim’s death. I don’t pretend to have any particular expertise. A cursory reading of US foreign policy intellectuals’ work, though, shows us that strategies have been debated for some years now, and none of them are strategies for peace. The Korean War is a tragedy, not material for the one-liners of the well-adjusted news junky.


A more personal note to end with. Paul Gilroy, in his “Multiculture in Times of War” (PDF), argues that the true fruits of anti-racist activity present themselves in a certain metropolitan ‘conviviality’, when racial differences ‘appear ordinary and banal, even boring.’ When different languages and foods and ways of living coexist so often, and so frequently, that they don’t need remarked upon we’ve moved some way, Gilroy suggests, to a better society. Not the racist white myth of assimilation, but not the enforced separation of multiculturalism either. Conviviality suggests the freedom –and political space – to be in one’s own being amongst others, to have the realisation, as Raymond Williams put it many years ago, that ‘culture is ordinary’. If everyone’s parents have ‘accents’, to take the example of primary schools near me, none of them stand out so much, and, equally, all of them are valued.

I’d like to imagine, then, a convivial world where a child growing up with Zainichi heritage can feel comfortable wherever they end up, be that Wellington, Tokyo or Seoul, and where the question of identity, so fraught and important for our struggles now, may seem to them boring, irrelevant, or overworked. The issue of belonging becomes particular acute when others try to deny you that right; left free to explore its implications alone, more complex relations may emerge.

That sort of world can’t be produced from the wilful misunderstanding and caricaturing that leaves so many so comfortable with racist depictions of Kim. It can’t be produced in a region still defined by permanent war, either, as the US mobilises Japanese and Korean nationalisms for reactionary ends of its own. It will take the reconstruction of a particular internationalist culture, one I’ve found, centrally, in the workers’ movement, the unions, and the banner of socialism. It needs, in other words, a conscious internationalism.

So, once more, it’s neither Pyongyang nor Seoul, but international socialism.

A Note

This post draws on others’ stories, and on situations that still present some real political risk. I’ve changed all the names of those involved; the letters I’ve used don’t correspond to real names.

I don’t mean to get into the Stevie Wonder habit here too often, and am sorry if those last paragraphs seem manipulative, or inappropriately personal. I don’t mean them to be, but the conjuncture of events makes it hard not to write about them together.

The young Kim photo is from the Hankyoreh website; I found it via @melnik0v's twitter feed.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Kimchi and Class Struggle

The best kimchi in Tokyo is to be found very near the Republic of Korea’s embassy. I found this out the difficult way, one particularly humid August afternoon in 2009. Gathered with a group of trade unionists in Hiroo Park, I’d joined a march in solidarity with workers at Ssanyong, who in that year were part of an heroic sit-in struggle, and were facing down severe police and company violence and repression.

Our group was tiny, but it is times like those when solidarity feels like it matters the most. Somewhere along the straggly march I noticed Azabu and was drawn in by the smells and displays. Timing counts in Tokyo shopping; who knows if you’ll be in that particular alley ever again, or, indeed, if the shop you’re visiting has been around since the Edo period or is doomed to an undeserved 5-minute life? I popped in for a few moments and, coming out with two bags of kimchi, rejoined the march.

My situation became more complicated from there. There was the matter of the heat, something no amount of facecloth dabbing or fan-waving could properly manage. The rally itself soon presented peculiarities of its own. We’d arrived a good few blocks away from the Embassy, and well out of sight of its gates, when the police stopped us and penned us in. Long, and detailed, negotiations began and, after much waiting and more sweating, we were allowed, in groups of five, to trek up the hill to the Embassy and, once there, deliver speeches to the lines of police waiting for us. It all seemed, even for Japan’s repressive standards, over the top, and I commented to a friend next to me. Grinning with a baby-boomer’s mixture of pride and embarrassment he explained that, on the first demonstration outside this particular Embassy he’d attended in October 1969, student activists had stormed the building in solidarity with the Koreans struggling under the Park dictatorship, and, in the process, ransacked its central offices. Since then the police had treated all Embassy-based demonstrations with the same aggressive zeal.

So, to no one in particular, and to my surprise, I learnt that day about a particular tradition in the Japanese movement: appeal. Without warning I was asked to “make an appeal”; too tired and confused to try out any Japanese, I made an incoherent hash of a speech in English which was then interpreted, for no one in particular, by a comrade beside me. “A participant from Australia powerfully appealed” (オーストラリアの参加者は「あなたたちの蛮行はインターネットですべて筒抜けだ)」, the official report rather kindly had it; the truth was rather messier and less eloquent. At my feet the bags of kimchi were now giving off a pungent, and distracting, smell.

The cultural alienations have stuck with me since that day and, for me, there is always an olfactory association of kimchi and class struggle.


The association’s not mine alone, though; in recent years the “Korean Wave” in Japan, and shifts in domestic labour and social organisation in the ROK, have seen important shifts in kimchi’s status as a semiotic object and political marker. Its place in the social formation indicates other, important, changes in North Asian politics.

Japan imports over 20 000 tons of kimchi from Korea each year, and, from the early 1990s on, most supermarkets in Japan have been stocking kimchi as a standard grocery item. At the same time South Korean consumption has fallen, and is falling still - Yonhap News in 2005 reported per capita consumption of 32.4 kilograms in 2004, compared to 35.1 kgs in 1991 – and kimchi is now rarely produced at home.

Kimchi’s status in Japanese culture follows, with the Hallyu, the Korean Wave, the changing relationship between Korea and Japan at both official and popular levels. For decades kimchi’s smell in a house or on a person was taken a sign of the ‘dirtiness’ of being Korean, one of those racist markers that manages to squeeze in a class-based point at the same time as it stereotypes an ethnic Other. Kimchi was the food of immigrant manual workers, the Korean men of day-hire areas, the odd habit of an alien and subjugated people. Now, of course, it is the food of the Wave, a product to be incorporated in various ways (all that kimchi ramen and those kimchi chips) when it isn’t adding a touch of Hallyu glamour to an otherwise ordinary shopping trolley. There’s much that’s positive about this – the Korean Wave has, whatever its seeming superficiality, led to real advances in anti-racist understanding but - as much as these moves ‘from below,’ shifts in power and confidence from above play out in domestic consumption.

The situation in Korea is more complex still. Kimchi was for so long a staple of Korean dining, its status, as Kyung-Koo Han argues, “was peripheral, not central to a meal…This gave kimchi a somewhat ambivalent place in the meal structure of Korea; as a basic item, something always served, it was not counted as one of the proper side dishes in traditional Korean table d’hote.” Now, though, with the consumption of kimchi in the South,

A deep sense of national anxiety about globalisation undergrids kimchi’s prominence as a national symbol in a country traumatized by war, division, and rapid industrialisation and urbanisation.

Han’s essay on “The ‘Kimchi Wars’ in Globalising East Asia” traces this ‘deep anxiety’ across domestic and international politics. The wars of his title are trade wars between Korea, China, and Japan: as kimchi’s appeal spreads, so to does its production, and many Korean nationalists (to say nothing of kimchi makers) fret that Japanese kimuchi (キムチ) and Chinese producers undermine the integrity and essence of the dish. Behind that concern lies regional competition, Korea’s rise as a geo-political player, imperialism, and capitalist competition. Kimchi’s appearance, in modified form, in Vietnamese cuisine reminds us of an earlier tragedy too. It was ROK soldiers fighting in the American War who had it brought to Vietnamese attention.

In the domestic sphere, kimchi enters into the realm of the “jargon of authenticity.” For centuries its production was one of the many pieces of drudgery women carried out in the home and, with manufactured kimchi production developing through the 1970s, working women abandoned the back pain and stained bathtubs of an earlier era. Now, though, it is the wealthy who make their own and, in a strangely reified piece of labour, use the maintenance of tradition to assert their own authenticity and particular cultural connections.

If mass production saved women many hours’ labour it led to important cultural losses too, though, and that story is another example of kimchi and politics. Korea’s (in)famous regionalism matters, and “the industrialisation and commercialisation of kimchi production” in the south fed into other discourses around the ROK as an ‘imagined community.’

Kyung-Koo Han:

Although the customers for commercially produced kimchi were from all over South Korea, the kimchi factories were located in Seoul and the surrounding Kyonggi area and produced kimchi that imitated Seoul tastes, which were considered the least objectionable and most common. One reason why the flavour of Seoul and Kyonggi-area kimchi has become the commercial standard is not that it was the most popular but that it met the least resistance when served in blind tastings to customers from different regions. Kyongsang people may not love Seoul kimchi, but they can put up with it, something they may find more difficult to do with Cholla kimchi. Cholla people may similarly favour Seoul kimchi over Kyongsang kimchi. Industrialisation thus brought about the birth of ‘Korean’ kimchi.

Han’s research draws out kimchi’s connections as part “of a moral panic over Korean family life, Koreans’ health, the Korean economy, and Korean identity itself.”


Here in New Zealand, I’m forced into a compromise position. None of the New Zealand-made kimchi I have tried is at all satisfactory; none of the imported varieties are at all affordable. So at our house we take turn about, one week buying a pack of New Zealand kimchi, the other week treating ourselves to a kilogram Chongga’s Chinese cabbage or radish kimchi.

It’s a trivial, and domestic, detail, but one, I suspect, not all that uncommon in our city now.

We’ve just seen a new parliament elected, including the reactionaries and anti-immigrant forces in New Zealand First. Already calls for assimilation are being repeated. And to what is the immigrant to assimilate into? It doesn’t suit the forces of racism, yet, for the answers to that question to be made obvious. They will in time and, perhaps, passing the Korean supermarket Haere Mai on my way down Dixon Street someday soon, I’ll find myself on a protest with a week’s kimchi all over again.


Kyunng-Woo Han’s essay is chapter in Laurel Kendall (ed.), Consuming Korean Tradition in Early and Late Modernity (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011).

Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee’s book Eating Korean, as well as containing some fabulous kimchi recipes, has some wonderfully moving, and beautifully written, short pieces on the cultures of food, immigration,and memory. She’s a great author.

The two protest photos I have reproduced from the LaborNet blog.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Crisis in Korea

When quizzed about what drew them to political activity, friends my age often bring up the sanctions against Iraq as an example of a world event that forced them into action. It was hard, observing that ongoing criminal brutality through my teenage years, and, later, learning of Madeleine Albright’s obscene justification of that cruelty, not to see in these figures a symbol for all that was wrong with US power and privilege. Hundreds of thousands of children dead was an acceptable price for a proponent of ‘humanitarian intervention’ to pay. What did she purchase for this price? The results of that are visible to this day.

The sanctions against North Korea, though, receive far less attention and draw far less outrage; it’d do us well to ponder why, and to consider consequences. Until the early 1990s, when they were still, loosely, part of the world around the Soviet Union, the North Korean economy was in something like a reasonable shape. Isolated following the Soviet collapse, and in the face of a programme of US-drive sanctions, the results for ordinary people in the North have been catastrophic. Almost 18% of North Korean children are malnourished. The regime of sanctions, unsurprisingly, and like elsewhere, serves no purpose other than hurting the weak, the poor, and the vulnerable – in a grisly irony, though, this piece of US war by other means is in turn used now to justify further US threats and interventions, all bolstered by claims that the North is a ‘failed state’ unable or unwilling to feed its own people. Having denied the possibilities for trade and food that might lift living standards in the North, the US now uses the misery it has created as a spur to further aggression and threats.

The political class in the West, in other words, whilst happy to circulate decontextualised and well-nigh racist accounts of North Korea as a ‘bizarre’, ‘secretive’ rouge state, plays an active role in the region’s subjugation. The Koreas are still at war, and the tragic history of colonialism, imperialism and occupation on the Korean peninsula plays and active, and determining, role in shaping its deformations and sorrows. And yet one could read great stacks of works about the peninsula, putatively scholarly as much as journalistic, and never learn anything of this historical and geopolitical context.

Tim Beal’s important new book, then, Crisis in Korea: America, China, and the Risk of War, is especially welcome. This book is insightful, careful, and considered – rare enough qualities in commentary on Korean affairs – and I have learnt a good deal from reading it. For some decades now Beal and a small group of co-thinkers have been compiling reports, documents and analysis trying to give a sober view of the dynamics of the Korean Peninsula, and this latest book is an intervention into a situation Beal sees, convincingly in my view, as extremely dangerous. That this work is carried out from the obscurity of New Zealand is nicely appropriate, New Zealand having played, after all, a grubby and bloody role both in the Korean War and in the oppression and sometimes forced removal of Koreans from Japan after World War Two.

Crisis in Korea describes the North as an “autocratic Confucian state”, one that survives because it is “an expression of Korean nationalism”. Opposing wilder stories of Kim Jong-Il as an unpredictable evil genius, Beal shows that the North’s ruling class are trying to do what ruling classes around the world try to do; survive, trade, and stay secure. The North – with tens of thousands of US troops at its borders, and facing the hostility of the world’s largest nuclear-armed state – can have nothing beyond defensive ambitions. Beal documents how, when faced with compromise from Washington, Pyongyang has in turn compromised; when faced with aggression, however, they have responded in turn.

Two factors complicate this situation now, though, and in worrying ways. One is the rise of China. Beal writes that “in the long term, especially with the reconnection of rail and road links, ROK-China economic interaction will be to the benefit of the DPRK” (2005, 73), and it is obvious how direct land links between Seoul, China and the European continent would suit capitalists in all three areas. It’s precisely this prospect, though, that encourages hawks in Washington. If there is to be a confrontation between a declining US hegemon and a rising Chinese one, the Korean peninsula is the obvious place for this confrontation to take place. That’s an obvious tragedy for the Koreans, north and south.

Another complicating factor Beal ponders is how Korea fits in the Obama administration’s plans. George Bush had a coherent, if terrifying, Korea policy – he and John Bolton talked up the prospects of war, included the DPRK in the “Axis of Evil”, and generally pursued the grand strategy of the American Empire via provocations and swagger. This was a disaster for the peninsula, undoing many of the gains worked up slowly through the years of the ‘sunshine policy’, but it did have a kind of narrative coherence and clarity. Bush chose Korea as one of the places a neoconservative US imperialism could gain the edge over its Chinese rival.

The Obama years, in contrast, Beal argues, have been characterised by “strategic paralysis.” Distracted by domestic opposition, and bogged down in an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, Obama and Clinton have, on Beal’s reading, offered little in the way of Korean policy. In this gap Lee Myung-Bak has pushed an aggressive, and confrontational, line, for his own political ends and geopolitical ambitions. South Korea, like Japan, may have started out as a client state of US imperialism – Beal shows how its economic growth spurs some in its ruling circles to imagine moves that may benefit them without the US overlords being as keen.

Central to these recent years, and to this tension between a distracted White House and an ambitious Blue House, was the sinking of the Cheonan. This has been widely reported as an open-and-shut case of DPRK aggression, motivated by the succession issue. Beal unpacks the detail of the sinking, and its aftermath, and shows how unlikely this explanation in fact is: the DPRK has scarce motive for carrying out the attack (it has cost the North millions, Beal reports, in lost revenue as a result of sanctions following the sinking), and the circumstances of the sinking are unclear and confused. Some of Beal’s reviewers have painted him a conspiracy theorist, but this is unfair: Crisis in Korea doesn’t posit a villain for the Cheonan incident. What it does, rather, is show how suspicious – and swift – the apportioning of blame was, and whose interests it served.

Besides, why, if they wanted to use the incident to bolster Kim Jong-un’s credentials and threaten its neighbours, would the North then deny they were responsible?

This book – like his North Korea: the Struggle Against American Power – makes for difficult reading. In part this is due to the subject matter, which is complicated in upsetting ways and full of examples of useless suffering and the needless waste of empire. Beal’s a pedestrian stylist at best, too; what makes the book so difficult, though, is also what makes it important. He has set himself the task of generating a kind of anti-narrative, unpacking the assumed wisdom and detail of the mainstream reports of the DPRK, insisting on the complexity and context underneath all the fervid speculation about Kim Jong-Il’s consumption tastes or fairy tales about a rogue state set on world war. Where other books might be breezier and easier to follow, Beal’s work insists on stray details, difficult or unsatisfactory explanations, and complex motives. If, at times, this feels like reading a book of marginal glosses and commentaries, that may be no bad thing: if the conventional account has this many inconsistencies and problems, what does this tell us about the standard of mainstream reporting?

Those fairy tales have consequences: 52% of Americans surveyed in 2009 felt that North Korea posed a “very serious threat” to America’s security. The very great virtue of Beal’s book is that, if read carefully, it demolishes each and every assertion on which that fear and concern has been generated.

The agonies of the Korean Peninsula, in almost Beckettian ironies, reflect the absurdity and grisly strangeness of the global order. Were the stated goal of the US military presence in the South to be realised – a peacefully united Korean peninsula – this would generate a crisis for the US itself, undermining the justification for its mass of bases in the region and bolstering its rival China. The north’s most vociferous opponent – George Bush Jnr – who made so much of his enemy’s dynastic succession, himself is part of a political dynasty. The South was long ruled by Generals eager to take up civilian titles as Presidents; the North has a leader and leader-in-waiting who both have military titles but no experience as leaders of armies. The US possesses weapons of mass destruction, and has used them, and produced a concoction of lies to justify invading Iraq, but the North’s weapons, and the strange bombast of its public statements, are used as reasons for US aggression.

These ironies fit a more sinister pattern, for, as Beal argues “those who want an authoritarian society in the South also want one in the North to justify it and they also want a continued state of tension” (2005: 165).

This book is an essential resource for those who want to understand, and argue against, that state of affairs. It’s in imagining the alternatives to the present, though, that I’m in least agreement with Beal. He taught for many years in a business school, and this current work – deeply informed, useful, and scholarly – reflects that background in good ways as well as bad. At one point he remarks that “only the left uses the term ‘imperialism’, and since the left does not remotely influence US foreign policy there is little point spending much time on it here.” (2011, 59). He goes on to remark that imperialism is “ultimately the most important construct for analysing America’s interaction with the world”, but the tension is evident.

Most of Crisis in Korea documents the history and geopolitics of the peninsula as seen from above, from the corridors of power. But what of the self-activity of ordinary Koreans, of the workers’ movement and so on? The great developments of recent Korean history – democratisation, the end of the rule of the generals, the rise in social movements that could sustain the Sunshine Policy – all came about through mass mobilisations, and through political formations determined to, as the saying went, be realistic and demand the impossible. Those dynamics will be, hopefully, as significant in any resolution of the Korean War as the machinations from above.

In Beal’s conclusion from his last book, though, a conclusion this latest book only reinforces, I’m in full agreement:

We can hope that peace, and prosperity, will prevail, but we cannot be confident. All we can be sure of is that the decision will be made in Washington. Not without outside constraints and influences, to be sure, but ultimately the power for Korean peace or war, for continued privation or for economic growth and transformation, lies with the United States. And that is where the responsibility rests as well.


You can buy both Crisis in Korea (2011) and North Korea: the Struggle against US Power (2005) here. A radical publisher like Pluto faces all sorts of business constraints and challenges, and we need more heterodox and dissident voices on Korea being heard, so, if you can’t afford to buy this book, I would try and get it into your local library. Beal’s an important critic, and I’m glad his work is available.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Drifting into a certain vein of thought

I’ve always been hostile to what Seamus Heaney, following Wilde and “The Decay of Lying”, calls “the Japanese effect, the evocation of that precise instant of perception” that stands in as the legacy of Imagism in so much contemporary poetry, for which we “are ready to grant such evocation of the instant a self-sufficiency of its own.”

This is what accounts for the ghastliness of so many poetry readings, where you’re expected to keep your features frozen in pretence of rapture as someone offers loving details of their refurbished kitchen, recent meals or other suitably ‘sensitive’ and alive experience. Direct confrontations with Japanese material compounds the situation, and, as I’ve argued elsewhere, poetic responses to Japan have sustained older rhetoric as much as they’ve offered new ways of seeing.

Field of Autumn Leaves

Haiku, responsible for so much of this mess, have irritated me as much for their effects elsewhere as they have for any individualised failing. Besides, don’t those rules – the seasonal word and so on – seem somehow to exclude so much that’s important, and exciting, and true? Why settle for sakura when you’ve got Akihabara?

Frederick Seidel, whose poetry I still remember discovering in the LRB one sweaty morning, crushed in the rush hour of the Tokyu line, captures my desire for Tokyo:

Tokyo is low
And manic as a hive.
For the middle of the night they have silent jackhammers.
Elizabethan London with the sound off. Racially pure with no poor.

Mishima himself designed the stark far-out uniform
His private army wore, madly haute couture. He stabbed the blade in wrong
And was still alive while his aide tried in vain
To cut his head off as required.

Moshi-moshi I can’t hear you. I’m going blind.
Don’t let me abandon you, you’re all I have.
Hello, hello. My Tokyo, hello.
Hang up and I’ll call you back.

What Seidel’s creepy energy points to is the exhaustion and slackness in so many English-language haiku, the ponderous and deadly self-importance that blights even innocuous and inoffensive observation. Where, amidst all these heavy-handed nature poems, is the English equivalent of the senryu (川柳) the short poem with wit or humour?

The pathos of things

Roland Barthes’ lectures on the haiku felt, at first, like they were going to help sustain my antipathy:

Second problem: “poetic” translations of haiku. Some translators have sought to translate the 5-7-5 syllables into (unrhymed) French verse (cf. Etiemble). But to do so makes no sense. Our ability to detect a meter, a beat, a syllabic rhythm is dependent on having already had the metrical formula whispered to us by our poetic culture, on the code functioning like a route, a path, imprinted onto, incised onto our brains that’s then retraced, recognised in the performance of the poem; there is no rhythm as such; all rhythm is cultural; otherwise, the formula falls flat (it isn’t a formula): it doesn’t work, it exerts no fascination, it fails to send us to sleep. What I mean is: the function of all rhythm is either to excite or to calm the body, which, on a certain level, at some, distant, profound, primitive point in the body, amounts to the same thing (25)

The poetic is the enemy of poetry here, as in so many other instances, but Barthes’ case for the haiku has led me back to the form. More than the “Japanese effect” being a case of imagism assimilating to some sort of impressionism, Barthes demands that the haiku be read as “the conjunction of a “truth” (not a conceptual truth, but of the Instant) and a form.” The combination of image and observation, for Barthes, should startle, not settle, a reader: “a good definition of the haiku: it doesn’t stabilize movement; it divides Nature up rather than abstracts it.” (51) To work in languages other than Japanese, this approach demands more than a sing-song stillness.

Dorothy Molloy has composed a haiku that, I suspect, Barthes would have taken great pleasure in reading:

Sunlight in a gutter,
butterbright, apricot, peach,
October, leaf-theif.

Paul Muldooon’s sixty-first “Hopewell Haiku” managed a similar sort of fun and inventiveness:

Bivouac. Billet.
The moon a waning of lard
on a hot skillet.

These two poems are among many delights in Our Shared Japan: an Anthology of Contemporary Irish Poetry put together by Irene De Angelis and Joseph Woods. Irish-Japanese literary engagement has been intense and sustained since the late nineteenth century, and the works in this collection show how much energy and inventiveness contemporary writers – in both English and Irish – are able to take from Japanese literary and social material. Ireland hasn’t the complicated history of racism and violence marking its connections to Japan that still burden imaginative relations in the white settler colonies of New Zealand and Australia so, in some ways, the poets’ tasks are simpler. They go, look, and listen. There is, though, a sophisticated awareness of what to avoid apparent in a number of the poems collected here (Ciaran Carson: “Investing in the Zen is inadvisable”), and a good sense of exploration.

The pleasure of an anthology, too, is that, after a while, it doesn’t matter so much which poet you’re reading; the poems themselves do more of that work of recognition. Barthes linked this sense to the productiveness of the haiku form itself:

in haiku, ownership trembles: the haiku is the subject, a quintessence of subjectivity, but that’s not the same thing as the ‘author.’ Haiku belong to everyone in the sense that it can seem as if everyone’s writing them – in that it’s plausible that everyone could be writing them. That is what convinces me that the haiku is of the order of Desire, in that it circulates: in that ownership – the auctoritas – is passed on, circulates, takes turns, as in Pass-the-Parcel. (33)

In keeping with his own training and outlook, Barthes recognised in the haiku the potential for something like alienation effects, poetic shifts in register that force a new way of seeing from the reader:

Classical schema: perception via one of the senses conveys a generic sensation: a sound conveys music, etc. Now, haiku can reroute these circuits, make “faulty” connections: a sound will convey a tactile sensation (heat, cold); a kind of heterogeneous, “heretic” metonymy.

Here’s Paula Sheehan:

My head in the clouds
in the bowl of Akiko’s
mother’s white miso.

At its best, though, an alienation effect will do more than alter seeing; it will also demand new thinking. Barthes: “Between haiku and narrative, a possible intermediary form: the scene, the little scene. Cf. Brecht, street scenes and the gestus.” (88) The “Japanese effect”, deployed this way, is of use not in its access to prettified description, but in the way it offers short-cuts to representations of History. Tony Curtis manages this in his “Northern Haiku”:

On an Antrim bog
a wall divides the wet land,
planted in the past.

Shot twice in the head.
Once in each astonished eye.
History is blind

Over the dark Foyle
the bark of Kalashnikovs,
an old Derry air.


All quotes I’ve taken from Roland Barthes, The Preparation of the Novel, trans Kate Briggs (NY: Columbia UP, 2011). This is an English translation of notes from his Lecture Courses and Seminars at the College de France 1978 – 79 and 1979-80.

Seamus Heaney’s phrase, and all the poems quoted here, are from Irene De Angelis and Joseph Woods (eds.), Our Shared Japan (Dublin: The Dedalus Press, 2007). You can buy Our Shared Japan here. Wilde’s account of “the Japanese effect” is much cleverer, and funnier, than the use I’ve put it to here: you can read “The Decay of Lying” online.

The editors maintain an extremely useful website documenting Japan in English-language verse: Emerging from Absence.

Fredrick Seidel’s “My Tokyo” I’ve quoted from his Poems 1959 – 2009 (New York: FSG, 2009), p. 350.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Occupied City

The violence dealt out to the Occupy movement – from Oakland to Melbourne – indicates the worry it’s causing our rulers, and the productiveness of its disruptions in ordinary civic life. The Occupy assemblies have been a place for frustrations to be aired, and for strategy to get debated: the refrain that the movement “lacks demands” misses the point that it’s precisely the paucity of established political demands on offer that calls for protest. Links with labour movements are being made – most excitingly in the United States – and old political questions and traditions re-examined. All this is exciting, and enormously welcome.

Amongst the excuses for bringing in the cops to hurt and harass, the argument that public spaces aren’t to be occupied is common, fanciful, and insulting. Ignore the question of democratic space for a moment (so many of these Occupations are happening on land that was public but has, in recent decades, had its status changed in favour of business interests) as there’s useful writing on that elsewhere. What’s different about the Occupy events – and thus unacceptable to power – is the class formations of those occupying, and their confidence and self-activity. Because city centres are always, in the normal run of things, occupied, it’s just that they’re occupied by those at the margins, those the police feel confident beating up and bullying at a whim. Its the collectivity and connections of the Occupy movement that unsettles - were any of hte individuals involved to be left, on their own and in difficult circumstances, on the streets, then there'd be less outrage from on high. Visible resistance offends.

The homeless are – liberal protestations of horror to the contrary – an acceptable part of any modern city, swept away only for major events. The Occupy movement’s visibility contests precisely these sorts of decisions over urban space – and the class rule and class democracy behind them – and so forms a political demand all of its own.


Raymond Williams, in a celebrated passage on Jane Austen in The Country and the City, writes of the Austenian world of country houses that

Neighbours in Jane Austen are not the people actually living nearby; they are the people living a little less nearby who, in social recognition, can be visited. What she sees across the land is a network of propertied houses and families, and through the holes of the tightly drawn mesh most actual people are simply not seen. To be face-to-face in this world is already to belong to a class. No other community, in physical presence or in social reality, is by any means knowable.

Ideology works upon us, often against our self-presentations. My first time in Yoyogi Park, walking alone in late afternoon of the autumn of 2007, I spent several minutes feeling the strangeness of being in a deserted area in the middle of a city as large as Tokyo. It took a shocked change in perspective to realise that there was movement all around me; at the edges of my vision were tarpaulin sheets and bundles of sticks, signs time in Japan would teach me to associate with homelessness.

Later in the same day at Ueno Park I thought I saw a political demonstration, only to realise closer up that it was a crowd of homeless people queuing for a meal. Ueno is a difficult area to visit without some unsettled sense of complicity, and Walter Benjamin’s thesis on the philosophy of history that “there is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” never feels overused . The path to the Tokyo National Museum and the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum runs straight through the main site of homeless occupation. The National Museum – site of so much Meiji-era imperial ambition – is full of documents of civilisation. The place of barbarism in official discourse isn’t so clear.

(The park as an ideological fantasy. From the Tokyo Metropolitan website)

Family registers, family values

The homeless, most works from the archive are at pains to convince us, symbolise personal collapse, disastrous life choices, irresponsibility and the damage of alcohol and drugs. The familiar narratives are all to do with personal, individual choices and chances. Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers presents his characters are transformed through the chance of something like nuclear family life.

Akihiko Nishizawa’s research into the changing face of homeless in Tokyo in the modern era suggests a more complex situation. The Meiji government’s family registration system – the koseki, still more-or-less current today – provided, Nishizawa argues, “a standard for exclusion.” Urban populations without the identity the koseki demanded could be, in this new system, driven from both state responsibility and state recognition. The ‘ideal’ citizen – in a nuclear family unit, tied to a stable address and work pattern – was thus not just an ideological construct but also a product of a particular system: “the state welfare system…maintained standards that assumed all citizens would exist within families and therefore excluded non-ideal citizens who didn’t.” Wanderers, foreigners, people who don’t fit the heterosexist demands of family life all become vagrants in this set-up. It’s one that, as any Zainichi with koseki problems could tell you, causes problems in people’s lives through to today.

Homelessness, then, Nishizawa argues, “is the result of the social and systematic exclusion of fluid and non-family peoples” (200). It is a result of Japanese government policy and strategy.

This strategy had a racial, and racialising, component. Journalist Gennosuke Yokoyama’s “The underclass of Japan” (1899) called unregistered children “no nationality”, while in the 1930s, a high proportion of working-class Korean immigrants to Japan found themselves amongst the ranks of the homeless.

An urban underclass?

The misery and difficulty of homelessness are obvious, if difficult fully imaginatively to comprehend, but, sometimes, a stress on the suffering and weakness of the homeless can distort our view. The oppression is real, and painful; it provokes a complex response, and is part of a complicated class relation.

Because Japan’s slum-dwellers and homeless can and do resist, and have done so many times. In Osaka’s Kamagasaki slum, over 2000 residents rioted for many nights after one of their community was left dying without ambulance attention following a road accident. In 1990 and again in 2008 there were major riots, the uprising in 1990 lasting some six days. The poor and marginalised in Japan, as elsewhere, actively resist their marginalisation.

Understanding the class position of the homeless is essential, too, and often confused by phrases like “underclass” or lumpenproletariat. Japan’s homeless – especially in a centre like Kamagasaki, with thousands of residents - are part of its working class. Nishizawa cites research from the 2000s showing that 50 to 80 percent of Tokyo homeless were day labourers and construction workers. The ‘net cafe refugees’ of recent times represent a new, and youthful, form of homelessness; they too are connected to the working class through their casual employment, involvement in contract work and service industries.

Japan’s ‘outside’ homeless tend to be male, middle-aged and associated with construction and day labouring. Their vulnerabilities are clear, and often commented upon: intimidation and the chance of abduction and slave labour with the yakuza, health problems from the cold sleeping in parks, police harassment. The homeless of the ‘net cafe refugee’ generation are younger, white collar, and, often, refuse the label of homeless and its potential solidarities (Nishizawa discusses the label nakama, or comrades, that homeless men use for one another).

Both groups, though, whatever fragmentation and alienation in their current situation, are connected, through labour, to the wider Japanese working class. The state that refuses to recognise them as full citizens needs to rely, in other contexts, on their efforts as workers. The challenges they face, then, can be connected to challenges facing the Japanese labour movement more broadly: the shift to casualised labour, the need to organise those without traditions of organisation, the importance of developing politics of independence instead of collaboration.

The title of Kenji Hashimoto’s 2007 book gives us a good sense of direction: New Class Society, New Class Struggle. Hashimoto is alive to changes within Japanese capitalism, and his analysis is fresh and unafraid of revising old assumptions. But his perspective is clear; those on the margins, whether they’re in parks or netcafes, need brought in to the centre, and it’ll be via struggle that this is achieved. Other countries’ construction industries have proud fighting heritages – there’s no reason for one not to re-emerge in Japan.

That project demands politics, and intellectual and social ambition. Some of the energy, and audacity, required, is visible in the Occupy movements the world over. They’ve made the invisible visible and, in doing so, pose a challenge to the smoothly ‘post-political’ neo-liberal order.


Akihiko Nishizawa’s excellent chapter is in Richard Ronald and Allison Alexy, Home and Family in Japan: Continuity and Transformation (London: Routledge, 2011).

Hashimoto’s newer book isn’t available in English yet, but Transpacific Press brought out his Class Structure in Contemporary Japan.

Shannon Higgins has a photo portrait of Kamagasaki here.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Cruel, Usual

i.m. Troy Davis: mourn, and organise

Yoshimura Akira’s bestseller On Parole ends as its story begins, with grisly and intense violence, a ‘crime of passion’ and, eventually, death. The literary and the populist meet in this finale: the figure of the frenzied killer – draw here from Maurice Gee’s Loving Ways or David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet or Yoshimura’s own Kikutani Shiro, amidst countless other examples – is familiar to us from both ‘liberal’ literary production and right-wing law-and-order, ‘sensible sentencing’ shrillness. It’s an easy way of thinking about crime, and criminals, and manages to be at once frightening and comforting, both in ways helpful for class rule. Imagining criminal behaviour as, in the main, wild and unfathomable is terrifying for the obvious reasons (I have those worries walking home too); the comfort, for a section of middle-class society, is in the way the figure functions as a screen, allowing the projection of certain racial- and class-based fears while at the same time relieving ‘us’ of responsibility for reflecting on what might lead other people to commit awful acts. Tough on Crime never ended up, in the NewLabour cliché, Tough on the Causes of Crime.

Japan is no worse than many other ‘developed’ country in this respect, although it’s hardly better either, and its reputation abroad for social cohesion obscures some deep injustices and cruel – but all too usual – punishments worked into its social order. The current Minister of Justice may have called for a ‘debate’ on the status of the death penalty, and Keiko Chiba, minister a few administrations ago, was an abolitionist of sorts, but the death penalty still stands, and its popularity, and practice, disfigure Japanese society.

David McNeill, in the English-language press, has worked over some years now to document the criminality of Japan’s criminal justice system. (Critical examination of the death penalty in the Japanese media, including ‘liberal’ papers like the Asahi, is extremely rare.) The period after sentencing is, for prisoners, a form of torture itself: many never know when their execution is scheduled and have limited, or no, access to journalists, lawyers, and campaigners in the world outside. Years can be spent in a state of perpetual uncertainty and isolation.

Public support for capital punishment is, by all accounts, high, and seems, in many cases, to be linked to a sense that justice is served by executions: criminals have confessed to their crimes, and must be held responsible. Whatever the wider questions over how executions serve ‘justice’, though, the role of confessions themselves need examined. Between 1991 and 2000 over 99% of defendants in Japanese courts were convicted, many as a result of confessions they’d given to police.

An aside here: one disturbing aspect of Death Note’s popularity has been the support, anecdotally, I’ve noticed from readers for Light’s actions. The ethical ‘dilemma’ of the series revolves almost entirely around Light’s decision, not around his knowledge: the idea that those who commit (or might be about to commit) crimes can so easily be classed into ‘villains’ and ‘others’ never seems to have excited much in the way of objection or comment.

But ‘confessions’ reveal as much about police corruption and the lack of democratic rights for Japanese citizens as they do about any individual’s guilt. Consider the case of Sugiya Toshikazu, convicted for murder in the early 1990s. In an extraordinary development, DNA evidence helped him have his conviction overturned few years ago; each detail of the case until then had been all too ordinary. Police held him for 13 hour interrogations, kicking at his shins, and shouting at him; a confession secured in these conditions carries great weight in a Japanese court. It’s impossible to know whether, had Sugiya received a death sentence, the new evidence would have been produced in time to save his life. In a recent corruption case police admitted forcing suspects they were interrogating to trample on names of their relatives – a way of ‘breaking’ suspects that can be traced back to anti-Christian torture from the Tokugawa period – and, although in this instance their actions were criticised, the practice seems widespread. Incompetent defence lawyers, an uninterested media, severely curtailed democratic rights: all this leads to a set-up where the kinds of protections social movements and workers’ struggles have won in other judiciaries are largely missing from Japanese legal reality. The sociology of the courts matters too: Japanese judges have very rarely served as lawyers, being appointed to the bench straight from law school, and both prosecutors and judges are drawn from, and sustain, a very narrow social world of class comfort and class rule.

There is an abolitionist movement in Japan, and its smallness and current marginality haven’t demoralised its activists: one Osaka group call themselves the “Snail Society” in recognition of their massive task, and slow progress, in the face of an entrenched, if unjustifiable, criminal practice. There are occasional protests and events, a few Buddhist ministers in recent years have allowed their own consciences to get the better of them.

Our side is yet to find its ‘bestseller’ moment, though, and the fears both produced and managed by a work like On Parole indicate the terrain the abolitionist battle is being fought around. The courage and perseverance of the Japanese abolitionists seems, then, all the more inspiring and essential.


There is plenty of useful information at the Japan and the Death Penalty Research Centre, and at Amnesty International. The Monsoon blog (in Japanese), associated with the Kakehashi newspaper, has some useful links.

Mark D West’s Lovesick Japan (Cornell 2011) is a fascinating study of Japanese judges and their social attitudes and formation.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011


Vicarious pleasures are still pleasurable. For hours last night I sat following twitter feeds coming out of Tokyo’s massive anti-nuclear demonstration, and getting the thrilled sense that this marked not just a new phase in this campaign, but an opening in changes in Japanese politics more broadly. It’s been a long time since a demonstration this large in Japan and, crucially, longer since one with this kind of spirit and resilience. Like the ANPO struggle of a generation ago, we may be witnessing the development of a campaign that goes on to question the wider priorities and problems of the social order.

The scale of the mobilization is worth marveling at: 60 000 people rallied - there are good reports from the Japan Times, and the Communist Party’s Red Flag newspaper, as well as from the Asahi - and contingents represented much of the country. Chie Matsumoto from LaborNet Japan reported big union groupings, representatives from Okinawa, international delegations, and youth groups.

There’ll be further reports and analysis in the following days no doubt, and the eye-witness accounts will be more useful than my summary from here. For now, though, two initial remarks.

For starters, the feeling matters: this looks like a social movement in the ascendant. I’ve written earlier about the ‘politicisation from below’ of the aftermath to the disaster. Add to this the conscious joyousness of the protestors yesterday and other times these last months; the presence of children on these demonstrations, the more ragged and sporadic chants, the colour and variety of banners and slogans. These might seem like trivial details but, against the sometimes stifling habits of traditional Japanese protest - which contain within themselves reminders of decades of defeat and setback, to say nothing of the disasters of the 1970s - this new look promises new energy and initiative.

(Part of that new energy was summarized for me in a beautiful tweet of Matsumoto-san’s when she mentioned that some demonstrators were chanting わっしょい! わっしょい! This is a phrase from the world of festivals and rowdy crowds; it signals the distance from tradition - and the exhuberance - of this new movement, and I like to think of it as the presence in this protest of the Anthems from Nowhere).

A new movement, crucially, means new activists: much less well publicized have been smaller demonstrations - some violently attacked by the police - in the week leading up to this monster rally. It’s commonplace to bemoan the apolitical, disenchanted, atomized sub-cultures of Japanese youth; the daring and drive for the anti-nuclear movement are coming from precisely those areas an older leftism has disdained or marginalized.

This sociology - or wider politics - of the movement is my second, and more provisional, point. David H Slater has edited a fascinating special issue of Cultural Anthropology. “New alliances are being built” he argues, and fear and anger, and possibility and hope, are the themes his contributors explore. Yoshitaka Mōri insists that official slogans of Japan’s unity in fact reveal social fractures - of class, of region, of access to resources - and, most importantly for yesterday’s demonstrations, Love Kindstrand links some of the developments in the movement to both new political formations, and to changes in Japanese capitalism:

Phrased in the precariat movement's insistence on exploitation, this critique is being carefully reconstituted as we speak, rekindling a bond between political engagement and everyday life, and instilling a sense of political agency in Japan's neglected youth that will be not easily dismissed.

This account feels convincing, and the aesthetics and flaboyance of the anti-nuclear movement - its music, its youth, to say nothing of some of its key activists - link to the ‘precariat’ unions and ‘New New Left’ that has emerged in the last decade.

David H Slater comments:

For those familiar with an older generation of protests, the differences are rather striking. First, the protests themselves employ a visual and auditory rhetoric, drawn from the European "precarity" movement--spontaneous, chaotic, playful, ironic, cultural and creative but also direct, uncompromising, and often in more vulgar language. Obviously, these events are more fun to be at than those deadly serious labor events many us attended in what seem like another Japan, the "robot marches" (in the words of one of my old lefty teachers) where we all were shouting "hantai" in unison and half-heartedly pumping our fist on command […] And just as the labor marches of earlier periods were a reflection of the institutionalized organization of labor then, so do these events reflect today's labor: flexible/fragmented, opportunistic, situational; young, diffuse and short-term.

New questions from a new movement will, as always, provoke reflection on some old question and old answers too. In their - understandable - response to their neglect by the established labour movement, how will these new, youthful formations reflect upon the questions of alliances with other union groupings? How will the question of politics come up in this movement? How, given the obvious bankruptcy of both the DPJ and LDP, and the complicity and corruption of TEPCO and the political class, will this movement talk about state power, capitalism, economics and ecology? What links are there between Japan’s long economic stagnation, its place in the US empire, and the worries of the anti-nuclear movement?

The exhilarating feeling now is that these are questions that can usefully be posed, and that a new generation will be able to answer. I’ve got friends who’ve been working tirelessly to build these rallies, and others who made it along as one of the first political acts they’ve ever done.

This is the mass movement Japan so desperately needs and, whatever the inevitable crises and assaults on it ahead, it’s a beautiful sight.



There are some good photographs in the Mainichi Shinbun’s site here. Read the other Cultural Anthropology pieces here. Thanks to David H Slater for some very useful links. LaborNet have some great photos up on their site too. There's a brief video clip on NHK - as astonishing for its presence as for any great coverage it offers - and you can see that here.