Freedom of assembly in Japan under threat as protests against nuclear power and Constitutional change blocked

Article 21 of Constitution of Japan reads as follows:

Freedom of assembly and association as well as speech, press and all other forms of expression are guaranteed. No censorship shall be maintained, nor shall the secrecy of any means of communication be violated.

In reality, freedom of assembly in Japan means applying for a permit to claim that right. A protest march has to receive permission and then usually assigned some degree of police escort. Frequently in the case of political rallies and marches viewed as radical, particularly on the far Left, the police presence is disproportionately high.

It is, though, relatively rare to have a permit to march outright denied. If it is, ostensibly this is for reasons related to the location rather than the content of the march itself (“all other forms of expression are guaranteed”). But the tenuous nature of freedom of assembly in Japan was brought to the surface by two recent developments.

A civil society group called the Ishikawa Prefecture Society to Protect the Constitution applied to use the plaza in front of Kanazawa City Hall for a rally to mark 70 years since the Constitution was enacted. The city, however, denied it permission on the grounds that the plaza is part of a government building and thus any event held there must maintain neutrality.

The group has appealed, saying the denial is unjustified and that the government has a duty to respect freedom of expression. The application for the rally, which was planned for May 3rd (Constitution Memorial Day) and expected to attract some 300 participants, was submitted in late March. The application was rejected on April 14th but news only reached the media on April 21st. The Ishikawa Prefecture Society to Protect the Constitution held similar rallies at the plaza until 2014, though was forced to use a substitute location in 2015 and 2016 because the site was undergoing construction work.

In March, the municipal authorities revised the rules on use of the City Hall facilities. Whereas before the wording of prohibited events was restricted to “protests/demonstrations”, the new regulation expanded on this to include a demonstration of “agreement or opposition to a certain policy, ideology or opinion”. The city employees judged that the motives of the organisers were political in nature and thus refused the permit.

An alternative argument to be considered here is that any rally to commemorate the Constitution is by its very nature “neutral”, since the Constitution is the bedrock of all rights of Japanese nationals. How can protecting that be polemical? However, any discourse related to the Constitution has now been politicised following the latest inroads made by the government in changing it, most notably the state security legislation passed in 2015 that allows for “collective self-defence” overseas: Japan coming to the military aid of allies, which arguably violates Article 9 and its famous renunciation of war (“The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”).

protest letter complaint fukui nuclear power

Japanese media also reported on April 21st that a small group of anti-nuclear power activists that had been protesting outside the headquarters of the Fukui prefectural government had been asked to refrain from their activities by the prefecture. The activists from Sayonara Nuclear Power Plants Fukui Network were given a letter on March 31st with a list of complaints, including about the volume of the protests, how their banners were harming the “beauty” of the area and that they were obstructing the road. The document was shared online on social media by Masahito Wakaizumi, a member of the group that has been carrying on its dedicated roadside protest since July 2012 with the permission of the police, as required by laws on use of public streets.

Coincidentally neighbouring Ishikawa, Fukui is home to thirteen commercial reactors at five nuclear power plants: Tsuruga, Ōi, Mihama and Takahama. There have been several incidents at the plants, including a fatal accident at Mihama in 2004. The demand from the prefecture for the activists to cease comes at a delicate time when courts have ruled that reactors in Kansai and Ehime can go back into operation. The high court decision last month in favour of Kansai Electric Power Company lifts the injunction on Takahama Nuclear Power Plant. The Saga governor also just this week approved the restart of two nuclear reactors at Genkai Nuclear Power Plant.

Gathering in small numbers to make a speech or hold up placards outside a certain location is generally sanctioned, though protestors must be careful not to block pedestrians or traffic in any way. A minor infraction may be seized upon by police to make an arrest. Many dogged activists take full advantage of this grey zone to maintain a regular presence with bullhorns outside the site of an ideological enemy. A case in point is Zengakuren’s frequent and clamorous encampment outside the entrance to Hōsei University.

The title of this article, claiming freedom of assembly in Japan to be “under threat”, may seem alarmist. The issue does merit attention, however, as public land remains contentious.

Last year, the mayor of Ebina City attempted to ban political flash mobs in public places, only for a court in Yokohama to uphold the rights of the anti-war protestors behind the mobs. The anti-nuclear tents that had occupied a corner of land outside the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) in Kasumigaseki since September 2011 were forcibly removed in August last year after a protracted legal battle. The weekly vigils protesting nuclear power that gather on Fridays outside the Kantei, or official prime minister’s residence, in Kasumigaseki recently marked five years since they started. However, the topography of the district and its meandering, narrow pavements makes it hard for large numbers to congregate.

In contrast to the remarkable scenes of mass street protests in Seoul witnessed over the past few months, it is probably impossible to imagine such a scenario in Tokyo. The main roads encircling the National Diet were cordoned off by police during the 2015 protests against the security legislation, relegating the tens of thousands of protestors to the cramped pavements. The single main boulevard leading up to the Diet was sometimes opened to demonstrators, such as the landmark August 30th rally, though even this privilege was not guaranteed and walls of parked police vehicles prevented anyone from entering the road area. While the student group SEALDs tried earnestly to reference the peak of the 1960 Anpo movement in its publicity, those days are actually unfeasible for physical reasons.

The situation is unlikely to improve any time soon. As we head towards 2019 and the mooted abdication of Emperor Akihito, we can expect to see various anti-emperor and far-left groups protests but their rallies and marches will be curbed in terms of where and when they can get permits, and the marches will be broken up into smaller groups and kettled by police. In part this is done for protection, since the ultra-nationalist hard core who always attend as a counter-protest may represent a genuine physical threat, but also to disperse the effect and strength of the march. This happened with the wave of protests during the previous changeover.

The upcoming conspiracy bill may also be used to silence certain dissenting voices and stop them mobilising in public, though its full implications for civil liberties are potentially even graver than this. Finally, along with sporting spectacle, the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and the Summer Olympics and Paralympics in 2020 will undoubtedly provide further excuses to constrain freedom of assembly in Tokyo.

WILLIAM ANDREWS

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English translation of Kōji Takazawa’s landmark book about Yodogō hijackers released in July 2017

A useful resource about one of the most complex and misunderstood areas of the Japanese New Left will finally be available in English. Moreover, though issued by an academic publisher, it will not be prohibitively expensive for the general reader since University of Hawaii Press seems to have heard our prayers and is releasing Destiny: The Secret Operations of the Yodogō Exiles in July in Kindle and paperback editions as well as the usual hardcover.

koji-takazawa-yodogo-book-destiny

First published in 1998, Destiny is an award-winning non-fiction book by Kōji Takazawa, detailing his investigation into the after-lives of the Sekigun-ha (Red Army Faction) radicals who hijacked a JAL plane, nicknamed the Yodogō, in 1970. Hoping to reach Cuba, they ended up stuck in North Korea. Takazawa (a pen name) was an associate of Sekigun-ha and helped edit and publish the group’s propaganda organs. However, he found himself increasingly unable to trust what the hijackers were saying when he went to North Korea to visit. After the death of the leading figure among the hijackers, Takamuro Tamiya, in 1995, he began to probe their and their wives’ alleged involvement in abductions of Japanese citizens from Europe in the years after the Yodogō arrived so dramatically in Pyongyang.

Since those events we have become so used to plane takeovers, downings and jinxes that take place in the skies that it is easy to forget how terrifying and protracted the experience was for the hostages and others involved in Japan’s first airplane hijacking. In particular, we have a habit of remembering the Yodogō incident not even only for its sensational elements, but also for its more bizarre ones: the reference to a popular manga in the hijackers’ statement; the use of toy weapons to hijack the plane; the total failure to get to their planned destination.

But what is actually most interesting is what happened next. The hijackers were brainwashed into the North Korean ideology, juche. Female sympathisers were tricked to come over from Japan and then given to the hijackers as spouses. Naturally, these conjugal arrangements were not always happy ones, nor were all the hijackers content with their lot. At least one member and his wife died in what seems to have been an escape attempt. And in the 1970s and 1980s, as Takazawa revealed, the group was possibly connected to abductions of young Japanese men and women in Europe. This was a shocking disclosure to their supporters in Japan, whose ranks were still relatively strong in the late 1990s shortly before the return of a clutch of members of another Sekigun-ha offshoot based abroad, the Japanese Red Army, which was then disbanded. Since the late 1980s some members of the Yodogō group had turned up in Japan and elsewhere in Asia under suspicious circumstances. As relations between North Korea and Japan partially thawed in the 1990s, other spouses and their children came back to Japan, keen to leave their exile even as knowing they faced certain arrest on passport violation charges. In a sense, the 1990s and early 2000s witnessed the death throes of this most spectacular section of the Japanese New Left, where various ghosts were laid to rest and skeletons came out of the closet. By now, though, Takazawa had alienated his former colleagues in the radical Left with his “betrayal”.

yodogo hijacking incident japan

The remaining Yodogō group members still live in the same complex in North Korea and have even started using Twitter through an intermediary organisation. They deny the abduction allegations and continue to rely on a support network that exists in Japan to disseminate their side of the story.

It is no surprise that the English translation of Takazawa’s lengthy book comes from the University of Hawaii Press as that institution also houses his unique archive of materials related to the New Left and social movements in Japan. It is also where Professor Patricia G. Steinhoff has taught for many years and she has supervised the forthcoming translation, which actually has six credited translators. No one is more qualified to edit this book than Steinhoff, the foremost western expert on the Japanese New Left and 1960-70s protest movements. In particular, she has devoted most of her career to studying Sekigun-ha and its spin-offs, Rengō Sekigun (United Red Army) and the Japanese Red Army. (Disclosure: I have met and liaised with Professor Steinhoff, and she was helpful in clarifying certain questions and providing unpublished papers when I was writing Dissenting Japan. I also visited the Takazawa Collection.)

Officially Steinhoff has two more books forthcoming, bringing together the fruits of her decades of research: one on the Sekigun-ha as a domestic group and another on the Japanese Red Army. After the arrest and trials of most of the major members of the latter, court documents and published memoirs have finally helped shed light on much of the mystery of the high-profile incidents from the 1970s and 1980s. In writing my own book, I struggled at times to find reliable information and had to make do with piecing things together from media reports and one-sided memoirs. The resulting mosaic is, by necessity, somewhat imperfect. Steinhoff, though, has extensive personal connections with both wings of the Red Army and can draw on a vast bank of information and experiences not public yet. When her books eventually come out, they will undoubtedly be the definitive texts.

Not reading French, I cannot make a judgement about Michaël Prazan’s Les Fanatiques: Histoire de l’armée rouge japonaise, which was published in 2002 (the title is certainly less than promising), but I can say with conviction that the only English-language book-length treatment of the JRA, Blood and Rage: The Story of the Japanese Red Army (1990) by William R. Farrell, is written with cringing sensationalism and littered with misinformation. Some of this is due to the apparent right-wing agenda that Farrell brings to his theme but another cause is his reliance on data provided by government sources. In the second half of the 1980s much of this was exaggerated and inaccurate, fuelled by paranoia and fear-mongering rather than genuine understanding of what the JRA were doing.

till knaudt book japan activism revolutionary sekigun

Like buses, you wait ages for a decent book about 1960s and 1970s Japanese counterculture, and then two come along at once. By some strange wizardry of the Shintō gods, around the same time as Dissenting Japan was released, an academic book was published in Germany on a similar subject. Von Revolution zu Befreiung: Studentenbewegung, Antiimperialismus und Terrorismus in Japan (Campus Verlag) by Till Knaudt came out in May 2016 and, in a way, is the kind of book I myself might have written had my ambit been purely academic. For better or worst, I attempted to paint on a larger canvas (from 1945 through to Fukushima) with broad brushstrokes, but Knaudt, who is based at the Institut für Japanologie at the University of Heidelberg, has a tighter focus on a single period of time and a series of interlinked movements of anti-imperialism, transnational revolutionary struggle and decolonial causes. His book details many figures and developments that I only had space to touch on very briefly. This includes, for example, the now obscure intervention of Tsuneo Umenai, a fugitive Sekigun-ha activist who wrote a remarkable tract in 1972 announcing his break with Marxist thought and his embrace of the “revolution of the wretched” ideas of Ryū Ōta. Knaudt examines the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front, which was also heavily associated with Ōta’s ideas, as well as the involvement of New Left radicals in activism for the Ainu and workers in slums like Kamagasaki.

Knaudt’s extremely worthwhile and welcome monograph joins a small body of book-length publications on related topics: Zengakuren: Japan’s Revolutionary Students (1970), edited by Stuart Dowsey; La Gauche Révolutionnaire au Japon (1970) by Bernard Béraud; Against the State: Politics and Social Protest in Japan (1984), by David E. Apter and Nagayo Sawa; Fire Across the Sea: The Vietnam War and Japan 1965-1975 (1987) by Thomas R.H. Havens; and Japan’s New Left Movements: Legacies for Civil Society (2014) by Takemasa Andō.

WILLIAM ANDREWS

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Counter-protest cleans up trash (and hate speech) in Tokyo

In the post-digital world perhaps the greatest accolade is that of “going viral”. We trawl our screens in a desperate daily search for the latest photo or video to bear that badge.

One of the latest is the image of Saffiyah Khan calmly facing off against the far-right English Defence League in Birmingham. While far less dramatic (and, for better or worse, viral), Tokyo witnessed some similar confrontations on April 9th. The ultra-nationalist Japan First Party called for a “voluntary cleanup” in Ikebukuro, north-west Tokyo, where participants would ostensibly pick up waste and litter. Such events have been held in the past in Ikebukuro, an area of Tokyo with a significant Chinese and non-Japanese population, and participants would carry nationalist flags and use the event as an excuse to shout verbal abuse at certain Chinese grocery store.

tokyo ikebukuro japan counter-protest trash cleanup hate speech rally racist

Announcement by Counter-Racist Action Collective (C.R.A.C.) calling for a counter-cleanup in Ikebukuro on April 9th, 2017, in response to an event organised by the far-right Japan First Party

Japan First Party’s call was answered by a handful of people and a much larger police presence and counter-protest by Counter-Racist Action Collective (C.R.A.C.), who, according to the group’s website, blocked the progress of the participants and forced them to do the very task that they had ostensibly said they would do: voluntary neighbourhood cleanup.

This is what happened on last Sunday.

Extreme right wingers declared street cleanup in Chinese enclave in Ikebukuro, where they have often targeted and vandalized a certain glossary store run by Chinese immigrants for years. They said they must clean up the vicinity because the town are so messed up with a lot of garbages because there are so many Chinese people there. Yes, they had racist purpose behind the “cleaning” activity.

Antifascists also declared cleanup activities there on exactly the same day and time, suggesting proper disposal of “Bulk Wastes”. The “Bulk Wastes” means right wing human scum, of course.

At 14:00, several racists showed up and actually began to picking up small wastes and trashes. But they were surrounded by 15 times more antifascists and also a huge amount of police officers.

Apparently what they really wanted to do was throwing hate speeches onto Chinese owned stores pretending as if they came across there while cleaning up the vicinity.

But thanks for truly volunteer antifas, they couldn’t even come close to any stores in the area. Therefore hatemongers had no alternative but to throw themselves just into real cleanup activities in the occasional rain being harshly yelled off by angry antifas.

It was the funniest counter-protest ever happened in Japan recently.

The “funny” counter-protest was a kind of détournement: the anti-fascists plagiarised the activities of the hate group and subverted the intention of the event.

This confrontation in Ikebukuro was swiftly followed by another counter-protest against an anti-Korean march in Shinjuku from 3pm, led by Shūsei Sakurada’s New Social Movement. No one picked up litter this time; it was a more run-of-the-mill hate speech march with the prerequisite nationalist flags and aggressive slogans. The resulting chaotic scenes in the heart of Shinjuku during the peak weekend shopping period left rows of bystanders, including foreign tourists, fazed.

While xenophobic and racist movements existed in Japan before, the 2011 tsunami and subsequent social uncertainty it ushered in seemed to compel, or at least coincide with, an increase in what became known as “hate speech” protests. These marches now happen regularly around Japan, always met by counter-protests organised assiduously by the likes of C.R.A.C. and other antifa groups. Another rally is scheduled to take place on April 23rd in Kyoto, the biggest tourist destination in the country. Much like the traditional uyoku ultra-nationalists and their black vans, these hate speech groups (and the ancillary role of the counter-protestors) have become part of the noisy bedlam of the Japanese city: a hubbub which includes pachinko parlours, constant announcements and the din of advertising trucks. It is all mere clamour that is soon lost in the ether.

Or is it? Counter-protests dismiss the hate speech marchers as “scum” (language arguably not so dissimilar to the insults the ultra-nationalists and racists themselves use) while liberals are prone to dismiss them as sad men unable to express their masculinity otherwise. But Zaitokukai’s former leader, Makoto Sakurai, got 114,171, or 1.74%, of votes at the Tokyo gubernatorial election in 2016, which is not too shabby for an brazen extremist and unpleasant individual. (In February 2017, Sakurai formed the Japan First Party, which is said to have around 1,600 members — many, many more than, say, SEALDs, despite the media fanfare.) Should we be worried? One thing is for sure: this should not be lazily equated with the strength of the right-wing Abe administration, with its tendencies towards such initiatives as reintroducing the Imperial Rescript in schools, or the success of such conservative populists as Yuriko Koike, who soundly beat Sakurai (and all comers) for the position of governor.

The courts and police have been cracking down, at any rate, and even the central government has made some token gestures. A new law was passed in 2016 aimed at curbing hate speech, though critics say it is largely toothless since it carries no penalty, has limited scope and is failing to not stop racist rallies from happening. Instead, local governments like Osaka and Kawasaki, which have sizeable Zainichi Korean communities, have been stepping up to provide more effective legislation and tackle the problem themselves.

One thing is for sure: come 2020 and the Olympics, the authorities do not want any hate speech rallies spoiling the public veneer of “Omotenashi” (hospitality) that Tokyo is at pains to stress at every turn. A firmer cleanup will be necessary to avoid inconveniently blemishing the official line.

In Shintō, the visitor to a shrine is supposed to cleanse themselves with water at the chōzuya (or temizuya), an ablution basin. The meaning is clear: a shrine is a sacred place; bringing in a sullied body defiles the site. But how to purify a whole city? Gentrification is one solution, as they are doing in Kabukichō; as they are doing in Shibuya with expelling the homeless from Miyashita Park. Glass towers are rising, along with rents from tenants, no doubt. There are even rumours that the generous cache of pornographic magazines always available at any convenience store in the land may temporarily disappear during the Olympics.

Cleaning can, then, be oppressive and racist. It can also be mockery and satire, or performative and fun. Ahead of the 1964 Olympics, the government launched a large-scale effort to clean up Tokyo so it would appear gleaming for the world’s cameras. This was famously ridiculed by the anti-art group Hi-Red Center, who arrived in Ginza one day with lab coats to scrub the streets.

hi red center cleaning streets ginza

Hi-Red Center “cleaning” the streets of Ginza in 1964

Last year the “samurai trash collectors” generated some online attention. These costumed men, a performance troupe called Jidaigumi Basara, can be spotted on Sundays around Shibuya, swopping down in synchronised movements to pick up offending items of trash on the street. This is, of course, a gimmick and intended as a promotion for the group, though it has some flair and charm.

performance art shinjuku tokyo

performance art shinjuku tokyo

In February I chanced upon a similar performer in Shinjuku, dressed all in white (including make-up on his face, gloves and leggings) as he walked around silently collecting litter from the street. All but ignored by fellow denizens on this quiet weekday afternoon, was his act of performative waste collection one of protest or civil responsibility?

WILLIAM ANDREWS

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Chūkaku-ha crackdown continues as activist arrested for driver licence violation

A suspected member of Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction), Yasuyuki Yagi (45), was arrested on April 3rd by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department Public Security Bureau for allegedly making a false entry for the address on his driving licence. When he renewed his licence in December 2014, Yagi claimed to live at the Chūkaku-ha headquarters, Zenshin-sha, but police say this is not true, according to a report in the Sankei Shimbun.

While obviously a very minor offence, it is not unknown for Japanese police to take political activists into custody for such trivial violations. This is the case with far-left activists as well as participants in other protest movements, such as those involved in the campaign of civil disobedience against the controversial relocation of Futenma Base to Henoko, Okinawa. Protest leader Hiroji Yamashiro was held for over five months on quite minor charges and only released on bail last month.

Chūkaku-ha is a neo-Marxist group with roots going back to the 1950s. It is one of Japan’s three largest far-left organisations today. Yagi is being investigated, police say, for possible links to Masaaki Ōsaka, one of the most sought-after fugitives in Japan. Police have recently stepped up their hunt for Ōsaka, a Chūkaku-ha activist wanted for alleged participation in the death of a riot police office in a 1971 protest in Shibuya. (Fumiaki Hoshino is also serving a full-life sentence in relation to the same death.) Now in his late sixties, Ōsaka has been on the lam for decades, apparently supported by a network of Chūkaku-ha activists. Police raids of “secret bases” are often attempts to flush out the fugitive or uncover clues as to his whereabouts. Late last year on the anniversary of the death, police announced an increased reward for information leading to Ōsaka’s apprehension. Since the police placed Ōsaka on the public wanted list in 1984 it has received only an average of ten tips per year. After the campaign was renewed in November with 50,000 new posters distributed nationwide and a substantial volume of press coverage, there were 27 tips in just a single month.

marxist students hosei university club

Freshmen arriving at Hōsei University’s campus are exhorted to read Marx and join a club called the Social Sciences Research Group. Image via @Baldr_Zero_, April 3rd. The activists holding the flag and speaking into the microphone are members of Zengakuren. As an unofficial, unaffiliated student organisation, they are not allowed to enter the campus and must stay on the pavement outside.

The timing of this latest arrest may not be insignificant. Police carefully choose when to make arrests, exploiting their relationship with the mass media so as to push the name of the group into the news again and remind people (including students) that it is “dangerous” and “anti-social”. In April, Chūkaku-ha student activists always have a presence at events at Hōsei University, a traditional Chūkaku-ha stronghold, welcoming new students for the start of the academic year. However, these activists are no longer allowed on campus after the private college, like many others, went to great lengths in the 1990s and 2000s to expunge far-left groups from the premises. The repercussions of this are still felt today as a sustained campaign by the activists denouncing the university for its neoliberal, anti-political measures.

Yagi’s arrest also comes after a string of other recent arrests and raids related to Chūkaku-ha. As a glance at the group’s newspaper, Zenshin, reveals, one or more members is almost always under arrest (their names are typically withheld in the official publicity) somewhere in Japan but very rarely are they actually indicted. Much of the Chūkaku-ha membership is now retirement age and the group gave up militant tactics decades ago.

In January, police arrested anti-nuclear power activists affiliated with Chūkaku-ha on very flimsy charges. They were later released without indictments. In 2015, the Chūkaku-ha base was raided by police over arrests for alleged benefit fraud at a non-profit organisation. Once again, no charges were brought.

Such tactics of applying pressure to far-left groups by arresting suspected members on minor charges, knowing full well that the prosecutor would never take the case to court, is a favourite one of police. The arrests become an excuse to search various sites linked to the group, especially its headquarters, Zenshin-sha, where police hope to find evidence of historic crimes. In addition, the protracted detention periods during which police can hold suspects without charge and without a lawyer present for the lengthy interrogations is a chance to wear activists down and perhaps extract some new information from them.

Earlier this year a member of the Chūkaku-ha Zengakuren student group was arrested for kicking a court official, leading police to search a Kyoto University dormitory. The small yet bullish Zengakuren has been the target of police aggression as its seeks to build up a new student movement at Hōsei, Kyoto, Tōhoku and other universities around Japan. It has launched a lawsuit against the Metropolitan Police Department for alleged assault.

In general, the current wave of arrests and recriminations dates back to around late 2014, when there were three arrests during an annual labour march in central Tokyo. An officer from the security bureau was later rumbled on the campus of Kyoto University and held briefly by students, leading to a tit for tat of raids by police in Kyoto and Tokyo.

Things escalated in 2015 with the protests against the state security bills and then the run-up to the G7 summit in May 2016, which sparked a wider crackdown on what remains of Japan’s ultra-left movement.

With the Conspiracy Bill set to pass the National Diet this year and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo also on the near horizon, police attention on the vestiges of the domestic post-war leftist movement will surely continue to tighten.

WILLIAM ANDREWS

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Two arrests as police oversee closure of Miyashita Park as part of Tokyo Olympics redevelopment

On the morning of March 27th, police and security personnel descended on Miyashita Park to close it in preparation for redevelopment as part of the ongoing urban transformation of Shibuya.

In drizzling weather, police kept protestors back while workers started blocking off the small park on the edge of the main Shibuya shopping district. According to media reports, at least three homeless people were said to be still living in the park when work began on closing it.

Activists from Nojiren, a group formed in 1998 to support homeless people in Shibuya, complained that the ward did not make information about Monday’s events public in advance, though the possibility of a permanent closure was certainly known. A representative from Shibuya government was quoted as saying the decision had been made due to continued “illegal acts of interference” to the gates when the park was closed at night.

An unnamed activist in his thirties was arrested at the park some time after 10 a.m. on suspicion of obstructing the performance of official duties after he allegedly collided with security personnel and grabbed a police officer by the collar. An unconfirmed report on Labor Net and on social media claims that a second activist was also arrested on March 28th when they returned to the park to pick up some belongings.

miyashita park shibuya closure protest

Police stand guard over the closure of Miyashita Park (March 27th, 2017). Image via @hangorinnokai

In addition to serving as an assembly spot for protests, Miyashita Park has long functioned as a prominently place for homeless people to stay. A previous attempt by the Shibuya government to sell the naming rights to the park to Nike and convert it into an upmarket sports facility met substantial controversy in 2009-11 and a string of protests. Eventually the name licensing plan was abandoned, though the park was partially upgraded and reconstructed into a commercial sports facility.

Since then it has been earmarked for further development and regularly closed during the night to keep out the homeless. Activists have protested this by “artjacking” the fencing with placards. The protests by Nojiren against this small yet symbolic development are part of the growing movement against the 2020 Olympics and wider gentrification of Tokyo, which is a negative aspect of the inbound tourism boom that few want to discuss in the media.

So far this movement has mainly manifested in orderly forms as street protests, events and a book publication, though there have also been some arrests (but no indictments, as far as can be ascertained). Much of the transmission of the movement is online, heavily driven by social media, and Twitter was a storm of images and tweets on Monday as activists sought to spread the word about the sudden park closure. Announced prior to the closure, another demonstration is planned for the afternoon of April 2nd at Miyashita Park.

The story was picked by Reuters, which is possibly the first time the mainstream English-language media has reported properly about this movement. However, Reuters subsequently corrected (or diluted) the article to remove the nuance of the anti-Olympics angle in its headline.

miyashita park shibuya redevelopment

How Miyashita Park will look by 2020.

While not directly connected to the Olympic venues, the Shibuya plan is nonetheless one element of a massive city-wide re-development project under the mantra of “2020” unfolding largely in areas that are already heavily developed. The influx of tourists and yen as well as the approaching Olympics has spurred many large-scale and long-term urban development schemes, including in Marunouchi, Shinjuku, Harajuku and Ikebukuro. The redevelopment of Miyashita Park is significant not only for the homeless residents of the city but also citizens in general as yet another piece of public space is set to be swallowed by gentrification.

WILLIAM ANDREWS

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