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.

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