On August 14th, members of Japan’s ultra Right targeted the anti-nuclear power protest tents that have stood for nearly five years outside the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) in Kasumigaseki, the government district in central Tokyo.
The “attack”, as it was swiftly dubbed by those on the Left, happened perhaps deliberately on the day before the annual anniversary of Japan’s surrender in the Pacific War that always turns Yasukuni Shrine into something of a pantomime of militarist cosplay.
It is unclear to me if this was a co-ordinated action between several groups or individuals, but online reports claim that the racist hate group Zaitokukai was the main organiser. The perpetrators of the attack seemed to attempt to surround the tents with flags and banners. The hot summer day then quickly became more heated as supporters rallied to protect the tents, and police struggled to keep the two groups on opposing sides of the street while vehicles decorated with nationalist slogans drove into the fray. The anti-tent demonstrators included at least one man wearing a war-time military costume, just as can always be seen at Yasukuni on August 15th.
Japan’s far Right has diversified in recent years, now encompassing netizens who vent nationalist anger online (the so-called netto uyoku), hate speech groups like Zaitokukai who particularly target Korean communities, and sundry protestors who march against the recent territorial incursions by China and Japan’s other neighhours. The customary black vans of the traditional uyoku are no longer the only icons of rightist groups, nor does this emerging demographic necessarily belong to the New Right or minzoku-ha that developed out of the student movement. (In fact, elements of the New Right and other nationalists also added their voices to the anti-nuclear power movement.) The hate groups and xenophobic activists view any kind of leftist, liberal or anti-government movement as an enemy of Japan, hence they have attacked protests against nuclear power or the state security bills. Shall we call it the New New Right?
The incident comes at time of renewed tensions between the state and citizens due to the ongoing clashes at Takae in Okinawa over helipad construction, which has seen hundreds of riot police despatched from the mainland to maintain order among local and visiting protestors. While the scale of that movement is still relatively small, the situation is not dissimilar to what happened during the construction of Narita Airport in the 1960s and 1970s.
This is far from the first time the tents have attracted far-right attention, including hate activists like Shusei Sakurda. Rightists damaged and attempted to disrupt the tents as earlier as 2011, which has led the anti-nuclear protestors to develop a network of supporters that can be mobilised to guard and protect the tents. As can see from the video, this is very successful as a defence strategy. The attack on August 14th was met by a vigorous counter-protest of self-professed “anti-fascists” from the movement which has also become a prominent feature of protest culture in Japan over the past few years in response to the way the ultra-nationalists have evolved. These counter-protestors strive to outnumber and drown out the noise of right-wing or hate groups’ street actions, and do not shy away from engaging directly in physical confrontations. The activists are at times as aggressive as the hate groups and others they picket, prompting a greater police presence to keep the two sides apart.
This video was made by Rio Akiyama, a freelance photographer and film-maker who spends his days crisscrossing the country to cover counter-protests and other social movements. The work of Akiyama is mirrored by that of Rody Shimazaki, a punk-turned-photographer who has also documented the 2015 security bills protests and the hate speech counter-protests. Both Shimazaki and Akiyama have published photo-books in recent months, adding to the post-Fukushima discourse with (carefully curated) versions of the protest movements.
The protest tents were first erected on September 11th, 2011, shortly after the much-publicised hunger strike at Kasumigaseki, and around the time that the anti-nuclear power movement really began to pick up momentum. The organisers themselves use the name “Tento Hiroba” (Tent Plaza), and in English “Anti-Nuclear Occupy Tent”. It has been called the Occupy Tents, or the “tent village”. The concurrent timing is coincidental, but we might dare to christen it “Occupy Kasumigaseki”, though the contexts and aims of the tents are far removed from what went on at Wall Street in those heady anti-capitalist days of late 2011.
What is the significance of the Occupy Tents? The motley structures function as a listening post; a gathering place for demonstrators, talks, music, video screenings, and information exchange. One of the tents is now a free art museum featuring work by the likes of 281_Anti Nuke. The corner where they stand is one of the symbols of the movement, along with the art of Yoshitomo Nara that was used prolifically on placards at the major rallies.
The tents have also become a kind of protest commons: a shared place for various stakeholders in the diverse anti-nuclear power protest movement to come together and exchange views. It occupies land that is public yet also government (not mutually exclusive concepts), and forces the issue of Fukushima and nuclear power to stay in the public domain even as the the Friday night vigils in front of the Kantei (prime minister’s official residence) have dwindled. That is not to say they have stopped: they continue resiliently every week, though the numbers of participants are far lower than their remarkable peak in 2012. But Tent Plaza is certainly the most materially resonant site of the movement, since the Friday night vigils are by their nature transient and shifting in scale and exact location.
In this way, the tents form a permanent platform for discourse, a “plaza” in a very real sense — a rare thing in Japan, where public land is often tightly controlled and managed. Kasumigaseki, in particular, is not amenable to assemblies, where demonstrators are not allowed to occupy the roads and are forced to gather on the snaking pavements in the district. Tent Plaza repudiates this topographical restraint and replaces it with a micro Tokyo version of Speakers’ Corner.
In addition to the ongoing crusade against nuclear power, the tents have also served as a locus for other anti-government causes, such as the protests against the state security bills last year. In one memorable episode, Buddhist monks gathered at the tents in 2015 to pray for the so-called “war bills” to be rejected.
If the unquestionably partisan Japan Atomic Industrial Forum is to believed, “members of a shadowy coalition of primarily far-left groups have continuously occupied [the tents], displaying signs criticising national nuclear policy and proclaiming the site a symbol of the anti-nuclear movement”. “Shadowy” or not, the people associated with the tents are not simply drawn from the rank’s of Japan’s far Left. There are indeed activists with long experience in radical groups. (For example, Shinzaburō Iwamoto is one of the people involved and this seems to be the same person who was part of a faction of Chūkaku-ha forced out in 2006.) But the nature of the protest is much more genial than the dogmatic tactics of the far Left, and, as we saw, a lot of its grassroots support now comes from the younger hate speech counter-protestors as opposed to the more established radical Left.
Here is someone explaining how she got involved in helping at the tents, as recorded by the Voices of Protest Japan project.
I wanted to do something as one who lives in metropolitan area. Though I did not participate from the beginning, I participated in Fukushima women’s group and did a sit-in. Also I started to visit here two or three days when I heard that Fukushima women were coming after the hunger strike done by five young people in front of METI. Then Japan’s women group continued the movement for ten more days. I didn’t participate for the whole thing but little bit. After that, the men at the first tent built the second tent when a hundred of Fukushima women were coming to the tent. But because of lack of participants after this movement, the tent was always closed when I came. In the same year, March of 2012, I started to come when I heard that they needed member for Saturday shift. So I started to go to that shift and also began to come for Thursday. Then I came for every other week rotating with another person. And now, I come for Thursday shift.
Just as the Wall Street occupiers were hounded out of Zuccotti Park, so too does the Japanese state want these pesky Kasumigaseki squatters gone. METI has been attempting to have the tents forcibly removed since 2014, though the orders have been challenged by protestors in the courts. Amidst the anti-nuke paraphernalia, the tents are also ostensibly fenced off by railings hung with signs informing the world that this is state land. In late July, the Supreme Court upheld an earlier ruling the the tents must be removed and the occupiers pay a vast sum for “using” public land (around ¥20,000 for every day the tents have been there). The tents are effectively on borrowed (and expensive) time, though the state knows that any clumsy eviction could result in violence.
On September 11th, the tents are celebrating their anniversary with a “9.11 Anger Festival”. The fury of Fukushima lives on in Kasumigaseki.
Update (August 21st): Occupy Tents removed
A few hours pass and this article is already out of date. In the early hours of August 21st, the Occupy Tents were forcibly removed by court officials and security guards from METI. Around 100 people surrounded the tents at 3.30 a.m. and in 90 minutes had taken down all the placards and tents that were the physical signs of a five-year movement. Five activists were apparently there but were unable to stop the eviction.