Yokohama court upholds civil right to hold political flash mobs in Japan

Welcome to Kanagawa,
Music and food for twenty yen
Music and food

Welcome!

Welcome to Kanagawa!
Music and food and company!
Music and food

Welcome!

Stephen Sondheim, Pacific Overtures

Rejoice, because it’s now legal to mob in Kanagawa. In a rare victory for campaigners against a backdrop of increasing perceived assaults on civil rights in Japan, the Yokohama District Court ruled on March 8th that a ban on politicised flash mobs by Ebina City was illegal.

The court made the decision in a suit brought by a group of activists after the mayor passed an ordinance that prohibited flash mob activities in the Kanagawa city. The activists successfully argued that the embargo was unconstitutional and an infringement on freedom of expression and assembly. The court agreed, calling the ban a misinterpretation and misapplication of municipal ordinances.

japan political protest flash mob dissent

I previously wrote about the case in an article for Jacobin last year. Mannequin Flash Mob Kanagawa was formed in February 2016 as an anti-war group. It seems to be a spin-off from Mothers’ Action for Peace and Democracy, which was founded in 2015 as the Kanagawa chapter of Mothers Against War, one of several civil bodies that emerged to protest the LDP’s state security legislation.

Those bills passed in 2015 but not all the activists have quietly packed up their placards. The flash mobs were a new venture, small in scale and ignored by the mainstream media until, that is, the mayor of Ebina decided to ban them and in the process sparked a wider debate about freedom of assembly in Japan.

In late February 2016, Mannequin Flash Mob Kanagawa held an event on the walkway around Ebina Station silently holding signs with messages protesting what they called the warmongering agenda of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. Dressed in a uniform black and denim attire and wearing sunglasses despite the winter weather, they moved around, striking mannequin poses for a short time and then dispersing to repeat the sequence at another spot. The aim was clearly to create an air of mystery and attract attention, but without contravening laws against obstruction of public spaces (which is often the ostensible excuse for why protestors get arrested in Japan). A video of the mob was uploaded to YouTube.

All this passed without much fanfare but somehow the mayor found out and decided to overreact by passing an ordinance last March explicitly banning such gatherings. Activists responded with a law suit and continued defiantly to stage flash mobs, such as during the upper house election in July. Their tenacity and posturing has now been vindicated.

Political flash mobs in Japan are not a new phenomenon per se. There have been previous flash mob-style interventions such as staged die-ins and other stunts, even if they did not use the flash mob label. In 2012, a small group of foreigner-led demonstrators also protested the ban on dancing at nightclubs with flash mobs.

That being said, flash mobs in Japan have until now remained largely anodyne gimmicks employed in brand advertising campaigns or as part of wedding parties. Examples of flash mobs have also appeared at arts festivals, notably Festival/Tokyo’s series of mobs in the Ikebukuro area in 2012 and 2013, though arguably the publicised and orchestrated manner these are organised denies their spontaneity and, thus, viability as genuine flash mobs.

Much more interesting to note in this context has been the growth of events like Halloween and Christmas in Japan, which have effectively developed in mass street parties where young people dress up (often in costumes that have very little to do with the original theme of the festival) and congregate in major urban areas. Over the past few years this has become particularly prominent in Shibuya, which is also regularly a destination for people to gather and celebrate after large sporting events. The police attempted to control this reclaiming of the streets — a de facto flash mob indeed since the movement grew organically — but would seem to have given up. Instead, last year Shibuya was temporarily pedestrianised to allow Halloween revellers to occupy the stretches of land around the station. After all, the gatherings in the weekends leading up to Halloween had ballooned to such an extent that it was actually dangerous not to permit them to spill out into the roads. The popularity of public celebrations of Halloween, in particular, was pioneered by foreign residents, certain numbers of whom would storm the Yamanote Line that loops around Tokyo and transform it into a venue for a party. This entailed not inconsiderable controversy, attracting ultra-nationalists and causing quite serious inconvenience to other passengers and the railway company. Rowdy and unsophisticated as it was, this unofficial “gaijin train” event was in some ways the precursor to the mass cosplay gatherings in Shibuya and also a kind of flash mob in its own right: mobilising people for a common purpose in the public sphere, thus denying its bourgeois legitimacy and forming a temporary autonomous zone (TAZ).

As thinkers like Habermas and Lefebvre have contended, the civil right to the city and occupation of social space is essential to keep authority in check. However, in Japan public space is regulated quite heavily, a legacy of the mass riots and street protests from the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, this period saw what was probably the most impressive flash mobs in Japan, the impromptu anti-war folk music rallies at Shinjuku Station in 1969. These became so popular that riot police broke them up and the musicians were arrested and put on trial. The underground plaza at the station was then renamed a passageway in order to prevent people from daring to stop moving and assemble.

From the authorities’ point of view, assembly is the crux of the problem. You may legally be fine if you are not causing an obstruction — as the Ebina flash mobbers asserted — but in theory all street protest gatherings and marches have to be registered in advance, and the police then turn up to marshal (read: control) the demonstrators. Perhaps almost anyone who has ever witnessed a march in Japan will have noticed how corralled and enclosed they often seem, with numerous riot police officers supervising the participants and police vehicles accompanying the procession. Surrounding traffic lanes are kept open and marchers are often broken up into smaller groups by being made to wait at traffic lights. Public displays of dissent are escorted and boxed, while nonetheless paying lip service to the Constitution’s protection of free assemble.

As I have previously suggested, even the so-called “pedestrian paradises” in areas of Tokyo such as Shinjuku are far from the idyll its name suggests. There are strict rules against performing, vending and protesting, as indicating by large bilingual signs. The 2008 Akihabara massacre was used as a excuse to close the pedestrianised zone there until 2011. The ward had allegedly been looking for such a pretext as the cosplay that attracted crowds had almost got out of control, with some people virtually performing stripteases. Though the weekend pedestrianisation has re-started, it is more subdued and new restrictions are in place.

There has been some relaxation of late, tolerating performers in family-friendly parks like Inokashira and Ueno and buskers outside certain stations. However, these are likely checked and registered by the relevant authority, so it is once again still monitored: what I call the quarantine of zest.

As 2020’s Summer Olympics rapidly approach, we can expect to see further examples of the police and various levels of government attempting to enforce control of the streets. In Kanagawa, at least, activists can for now celebrate a small victory.

WILLIAM ANDREWS

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