Shinjuku Station in Tokyo is commonly described as the busiest train station in the world, used by millions of passengers daily.(1) A key component of the station is the West Gate (or West Exit) area, which comprises a long street aboveground where the Odakyu and Keio department stores mark the start of a shopping and business district sprawling out from the station.(2) Below ground, the JR Station’s ticket gates lead passengers into a plaza space, taking them though the underground passageways to the Metropolitan Government Building district or off towards the Odakyu or Keio lines. It is always busy. The streets above throng with pedestrians and buses. The plaza underneath is a major thoroughfare, complemented by an almost perpetual stream of taxis coming down the ramps to pick up waiting customers.
The plaza area is especially bustling on Saturday evenings, when, from out of the crowd, they come: they come a few at a time, individually or perhaps in pairs, to stop at the West Gate, stand silently and hold up placards demonstrating against a range of causes. This is the Shinjuku West Gate protest movement.
This essay will discuss the revival since the 2000s of the Shinjuku West Gate Underground Plaza (Shinjuku Nishiguchi Chika Hiroba) as a site for protest, following its initial manifestation in 1969. The movement will be considered in the contexts of urban space and sociality, and will argue that the significance of the movement belies a simple narrative of numbers or obvious interaction with the public. Its import must be seen in the historical context of Tokyo, especially Shinjuku, and particularly the legacy of the New Left in Japan.
The West Gate Underground Plaza today is more or less the same structurally as it was in the late 1960s. There are advertising screens, pillars, shops, announcements, cars, ticket gates, and an incessant flow of people. There is relatively little open space, but it is also evidently a “public” space in that it is in continuous use by citizens.
Scholars concerned with the political implications of urban space often talk of the “right to the city” (Harvey 2013). The plaza, in particular, has long been associated with civic aspirations in this vein. As Jordan Sand has discussed, however, Tokyo did not originally have “monumental” open spaces like Western cities, nor traditionally a concept of space akin to the agora or piazza. Indeed, parks only appeared in Japan in the early 1900s and these instead became common sites for public demonstrations (Sand 2013: 25–31). In turn, the ekimae hiroba (station-front plaza) model developed, of which the Shinjuku West Gate is an ambitious example.
The initial development of a station plaza in Shinjuku dates back to the 1930s as part of changes to the city after the 1923 earthquake (Hein 2010: 459–460). The 1960s then saw the full redevelopment of the west of Shinjuku. The Yodobashi Water Purification Plant was relocated in 1965, freeing up much space in the district. One of the most iconic early signs of the redevelopment was the West Gate Underground Plaza, which was completed in 1965. Its innovative layered structure and ramps were designed to facilitate the flow of traffic through the west of the station, already accessed by around a million people daily in 1969 (Sand 2013: 36).
At this time, Japan was experiencing the height of the New Left protests, especially on university campuses and the streets of cities. Shinjuku was the stage for various incidents — most notoriously major riots on 21 October in both 1968 and 1969. It was also a centre for counterculture, perhaps most famously the fūten-zoku hippies who would hang out around the station. It was against this backdrop that the “folk guerrilla” gatherings started in February 1969, when musicians associated with the anti-Vietnam War network Beheiren started playing music on Saturday evenings in the West Gate Underground Plaza. The concerts became rallies, bringing together a range of other campaigns: Okinawa, Vietnam, campus strikes, immigration and protests against Expo ’70. The rallies had a buoyant and festive if chaotic atmosphere. People did fundraising, petitioning and leafleting for their respective causes. There was singing, speeches, sit-ins and debates. The West Gate became a counter-space, similar to the “liberated quarters” appearing in areas of Tokyo or Paris at the tim, and, to adopt the terminology of later thinkers, a confrontational “temporary autonomous zone” (Bey 1991).(3) The authorities, though, were less than pleased by the rallies, which grew to 5,000 by May and then even an estimated 7,000 by June. The police cracked down on the illegal gatherings in July, arresting the main musicians and charging them with violations of the traffic and railway commerce laws. Riot officers blocked the space and forcibly blocked the weekend assemblies. The plaza was renamed a “passageway” to prevent people from stopping there, and subsequent attempts to revive it failed to recapture its momentum (Ōki, Suzuki 2014: 214–216).
It attracted much press coverage at the time and led to debate on the meaning of a public plaza (Sand 2013: 41–6). The nominal change from a “plaza” to “passageway” indicates an attempt to control space through regulation and naming.(4) The shift happened within a broader project to regulate space in Shinjuku and Tokyo, reflecting Lefebvre’s argument that city planning and space is intrinsically linked to hegemony (Lefebvre 1991: 11, 45, 321). Skyscrapers and hotels appeared in west Shinjuku throughout the 1970s. By the time the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s headquarters moved there in 1991, it was already well established as a business district. Likewise, where there had previously been riots in Shinjuku and Ginza there were now weekend “pedestrian paradise” zones. The ekimae also continued to develop as a promotional space, to be fully exploited for commercial purposes rather than public benefits. In this sense, Tokyo evolved a certain phlegmatic iteration of Habermas’s “bourgeois public sphere”: citizens were empowered as consumers with agency, subsuming the previously state-owned public sphere in the name of capital (Habermas 1992). What was missing was the “public opinion” that had been so fundamental to the rise of the social sphere.
There followed a parallel decline in social movements, which generally became more localised and smaller in scale in the wake of the 1972 Asama Lodge Incident, when the United Red Army’s horrific purge was exposed, and also the violent infighting (uchi-geba) between far-left factions (Andō 2014) during the early and mid-1970s. Large-scale movements did continue, not least in opposition to the construction of Narita Airport, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but the public perception of left-wing politics was irreversibly damaged and, regardless of the truth, it came to be believed that the Long Sixties was over by 1972 — an interpretation reinforced by subsequent media and scholarly chronicles of the period. Young people did indeed drift away from politics and activism, to the extent that just a couple hundred students protesting in 2015 generated headlines.(5) The activists had not disappeared, of course, but rather formed what Steinhoff calls Japan’s “invisible civil society”: a vibrant if almost entirely unnoticed and overlooked part of society in Japan (Steinhoff 2017). To be an activist was now to be a trace in the ether and most people inevitably left politics behind to pursue careers and families.
The Shinjuku West Gate Underground Plaza movement was revived in February 2003 when Ōki Seiko, who was one of the original folk guerrilla musicians, went to the area to protest the Iraq War (Ōki, Suzuki 2014: 224). Soon others joined her: forming what we might today class a “flash mob”, Ōki and her fellow protesters assemble at the plaza (passageway) every Saturday evening to hold silent vigils with placards. They are reclaiming the West Gate as an agora that brings together unaffiliated and diverse activists.
Sand notes that a wave of nostalgia hit Tokyo in the 1990s and 2000s through buildings, projects, film, and even the naming of a new subway line (2013: 2). It is possible to view the revival of the West Gate movement, too, as regressive nostalgia, which is arguably borne out most of all by the publication of a book in 2014 co-edited by Ōki looking back at the 1969 movement and which also included a rare documentary of the original gatherings. In the 2000s, the 1969 movement was frequently positioned as a crucial and iconic event by the likes of Oguma Eiji and Suga Hidemi within the overall reassessment of the 1960s at this time (Oguma 2009, Suga 2006).(6)
In December 2017, I conducted fieldwork on the revived version of the West Gate Underground Plaza movement, which has continued to this day. Due to the sensitive nature of engaging in fieldwork with activists in Japan, I took a cue from Steinhoff and decided to adopt an informal approach when meeting them, rather than recording interviews or circulating questionnaires (Steinhoff 2003: 38). I conducted further fieldwork several times in 2018 but the following analysis is based largely on my first session.
The protest was attended by just under 20 demonstrators, which participants told me was a fairly typical number. In the same way as the original folk guerrillas played music from 6pm to 8pm, so too does the revived movement stick to a basic structure or timetable, even if there are no musical instruments this time. They first gather at 5pm above ground outside the entrance to the Odakyu Department Store, under one of the pedestrian footbridges. Some will stand near the flow of people to hand out flyers. The others line up to one side, holding signs. From 6pm, they then descend to the underground plaza, where they spread out and stand around alone or in small groups by the pillars, continuing to hold up their signs. At 7pm, they come together to say their farewells, and then disperse. There are no speeches, no slogans. It is a silent, vigil-like protest—what the participants call a “standing demonstration”. The structure is loose and decentralised. There are no leaders or rigid rules. It simply unfolds in the urban space as regularly and stoically as the trains that shuttle into the station.
The protesters are there to demonstrate about a wide range of issues, though all can be categorised as within the left or liberal spectrum. Anti-war placards are not surprisingly the most consistent element, along with protests against the Abe Shinzō government, proposed revision of Article 9 of the Constitution (which states Japan’s renunciation of war), the US military bases in Okinawa (especially the base relocation to Henoko Bay), the deployment of Osprey aircraft, Japanese re-militarisation, nuclear power and the Conspiracy Law. Many of the campaigns are on-going ones; others are responses to recent occurrences in the news in Japan and overseas.
Of the participants, many are from Tokyo but some travel in from outside the capital, and there are occasional visitors from similar movements around Japan. While Ōki was a folk guerrilla, the others are not necessarily connected to the original movement. The ages range, though most attendees are above retirement age — as is typical of left-wing protest movements in Japan. One woman looked like she was in her eighties. The youngest attendee I saw was a man who seemed to be around 30. People come from a mix of political avenues and said that they did not consider themselves to be hard-core “activists” (undōka) per se.
A woman I met was 75 and lived in Shinjuku ward. She was inspired by the Fukushima incident to become political and started attending events. She happened to see the West Gate vigil one week in 2012 and decided to join. She now comes every week.
One man was in his seventies. He had been a regular “salaryman”, in many ways, but a liberal. He had passed by and witnessed the 1969 rallies but had not participated because, he said, he was working at that time, rather than a student — and the demarcation between shakaijin (literally, “person of society”) and gakusei (student) had already set in. The implication is he felt, as a non-student, that he could not join in, either because he was excluded from the New Left movement somehow or that there might be repercussions professionally if he did.
Attendees mentioned the difficulty of voicing their opinions in Japan publicly, which is hard to do in public due to historical, social and legal pressures. The West Gate movement has solved this problem for them.
It is also a social event: people know each other from coming regularly and welcome newcomers; they move around a little and make small talk, complimenting each other on their placards. That being said, there is essentially no internal communication or planning in terms who is coming and what placards they will bring.
We should not underestimate the level of commitment shown by participants. On the session I attended, Ōki came straight from another event quite far from Tokyo, as she had from Haneda Airport the week before. Some people come every week. Despite their ages, they stand for two hours straight in all weathers, holding up signs and placards. One man told me he has even come on New Year’s Day, simply because it was a Saturday.
When Ōki restarted the movement, it attracted some press attention. However, it has largely built momentum since through word of mouth. Ōki is active on Facebook and Twitter, and always posts images of the weekly vigils.(7)
The materiality of the protest pivots around the placards, but there are also clothes, badges, flyers and postcards. For the slogans on their placards, the demonstrators use certain tropes and motifs familiar from other protests, but many placards are homemade, individual and idiosyncratic.(8) As such, the results are sometimes shoddy and highly heterogeneous. It is personalised rather than collectively ceremonial (i.e., all participants assume the same or fixed modes of behaviour and presentation), but still ritualistic in the sense that everyone will invariably bring along some kind of placard, which becomes a trait in its own right.
Adopting the terminology of James M. Jasper, the communication methods represent a switch from “naughty” to “nice” tactics (Jasper 2014: 101). The anodyne, cautious movement of today stands in stark contrast to the 1969 one, which was vilified as rebellious and dangerous. While there are flyers aplenty, there are no “organs” or newspapers like you find at other rallies by established left-wing groups in Japan, where every faction or group has its own gazette that it wants to distribute or sell to passers-by.
The space is divided between the rail companies and Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Legally, the movement occupies a convenient loophole. In a law that goes back to 1910, protesters need a permit to demonstrate or hold an event on the street, but none is required here because they are not moving or blocking the traffic. This is important when we consider how the space was manipulated by the authorities to exert control over the use of Shinjuku and the right to the city. There is actually a police substation right in the underground plaza and, according to activists, officers were initially curious about the protests but have subsequently left them alone.
If the authorities tacitly condone them, what about the general public? The relentless deluge of people passing through the West Gate on a Saturday evening simultaneously guarantees the protesters an audience while also making them invisible. The public almost entirely ignores them, a fact to which they are not unaware. Only the occasional intrigued passer-by takes a flyer or a closer look. “I’m happy even if just one person sees us and notices,” a participant told me. The protest forms part of the sociality of the West Gate and its “hubbub”. This enhances the strength of the movement, which hinges on anonymity: anyone can participate at the West Gate plaza and many do precisely because the audience comprises strangers. It takes “bravery” to do it at first, as one man said, but less so than at a local area where you might be recognised. Again, the model of the movement makes it accessible for even the non-activist. It is, they said, “democracy”.
We might connect this to Horgan’s discussion of “strangership” and copresence as a spatial and social relationship. Strangership is a positive, equalising force that can be linked to democratic public spheres. “Where relations of strangership do not go awry, where conflict does not animate relations between strangers, where strangership does not drift towards enmity, then we can observe that the possibility of an associative life between strangers rests on an unarticulated but nonetheless present solidarity, or what I call soft solidarity.” (Horgan 2012: 612, 617, 619). For the West Gate, I might suggest another term here, drawing on Roquet and Horgan: ambient solidarity.
Roquet has emphasised the “ambience” of Tokyo, and certainly the West Gate movement melts into the background noise of Shinjuku (the shoppers, cars, buskers, vendors and so on). For Roquet, video screens create an ambient soundscape in Tokyo. Video forms an “atmosphere”, composed of looped visuals everywhere the consumer looks. From the 1970s, he notes, rail conglomerates started to use video advertising screens, which became familiar features of the city. He links this to the development of background music and Muzak in post-war Japan in parallel with consumer trends that pushed towards comfortable environments (kaitekisa) (Roquet 2016: 32, 86, 101). The West Gate is the outcome of this, within which the protest finds a new format in its old home.
It is, admittedly, a peculiar sort of Muzak, given its lack of volume. “I cannot stay silent when so much is happening in Japan,” one activist told me. But, literally speaking, they are “silent”. This muteness rejects the usual phatic modus operandi of the New Left in Japan, which is associated with boisterous, dogmatic and disruptive (and even militant) activism. But it is also quite different to the curated noise of “sound demos” that became prevalent in the Heisei period (Manabe 2013).
As with all protests, it is ritualistic and performative — aspects accentuated by the inaudible, posed nature of the protest whereby the participants almost become like static mime artists. Normally a protest wants to be heard, to be seen; it aims for the spectacular, to attract attention (positively or negatively). Here it is ambiguous. Participants want to be noticed, but also do not. Not being noticed is a safety mechanism and a strategy. It conforms to aspects of what Lefebvre calls (borrowing from Noam Chomsky) “spatial practice”, whereby the cohesion and continuity in a space “implies a guaranteed level of competence and a special level of performance”, though it is not necessarily “coherent” (Lefebvre 1991: 33, 38). However, the spatial practice of this event runs counter to the kind of commonly perceived or constructed “spatial code” normally associated with a train station, a thoroughfare or Shinjuku (Lefebvre 1991: 16).
We might also consider the cyclical and repeated weekly nature of the event, as opposed to the gesture toward “revolution” (a linear, one-off event) of the previous gatherings. Here, the loose yet predictable rhythm of the event requires our attention. It is the kind of rhythm that only works in a city. For Lefebvre, rhythm was one of the major ways to understand urban space: the layering and interaction of rhythm links with the social production of space. The West Gate movement manifests one of Lefebvre’s classifications of rhythm: eurhythmia, when various rhythms interlock in a healthy syncopation (Lefebvre 2004: 67; Roquet 2016: 80).
Sand has traced the Japanese discourse around urban space and public space in the late 1960s and beyond, in parallel with and stemming from the 1969 movement. He pinpoints the emergence of the concept of kaiwai (vicinity, district) as an alternative to the Western hiroba (plaza). The kaiwai is an activity space, comprising a kind of “mist” or atmosphere that triggers a set of activities. It was identified at the time as distinctly Japanese (Sand 2013: 31–3). While that latter assertion is debatable, the image of a “mist” in a space connects with Heidegger’s categorisation of Stimmung (attunement, climate) that was developed by Watsuji Tetsurō into the Japanese notion of kūki, an “air” or mood that exerts hegemony and homogenises people in an atmosphere or identity (Roquet 2016: 6–8). The West Gate can be regarded as a space for a certain degree of spontaneous, non-permitted (but not proscribed) activities: a ma (interstitial space) or kaiwai allowing ambiguous margins for testing the relationship between citizens and society in this “air”, which is rooted in the history of the space and city. And this quality has now been truly realised in a way that keeps it safe from crackdown. Through this, the city is re-appropriated and retrieved from purely capitalist and economic control. In the heart of one of Japan’s major shopping districts, the West Gate forms an example of what Lefebvre calls “contradictory space” in the city that eschews dualism (Lefebvre 1991: 292, 386). Lefebvre also cites an example from an unnamed Japanese philosopher referring to the concept of shin-gyō-sō, denoting three levels of spatial, temporal, mental and social areas (Lefebvre 1991: 152–5). The concept originated in calligraphy but was influential in Japanese spatial design to allow for different degrees of rigidness in planning a city. The West Gate is such a “contradictory space” that facilitates multiple “levels” simultaneously.
A comparison with Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park in London was actually made by participants. We might also draw an analogy with free speech zones (First Amendment Areas) in the USA, though the vocality of the movement is radically different. Such celebrated platforms for democratic expression are lucid whereas the effects of the West Gate protest are evanescent. But the participants are not merely ghosts or relics from the past haunting a favourite old spot: the protests evolve, joined by newcomers and fresh causes. It realises an implicit temporary autonomous zone, and the subdued, surreptitious guerrilla occupation of a prominent example of privately owned public space (POPS), which is heavily regulated in Tokyo. Returning to Steinhoff’s image of the “invisible civil society” in Japan, it is worth noting that the West Gate movement is just one of several such regular vigils or protests that form a TAZ or temporary plaza.(9)
In conclusion, we must consider: Is the West Gate movement a success or failure? Is it effective as a social movement? I argue that it transcends reliance on participant numbers or general notions of “democracy in action” and instrumentally “effective protest” (e.g., impact on political policy, public response). Although small and little known, it is one of the longest on-going movements of its kind in Japan. It is an exemplum for future movements going beyond conventions of “rally” or “protest”, and succeeds in shaking off the legacy of the past while nonetheless also embracing it. Tokyo continues to enjoy a tourism boom and gear up for the 2020 Olympic Games. The city is changing as new buildings rise and old ones vanish — not least in Shinjuku. Against this accelerated process of gentrification and “cleansing”, the significance of the West Gate protests will surely only grow further.
Here I have described the revival of one of the most iconic movements of the New Left in Japan, arguing that its resurrection surpasses nostalgia and represents a genuinely positive and sustainable development within the contexts of Japanese post-war history and urban space. The subject awaits further attention, however, not least a full ethnographic study of the participants, more detailed analysis of the materiality and tactics of the movement, comparisons with similar vigils in Japan, and deeper consideration of such issues as silence in protest as a phatic modus operandi.
Andō, Takemasa, Japan’s New Left Movements: Legacies for Civil Society, London: Routledge, 2014.
Andrews, William, Dissenting Japan: A History of Japanese Radicalism and Counterculture, from 1945 to Fukushima, London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 2016.
Bey, Hakim, T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism, New York: Automedia, 2003.
Eckersall, Peter, Performativity and Event in 1960s Japan: City, Body, Memory, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Habermas, Jürgen, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. by Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick Lawrence, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992.
Harvey, David, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, London: Verso, 2013.
Havens, Thomas R.H., Fire Across the Sea: The Vietnam War and Japan 1965–1975, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.
Hein, Carola, “Shaping Tokyo: Land Development and Planning Practice in the Early Modern Japanese Metropolis,” Journal of Urban History, 36 (4), 447–484.
Horgan, Mervyn, “Strangers and Strangership,” Journal of Intercultural Studies, 33:6, 2012, 607–622.
Jasper, James M., Protest: A Cultural Introduction to Social Movements, Malden, Massachusetts: Polity, 2014.
Lefebvre, Henri, The Production of Space, trans. by Donald Nicholson-Smith, Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.
—————–Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life, trans. by Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore, London: Continuum, 2004.
Manabe, Noriko, “Music in Japanese Antinuclear Demonstrations: The Evolution of a Contentious Performance Model,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 42, No. 3, 21 October, 2013.
Oguma, Eiji, 1968: Hanran no shūen to sono isan, vol. 2 (1968: The End of the Revolt and Its Legacy), Tokyo: Shinyōsha, 2009.
Ōki, Seiko, Suzuki Hitoshi (eds.), 1969: Shinjuku Nishiguchi Chika Hiroba (1969: Shinjuku West Gate Underground Plaza), Tokyo: Shinjuku Shobō, 2014.
Roquet, Paul, Ambient Media: Japanese Atmospheres of Self, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
Sand, Jordan, Tokyo Vernacular: Common Spaces, Local Histories, Found Objects, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.
Shūkan Anpo, 0, 15 June, 1969.
Steinhoff, Patricia G., “Makers and doers: Using actor-network theory to explore happiness in Japan’s invisible civil society,” in Wolfram Manzenreiter and Barbara Holthus (eds.), Happiness and the Good Life in Japan, Abingdon: Routledge 2017.
—————–“New Notes from the Underground: Doing Fieldwork without a Site,” in Theodore C. Bestor, Patricia G. Steinhoff, Victoria Lyon Bestor (eds.), Doing Fieldwork in Japan, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2003.
Suga, Hidemi, 1968-nen, Tokyo: Chikuma Shinsho, 2006.
(1) A typical example can be found on the Guinness World Records website, which notes that “an average of 3.64 million passengers per day pass through the station, which has over 200 exits and serves the city’s western suburbs via a range of intercity, commuter rail and metro services”. http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/busiest-station (Accessed 23 January, 2018).
(2) There are varying English names for Shinjuku Nishiguchi, including on official signage (West Gate and West Exit, West Entrance, etc.). This essay will stick with “West Gate”.
(3) An example (uncredited) of the immediate response to the police crackdown and how the original movement regarded itself can be found in the inaugural issue of the Beheiren magazine Shūkan Anpo (Weekly Anpo), declaring the underground plaza as “our plaza” and denouncing the authorities for “disrupting” it. Shūkan Anpo, 0, 15 June, 1969, 14–15, 24.
(4) The efforts were only partly successful: some signs in the station continue to say “West Gate Plaza”.
(5) The student group SEALDs generated headlines around the world in spite of only numbering a few dozen members and professing very non-radical ideas. Notably, they did not refer to themselves as “left wing”.
(6) For assessment of the movement in English, see Havens 1987, Eckersall 2013, Sand 2013, and Andrews 2016.
(7) Her Twitter account is https://twitter.com/kuronekoroku. Images and updates can also be found by searching 新宿西口反戦意思表示 on Twitter.
(8) The famous Beheiren slogan “Korosu na” (Don’t Kill) is a common sight on their placards. In general, it was revived from the 2000s during anti-Iraq War protests and continues to be used by the current anti-Abe movement.
(9) Others include the Friday gatherings outside the Prime Minister’s official residence, which started in 2012, as well as an anti-war protest in Umeda, Osaka, since 2017, and the monthly JKS47 “monks” outside METI since 2015. None of these, though, are silent or rigidly stationary. It is also significant that anti-war flash mobs in Ebina City led to a legal battle when the mayor tried to ban them in 2016, even though they were stationary and did not block pedestrian traffic. Additionally, the attempt to form a permanent “plaza” with the anti-nuclear power tents erected outside METI in September 2011 ended with their removal in 2016 after a long court struggle. It seems that models of a temporarily occupied plaza are more likely to succeed in Japan.