Abe’s government must not be tolerated: On political slogans in recent Japanese protest movements

“Revolution is not a dinner party,” as Mao said, nor is it just a political slogan. But having one certainly helps. While they lack the finesse or depth of a treatise or manifesto, few would deny that political and social movements need catchphrases and slogans in order to flourish.

We are the 99%. Stick it to the man. The whole world is watching. Workers of the world, unite! All power to the Soviets! Let a hundred flowers bloom! Not in my name. Not my president. ¡No pasarán! ¡Pasaremos!

Ad nauseam and ad infinitum. Indeed, a slogan is a clarion nearly as often as it is a cliché. And yet, there is a golden hour before saturation when slogans can rally people; they channel anger and focus the campaign on a target or central idea. They can be reactionary or visionary, defiant or boastful, referential (for example, to previous slogans and movements) or provocative. But most of all, they are catchy.

Marx was at times ambivalent about slogans, once condemning them as “empty phrases”, while nonetheless making more than his own fair share. In History and Class Consciousness, Lukács is full of praise for the “correct slogans”, such as during the Russian Revolution of 1917:

… The slogans of peace, self-determination, and the radical solution to the agrarian problem welded together an army that could be deployed for revolution while completely disorganising the whole power apparatus of counter-revolution and rendering it impotent.

What I call the post-post-Fukushima protest movements have addressed a range of pressing social issues, from the state secrecy law to the security bills, the relocation of a US military base to Henoko Bay in Okinawa, the construction of helipads in Takae, and the proposed conspiracy law.

They are, however, dominated by one key element: a hatred of Shinzō Abe, who swept back to power at the end of 2012 and whose re-galvanised LDP has won election after election since, despite actually achieving less votes than they got when they were dealt a crushing defeat by the DPJ (as it was then known) in 2009.

In fact, the return of Abe is one of the easiest ways to draw a line in the sand in terms of post-Fukushima chronology. His comeback meant that the issue of nuclear power became a no-brainer. All the negotiations in 2012 between the DPJ and the protestors were for naught. Of course, the LDP would go back to its policy of supporting the power companies and their vested interests. Public opinion counts for nothing in the eyes of the LDP, since the lawmakers know from experience if they simply dig their in and wait out any popular dissent.

And from this point on, Abe started the ignition on his engine of ambitious right-wing constitutional reforms that if anything are impressive for the alacrity and skill with which he has realised them. But millions are opposed to him, and thousands are constantly mobilising and protesting.

In 2015, much ink was spilled about SEALDs, the group of student activists campaigning against the Japanese government’s new security legislation, especially their smart approach to publicity. This was evident in the cleanly designed posters, placards, websites and t-shirts, which all carried several prominent slogans and phrases — particularly English-language ones, typically borrowed from American movements like Occupy. War is over. Youth against fascism. Take back democracy. Tell me what democracy looks like.

sealds flyer placard

An example of the use of English and Japanese slogans by the protest group SEALDs.

sealds placards posters

More examples of SEALDs placards from 2015. Note the prominent use of English and colour.

But the most enduring slogan did not come from those savvy, bilingual youngsters. One woman born in 1930 devised a phrase that has grown to define the entire anti-Abe movement and also become a iconic visual image in its own right. This is because the slogan — Abe seiji o yurusanai, which we might translate loosely as “Abe’s government is unforgivable” or “Abe’s government must not be tolerated” — was handwritten.

Abe seiji o yurusanai hisae sawachi

Hisae Sawachi’s anti-Abe slogan: “Abe seiji o yurusanai” (Abe’s government must not be tolerated)

The black calligraphy against a white background is now a fixture at virtually any protest against the government, especially those by older liberals unaffiliated with the remaining New Left factions or even the mainstream opposition parties. The slogan was written by Hisae Sawachi, a non-fiction writer and one of the founding members of Kūjō no Kai (Article 9 Association) in 2004, alongside literary figures like Kenzaburō Ōe and Hisashi Inoue as well as Makoto Oda and Shunsuke Tsurumi, who were part of Beheiren, the main anti-Vietnam War group in Japan.

Like the best of slogans, Sawachi’s is straightforward and memorable. It keeps the focus on Abe rather than anything dogmatic or sectarian. The words are plain and sincere. “Abe” is also written in katakana so it stands out and is readable by everyone. And unlike the SEALDs slogans, which are arguably performative in nature for the most part, Abe seiji o yurusanai is constative and action-based: it demands you act in order to show your agreement. To borrow from Marx and make a distinction that is overly simplifying matters somewhat: “There the slogan went beyond the content — here the content goes beyond the slogan.” (Dort ging die Phrase über den Inhalt, hier geht der Inhalt über die Phrase hinaus.).

hisae sawachi protest diet anti-abe

The author Hisae Sawachi holds her anti-Abe slogan up along with other protestors outside the Diet in July 2015. Next to her stands the veteran journalist and progressive campaigner Shuntarō Torigoe.

Far more than the mantras of SEALDs, Sawachi’s slogan became the symbol of the 2015 anti-government movement. At the demonstrations outside the Diet, there were always people holding up posters carrying the slogan. Like SEALDs, organisers made it available to download online or print out from convenience stores. Major unions distributed the posters to members. Some people vandalised train advertising by surreptitiously adding stickers printed with the slogan to unassuming commercial ads (what is known as subvertising or détournement in Situationist terminology). Akie Abe, the outspoken and unruly wife of the prime minister, even uploaded a picture to social media of her encounter with a man holding the poster in Shinjuku one day in 2016. The impact of the phrase was also recognised when it was chosen as one of the runners-up in the “buzzword of the year” award in 2015.

akie abe anti-government poster protester

Akie Abe, the prime minister’s wife, poses for a picture she posted to her social media channel with a man in Shinjuku holding a poster with Sawachi’s anti-government slogan.

The slogan’s resolutely Japanese nature — employing handwritten calligraphy and no English words — denied it the same coverage as the cosmopolitan, contemporary mottos shouted by SEALDs or adorning their sleekly designed placards.

To make a better comparison, then, we need to look back to korosu na (“Don’t kill”), the handwritten slogan by the artist Tarō Okamoto that became the symbol of the anti-Vietnam War movement in Japan during the 1960s and 1970s, led by Beheiren. Okamoto wrote the slogan for a well-known anti-war advertisement, splashed across a full page in The Washington Post in 1967. The jagged, raw brushstrokes of korosu na took up half the page, underneath which ran several columns of text with the headline: “Stop the Killing! Stop the Vietnam War! An appeal from the citizens of Japan and the voice of Hiroshima”. It is notable that the ad, though obviously intended for American readers to highlight Japanese opposition to their nation’s unofficial war in Southeast Asia, retained Okamoto’s slogan in the original Japanese (with a gloss and romanised version beneath), since its pictographic effect transcended semiotically.

taro okamoto korosu na

The original use of Tarō Okamoto’s powerful “korosu na” calligraphy slogan in an ad in The Washington Post in 1967.

It became not just a part of the Beheiren arsenal but also freely exploited by other contemporary figures in counterculture. Shortly after, the performance artist Dadakan used the slogan in his stunts, running naked while holding a piece of paper printed with a copy of Okamoto’s calligraphy.

dadakan korosuna

Dadakan running with the Okamoto slogan.

Korosu na was resurrected in the anti-Iraq War demonstrations in Japan in 2003. This movement is often overlooked: people think of Fukushima and then the Abe protests as coming out of nowhere, but there have been plenty of other movements during the Heisei period, including mass movements.

On March 21st, some 50,000 people marched through the streets of Tokyo. Korosu na was appropriated as the name for a group participating in the protest, led by art critic Sawaragi Noi and ethnographer Masanori Oda. The experience was cathartic for Sawaragi, who rediscovered the street as a “one of the few good places left where we can reassemble our thoughts and once more move to action”. (The “good place” is a reference to the critic’s famous condemnation of Japan as a “bad place” where the post-war avant-garde had failed to make inroads.)

The lineage of korosu na continued in 2014. On a national holiday in May, the Asahi Shimbun ran a double-page spread that brilliantly updated the Beheiren newspaper ad from 1967. Now there was colour: a sea of typography, in fact, though Okamoto’s timeless characters stuck out in stark black. Even more strikingly, the Japanese characters actually comprised a series of names of people publicly supporting the message of the ad.

asahi shimbun taro okamoto korosu na

The “korosu na” slogan appeared again in this effective anti-war ad in the Asahi Shimbun in 2014.

aera korosuna

Another use of “korosu na” in an advertisement placed in the magazine Aera.

Timed to coincide with Constitution Memorial Day, the ad was testament to the growing concern over Abe’s militarisation policies. As the prime minister was pushing forward with his security reforms, including gaining Cabinet approval for so-called “collective self-defence” that was the precursor to the actual bills the following year, the movement was building that would culminate in the hundreds of thousands who protested in Tokyo and around country in the summer of 2015.

The organisation who funded the ad is part of the Article 9 movement that wants to protect the Constitution’s pacifist clause from revisionists eager to change or completely discard it. One of the group’s logos (borrowed from Beheiren’s logo) also uses korosu na in red, surrounded by English text: “Do not kill. Anywhere, anytime”. Shimin no Iken 30 no Kai Tokyo (Citizens’ Opinion 30 Group Tokyo) was founded by Yūichi Yoshikawa, a former senior member of Beheiren, in 1988. Since 2003 it has published a series of “citizens’ opinion ads” in the media, such as ads against the Iraq War and the Japanese Self-Defence Forces participation in the conflict (ostensibly in a Humanitarian role). Besides anti-war campaigning, it is also involved in the movements against nuclear power and the Henoko base relocation.

anti-war ad newspaper iraq japan okamoto taro

An example of the anti-Iraq War newspaper ads that used the Tarō Okamoto slogan.

anti-war ad newspaper iraq japan okamoto taro

Another example protesting the Iraq War and the participation of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces.

The artist group Chim Pom jumped on this bandwagon, as is their wont, when they painted a replica of Okamoto’s slogan on to the outside wall surrounding the Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum garden. (Chim Pom previously “artjacked” Okamoto’s famous Myth of Tomorrow, an immense anti-nuclear war painting now hanging in Shibuya, with a Fukushima-inspired addition to one of its missing panels.) Their version of korosu na was part of an Okamoto tribute exhibition at the Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum in 2013.

chim pom taro okamoto korosu na pavilion

The artist group Chim Pom appropriate Okamoto’s “korosu na” slogan in 2013.

However, exhibiting graffiti arguably makes the slogan more sterile than provocative. A political slogan as graffiti is notoriously potent, though also much mocked (think Paris in 1968, Je suis Marxiste — tendance Groucho.). But it needs to be left there to be found by the unsuspecting citizen, rather than flaunted on a pedestal as “art” for the discerning museum-goer. Far more effective, in this respect, was this graffiti I recently spotted scrawled in pen on a platform pillar in JR Shinjuku Station.

shinjuku station political graffiti anarchist koenji shinzo abe

Anti-Abe graffiti spotted on a pillar in JR Shinjuku Station in November 2016.

Echoing korosu na, a common chant heard at 2015 protests (and before and since) was also the somewhat awkward English slogan “Don’t kill”, which might have sounded simply naive and incongruous if not for the lineage of korosu na.

And yet, as the Abe administration shows no sign of faltering or being forced out by another LDP faction (let alone an opposition party), it is Sawachi’s slogan that continues to resonate and feel necessary. It is still used at protests today and surely will be until Abe steps aside.

In a way, it was something of a fluke that the slogan became as big it has (Sawachi’s status certainly helped a lot), though it also speaks to how the movement against the security legislation was actually driven by veteran activists, not, as the media coverage had us believe, by the feisty yet ultimately limited groupsicule that was SEALDs. If the drivers of the movement had only been the latter or a similar group, instead of a slogan that has survived physically in the public domain we might have had only that much more fickle contemporary version: a hashtag.

But social movements need a vision of a new world if they are to succeed. They cannot just be a “tagged” idea or a knee-jerk collection of angry rants targeting whomever social justice warriors stumble upon this week. Without a vision — let’s avoid that tainted word, ideology — they dissipate, as we saw with the Arab Spring and even Occupy. Slogans, then, need to go hand in hand with a political dream if they are truly to exploit their inherently adhesive quality to bind and rally people together.


Further Reading in English

Cassegård, Carl, “Japan’s lost decade and its two recoveries: On Sawaragi Noi, Japanese Neo-Pop and anti-war activism”, in Perversion and Modern Japan: Psychoanalysis, Literature, Culture, edited by Nina Cornyetz and J Keith Vincent, London: Routledge, 2010.

Sharon Hayashi, Anne McKnight, “Good-bye Kitty, Hello War: The Tactics of Spectacle and New Youth Movements in Urban Japan”, Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 13 (2005): 87-11.

Jan Mieszkowski, “What’s in a Slogan?”, Mediations, Volume 29, No. 2 (Spring 2016).

Yoshitaka Mōri, “Culture = Politics: the emergence of new cultural forms of protest in the age of freeter”, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 6 (1), 17-29.

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