The Changing Shape of Protest in Japan

A self-professed nerd. A tweeting journalist. Good-looking youngsters. And a celebrated academic. Together they are all changing the cosmetic and style of Japanese protest.

In an interview published in English by Ignition IT engineer Fukuyuki Murakami declares that he has “he has run out of patience with ‘the total ineffectiveness’ of mainstream political protest”.

“You’ll see people holding one march after another in shopping districts like Shinjuku and Shibuya, but there aren’t any politicians in these places. Or they’ll have a standing demonstration in front of the Prime Minister’s official residence or the National Diet Building – but once Diet members finish their deliberations, they just go home. So you end up with a bunch of people chanting ‘Stop Abe!’ in front of an empty building. That seems pretty ridiculous.”

In July he launched Japan Changer, “an alternative platform for political protest… more effective than marches and demonstrations”.

By filling out a web form and paying a fee of ¥4,800 (about $40), users of Japan Changer can have a statement of protest automatically faxed to all 717 members of the Japanese Diet. At first Murakami had planned to have the service send mass protest e-mails, but he gave up on that when he learned that only 124 Diet members have public addresses. Undeterred, he turned his attention to a quaint holdover from an older generation of technology: the fax machine.

Even though e-mail ostensibly forced fax machines into obsolescence a generation ago, they’re still an active part the Japanese Diet’s day-to-day operations. Even the Diet’s operating hours are still announced by fax. If he could use fax technology to communicate people’s political discontent, Murakami thought, lawmakers would find it much harder to ignore them.

“Flooding the Diet’s fax machines is a way to exercise civil disobedience by forcibly disrupting the business of the Diet. But to keep from interfering too much with day-to-day operations, I have all the faxes sent in one batch in the middle of the night.” Even in protest, Murakami shows consideration to his recipients.

Murakami, a self-deprecating, self-professed nerd, uses a video game analogy to describe the current situation in which the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) can force through the immensely controversial security bills in spite of the mass protests because of their control of both houses of the Diet. Japanese politics, he says, is set in “No-Enemies Mode”.

japan changer fukuyuku murakami

Japan Changer founder Fukuyuki Murakami, who harnesses the political power of the fax machine

So is Murakami right? Do the old “formats” of protest no longer work anymore?

The likes of sociologist Eiji Oguma, who famously wrote a prize-winning door-stopper of a book about the post-war political movements called, aptly, 1968, would disagree. Oguma has championed the post-Fukushima anti-nuclear movement as both participant and commentator. He recently released a film about it called Tell the Prime Minister, compiled from “found footage” of the post-3.11 demos.

“The people who appear in this film are truly stars in my eyes,” says Oguma. “They are diverse in gender, generation, class, origin, nationality, and orientation. When they gathered in front of the Prime Minister’s Office to protest it was such a rare, powerful, and beautiful moment.”

Likewise, the media has been intoning rather breathlessly about SEALDs, the student group that is one of the leaders of the current anti-security bills protests. SEALDs is fronted by photogenic young activists who, if we are to believe the media, are “reinvigorating” Japanese youth (they, or at least their supporters, are also aggressively trying to prevent far-left groups from pamphletting at the Diet or Kantei).

Their attitude towards presentation is savvy; they have a clean, smart web presence and encourage demonstrators to print out attractive placards that they provide in advance. They have a funky logo and use a lot of (natural) English, giving them a cosmopolitan, metropolitan sheen distinctly absent from a lot of far-left groups. Their demonstrations are also intensely oral experiences. The speakers rap and chant, creating a mass buzz that is infective, angry and passionate — yet not overly negative.

The much-shared picture of Ryūichi Sakamoto standing affectionately with his hand on the shoulder of one of the SEALDs activists at the August 30th Diet rally felt in many ways like the liberal music giant giving his endorsement to a younger peer, who is leading a movement as musical as as it is political.

sealds ryuichi sakamoto protest demo diet tokyo

The SEALDs activist Aki Okuda and the composer Ryūichi Sakamoto on August 30th at the protest outside the Diet

In general, the post-Fukushima protests have been musically fascinating, as will be covered in detail by Noriko Manabe in her upcoming books, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Protest Music After Fukushima (2015) and Revolution Remixed: A Typology of Intertextuality in Protest Songs (forthcoming).

Until now a protest or demonstration in Japan would likely take the form of a rally and/or a march (as is the case in most places). There are also smaller speech rallies, where a group modest enough so it doesn’t need to be registered officially as a demo gathers with placards and bullhorns on the street to call out political slogans (typically in front of the place they are protesting). People also often collect signatures for petitions directly on the streets. A rally might be held indoors or outside, and usually involves a series of speeches, often with short reports from regional branches on their recent activities. A rally may well last up to three hours and then be followed by a march to somewhere symbolically significant along a route planned to pass through areas with large numbers of public bystanders.

The Old Left, especially the Japanese Communist Party, also has long had a penchant for “festive” and musical events, most famously the Akahata Festival. Though popular and adept at attracting students and fresh recruits, the singing and dancing of the JCP was much mocked by New Left factions during the height of the post-war protest cycle.

While today we are used to seeing sound trucks at left-wing demos, it has archetypically actually been an instrument of the far Right. The development of sound demos since before and during the Heisei Period is also dealt with through several interesting case studies in the book Youth Movements, Trauma and Alternative Space in Contemporary Japan by Carl Cassegård, which is one of the best introductions to 1990’s protest movements around. Groups like Shirōto no Ran (Amateurs’ Riot), whose earlier music-influenced demonstrations and street actions fused with the post-3.11 movement, filled the streets of Shinjuku and elsewhere with jiving protestors, with drummers and rappers, and carnivalesque sound trucks blaring out shamelessly loud musical slogans.

On top of these musical demos, we are currently witnessing a wave of other new “protest formats” in Japan.

In 2013, the former-actor-turned-politician Tarō Yamamoto, frustrated at his inability to debate nuclear power in political chambers, breached the highest political taboo in Japan by handing a letter to the Emperor during a function at which he was a guest. The letter apparently expressed people’s concerns about nuclear power, concerns which have been ignored by the governing LDP. Although Yamamoto was heavily criticised (the Emperor is a purely constitutional monarch), there is an historical precedent to such direct appeals, known as jikiso. Shōzō Tanaka made a similarly direct plea to the Emperor Meiji (the current Emperor’s great-grandfather) about rural pollution. Going back further, it was customary for peasants and village heads to appeal directly to the authorities if they felt their local lord was treating them unfairly. At times, requests might be treated sympathetically. The most famous example is Sakura Sōgorō, a farmer who pleaded directly to the Shogun about the burden of taxes on peasants in the Sakura Domain. Alas, for his efforts he was brutally executed alongside his family, since making such an appeal was then illegal.

fukushima taro yamamoto jikiso emperor

Tarō Yamamoto and his jikiso to the Emperor (note the response of the people in the background)

Fortunately, Yamamoto did not have to face the same fate as Sōgorō-sama. Quite the contrary, today a petition is seen as perfectly legitimate and the format has also been embraced by Web 2.0. In recent years, online petitions (e-petitions) have grown on a truly global scale. There are now many large petition platforms that seek to raise attention to certain topical issues and get them debated by politicians by securing public signatures and viral momentum. The Japanese version of (launched in June 2012) has had success in numerical terms with some campaigns (such as 90,000 people signing a petition protesting the public sexual harassment of Tokyo assembly member Ayaka Shiomura in just four days in 2014), though the jury is still out on whether such petitions can have any real effect.

Of course, Japan has infamously never had a national referendum on any issue, so the success of is a testament to the grassroots desire for an opportunity to express opinions on urgent issues. This is one of the reasons why Akira Takayama’s Referendum Project (2011, and ongoing) was so insightful. The touring installation consisted of a converted truck with several booths showing interviews with school children from Fukushima and elsewhere, all answering the same deceptively ordinary questions about their lives and their hopes for the future. The visitor was then asked to fill out their own “vote” by answering the same questions. In this sense, the project became an archive of post-Fukushima voices, in lieu of any true national plebiscite.

Twitter and social media proved vital for communication in the wake of the 2011 tsunami and earthquake, since ordinary mobile phone networks were disabled for some time. Along with the earlier Arab Spring’s supposed “Facebook revolution”, many were quick to hype up Twitter in Japan as the possible saviour of the country from its political apathy. Of course, Twitter is also the perfect tool for the noisy minority and aggressive netto uyoku who want to hound anyone they do not like. (Japan has long had a disproportionately powerful online community: witness 2ch, which was at least partly responsible for the downfall of designer Kenjirō Sano.)

The journalist Daisuke Tsuda has been one of Twitter’s most public evangelists. He trumps social media as a means for social transformation, not just a communication tool. He used Twitter to “sort out” the chaos of information and misinformation in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, circulating all the information from TEPCO and other press conferences during the weeks after March 11th. In the process, he massively increased his Twitter followers. Since then, Tsuda has regularly cited the power of social media and the Internet, not least in that they are the majority of ways that anti-nuclear protestors found out about demonstrations and events.

Tsuda then established ZEZEHIHI, an online public voting platform with, naturally, an accessible and very pop design. The user logs on via a social media account and selects one of two views on a certain question or issue. Needless to say, these can range from the banal to the profound, and the dyadic format of the survey is reductive to say the least — but it’s the debate itself that is as important as the output.

ZEZEHIHI was given a New Face Award at the 17th Japan Media Arts Festival, organised by the Agency for Cultural Affairs (thus tacitly rubber-stamping it with the approval of the Establishment). The reason for the award was explained in the festival catalogue by one of that year’s jury members, the multi-hyphenate Naohiro Ukawa:

… Daisuke Tsuda has been unlocking the latent abilities of social media, searching for the possibilities for journalism in the post-Internet age. ZEZEHIHI is a public voting platform that fully mobilises the results of his result up till now, and we might also call it a media art debut by a media activist.

Whether the Japanese government’s opinion, once it is made up, can actually be swayed by Murakami’s mass faxing or Tsuda’s mass tweeting remains to be seen. Regardless, these new modus operandi of protest are welcome additions to the arsenal of Japan’s troubled democracy.


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2 Responses to The Changing Shape of Protest in Japan

  1. shayne says:

    To what extent are the SEALDs actions simply fashionable tribalism? Do they have a long term strategy? The visible activism is good to see but its also a bit late…… but better late than never perhaps. Obviously they don’t have a broad leftist agenda if they are distancing themselves from any semblance of solidarity with other leftist groups. Has the LDP designed post Red Army era non-questioning consumer generation finally awoken from a Xanax like blissfully ignorant sleep… at last? Interesting to see how SEALDs develops from here as they ponder their strategies and actual devotion to ousting the LDP or whatever it is they are opposing. Fukuyuki Murakami seems to have some fresh ideas that he should build on.
    The LDP is probably dreaming of the day of the first Japanese war casualty after Article 9 is amended. The death will serve to glorify the new (and legal) militarily assertive Japan and they will probably try and patriotically legitimise and exploit it with full Yasukuni pageantry. Truly deranged sociopaths. Young activists need to construct new strategies and continue their public actions in order to budge the LDP.


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