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.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

En route, as in a dream

When was August? I had all sorts of plans and ambitions for writing here but got distracted by two other commitments - talking on Carl Shuker's Three Novellas for a Novel to my friends in the NZ Studies Society of Japan, and on Mulgan, Man Alone, and Marxism to the Stout Centre - and then, all of a sudden, the month was gone. I've hopes that those two talks will appear somewhere before too long and, by the end of this month, some of my half-formed blog post ideas might get written.

In the meantime, as something of a place-holder, I want to give you this nice anecdote from Rossana Rossanda's absorbing and elegant memoir The Comrade From Milan. Rossanda's contribution to life and letters on the Italian left is too vast to summarise easily: she's a gifted journalist, polemicist and theorist of culture, and was, for many years, a leading PCI militant and campaigner. Expelled from the party over her opposition to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, her memoir offers all sorts of a details from another world. It's extremely caustic in parts, and suitably lyrical when required.

There are moments of evasion, to be sure, for which the name Togliatti (and, behind him, the question of Stalinism) will do for now to point towards.

For the moment - and to encourage you to read the book - here's a memory of Adorno. The advice, if you're shy like me and have philosophers you're keen to learn from, is to sort out the shrubbery:

On that occasion, we invaded Stresa and I met Adorno, whose Minima Moralia has fascinated me – it was Marxism as something that was obvious, Marxism as something inevitable, Marxism without a Communist Party, 1930s Europe – except for Italy and Germany. And I found him charming, with his big nut-brown eyes like a child’s, lively as an elf, curious about everything and willing to talk, not to mention drawn like a magnet to young girls with aristocratic names, whom he repeatedly begged to take a walk with him by the lake. In Stresa, an extremely good-looking young man came up to me and said unpleasantly, ‘Your piece on Charles de Gaulle’ – I had just written about him in Rinascita – ‘is all wrong. What is Adorno talking to you about?’ It was Lucio Magri, with whom I would travel a long way. He was right about de Gaulle. ‘Come and have lunch with him tomorrow,’ I suggested. No chance. He was very shy, like a lot of stubborn people, and however suprising it might seem, he still is. We ended up agreeing that I would steer Adorno to a table near the oleander hedge and Lucio would hide in the bushes and listen. Adorno followed me docilely but on that occasion I was unable to distract him from talking about Bartok, on whom he was writing at the time. It was impossible. Magri rustled nervously a couple of times amongst the shrubs and then left. At that time I knew nothing about Walter Benjamin and I’m still kicking myself for failing to ask the genial, courteous Adorno about him – I still carry the correspondence between the happy Teddy Wiesengrund and the unhappy Walter Benjamin around with me.

Rossana Rossanda, The Comrade from Milan, trans. Romy Clark Giuliani (London: Verso, 2010), p. 180.