It should be obvious to all that Premium Friday, that ill-named and ill-begotten government gimmick to encourage workers to leave their jobs early on the final Friday of the month, has utterly failed when even the (no doubt overworked and under-appreciated) employees of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry do not leave their office at 3pm, as per the fundamental concept. I know this because I recently had cause to be outside METI on Premium Friday on 27 July, but I was not there in Kasumigaseki to gloat over the failure of yet another government scheme. I was there to watch JKS47.
Formed in August 2015, JKS47 is the Jusatsu Kitōkai Sōdan 47 (literally, Curse Death Prayer Meeting Monk Order 47), also known in English as the Japan Kitou Society. The naming is a clear nod towards AKB48, JKT48 and other many-membered pop idol groups, as well as to the loyal retainers of the Chūshingura, but first and foremost it references a group of monks from the 1970s who protested environmental pollution. Today, of course, the gravest environmental threat Japan faces is the long-term risks posed by the Fukushima radiation and the continued uncertainty over nuclear power in the nation — and this is the target of JSK47. The participants gather monthly at METI to protest the government policy of restarting the network of reactors around the country, done through Buddhist incantation and music that lasts around an hour. “The dead shall judge,” as declares the slogan for their prayer meetings (kitōe).
The result is curiously hybrid: clamorous and declamatory; theatrical and performative; religious and ritualistic; isolated and stark against the grey buildings of the Kasumigaseki district in central Tokyo.
Somewhere between 12 and 20 people assemble in black robes with white sashes outside the METI headquarters. They erect banners and prepare instruments, speakers and microphones. A cymbal crashes and the proceedings begin. Another banner is unfurled and a trumpet blasts. People pass, bewildered by this hubbub in the pristine district of bureaucrats, not to mention its quasi-religious spectacle. What are Buddhist monks or priests doing here, making so much noise? Actually, it is perhaps more surprising how little flustered or responsive the pedestrians are to the event, indicating either people who work in the area are now used to the monthly protest or that ministry employees are a phlegmatic bunch. Even passing police officers seemed more bemused than concerned.
The music gives way to speeches (or rather, monologues) and then to a series of Buddhist sutras or prayers, morphing into further speeches and incantations. Much of this is accompanied by percussion and eventually grows increasingly frenetic and enraged. It is nigh-impossible to make out the exact words (especially for a foreigner with limited knowledge of Buddhist rituals), though “scripts” are handed out to the attendees to follow along. There is even flint-sparking — the purification custom of kiribi, which is meant to bring good fortune — before everyone joins in a prayer with drumming, the beats resounding off the walls of the office buildings. The rhythm and flow of the event is difficult to capture with expanded field notes alone, but this video from the June edition probably conveys the atmosphere better than words.
JKS47 has attracted some press attention, not least for the novelty factor but also its links to other movements like the Tent Plaza (Tento Hiroba) and the opposition to the protests against the state security bills in 2015. Every session features a battery of supporters’ cameras filming and documenting. In this way, despite its modest size, older demographic and rather eccentric, even arguably esoteric, approach, JKS47 deftly uses tools to extend its reach and status as a social movement.
The participants are aged mostly in their fifties and sixties, and include veterans from music, photography, and theatre. One prominent figure is Seibun Uesugi, originally a playwright from 1960s underground theatre, who is joined by the likes of the film director Masao Adachi and actor Michio Akiyama — both legends of 1960s and 1970s Japanese cinema. Indeed, it might just look like a lot of play-acting. Nonetheless, Uesugi is an actual monk at a Nichiren temple and there is a genuine Buddhist element to the rituals. The group’s website carries a long explanation of the arcane meanings and nuances of jusatsu kitō.
I leave July’s session a little early, the sounds of the sutra reverberating after me while I descend the stairs to the subway, as if I were an Orpheus or some other doomed hero entering Charonium. And if JKS47 is right, the dead in the underworld are restless and demanding justice.