Ascending from the barren bowels of Kokkai-gijidomae Station in the early afternoon of Sunday 7 October to an Indian summer bout of unexpected sunshine, the empty streets of Japan’s parliament district were disturbed by throbbing. As I skirted around the west side of the National Diet, I could hear that Ittoku 2018, the second edition of the annual music protest festival, was already well underway.
Coming to the front facade of the Diet, the first of the nine staging areas became visible at last: musicians and bands belting out tunes in the open air. Buskers are relatively rare in Tokyo, generally only permitted at a handful of stations, but this was more than just street musicians: it was explicitly organised as a middle-finger-raising series of sets aimed squarely at the monolithic vessel of power that is the Diet. The songs I heard were often directly anti-government and anti-authoritarian in tone, all watched over by phlegmatic cops in the 30-degree heat. Even when the music was not overtly politicised, the mere act of playing music in this part of the city was now a political act, as the constant presence of musicians at the weekly Kanteimae or Kokkaimae rallies has demonstrated.
The roads carried few taxis or other vehicles. This was the weekend in Tokyo’s government district. Nothing is open. It is, as the Ittoku publicity warned with telling language, a “wilderness” with few shops or facilities. The tree-lined pavements were mostly empty of pedestrians, except the riot police officers scattered around the various sites of the festival, and the audience members, of which there were plenty, though modestly distributed across the points.
Led by the musician Chikara Urabe, who is a common face to spot at protests around Tokyo, Ittoku launched last year, specifically to protest the new state secrets, wiretapping and conspiracy laws. This year’s event had a focus on the recently revised Tokyo Anti-Nuisance Ordinance, though the “Declaration of Resistance” that it published also mentioned the resurgent crackdown on dancing in clubs, such as the arrests at Aoyama Hachi in January. Its name is an abbreviated version of ittoku kedo, ore no jiyū wa yatsura nya yaranee! Rokku fesutibaru (言っとくけど、俺の自由はヤツラにゃやらねえ！ロック・フェスティバル), a combative chunk of slang that translates roughly as the “I’ll just say this, my freedom won’t be screwed by that lot! Rock Festival”.
This year featured nine performance “stages” (two more than last year) spread around two sides of the Diet in addition to two other spots that served, respectively, as a kind of casual speaker’s corner in a park — not insignificantly, in front of Constitution Memorial Hall — and an open mic event. This is not dissimilar to the regular protests at the Diet, particularly since 2015, where different spots and corners around the pavements take on different functions, each hosting certain groups, campaigns and activists with varying tones and practices. The stage names were also pertinently chosen. There was the “culture yard”, occupied by a DJ booth. Other names exhibited a certain style and attitude: “roar stage”, “howl stage”, “raging fire”, “storm”, “angry waves”, “thunderclap”, and “singing Gumisaka” (named after the street near the Diet).
There was an overarching rock theme, but the actual lineup and “stages” encompassed reggae, folk and other genres. Sets of between 30 and 60 minutes ran throughout the festival at the different stages, including by the likes of Rankin Taxi, Peace Winds, and The Tokyo Blue Mountains.
Both performers and audiences inclined a little older; most seemed over forty, but this is the reality of counterculture in Tokyo — and it still felt like a “younger” event than most others cut from the same political cloth. If you were to conjure up an image of hippie middle-aged musicians descending on central Tokyo to play songs, you might be forgiven for imagining plenty of long hair and beards, and these were indeed present in abundance, alongside the expected t-shirts adorned with peacenik symbols. If it all sounds like an esoteric cliche, though, rest assured that the festival vibe was fresh, fun and accessible, especially compared to the quarter’s concrete and greenery that is so lifeless. Prominent activists who took part included Tetsu Makuro (aka Kaebin Tetsu). It was very much the typical anti-nuclear power and Kanteimae crowd. There were veterans from the Henoko base relocation protests and also someone from the Michibata Kōgyō roadside music protest movement.
When I attended in the early and mid-afternoon, the static attendees per stage were not vast in number, but many spectators were shuffling between the stages. Naturally, different bands had stronger followings, and the bigger names were scheduled for the evening. Running from 11 am to 8 pm, the set-up was impressive by the sheer dint of it being lots of musicians playing on the streets around the Diet. But the basic concept does not do justice to the practicalities. An event like this takes some serious organisation. Every space had loudspeakers, mics, and other equipment, not to mention the heavy instruments that each performer seemed to bring along — as well as generators to power it all. This is not a cheap undertaking and audiences were encouraged to donate or buy the official t-shirts to help cover the costs.
The “stages”, of course, did not have an actual stage. Rather, they were quite confined spaces, hemmed in by police barriers that ensured no one stepped out of the allotted space for the performances and that the pavements were not blocked for passing pedestrians (of whom, they were basically only a handful of tourists). Around four police officers kept watch over each stage. Movement is always very restricted in Tokyo for demonstrations, especially in this high-security area that has experienced several sensational protests that escalated beyond police control.
It is tempting to see the event in simplistic terms of “hijacking” the sacred sector of parliamentary democracy in Japan, but the conditions of the festival were carefully negotiated with the authorities. Naturally, like all protests and street events in Japan, a permit was required and dutifully applied for, which gave the organisers official sanction but at a price: police guards. If you were to try to breech these regulations in such a sensitive location, it would probably result in immediate arrest for disturbing the peace. That is not to say the performers held back, just that they knew the rules of the game. Speeches were made. Musicians bantered with the cops. The atmosphere was jovial, helped by the sunny weather and jiving attendees, but there was an unspoken tension in the air. Epitomising the irreverent and parodic spirit of the festival, the Ittoku publicity uses a logo-cum-mascot that is a modified image of the Diet, transformed into a wall of speakers and brandishing a mic. It’s a bit punk, yet also cute. For so many, however, the parliament truly is a hollow place that does not hear what they say. So then it’s up to people, musicians or otherwise, to mutate into anthropomorphic Diets like the logo suggests and make their own noise.