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.

No comments:

Post a Comment