Activists protest eviction of rough sleepers from Shibuya park for 2020 Olympics redevelopment by hijacking construction hoardings

A curious thing happened in March: out of the blue, chatter emerged online about a particular construction hoarding in Shibuya. As work continues on the grand project to transform and further develop what is already one of the most developed districts in central Tokyo, several of the hoardings around major construction sites have adopted artworks to make the uniformly white fences look more interesting to pedestrians — that is, shoppers in search of new Instagrammable delights. One around the former site of Parco borrowed from the manga and anime Akira, though this is not without irony given the dystopian (and post-Olympic) Tokyo that the acclaimed manga and anime memorably predicts.

Sparked seemingly by one tweeted video, the buzz this month was about “A day in the life [of] Shibuya”, a “touching” story of a girl who loses her dog and recruits the citizens of Shibuya to find it — a reference to Hachikō, the famously faithful dog whose statue is now a popular landmark outside Shibuya Station. It pushes the ward’s earnest vision of “inclusion” and “diversity”, featuring an array of people eager to lend a helping hand.

What the Japanese (and subsequently English) chatter about this hoarding decoration — which has actually been installed for some time and was originally an animation produced for a “diversity summit” event in Shibuya in 2017 — generally failed to note is the immensely sanitised and bourgeois rendering of “diversity” we are presented with here. Sure, along the way the protagonist encounters a same-sex couple (though what a troublingly stereotypical representation that is), people with disabilities, buskers, skateboarders and the elderly, but these demographics are by and large PR-friendly and, to a certain extent, moneyed. (And was it deliberate cynicism to include the two skateboarders, considering the hoardings around Miyashita Park now explicitly say that skateboarding is banned in the area?) The artwork and the hoarding physically mask an uncomfortable truth: that Shibuya has spent years attempting to evict marginalised people — principally, rough sleepers, whose use of public parks has been increasingly restricted by temporary closures at night and over the New Year period, or in the case of Miyashita Park, by eviction to make way for a radical redevelopment of the public space into a commercial complex that also incorporates a hotel. After failing to sell the naming rights to Nike a few years ago due to a public uproar, Shibuya has now succeeded in effectively privatising a prime area of land and fast-tracking its gentrification of this interstitial zone lying between Aoyama and Shibuya Station.

On 27 March, Miyashita Kōen Neru Kaigi (Miyashita Park Neru Conference) demonstrated against the reconstruction of Miyashita Park exactly two years after it was closed with a provocative and eye-catching series of cardboard artworks in the shapes of human figures that they attached to the “heartwarming” hoardings around the park, decorated with Japanese and English slogans like “The park is not for sale”, “We don’t need the Olympics” and “Take back Miyashita Park”. These figures were like the ghosts of the homeless people evicted from the park, returning to haunt the site and clamber over the barriers erected by Mitsui Fudosan and Shibuya City. A day in the life of Shibuya, according to the PR, seems to involve a broad spectrum of citizens, but these climbers were hijacking that marketing to remind passersby that Shibuya’s prioritising of business interests deprives us all — and especially the most marginal members of society — of our fundamental right to the city.

miyashita park shibuya closure olympics games tokyo 2020 protest rough sleepers homeless activists

miyashita park shibuya closure olympics games tokyo 2020 protest rough sleepers homeless activists

miyashita park shibuya closure olympics games tokyo 2020 protest rough sleepers homeless activists

miyashita park shibuya closure olympics games tokyo 2020 protest rough sleepers homeless activists

miyashita park shibuya closure olympics games tokyo 2020 protest rough sleepers homeless activists

Miyashita Kōen Neru Kaigi (here neru is written in hiragana to imply variant meanings of “sleep” but also “work out” or “polish” something like a plan or scheme) is one of three interlinked groups that are the leading forces in the anti-2020 protests, focusing, as the name suggests, on rough sleeper advocacy and the Miyashita Park issue that is not part of the official 2020 Games development but nonetheless a direct consequence of the Olympics build-up.

This is a type of nonviolent direct action that activists have repeatedly done over the years. It is an artistically informed sabotage or graffiti stunt, occupying the physical barricades designed to shut them out from public space in the city with homemade messages or sculptural cardboard images. (At the peak of this practice in late 2014 and early 2015, activists were creating and adding such cardboard artworks every night to parks in Shibuya to protest their nighttime closures. The authorities would take the “additions” down and throw them away each time.) A particularly effective example of this approach was the anti-Olympic message temporarily added to the Miyashita Park hoardings as the 2018 Winter Olympics opened in Pyeongchang, during which Japanese and Korean activists joined forces to protest the two Games in East Asia.

As part of my on-going research into anti-2020 movements, one aspect I am carefully studying is its transnational tendencies. For example, Olympics protestors in South Korea held a demonstration in Seoul on 8 March, directly opposing the 2020 Games and using translated materials originally made by Japanese activists. Likewise, the latest Miyashita stunt attracted the attention of American activists involved with the campaign against the upcoming 2028 LA Olympics, who also responded to the 2018 Pyeongchang actions. From Rio to Paris, LA and beyond, international groups are in contact with the Tokyo activists, reciprocating ideas and resources while also supporting and promoting each other’s activities.

Local campaigners also recently travelled to Tōhoku for the anniversary of the 11 March tsunami and earthquake in order to take part in an anti-nuclear power forum and protest the much-criticised framing of the 2020 Olympics as the “recovery Games” that will somehow help the reconstruction of the north-east of the country and solve the lingering radiation issues in the region. They visited Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium, which will host the softball and baseball events at the 2020 Games, and J-Village, the sports facility in Fukushima controversially funded by Tokyo Electric Power Company that will host pre-games training and serve as the starting point for the 121-day “Hope Lights Our Way” torch relay.

News about the 2020 Tokyo Olympics seems to vacillate wildly between hype and scandal. And so it comes to pass that in the same week that the design for the 2020 torch was unveiled, a splashy plan by celebrity designer Tokujin Yoshioka in a rather obvious cherry blossom shape, the Japanese Olympic Committee head Tsunekazu Takeda also announced his resignation after weeks of speculation following his indictment over bribery allegations related to Tokyo’s bid for the Games. Veering in this way from disgrace to celebration and with eighteen months of preparations still to go, the 2020 Olympics remains a highly contested and ambivalent space.

Images via Hangorin no Kai.

WILLIAM ANDREWS

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