Preparations for Osaka 2025 World Expo spark local opposition and protests

Patricia G. Steinhoff frequently talks about an “invisible civil society” in Japan: a wide and vibrant swath of social movements, particularly remnants from the radical cycle of protests in the 1960s and 1970s, that are essentially unknown and given little coverage by the mainstream media. And so we have another example.

When Osaka was awarded the 2025 World Expo in November last year, there were scenes of celebration from the bureaucrats in Japan’s second major city (and incidentally, my one-time stomping ground). But like with that other gravy train, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, not everyone is pleased about this mega-event as a use of public money for regeneration projects and expensive spectacle.

The Banpaku Aho chau ka Demo Jikkō Iinkai (loosely, Stupid Expo Demonstration Committee) is apparently organised by people in their twenties and thirties based in the Hokusetsu northern part of Osaka Prefecture, specifically the cities of Minō and Toyonaka. (The name is distinctly Osakan, since aho, or “idiot” or “fool”, is commonly used in the local dialect. The group’s flyers are also sprinkled with the Osaka vernacular.) It has so far held one formal protest, on 8 December in Toyonaka, and has another planned for 27 January in the same area.

osaka banpaku expo world fair 2025 protest

Its activists oppose the forthcoming world fair for three main reasons: firstly, that it allows politicians to escape from tackling real social problems; secondly, that they should prioritise expanding social welfare rather than boosting the economy for the rich; and thirdly, that this model of economic competition, such as the way cities vie with each other to host these expos, is pointless and that we should focus on building solidarity.

While participant numbers are unconfirmed, this is obviously a small movement (so far) and has received coverage only from media with a focus on left-wing social movements, such as Jimmin Shimbun and Labornet. No images have been published online of the December protest, though this is not atypical in Japan for social movements that are careful to protect the privacy of participants. There are signs of wider discontent, however.

To coincide with the 2025 expo, Osaka has also announced plans to overhaul several of its main subway stations as well as extend a line and build a whole new station to serve the expo area in the port. However, the concept images released in December attracted immediate criticism for their tasteless design as well as an online petition demanding the city preserve the historical legacy of the stations.

Given the current escalation of the Tokyo Olympics controversies, with the head of the Japanese Olympic Commitment facing indictment in France for corruption allegations, the reputation of the mega-event is anything but healthy in Japan. Did vote-buying, indirectly or otherwise, play a part in the recent decision to award Osaka the World Expo? One imagines investigative reporters are now contemplating this question.

It should be noted the Olympics scandal is not new, having first surfaced in the foreign press back in 2016. It was, however, dealt with somewhat tentatively by the mainstream media in Japan, leaving subscription-based publications like Facta to name Dentsu for its alleged role in the bribery. Since Dentsu, which was a central part of organising the 2020 bid and stands to make handsome profits overseeing the publicity for the actual games, is by far the most influential force in the Japanese media, the ethics of reporting the news inevitably jut up against the realpolitik of appeasing the agency that handles media purchases for almost all major brands in the country.

The 2025 expo is, like the 2020 Games, hinging heavily on nostalgia. As next year’s Olympics hope to capture the zest of the 1964 Summer Games that cemented Japan’s return to the world stage after its humiliating wartime defeat and occupation, the 2025 expo is emulating another crowning achievement in the post-war Japan narrative, not to mention one of Osaka’s greatest modern triumphs: the 1970 World Expo. This event was an enormous success in terms of visitor numbers and impact on popular culture. It was also unprecedented in allowing avant-garde and visionary ideas in art and architecture to play a central role in such a publicly funded (and corporately sponsored) event, not least the presence of Tarō Okamoto’s immensely iconic Tower of the Sun — pointedly referenced in the protest publicity, in a sarcastic nod to the sentiments of the bureaucrats. However, the 1970 expo had its lesser-reported, darker side, too, in its inflated budget, the huge infrastructural costs and damage to the local environment, the incredible level of consumption that its millions of visitors necessitated and the complicity of artists with the nation-state during a time when Japan was co-operating with the United States in its conflict in Vietnam. The World Expo, or Banpaku, even had its own counter-event, the World Fair for Anti-War (Hansen no tame no Bankokuhaku), or more simply Hanpaku (Anti-Expo), which was held over several days in summer 1969 in Osaka Castle Park and other venues as a pacifist alternative organised by a local chapter of Beheiren. It featured music, teach-ins, talks and performances, and while certainly eclipsed by the actual expo, has nonetheless passed into the memory of the period as a key moment in the anti-war movement. “Hanpaku” was actually a label that appeared in relation to several manifestations of anti-expo feeling by various groups. The members of Zero Jigen (Zero Dimension) and other artists, for example, joined together to form Banpaku Hakai Kyōtō-ha (Expo ’70 Destruction Joint Struggle Group), which spent months in 1969 staging art actions in protest at the artists who had elected to contribute to the expo. Over the course of these, Zero Jigen’s Katō Yoshihiro and others were even arrested for one typically provocative “ritual” event it enacted at a university.

While disappearing into police detention is undoubtedly not something the organisers of the current anti-2025 protests will want to emulate, we can perhaps hope they create a Hanpaku to counter the official extravaganza in Osaka six years from now.

WILLIAM ANDREWS

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Politics and dōjinshi: Zengakuren booth at Comiket sells revolution to otaku

On 31 December, 2018, while much of Japanese society was getting ready to crowd around the TV to watch Kōhaku Uta Gassen that evening on NHK or helping out in the kitchen, the scene was quite different in Odaiba, where Comiket 95 thronged with attendees eager to catch the third day of the final Comic Market of the Heisei era.

Comiket is, of course, the massive dōjinshi fair that takes place biannually at Tokyo Big Sight. It is THE place to go to buy self-published comics and witness some of the best cosplayers strut their stuff. It is always a veritable smorgasbord of fan-made content; a wild and complex feast of references and styles. But what it is not known for is politics. Rather, if one adheres to the Azuma-Ōtsuka school of thought, the rise of Comiket from the mid-1970s and through the 1980s alongside otaku culture signals a paradigm shift away from the “season of politics” towards a more introspective, subculture-informed (or even subcultures-obsessed) mass society.

But times have changed. At Comiket 95, attendees passing one particular booth on the third day of the fair would have encountered the student activist group Zengakuren, participating under the name “Sākuru Midoru Koa” (Circle Middle Core — a kind of pun on Chūkaku-ha, which can be translated as “Middle Core Faction”).

The Zengakuren booth on the third day of Comiket 95. Image via Zengakuren on Twitter

The Heisei period will come to an end in just a few months’ time with the abdication of the emperor. In the three decades since Akihito first ascended to the throne, freeter activism and sound demos have transformed the repertoire of protest. Instead of grand narratives and revolution, a vibrant array of groups and individuals have advocated alternative lifestyle models that are low-key yet accessible. Fukushima and the return of Shinzō Abe to power have sparked several further waves of social movements, galvanising new types of people to come out on the streets and motivating young people to join the rallies, not least SEALDs.

The student movement never went away and the Chūkaku-ha Zengakuren has diligently continued to campaign against capitalism, imperialism and neoliberalism. As I have previously discussed, Zengakuren has entered a novel and exciting phase in its history, influenced by recent movements as well as the earlier efforts of NAZEN, a Chūkaku-ha group with a strong youth presence and which already adopted approaches linked to freeter activism. Led by Ikuma Saitō until last year and now by a student from the University of Tokyo, the new Zengakuren is building on momentum from the Hōsei University conflict that emerged in the 2000s and continues to this day, and also its current success at Kyoto University.

Zengakuren has changed, yet not changed, and therein lies the heart of the matter. While its self-presentation has radically shifted, its messages are more or less the same. It embraces social media and has nurtured a following through its prolific YouTube channel called Zenshin Channel (named after the Chūkaku-ha organ) that proffers a cuter, softer image that feels at odds with the far-left group’s reputation as a militant, if not violent, organisation responsible for riots and even murders.

In short, this entails placing female members at the front as one of the prominent faces of the movement (not unlike SEALDs so effectively did). The content they disseminate is at times jokey and light-hearted, unafraid of appearing dasai (uncool) and amateurish — even, in fact, taking delight in this. It conjures up a picture of an earnest, sincere and ordinary set of youngsters who just so happen also to be committed to a certain political position, which they refuse to water down for their audience.

What problematises this further is the way that the group also “plays up” to the aforementioned notoriety. Given the tone of the recent efforts, one might perhaps expect the activists to disguise or minimise the past. Far from it; they embrace it, as the details of the Comiket booth conspicuously demonstrated. The members manning the desk wore Chūkaku-ha helmets (recalling the New Left cosplay costume spotted at Comiket back in 2014). The booth, decorated with a classic Chūkaku-ha banner, showcased wares that included four tracts featuring hard-core Marxist theory and communist history. There was also a dōjinshi called Midoru Koa C95 as well as t-shirts and badges. Even more overt, however, was the plastic document files they were flogging for ¥500 each. These quite brilliantly, if controversially, were designed to look like a reprint of an infamous 1971 edition of the faction newspaper that called on activists to take part in a large street protest in Tokyo. This event then later became known as the Shibuya Riot Incident, culminating in the death of a police officer. Many activists were subsequently arrested. The evidence compiled by police, which was mainly the witness statements and confessions dubiously obtained under lengthy interrogations of the detained activists, pointed to Fumiaki Hoshino and Masaaki Ōsaka. The former has languished behind bars since the mid-1970s while supporters campaign for a retrial; the latter was a fugitive for over four decades until his sensational arrest in 2017. As such, the choice of design for the merchandise at the Comiket booth is quite remarkable, exploiting the furore that has kept Chūkaku-ha’s name, not always accurately, in the headlines for the past couple of years. (Incidentally, the plastic file folders sold out.)

Zengakuren’s announcement of its plan to exhibit at Comiket ignited both excitement and debate about the boundaries of freedom of speech as well as criticism from some that the leftists were politicising the event. But Comiket’s countercultural (and accommodatingly chaotic) nature actually makes it a good fit for the activists who, though belonging to an institution, nonetheless exist firmly outside the mainstream. Just like the other dōjinshi circles, Zengakuren has to do everything itself in a DIY, low-fi way with limited resources. Such was the novelty of the Zengakuren presence at Comiket, which was overseen by activist Yū Yoshida, that it even attracted some advance attention from the regular press. Yoshida explained to Oricon News that the idea for taking part in Comiket developed from the recently boosted endeavours to reach a mass audience, such as by publishing the Zenshin newspaper now twice weekly and the launch of the popular YouTube channel. Comiket is, Yoshida says, the “largest mass movement in the 21st century”, so an ideal place for connecting with other kinds of people and reaching new audiences.

Comiket is associated most readily with otaku subcultures, which is not as far removed from Zengakuren as you might think. Indeed, the growth of kyōsanshumi fan culture focused on New Left and communist content — particularly related to post-war Japan, though also often avidly following the current activities of Zengakuren — exemplifies this overlap. And since a far-left worldview is inevitably condemned in neoliberal, politically apathetic Japan to be a subculture, numerically speaking, Zengakuren’s latest strategy arguably shows the merits of accepting this state of affairs fully, of running with it to see how far you can go, and of attempting to bypass the “scary” image the police and media has cultivated. Marxist slogans aside, succeeding at this would be nothing short of revolutionary.

WILLIAM ANDREWS

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Allegations against famed photojournalist Ryūichi Hirokawa send shock waves through the Japanese Left

Japan has yet to have its seismic #MeToo moment, notwithstanding the very well-documented problems faced by women in the workplace and shameful treatment of rape and harassment victims. Though the media has shown some interest in the global phenomenon, to the extent that it was picked as a buzzword of the year in 2018, perhaps a major reason it has not gained ground in Japan is the lack, so far, of a disgrace in the same way that we have seen major figures in entertainment, politics, and culture exposed in America and Europe.

A Weinstein-level watershed may well lie in wait just around the corner, the casting couch being an open secret in the entertainment and “gravure idol” world. (Separately, allegations of contractual coercion have plagued the adult video industry in recent years.) Last spring’s Nobuyoshi Araki scandal seemed about to bring down one of the most celebrated, if controversial and unashamedly sexualised, photographers. But the alleged wrongdoing seemed to fade fast from the public eye, with almost no coverage in the Japanese media, possibly because it was not unexpected of Araki, considering his favourite subject matters.

Illustrious and successful photographers in America have faced accusations in the wake of #MeToo and only the naive would not expect there to be a similar issue within the profession in Japan. Nonetheless, many were left reeling are a story broke of allegations against renowned photojournalist Ryūichi Hirokawa, which first appeared Shūkan Bunshun that hit the newsstands in late December. In the article, seven women accused the 75-year-old veteran of abusing his position to pursue sexual relations with them. According to the allegations, Hirokawa demanded the women have sex with him and pose nude for him.

ryuichi hirokawa photojournalist japan scandal

Besides the obviously painful details of the harassment and worse, it is especially upsetting given Hirokawa’s reputation as a liberal and pioneer in bringing attention to victims of injustice. He is most famous for his association with such issues as Chernobyl and Unit 731, but was also an early advocate of the Palestinian cause in Japan. He moved to Israel in the late 1960s, where he became involved with the local communist movement and then an opponent of Zionism when he witnessed first-hand the suffering of the Palestinians. Back in Japan, he was part of the Palestinian lobby, joining central figures like the Arab scholar Yūzō Itagaki.

Hirokawa subsequently produced prolific photojournalism and writing about the Palestinians, documenting the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut and presenting his evidence at international hearings in Oslo and Geneva. His work recording the testimony of Palestinians and their former villages culminated in the documentary film Palestine 1948: Nakba (2008).

His advocacy of the Palestinian cause also earned him the dubious honour of inclusion in a book, The Jews in the Japanese Mind: The History and Uses of a Cultural Stereotype (1995) by David G. Goodman and Masanori Miyazawa, as an example of the anti-Zionist camp in Japan (along with Itagaki and Makoto Oda). While Goodman and Miyazawa’s framing of Hirokawa (and others) is contentious, it cannot be denied that Hirokawa’s efforts paved the way for more recent Japanese activist-artists like the documentary film-maker Toshikuni Doi. As recently as May last year, Al Jazeera lionised Hirokawa for his Palestinian photojournalism.

As such, these accusations bring a sad and ignominious end to a distinguished career, and are particularly bittersweet as they will overshadow the closure of Hirokawa’s magazine Days Japan. This magazine was first published by Kōdansha until 1990, when it was shut down after overstating information about Agnes Chan’s income. It was then founded by Hirokawa, who had frequently contributed to the earlier incarnation, as an independent magazine in 2004. Showcasing Japanese and global photojournalism, Days Japan has provided a platform for marginal and oppressed voices as well as, in the aftermath of 3.11, ample coverage of Fukushima and the nuclear power issue. It was also an example of one of the few outlets, even in the alternative media, that gave exposure to the anti-2020 Olympic protests and related homeless evictions. Experiencing financial troubles and near-closure in the late 2000s, it was announced in November that Days Japan would shutter with the February 2019 issue, following a further decline in sales and lack of successor to carry on Hirokawa’s legacy — one that is unfortunately now tarnished.

Hirokawa’s initial response was to brush off the allegations but he has since issued a formal apology through Days Japan, whose final edition will apparently feature some kind of response. He was also dismissed from his position as representative director at the magazine and also from the board of an Okinawa-related non-profit.

Underneath all the Molotov cocktails, helmets, and street riots as well as the Marxist mantras and transnational aspirations, Japan’s Long Sixties was arguably at least in part an existential process of self-discovery whereby people in Japan confronted the “inner other” — slum workers, Ainu, Okinawans, Koreans, Buraku, migrants — and moved from the prevalent post-war higaisha (victim) paradigm to one of kagaisha (perpetrator). This led to a rise in awareness of ethnicity and race, which had been taboo for the Left due to the heritage of Japanese imperialism with which the nation was still struggling to come to terms. Hirokawa’s trajectory, along with that of such figures as Makoto Oda and Ryū Ōta, is quite emblematic of this shift.

However, this remained a highly patriarchal and androcentric movement, unable to shake off the shackles of misogyny. The New Left was plagued not only by sexism, where the female activists would be tasked with making tea for their male comrades, but also rape, which was a problem within an organisation as well as even a “weapon” deployed during inter-factional conflict. Just one of the most prominent scandals that brought this ugly truth to the surface was the ABCD mondai (ABCD Problem), when four male Fourth International Japan activists were expelled after they were accused of rape on the frontline of the Sanrizuka struggle against Narita Airport in the early 1980s. The incident later led to female activists forming a breakaway group and contributed to the deterioration of the faction, which reformed with a new name and much-diminished influence in the 2000s. As Setsu Shigematsu has shown in Scream from the Shadows (2012), Women’s Lib in Japan developed gradually and quietly in the face of an unaccommodating, if not inimical, leftist culture. And as the Hirokawa case demonstrates, many so-called liberals and progressives have yet to deal with this dimension of the kagaisha that lurks within.

WILLIAM ANDREWS

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The Anti-Olympic Torch arrives in Tokyo

The Anti-Olympic Torch has arrived in Tokyo, continuing a journey that began in Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Games there and since passing through Olympic resistance movements at host cities at all subsequent Games.

Brought now to Tokyo by activists from South Korea who had led the recent anti-PyeongChang protests, its passing to the locals involved in the little-noticed yet feisty movement against 2020 formed a nearly week-long series of events.

This “relay” is, of course, a parody of the actual Olympic torch relay, set to start in Japan in March 2020 and last 114 days (travelling around the country under the cringeworthy motto of “hope lights our way”), as well as a testament to the transnational network of anti-Games movements that has now built up around the counter the sport mega-event and what Jules Boykoff calls “celebration capitalism”.

anti-olympics protest torch handover tokyo

I attended two of the Anti-Olympic Torch events for my fieldwork researching the anti-2020 protests in Tokyo.

The first was the symbolic handover of the torch itself, which is overtly “shabby” and rustic to emphasis its representation of the excluded groups who frequently clash with redevelopment projects in Olympics host cities. Organised by Hangorin no Kai (Anti-Olympic Group, or sometimes No Olympics 2020), one of the main activist groups in the anti-2020 movement, participants met outside Sendagaya Station on the afternoon of 21 November. We then toured around the construction site of the controversial New National Stadium and other related facilities, which has entirely swallowed Meiji Park, where many homeless people were staying, and Kasumigaoka Apartments, a public housing complex originally built under the umbrella of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics redevelopment. Former homeless residents, whose lawsuit over the loss of the park is on-going, and someone from the Kasumigaoka community also joined the tour at various points to share their insights. As we moved, participants played music on small instruments, forming a kind of makeshift chindonya marching band. The climax was the actual handover “ceremony”, involving several representatives from across the protest movement as well as someone in drag doing exaggerated performance calligraphy with the slogan “Hangorin” (Anti-Olympic). It came to an end just as the light was fading. Other than the attendees and random passersby, the main audience was actually a healthy contingent of public security bureau officers from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police watching and making studious notes from across the street.

The finale of the Anti-Olympic Torch events was a tour of the Tokyo Bay redevelopment sites on 23 November, organised by Okotowa Link (known in English as “No Thank You to Olympic Disasters” or “Another Olympics Disaster? No Thanks!”). This was a more ambitious undertaking that saw participants first gather in Tsukiji to hear about the closure of the market from local activists. We then boarded vehicles and drove to various places around the bay, culminating in a walk through the desolate Olympic Village construction site in Harumi. Since the day was a public holiday, no work was going on at the sites, conjuring up a particularly eerie atmosphere and a vision of what things might be like after the two-week bonanza is over in summer 2020 and the city is left with these expensive real estate investments that it potentially cannot reuse or sell on.

tokyo bay 2020 olympics construction development

I was reminded of the writer Iain Sinclair and his brilliant psychogeography memoir-cum-travelogue Ghost Milk. With customary surgical, almost fragmentary yet lyrical prose, Sinclair uses the titular metaphor as a refrain to describe these grand projects: ephemeral capital fuelling ubiquitous and soon-to-be-empty construction sites intended to realise phantom visions of city branding. Instead all they seem to usher in is surveillance, security, evictions and boondoggles. “The scam of scams was always the Olympics,” Sinclair writes, “Engines of regeneration. Orgies of lachrymose nationalism. War by other means. […] The five-hooped golden handcuffs. Smoke rings behind which deals could be done for casinos and mosques and malls: with corporate sponsorship, flag-waving and infinitely elastic budgets…” A brazenly suggested Olympic plan for hosting the 1988 Games in London is denounced as “the worst sort of land piracy”. What would Sinclair say about the developments in Tokyo Bay or Sendagaya?

The other events in the Anti-Olympic Torch handover included a talk at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies and screening of a film about protests at the 1988 Seoul Games, shown in Mitake Park in Shibuya in the vicinity of the now-closed Miyashita Park, which is another one of the flashpoints in the anti-2020 campaign.

The arrival of the Anti-Olympic Torch garnered some press attention from at least two outlets, the independent media OurPlanet-TV and Tokyo Shimbun. The torch also came to Japan against a poignant backdrop of related news stories: Osaka was selected to host the 2025 World Expo and organisers claimed they had received 80,000 applicants for the contentious 2020 Games volunteers programme (though 44% of them were not Japanese). The ghost milk of mega-events in Japan continues to trickle.

WILLIAM ANDREWS

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Letter from Tokyo: A documentary about counterculture in Tokyo

Letter from Tokyo is a documentary made by Morgan Quaintance, a London-based artist, writer and curator, about counterculture in Japan’s capital.

It highlights several key counterspaces in the city, such as the anarchist infoshop Irregular Rhythm Asylum and the “intersectional zone” Kosaten. There is also a brief shot from the legendary Shinjuku bookstore Mosakusha, which stocks a large number of political titles as well as a remarkably comprehensive range of newsletters, pamphlets, and newspapers by various political factions and activist groups.

letter from tokyo counterculture documentary

The documentary features footage of recent street protests in Tokyo, such as an anti-racist counter-protest, the demonstrations against former Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda, Tokyo No Hate Festival and May Day marchers. Interviewees include IRA owner Keisuke Narita, Yasumichi Noma of the prominent antifa group CRAC and the photographer Ryūdai Takano.

In addition to the growth of LGBT movements in Japan, it also examines the wider issue of public space in Tokyo, noting the historical scarcity of open areas for people to use freely, and then the development of parks in imitation of Western cities in the Meiji era. Commentators note the threat that the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo poses for regulation of the streets as well as ushering in destructive gentrification and redevelopment initiatives, most notably in Tsukiji.

The 40-minute film was shot over a three-month period in Tokyo and was premiered in London in September at Jerwood Space alongside an installation of “images, objects and ephemera” collected by Quaintance during the filming of the work.

WILLIAM ANDREWS

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