How has the coronavirus pandemic affected the civil society in Japan?

The biggest non-news story of the year in Japan was surely the announcement of the “word of the year” as san mitsu, or the “three Cs” (confined and enclosed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings).

The civil society is fragile enough already in Japan, with its various restrictions on the process of protesting as well as other hindrances (ranging from police surveillance to negative press coverage or no press coverage at all) all discouraging movements from growing or newcomers from participating. In 2020, COVID-19 added yet another hurdle to the mix, though it has not created a complete vacuum on the streets like in many other countries. That said, the disproportionate presence of baby boomers in protest movements means the risk of coronavirus infection is particularly acute. But with certain measures or approaches in place, the civil society was nonetheless able to carry on over the course of the year.

One popular online listing of upcoming anti-war and anti-neoliberalism demonstrations remained filled with information on protests, though the schedule was sparser and featured almost no large-scale events. Just to make a very crude numerical comparison, the listing had 157 events of various sizes for July 2019, but just 67 for July this year.

The Yoshihide Suga government’s actions, not least pushing forward with the Go To Travel domestic tourism campaign, and the investigation into alleged misdoings by former prime minister Shinzō Abe’s office have ignited anger, but much of this has had nowhere to go except online as hashtags. With the stakes so high, we might have expected a significant rally over the autumn — but the very nature of target of the indignation (government incompetence in the face of the crisis) makes any major street action illogical at this juncture: to protest this in large numbers would only aggravate the situation.

Surprisingly to some, though, meetings and demonstrations have nonetheless continued, indoors and out, especially after the first wave of infections proved quite moderate. Activists are not blasé by any means, but nor were they panicking. This at times led to conflict with partners based overseas, who could not comprehend any form public gathering given their immediate circumstances.

Social Movements in 2020

What were people protesting? While the news coverage was consumed almost entirely by a single story over the year, a diverse range of movements emerged in response to different issues.

Many protested the government’s policies in regard to the pandemic, such as the national state of emergency invoked by Abe in the spring. The poorly made and ineptly distributed “Abenomasks” were also mocked and people posted images online showcasing unorthodox uses of the masks, or even refused to accept delivery or détourned the mass giveaway by forwarding to organisations that instead distributed the masks to the unhoused or socially vulnerable.

The government also incited anger over the expensive funeral for former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, half of which was paid for by the government, and alleged interference in appointments to the Science Council of Japan.

Black Lives Matter events attracted thousands across the country in a series of marches, forming part of a growing awareness in Japan of issues related to race and inclusiveness, and given further exposure in the public eye by biracial figures recently prominent in sport. Alleged police brutality against a Kurdish migrant also mobilised several hundred people at antifa-linked protests in Shibuya on 30 May and 6 June.

Gender issues were notable, with the case of the female legislator in Kusatsu who accused the mayor of rape and then found herself ousted from the town assembly prompting national and international media attention and protests, and a petition calling for improved access to emergency contraceptive pills for women (currently requiring a prescription) effectively rode a wave of anger after the male vice president of the Japan Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists voiced his opinion on television that easier access would make women take contraception less seriously.

The killing in November of a homeless woman in Shibuya ward highlighted the oft-ignored plight of the socially vulnerable, especially in a district of Tokyo hell-bent on redevelopment and gentrification (necessitating the displacement of the unhoused community that made use of Miyashita Park prior to its transformation into a hotel and retail complex). A street protest attracted significant media coverage.

The main groups campaigning against the Tokyo Olympics, which are closely related to advocacy movements for the unhoused in Shibuya and elsewhere, have also kept up their activism, calling for the postponed Games to be cancelled outright, and holding a series of street protests and other events in Tokyo and Osaka in July when the Olympics were scheduled to take place. The activists’ transnational partners around the world were unable to travel to Japan to support these events but offered support online.


In general, until the government launched the nation into the Go To Travel campaign, Japan was doing relatively well due to jishuku, or self-restraint. At a local level, people, organisations and businesses are good at figuring out workarounds, and calls for self-restraint are familiar from disasters. Over the spring and summer, during the first and second waves of infections, events (including public protests and even just meetings) were cancelled or postponed voluntarily. This has had a devastating effect economically on certain industries like the performing arts and music, but the civil society found ways to carry on.

Changing Formats

These included adopting new formats. Face masks are ubiquitous, of course, though they are already common in Japan, particularly in certain seasons of the year. They were also frequently worn by protesters pre-pandemic (especially those as on the New Left) to conceal identity from police surveillance.

Events have been socially distanced in terms of seating (for indoor events) and standing (at outdoor rallies).

Some groups switched to holding online events when they would have ordinarily have organised in-person ones at venues or on the streets. Known for its boisterous demonstrations with sound trucks, Aequitas, a youth group that campaigns to raise the minimum wage, held an event instead on the DOMMUNE streaming platform.

aequitas dommune protest japan event

Many events were held remotely or virtually, or advertise with the option to “attend” by watching the video stream. Publicity information asked people to consider the risks and their health before participating. Organisers have committed to continuing their campaigns, especially regular and long-running ones, but sometimes called on people to tweet their support rather than physically attend.

The well-known anti-nuclear protests in front of the Kantei (the prime minister’s official residence) in central Tokyo have not ceased, for example, but the Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes announced that only around four or five “members of staff” would actually participate in the weekly demonstrations — a restriction that is set to remain in place through the first months of 2021.

Likewise, guest speakers at rallies occasionally opted to do so via pre-recorded video messages or by sending their speeches for a proxy to read out, rather than travel to Tokyo to attend in person. With borders closed, there were no foreign guest speakers, as is usually the case at, say, the annual Dōrō-Chiba international solidarity labour rally in Hibiya. Instead, speeches were sent in advance for locals to read out.

Police Responses

Just as the civil society did not desist completely, neither did the police. Protests and gatherings were monitored, and police did not refrain from searching sites associated with political activism. How does a police raid work in the time of the coronavirus?

In the case of probably the most prominent one in 2020, where Tokyo police in October raided Zenshinsha, the headquarters of radical left group Chūkaku-ha, officers attempted to proceed in the customary (and highly performative) way. The media was told in advance and the news cameras dutifully assembled outside the building. Riot officers lined up in all their gear and handheld metal cutter machines were put to work on the main door. This spectacle of sparks and matériel is staged for the benefit of the media, presenting the police as “being tough” on political radicals, and these remnants of the Long Sixties as “scary” and “antisocial” elements to be avoided at all costs.

This time, the rug was pulled out from underneath the police. An activist promptly emerged and, with a brusque shove, told the officer with the metal cutter to stop the charade. Instead, the residents of Zenshinsha let the police carry out the raid as long as the officers politely filed up to have their temperatures checked before entering.

This was treated by people on Twitter as comic relief — “Look, in Japan, people are so courteous and orderly that they even allow the police to raid their premises if they don’t have a temperature!” — but what was happening here was actually more complex: it was both a genuine matter of safety — especially considering the ages of many of the activists who live at Zenshinsha — and a form of protest against the police, which had launched a raid yet again on a flimsy pretext in an attempt to turn up any materials or evidence for other cases. Just as the activists usually keep the door shut and force police to cut through it, knowing this does not really make much difference but causes the officers an inconvenience, the response here was another tit for tat, another protest at what they regard as police oppression: if you’re gonna raid us, we’ll make you line up and abide by our coronavirus checks.

The Zengakuren youth activist wing of Chūkaku-ha touched on the viral incident in one of its Zenshin Channel videos with the usual self-aware, tongue-in-cheek style it has cultivated of late. Zengakuren’s affiliates had a fairly busy year, organising a series of ambitious sound demos around the country from October to December calling for the abolition of student tuition fees, and holding a rally on the campus of Kyoto University in December protesting the punishment of politically active students. In response to the recent rally, Kyoto University has persisted with its ongoing war of words with Zengakuren, issuing an official statement that such political activities cause a nuisance on campus and outside the campus entrance, and that students should avoid these events (and the ideology they represent).

Unaffected Events and Movements

Notable among the events that remained little affected by the pandemic were the weekly Shinjuku Station West Gate vigils and other silent “standing” protests. This is because they are small enough not to pose much risk of infection or intermingling in the first place, and have always made a point of continuing to assemble in their modest, unspectacular ways regardless of the weather or season.

More worrisome in terms of infection risk, though, were the events attended by large numbers of people where no masks or social distancing were in evidence. The Kumano Dormitory Festival’s now well-established clock tower roof occupation antics took place on 27 November amidst chaotic and crowded scenes on the campus of Kyoto University, which eventually resulted in police being called in (due primarily to the scuffles between staff and the building-scaling pranksters, rather than breaches to social distancing guidelines per se).

Backlash and Coronavirus Hoax Protests

Like elsewhere, Japan saw a backlash to the strictures imposed by the pandemic, most obviously in the protests by people calling the coronavirus a hoax. Always thinly attended, the demonstrations nonetheless took place in highly visible places like Shibuya and Shinjuku. A “cluster festival”, led by failed Tokyo gubernatorial election candidate Masayuki Hiratsuka, was held on 9 August with speeches for more than three hours outside Shibuya Station, culminating with a stunt in which several dozen participants “hijacked” the Yamanote Line by riding the whole loop without masks on and t-shirts with messages opposed to social distancing. Another such activist was arrested this month for trespassing when demonstrating outside the headquarters of a medical association.

With the pandemic expected to roll into 2021, we can anticipate more examples of anti-vaxxer, anti-mask and coronavirus “hoax” discourse and protests. While many will disregard such people as merely peddling conspiracy theories, they — along with the other protest movements that are continuing — are ultimately signs that COVID-19 won’t spell the end for the civil society in Japan.


Posted in Essays, News | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Recreating the Koza Riot, fifty years on

On 12 December in the plaza outside the Ryūkyū Shimpo newspaper headquarters in Naha, Okinawa, a group of men overturned a car. They wore masks, not in the customary manner of camouflaged rioters, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, and gloves, perhaps to provide protection against cuts. The car was a scrap vehicle fitted with a United States license plate, mocked up to look like a military vehicle, and it was overturned carefully onto wooden boards placed on the ground for the purpose. The men then took turns kicking and standing on the car. It was more ritualised than riotous, members of the media and bystanders far exceeding participants — and carried no risk of arrest or repercussions.

koza riot recreation reenactment event

This was a very sanitised and careful re-enactment of a scene from the Koza Riot, which took place on 21 December 1970. According to the Ryūkyū Shimpo, the event was an art performance intended as a “vicarious experience” of the riot, and participants included a man who took part in the original disturbance as well as students. The vehicle was left on display until 13 December, when a related symposium was also held.

Formally established as a municipality in 1956, Koza’s bastardised name — written only in the katakana syllabic script — derived from an American nickname for the area. In this way, Koza was a hybrid place — a mix of Okinawa, American and Japanese influences. By 1969, its population for around 67,000 and it was the fastest-growing city in the prefecture besides Naha. It was a frontier town, full of newcomers and migrants, and with an economy heavily dependent on the United States military. This entailed lots of bars and brothels, but also live rock music venues. As the conflict in Vietnam raged, the Americans passing through Okinawa increased, anxious to make the most of their cash before flying out to South-east Asia, from where they might not return. This meant booming trade for businesses, but all was not happy under the surface.

The riot was sparked when a car driven by United States military personnel hit a citizen. Angry locals threw stones at military police, who responded with warning shots. Things escalated and eventually thousands took to the streets, torching seventy US military vehicles and facilities. A number of people even broke into the grounds of nearby Kadena Air Base. Eighteen were arrested and dozens injured. It was an explosion of the fury and tension that had built up over twenty-five years of occupation by a foreign power. The next day, 22 December, the US military announced 3,000 redundancies for workers employed at bases.

koza riot 1970 okinawa

The violence of Koza is not easily forgotten, even if it has never been repeated in Okinawa. The prefecture reverted back to Japanese control in 1972 and Koza City itself “disappeared” in 1974, subsumed within the bounds of the newly created Okinawa City. But the core conditions that caused the riot have changed relatively little since then. Okinawa is still festooned with a US military presence, accounting for the vast majority of the forces that are stationed in Japan as part of the mutual security treaty with America. This imbalance has been a permanent thorn in the side of relations between Okinawa and the rest of the country. Incidents involving base personnel occur regularly, from crashes to crime — even rape and murder — and the impact of the continued quasi-occupation of the prefecture’s land is grave not only societally but also ecologically. And yet Okinawan (and mainland Japanese) responses have been essentially and commendably non-violent for the most part. The emphasis has been on rallies and protests, or on civil disobedience, such as attempting to disrupt the development of Henoko (Ōura) Bay by blocking vehicles.

In 1970, though, Japan was at the peak of its Long Sixties, a cycle of mass protests and unrest that lasted from around 1967 to 1972. Okinawa was, as noted, still under United States sovereignty, albeit with the pathway to reversion confirmed. Its people had learnt to co-inhabit with the foreign troops, but not without voicing their displeasure. When the Japanese prime minister, Eisaku Satō, visited in 1965, 6,000 took to the streets to protest the treatment of the prefecture, leading to police clashes and sixteen arrests.

This was a period of tumult, sometimes spectacular and shocking, from the riots of International Anti-War Day in October of 1968 and 1969, to Okinawa Day in April 1969 and the Shibuya Riot of November 1971, not to mention the university strikes and campus occupations. Okinawa was caught in the middle of this, not unlike Sanrizuka and the construction of Narita Airport, a touchstone issue for the New Left encapsulating the anti-imperialist cause against war — both the haunting legacy of Japan’s past war of aggression and the current one, waged by the United States with tacit assistance from Japan, in South-east Asia. Several strands of thought appeared in the New Left in relation to Okinawa: one, proposed by Chūkaku-ha, advocated that the Left should seize control of the prefecture from the imperialists; another was that Okinawa should be liberated, either made independent or given self-government; another argued that the real focus was not the US bases and Japanese imperialism, but rather the anti-revolutionary front in Okinawa that the US-Japan alliance perpetuated, solidified in the military bases; a fourth strand, advocated by Kakumaru-ha, criticised the other approaches as merely bourgeois, instead calling for organised efforts by workers to defeat the bases — to go beyond the issue of reversion to fight the labour rationalisation of the bases.

The New Left’s relationship with Okinawa was uneasy, at times co-opting the local dilemma of the prefecture into its macro-ideologies without dealing with the problem of its status as an inner colony of mainland Japan. The leftists would claim to speak in the name of Okinawans as victims of imperialist oppressors, but this earnest endeavour to liberate Okinawa as part of a wider ideological struggle arguably replicated the same hegemony of the imperialist and capitalism systems inflicted upon the prefecture by Japan and the United States. As Hidemi Suga has argued, the early 1970s witnessed a paradigm shift within the New Left in its attitude towards minorities. A fringe element of the New Left would emerge, arguing for Okinawan/Ryūkyūan independence as part of a revolutionary movement of dispossessed and oppressed peoples. While the militant manifestations of this strain of activism somewhat curiously saw wajin (Yamato) Japanese acting on behalf of, say, the Ainu or burakumin in largely ineffective acts of violence in the 1970s, Chūkaku-ha-affiliated Okinawans were themselves involved in direct actions in late 1971, such as invading the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo to protest the visit of Emperor Hirohito to the United States, while even more notoriously, the attack on Crown Prince Akihito in 1975 during a ceremony at the Tower of the Lilies was carried out by Okinawans associated with the New Left.

But the Koza Riot was not initiated by the New Left; it sprung up spontaneously from the streets, which makes its legacy less problematic, whereas the general consensus, as presented by mainstream accounts at the time and subsequently, is that the New Left became delegitimised by its violence (against the state, against citizens and against other activists). It would be surely unimaginable for such a re-enactment event to take place and receive serious media attention if the incident in question was, say, the Asama-sansō seige or the Shibuya Riot. This re-enactment was more permissible, though nonetheless unusual, and you would struggle to find similar events. And while the Koza recreation was about confronting a past trauma from the Long Sixties, the event was not at all like the re-enactments privately practised in the kyōsanshumi fandom, which reclaims the New Left by exploiting, consuming and collecting its “content”.

Albeit conspicuously stage-managed, the Koza recreation seems rather to inherit the more playful, performative and boisterous mode of protest and political expression Japan has seen especially since the Heisei period. The counterculture and bohemian scene in Kōenji has exemplified this, and there is even a direct parallel in the Operation Anti-War Asia! (アジア反戦大作戦) series of pacifist, anti-nuclear events organised in Kōenji and Asagaya in 2015. At one point this involved a car being smashed and overturned on the street by participants in what was a highly performative yet still rebellious stunt.

What is the efficacy of such a re-enactment? It is potentially reductive, falling into the trap of the digital era in which everything, even past civil unrest, is a commodifiable “experience”, an Instagrammable or tweetable photo opportunity. Or it is a genuinely valuable way to show people up-close the kind of actions that now seem so distant, but which in 1970 could easily occur if provoked by circumstances.

For all the unsophisticated zest and ludic anarchy of the Operation Anti-War Asia! stunt, an overturned car is “weird” in the sense proposed by the late Mark Fisher: it is an entity that is wrong, out of place; it should not exist here. Fisher makes a well-known distinction between the weird and the eerie, which we might also apply to the Koza event. The eerie, Fisher suggests, is a failure of presence. What is missing — actual unrest — is what makes this eerie; the upturned car — the damage — is there, but not the disturbance that created it, which has failed to appear. The unrest is hidden. It is lost, to borrow Patricia Steinhoff’s phrase, somewhere within Japan’s invisible civil society; no longer on display because, not least, the use of public space is tightly controlled, or because it has been forgotten or ignored, a relic from a complex, problematic past. In this respect, the Koza re-enactment is an attempt to confront the eerie everyday of Okinawa, living alongside historical trauma that fails to (re)appear and be resolved, by inserting the weird, an out-of-place entity — though not literally out in place if they had staged the re-enactment actually in Koza, but perhaps that would have been a step too far.

The act of overturning a vehicle still has power. During the melee of the Halloween street party in Shibuya in 2018, a small truck was overturned by exuberant revellers, sparking a police crackdown. Though the incident has not quite spelled the end of the street cosplay festivals — and this year, not even the coronavirus pandemic seemed to deter people — the scene was featured prominently and ominously in media coverage, and has certainly put the Shibuya government and Tokyo Metropolitan Police back on the offensive when it comes to tolerating mass gatherings in the district for Halloween, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Even if fleeting, such moments of civil instability have the ability to disturb the everyday, clockwork routine of shopping and commuting that dominate the public sphere in Japanese cities. The challenge lies in capturing and channelling that same potency in non-violent ways.


Posted in Essays, News | Tagged , | 1 Comment

A short history of the Japanese hippie movement

We might begin with a series of snapshots.

Young people sniffing paint thinner in plastic bags around Shinjuku Station. Long-haired, bearded musicians like the Taj Mahal Travellers, embarking on a tour of Asia. Artists hanging out at trendy, edgy venues — the coffee shop Fūgetsudō, perhaps — before heading off to a shrine to stage a performance in a tent. Hirsute hippies from the Bum Academy rambling around.

Of the many histories of Japan’s Long Sixties waiting to be written, an account of the Japanese hippie movement would prove one of the messiest. Figures and groups can be traced, but they overlap or fade away too easily, and paper trail is vague. Instead, we are left with a heavy haze of tropes and images, the anti-war, New Left and student movements all merging into one, embellished by flashes of colour: folk music, drugs, communes, sexual hedonism, deviance.

paint thinner sniffing tokyo japan shinjuku hippies counterculture

paint thinner sniffing tokyo japan shinjuku hippies counterculture

These images are informed by aspects of popular culture as much as reality. Actuality has been remediated through cinema or tabloid magazines to disseminate a photogenic, readily consumable version of counterculture. Films like Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969), Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) and Shinjuku Mad (1970) cemented what was already a media frenzy at the time, preserving in aspic a portrait of Tokyo — especially Shinjuku — as an oasis of sexual and moral freedom for oddballs, volatile hippies and dangerous dropouts. Was it true? Yes, in part. Was it romanticised, then and in the years after? Undoubtedly so.

The impossibility of writing anything coherent and valuable about such an inherently sprawling and loose movement — even assuming we think of it as a single movement — has long defeated me. Nonetheless, in lieu of a more robust survey, the following is an attempt to chart a basic chronology of the movement.


1923 The poet Sakaki Nanao was born in Kagoshima. He is generally regarded as the founding father of the Japanese hippie movement.

1946 Fūgetsudō opened in Tokyo. It would become a famed hang-out for bohemians (wannabe or otherwise) in the subsequent decades.

1950 The bookstore Unita opened in Kanda, Tokyo. It developed into one of the most prominent counterculture hubs in Japan and, as a place that circulated politically radical and subversive materials, frequently faced police raids and even prosecution. It closed in 1982.

1956 The poet Gary Snyder (b. 1930) came to Japan for the first time. At Fūgetsudō, he subsequently met figures central to the Japanese hippie movement like Tetsuo Nagasawa (Naga, or Naaga) and Kaiya Yamada (Pon).

1963 Nanao met Naager and Pon at the Kōenji coffee shop Nelken. Nanao and Naager later met Allen Ginsberg in Kyoto. The Beat Generation proved a major influence on the nascent Japanese hippie movement, along with New Age ideas imported from India like the ashram. This went both ways. Snyder, for instance, not only contributed to the Japanese hippie movement but Asia greatly impacted his work and world-view. These transnational, transpacific connections also continued, with Nanao and others visiting and staying in California in the early 1970s.

1965 Beheiren was established. It became the leading force in the 1960s and 1970s anti-war movement, attracting a broad sweep of society. Hippies were associated with Beheiren in various ways, as musicians at rallies as well as part of its clandestine network for helping US servicemen desert. In this year, Fūgetsudō became increasingly popular with (counter)cultural figures, though it closed in 1973.

1966 The Bum Academy was founded. It name was conceived by Sakaki Nanao. The group is loosely defined, comprising a motley set of hippies in Shinjuku. It later changed its name to Buzoku (the Tribe, sometimes the Tribes) after launching the Buzoku Shimbun (Tribe Newspaper) in 1967. Less a single group than an umbrella label, Buzoku is ultimately used as a name to cover all the various communes and groups that sprang up. An alternative network of communes and counterculture was the Hoshi no Yūgyōgun (Star Tour Army), which emerged a little later with links to the likes of Teruo Ōtomo.

japan buzoku the tribe hippies 1967 japan buzoku the tribe hippies 1967

1967 The Kaminari Akagarasu-zoku (Thunderbolt Red Crow Tribe) commune was founded in the mountains of Nagano. Its Meditation Center of Harijan would attract attendees widely.

Other hippies groups/communes were establishsed this year, like the Gajumaru no Yumezoku (Banyan Dream Tribe), later renamed the Banyan Ashram, on the southern subtropical island of Suwanosejima, and the Yume miru Yadokari-zoku (Dreaming Hermit Crab Tribe) in Miyazaki.

Also in 1967, the Bum Academy held its first three festivals in Tokyo and Miyazaki. Other outdoor festivals with hippie and ecological themes would be organised around Japan in the years to come, including Tokyo, Hiroshima, Ishikawa, Chiba, Shizuoka and Hokkaidō. These continued well beyond the peak of the hippie and New Age movements, with the anti-nuclear Inochi no Matsuri (Festival of Life), for instance, taking place in the mountains of Nagano in 1988. It is still held every twelve years.

The snack bar Horagai opened in Kokubunji, West Tokyo, as the first rock music coffee shop in the country. It was initially run by a team that included Sansei Yamao, another key figure in the Japanese hippie movement and associated with Nanao and his peers. Horagai, which means “giant triton”, was one of the sites linked to a Kokubunji commune called Emerarudo Iro no Yosofū-zoku (Emerald Breeze Tribe), started by Yamao in 1968.

The Greenhouse, as the lawn plaza in front of the east side of Shinjuku Station became known, was by now a gathering place for fūten (literally, “insane”) drop-outs. Young people congregated there from around the country and over five hundred were counted as sleeping rough at the site during the summer of 1967. Efforts were inevitably made to put a stop to this phenomenon, with the authorities officially erecting signage warning that the area is out of bounds, though people continued to assemble there in their dozens in the next summer.

1969 Kansai activists associated with Beheiren held the Hanpaku (Anti-Expo), an anti-war peace festival, in Osaka Castle Park as an alternative to the official World Expo that took place in Suita, Osaka, in 1970.

Beheiren was also linked to the “folk guerrilla” anti-war music concerts at the West Gate (Nishiguchi) plaza on Shinjuku Station, which were held weekly throughout the spring and summer, eventually attracting thousands of mostly young people and transforming the underground station plaza into a festive place for students, activists and music fans. The gatherings were ultimately broken up by police and the leading musicians arrested.

1970 The bookstore Mōsakusha opened in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Like the earlier Unita in Kanda, it became a central nexus for distributing and disseminating not only New Left materials but also various other forms of subculture and counterculture. In this year, LSD was also classified as a narcotic in Japan.

1971 The Shakujii Village Commune was founded in Tokyo by Teruo Ōtomo with a name harking back to to a village that once existed on the outskirts of the city in the feudal era. Various other communes appeared from Hokkaidō in the far north down to Fukuoka and even the island of Suwanosejima in the far south. A commune map of Japan published in a May 1977 issue of Namae no nai shimbun (see below) listed almost two hundred sites stretching right across the archipelago.

1972 The Namae no nai shimbun (Nameless Newspaper) was launched in Tokyo by Hikaru Hamada, an anti-war activist. Over the years, it would publish material about counterculture and anti-establishment movements until 1977. It ceased publication for a time but was then revived in 1988 for the Inochi no Matsuri that year.

Small hubs for hippie culture were increasingly popping up around the country, frequently as coffee shops or live music venues. Guwarandō had opened in Kichijōji in 1970. The cafe Hobbit opened in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi, in 1972. Also in 1972 came the short-lived yet legendary OZ, a live rock music venue in Tokyo, while Yadokari (Tenant or Hermit Crab) opened in Miyazaki and Honyaradō in Kyoto (which burnt down in 2015, destroying much of co-founder and street photographer Kai Fusayoshi’s collection of prints and negatives).

1975 The Mugari Dōjō commune was founded by Kaiya Yamada and others on a remote, uninhabited island in the Amami chain in opposition to plans by ENEOS to exploit it for oil. The commune, whose name literally means the “selfless training room” but is also partly derived from local dialect, lasted for many years.

1976 Teruo Ōtomo started the Milky Way community in Mitaka (in the west of Tokyo). It was a major centre for Tokyo-based counterculture for four decades. Ōtomo was a leading figure in the younger generation of hippies. He walked across Japan for six months from 1975, starting in Hokkaidō and finishing in Okinawa, a journey he called the Milky Way Caravan.

Hobbit Village, a vine-covered building in Nishi-Ogikubo in the west of Tokyo, with an organic grocery store, organic food restaurant (Balthazar), bookshop and school. It is still in operation today.

1980 Banyan Ashram on Suwanosejima disbanded. The commune played a role in Beheiren’s covert network providing shelter for United States servicemen who deserted while in Japan to avoid fighting in Vietnam. A fictional account of this forms part of Matthew Turner’s novel Sweden.

The commune had been a key part of opposition to the resort development of the island by Yamaha, which also led to the establishment of the Cosmic Children’s Council in Nishi-Kokubunji for printing and disseminating information about the campaign. The commune was unable to gain support from the locals on the island, however, who endorsed the Yamaha plan. The resort opened in 1977, though would close in 1982. The commune and island inspired a documentary film by Keiichi Ueno, Suwa-no-se, the Fourth World, which was released in 1977.

1990 I Am Hippie by Kaiya Yamada, a memoir chronicling the author’s remarkable, peripatetic life and which has become a key account of the hippie movement in Japan, is published. Yamada died in 2010 and his book was reissued in 2013 in an expanded edition.

2008 Sakaki Nanao died.

“Primitives of Unknown Culture” and Other Tropes

Some might scoff and call the preceding attempt to impose a conventional structure on counterculture as, if you’ll pardon the expression, counterintuitive. Pity the tomfool who then attempts a summary. Amid the meandering chronology, key themes recur, many of which are familiar from hippie and New Age movements elsewhere.

To begin with those familiar ones.

Yes, there was music and guitars, and long hair.

Yes, there were drugs — we are talking about hippies, after all — and in particular LSD and marijuana. One particular bust for cannabis possession saw five key figures arrested, including Sansei Yamao. It was reported by the media and contributed to the notoriety of the movement.

Yes, the hippies were interlinked with the concurrent anti-war movement and there was also some overlap with the New Left (especially Beheiren, which I here include within that term, and other groups/causes). But the hippies were not just peaceniks: their ecological and environment concerns were as pressing as such issues as the Vietnam War and imperialism, and eventually the former took precedence as the 1970s wore on. In fact, the hippies arguably at least in part anticipated the emergence of the recycling and green movement in the civil society in Japan during the later 1970s.

Yes, there were communes — and which should not be conflated with the communes of the various new religious movements in post-war Japan, though some did chronologically grow out of the New Left and encompass aspects of spirituality that echo New Age beliefs.

But these hippies communes were essentially counterspaces, not cults. Establishing physical sites as havens and hubs for counterculture was a recurrent aspect of the practices during the period, evolving into a network of cafes, coffee shops, printers and more. These were frequently rural or, if in Tokyo, to the (then less-developed, greener) west of the city, though Shinjuku did justify its reputation as the home of several hippies happenings and spaces. The sites were not static, however, but rather also led to large-scale events, especially outdoor festivals.

What is important to stress, and what can be hard at first to decipher from the documentation and images that remains, was that these were not simply one-off larks; they were sustained and ambitious events, and evinced a genuine urge towards an alternative lifestyle. As Sakaki Nanao wrote in an English-language text about a Suwanosejima hippie gathering: “Every day as Festival. That is your duty, your love, and your destiny.” This aspired lifestyle was nomadic and migratory when much of the population was cashing in the dividends of the Economic Miracle by settling down into bourgeois citizenship. Far from buying houses and cars and household appliances, the hippies rejected consumerism to farm, travel and meditate.

Nagasawa’s “Buzoku sengen” (Tribe Declaration) (1967), the de facto manifesto of the movement, is a famous embodiment of hippies’ hopes. “What we call the Tribe Society (buzoku shakai) is a society where there are no individuals or institutions ruling or ruled, where even the word “rule” is useless; a society that is not born from the earth and then builds something on top of it, but rather simply exists with the earth, that returns to the earth, that is supported by the bonds between individuals through the love and freedom and knowledge that is the respiration of the soul. [. . .] We will watch over the fate of the nation-state to fade away. We are now shaping a single path, the right path of survival, not the path that leads to the demise of the human race.”

Another aspect of this was a new concept of the land of Japan as spiritual, mysterious and universal, attuned to an ancient energy (as the name of Buzoku/Tribe suggests) that can attract people from the metropolis and even from around the world to travel together to remote parts of the country. Nanao, in that aforementioned report on the Suwanosejima event, extolled: “One by one, from San Francisco, Tokyo, and several other cities people arrived upon the scene. Those who were unable to take part, held the festival within themselves. We are primitives of unknown culture. [. . . ] Our leader is a two year old [sic] baby. He is completely naked, healthy and vivid. [. . .] For us the earth is too small and the city too narrow. [. . . ] We are not only representatives of some tribes but heirs of ancient peoples. Besides, we are natural spirits, like the coyote.” The flower-people and back-to-the-land language notwithstanding, this vividly evokes the mood of the event and the scale of the vision espoused by the wandering poet. The 1977 commune map referenced above not insignificantly labelled the Japanese island chain as the “Yaponesia Mandala,” borrowing from the novelist Toshio Shimao’s concept of Yaponesia (or sometimes Japonesia), a pre-modern image of Japan as archipelagic and with links to the Pacific dating back to before the arrival of rice cultivation from the Asian continent and the emergence of the Yamato Japanese people on the main islands. Shimao, like the hippies, wanted us to look to the periphery rather than the mainland, which is dominated by the Yamato Japanese and, of course, the big cities.

In the arts, similar tendencies are evident during this same period. In the 1970s, the conceptual artist Yutaka Matsuzawa sought to abandon materiality and challenge the bourgeois hierarchy of art — the broader project of the anti-art movement — alongside modernity and civilisation itself. He created a concept of primal painting and immaterial exhibitions (that is, non-exhibition) in imaginary spaces in the wilderness of Japan. Assisted by various other practitioners in the anti-art and avant-garde scene in the 1960s and 1970s, he attempted to attain asceticism through meditation events and commune-style art gatherings in the mountains of Suwa, Nagano. Another example of a conscious retreat away from civilisation towards something purer was the Toga Festival. Launched in a village in Toyama Prefecture in 1982 as Japan’s first major international performing arts festival, it was arguably the greatest achievement of the underground theatre and dance scene of the 1960s and 1970s just as the original generation of practitioners started to either die off or take up sinecures.

Some of the hippies’ aspirations were more grounded in daily realities. Part of their efforts to practise an alternative society related to diet and food, most obviously in growing, eating and selling organic produce. Teruo Ōtomo, for instance, went on to run an organic food store, while Tabemonoya (literally, Food Shop) was a restaurant opened in Nishi-Ogikubo in 1977 by a collective of women linked to the movement (including the then wife of musician Shinya Kawauchi, who had started OZ and initially ran Hobbit Village). It was operated until 1989, with all the women on the team granted equal status. This also did not originate in a vacuum but parallels similar developments that grew out of the New Left and student movement of the Long Sixties, perhaps most notably the food co-operatives that are still widespread today and, in the case of Tabemonoya, the belated flowering of Women’s Lib in Japan.

Another more concrete aspect to the hippies’ practices was the wealth of writings and publications they produced, though little was distributed widely and almost none of is easily available today. These materials joined the confluence of alternative media then blossoming, notably the development of minikomi (“mini communication”) leaflets, pamphlets, and small hand-printed publications that we might today call zines. What the hippies penned and printed was nonetheless discrete from the other alternative media that existed at the time in the form of the vast volume of New Left faction organs and newspapers or other political materials published by Beheiren and various other activist groups.

Coda: Tetsuo Nagasawa Today

And what of the aftermath? Where did the hippies go when their communes and ashrams broke up, or their coffee shops closed? Well, some did not. A handful of places are still in operation — or were until quite recently. Many individuals have continued to live true to their values in modest, quiet ways far from the spectacle of the cinema and tabloid portrayals.

Tetsuo Nagasawa, for instance, still lives on Suwanosejima, where he lives with his wife. He continues to write and publish collections of poetry. Each day he rises at 5 a.m. to go fish in the harbour for food, and tend to his crops of fruits and vegetables. In his unassuming and small-scale manner, he carries on his practice of the Tribe Society he advocated more than five decades ago.


Further Reading

Farrer, James, “From Ginsberg to Organic: Becoming the Bohemian Face of a Bourgeois Neighborhood”, Nishiogiology, 2017.

Shiozawa Yukito (ed.), Keiichi Ueno, Zenkiroku Suwanose daiyon sekai: Nihon no hippī mūbumento (Suwanose, the Fourth World Full Record: The Japanese Hippie Movement), Tokyo: Kawade Shobō Shinsha, 2020.

Spectator, vol. 30, 2014.

Spectator, vol. 45, 2019.

Turner, Matthew, Sweden, Astoria: The Mantle, 2018.

Yamada Kaiya, Ai amu hippī: Nihon no hippī mūbumento ’60–’90 (I Am a Hippie: Japan’s Hippie Movement, 1960–90), Tokyo: Daisan Shokan, 1990. A new edition was issued in 2013 by Mori to Shuppan.

Yamazato, Katsunori, “Snyder, Sakaki, and the Tribe”, in Gary Snyder: Dimensions of a Life, ed. Jon Halper, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991.

Posted in Essays, Resources | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Agnes Chow and the idolisation of female activists in Japan

Following the civil unrest over the subsequently withdrawn extradition bill, the latest chapter in the protracted saga in Hong Kong was the passing of a new national security law. The pro-democracy, anti-Beijing protests in the former British colony have rightly attracted attention worldwide for some time, but Japanese interest in the cause reached an intense peak recently due to the plight of one particular activist: Agnes Chow.

Chow was arrested (yet again) on 10 August, a development that received much mainstream media coverage in Japan. The twenty-three-year-old is a veteran of the pro-democracy cause in Hong Kong, having become a central figure in the Umbrella Movement in 2014 when she was still a teenager and then one of the leaders of a progressive political party, Demosisto, that disbanded after the national security law passed.

agnes chow court appearance august 2020

Agnes Chow at a court appearance in August 2020, shortly before her arrest (Photo: Reuters)

Fluent in Japanese (as well as English besides her native Cantonese), Chow is almost certainly the most famous person in Japan associated with the current issues in Hong Kong. This is in no small part the result of her strong visibility on social media, sending updates to nearly 540,000 followers on Twitter. Her YouTube channel has, as of writing, over 300,000 subscribers and over 9.5 million views.

Bolstered by her looks — a pretty young woman who, with her pale features and long hair, would not be out of place in the pages of a shōjo manga — and the reputation and following Chow has accrued largely through her Japanese-language social media posts, Japanese people reacted with shock to her arrest. The footage of her arrest heightened this effect, with Chow’s coronavirus-safeguarding white face mask emphasising her bespectacled innocence.

agnes chow arrested hong kong

The arrest of Agnes Chow on 10 August, 2020 (Photo: Reuters)

The incredulity and concern was intermixed with a curious kind of fandom that has seen her dubbed the “Goddess of Democracy” (民主の女神), a moniker also used by the mainstream media also used in reporting her arrest. Hashtags swiftly emerged and one in Japanese calling for her to be free was included in tens of thousands of tweets — a far greater response than most Japan-based causes can hope to attract. Japanese people shared on social media their private photographs of Chow, showing her as a “normal” young person who liked hanging out with friends and doing the kinds of things that most people her age liked doing (in Japan or Hong Kong). All of this combined to form an image of Chow as a “pure” and angelic figure, a brave victim of a terrible (male) regime.

Though Chow was released on bail a day later, she may still face prosecution — she has already pleased guilty to other charges after an arrest last year — and the ambiguity of her apprehension has triggered fears that Hong Kong authorities will use the new law to suppress political dissent. The Twitter storm ignited by her arrest is unlikely to have influenced the decision to free her, since the police are savvy enough to know that someone with such a high social media profile will automatically garner outrage online, and there have been many other arrests of similarly prominent figures. A blue verified badge on your Twitter handle means nothing to the police.

Nonetheless, the response to her arrest and Chow’s status as the Goddess of Democracy has a clear benefit: it raises awareness of an acute issue among Japanese audiences who might otherwise not follow it so closely or know anything about it. In short, it makes people care. Kyodo quoted a 42-year-old Japanese man working in Beijing as saying “I have become interested in Hong Kong affairs since last year thanks to the Goddess of Democracy.”

The English translation of her nickname may have an awkward ring, though it consciously echoes the Japanese name for Libertas. In this respect, she is a “retrofitted” personification of liberty and democracy, a Marianne for East Asia. But this personification is highly problematic. Would another young and charismatic leader in the movement like Joshua Wong, who happens to male, be dubbed the “God of Democracy”? “Goddess” not only genders Chow, it sexualises her. In this characterisation, she is a meek Valkyrie, a fighter whose status as a woman is as important, if not more so, as what she is fighting for. It belittles her as a “cute” and “pretty” media image to be consumed, as the more acceptable and likable face of the movement than the masked figures smashing windows and engaging the police amid tear gas and gunfire. Always appearing slight of build and humble, Chow’s persona could not be further from that of the at-times violent street protesters on the frontline of the unrest in Hong Kong, even though she is herself frequently there and reporting on it through social media.

This discussion will limit its scope to her reception in Japan, but Chow is also similarly mediated, consumed, and idolised by many in her native Hong Kong (and elsewhere). And it goes without saying that elevating female activists to media celebrity-like status is a global phenomenon — Greta Thunberg being just one obvious example — a process that can spark a backlash and disrupt the message of the activists.

Though she has expressed unease at her sobriquet, Chow is, to some extent, willingly involved in this process. A perfunctory glance at her YouTube channel shows that she presents herself in a visually appealing way, similar to how a music idol might have such a platform, and the videos feature her prominently. However, this is also a very natural social media modus operandi and is ultimately just a smart and professional approach, much as any millennial or generation Z-er serious about promoting something online would surely do today. (It is also worth noting that Chow currently describes herself in her Twitter profile in three languages simply as a “university student”, rather than anything self-aggrandising.) To suggest that Chow is more interested in promoting herself over the content of her political messages would do a terrible disservice to her (and her peers’) truly remarkable achievements.

Rather, the problem lies in the idolisation: it is reductionist, sweeping aside the complexity of the movement and its campaign to focus on sensational, human aspects (a young woman’s arrest). Placing a female activist — or any individual in a movement — on a pedestal ignores the fact that social movements comprise diverse memberships and forces, as Tominaga Kyōko recently argued in a reflexive article in the Mainichi Shimbun exploring the Japanese media representation of Chow. More seriously, the veneration not only ignores but arguably exemplifies the persistent sexism and harassment prevalent in social movements in Japan (and of course, elsewhere), something that sadly has a well-established precedent even among the the New Left during the Long Sixties, and which spurred the Women’s Lib movement locally.

There is a sense of déjà vu about all this. When Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy-s (SEALDs) was active in 2015, its members were readily seized upon by the media as examples of “ordinary” and “noble” youngsters unexpectedly appearing in the staid, male-dominated world of politics. It’s a great story and it sells, and SEALDs was clever enough to milk this and ride the wave of attention to build sympathy for its cause, no doubt in the process attracting thousands more people to join the demonstrators mobilised by the other civil society groups and political parties in involved in opposing the government’s controversial security bills. But I also had serious misgivings about this at the time in that young activists were essentially consumed and mediated as idols. While not overshadowing their cause per se, was this idolisation ultimately a form of exploitation and condescension that meant SEALDs was not taken seriously by the media, much less the political elite?

The SEALDs members went to great lengths to stress that they were normal students, not radicals like the student activists of the New Left. (This is also problematic in that SEALDs, along with the mainstream liberal political parties and social movements, was complicit in perpetuating the demonisation of more robust left-wing politics in Japan, and co-operated with the police and other instruments of the state that works to curb activism and the civil society.) The publicity materials were well produced and professional. In the images, the photogenic members were dressed fashionably and conveyed a simple pro-democracy message. The group notably placed the female members centrally within its self-presentation. Its youthful image aside, this identity also stood in stark contrast to many social movements in Japan up until then, especially in the New Left, which valorised “masculine” sets of practices like violent confrontations, long rallies with fierce speeches, and top-down hierarchies. But this tactic, for all its success, also exposed the members to horrendous cyberbullying.

sealds japan student activists

The student activist group SEALDs

SEALDs did not happen in a vacuum, but rather emerged out of a general trend towards more “feminised” protest practices in Japan and globally. These practices engage in artistic, creative and parodic tactics, and valorise being ordinary and cool as much (if not more than) ideology or political commitment. This did not mean that “masculine” conflict with authority or even militant tactics disappeared completely — far from it, in many ways — but the current state of social movements suggest that the violence espoused by prominent sections of the New Left during the Long Sixties did not survive. In the case of Japan specifically, Gonoi Ikuo has described such new aesthetics-based and digitally engaged tactics as “kawaii direct action”, the development of which I would suggest has made Japan’s civil society and culture in general more receptive to someone like Agnes Chow.

This is apparent in Japan’s 1990s and 2000s freeter protests, as well documented by the likes of Carl Cassegård. For all their bullish and rowdy antics with street rave-cum-marches, they were not afraid to be playful and even cute with costumes, character art and parody. It worked to reinvigorate protest for the current age in terms of practices but also to legitimise it again for a new generation of participants and stakeholders. As Sharon Hayashi and Anne McKnight wrote in their much-cited 2005 paper, “Good-bye Kitty, Hello War: The Tactics of Spectacle and New Youth Movements in Urban Japan”: “In many elements of the rave demos’ tactical use of media, pop, and anime-based graphics, soft lettering and pastel coloring personalize the situation of protest and take the edge off the hard reality of police control and the possibility of arrest.”

Such kawaii direct action and feminised protest practices are at odds with the views espoused by the small yet well-publicised group Kakumeiteki Himote Dōmei (Revolutionary League of Men Unpopular with Women), or Kakuhidō, which ostensibly brings together self-professed male “losers” to demonstrate in helmets and masks against Christmas Eve and Valentine’s Day in the streets of Tokyo. The group’s clamorous activities, which have continued since 2006 and draw only a modest number of participants, are as much meta-protest as real ones. They have borrowed the language and paraphernalia of 1960s protest and re-situated these in the late-Heisei malaise of disaffected masculinity vulnerable in the face of growing (relatively speaking) female empowerment in Japan and economic stagnation. The context is genuine, yes, but it is deliberately rendered through highly performative, ludic practices. This is perhaps partly because an actual protest against these intangible issues of fragile masculinity is too difficult, and adopting a filter of 1960s protest — now more legitimate with the passage of time and coopting of the Long Sixties into popular memory — allows these men to express their frustrations under a tongue-in-cheek cloak.

kakuhido revolutionary league men unpopular women valentine's day march protest tokyo japan shibuya parody pastiche group

Parodic protest group Kakuhidō, which nominally demonstrates on behalf of unpopular men

The new phase accelerated with the post-2011 wave of anti-nuclear and anti-government movements, which were mobilised by social media and looser networks, and where Nara Yoshitomo’s and straightforward, neutral slogans dominated street demonstrations. The aesthetics that SEALDs presented have also continued to resonate, with the Japanese Communist Party harnessing very similar style for posters as its journey progresses from militancy to parliamentary renegades to local grassroots champions to pacifist liberals effectively part of the mainstream, complete with cute mascots and a quasi-tolerance of the emperor system.

japanese communist party poster sealds

Japanese Communist Party poster influenced by the SEALDs aesthetic

It even began to rub off on the New Left, with the younger activists associated with Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction) through its Zengakuren league of student groups or NAZEN anti-nuclear group readily adopting costumes, self-parody and friendlier visuals — though without diluting the core political ideas they are disseminating. While the new social movements have made a conscious effort to co-operate with police, this is a line that Zengakuren and its associates would never cross; activists, in fact, remain subject to intense police surveillance and the threat of arrest over infractions as minor as stepping onto a campus to distribute flyers. The transformation of Zengakuren has reached an apotheosis with its Zenshin Channel YouTube videos (over 2 million views and counting) and the group’s de facto version of Agnes Chow, Horaguchi Tomoko, who has attracted a cult following online and eventually became a democratically elected member of the Suginami ward assembly.

zengakuren zenshin channel left wing activists japan

The friendlier face of Zengakuren presented through YouTube videos. Horaguchi Tomoko is on the right

Horaguchi’s popularity is interlinked with the emergence of a subculture called kyōsanshumi (共産趣味): literally meaning “communist taste” — a pun on kyōsanshugi (communism) — it is a type of fandom or otaku subculture that centres on materials related to communist or Marxist movements. It has a particular focus on Japanese movements, especially those from the New Left.

With the exception of some cosplay events and outdoor games, the main sphere for kyōsanshumi fandom is online, especially social media platforms like Twitter. It is here that the fans share moe elements, images (such as old press photos), their own illustrations of real-life figures, parodies and pastiche images, memes, information and trivia, and speculation (“What would this faction have said about this?”). The social media content forms a kind of “database” in the Azuma sense. There is a strong emphasis on uniforms, helmets, the police, paramilitary gear and cute female activists. It can be assumed that the anonymous practitioners are mostly, if not entirely, men, who bring their male gaze to bear on the past (and present) of the New Left, though also, not coincidentally, other military subjects, such as World War II.

kyosanshumi fandom

Kyōsanshumi image by illustrator samusamu1002 of a female New Left activist

kyosanshumi japan fandom

Kyōsanshumi image by illustrator leningradcheka, inspired by the University of Tokyo student strike of 1968–69

kyosanshumi fandom japan

Another image by samusamu1002 with a World War II theme

Kyōsanshumi is much more than simply yet another esoteric fandom, however. It is part of an on-going general rediscovery and re-consumption of the Long Sixties, especially since the 2000s with numerous books, events and films. While romanticism and nostalgia are conspicuous in this veritable industry (along with genuine self-reflection and soul-searching), some of the new content has been produced by and for millennials, gravitating away from the problematic sides of the period, away from the ideologies and sensational events to a softer reception more based on visuals. We may now be far enough from 1972’s Asama-sansō and Rengō Sekigun (United Red Army) purge to select, if so willing, other aspects that are more easily consumable and reusable (or if we do want to confront the horrors of the Rengō Sekigun purge and other such incidents, we can do it in bite-sized chunks through movies, manga and guidebooks).

kakumei no chizu

An example of recent books in Japan about the Long Sixties aimed at a different kind of readership. This one is a guidebook to the sites of famous incidents

After all, if even AKB48 can make a music video set in a vaguely 1968-esque pastiche (yet very anodyne) world of student activism, as the idol supergroup did in 2016, then it is surely fair game for anyone.

The punk-rock idol group Burst Girl released a music video in 2019 for the song “Chō-kakumei” (Super Revolution), which was the high-octane flip side of the AKB48 video: here the female performers wear helmets and towels over their faces, and carry staves while swaggering around a school festooned with revolutionary placards and a picture of Che Guevara. The student activism and sensational incidents carried out by militant factions in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Japan immediately provided source material for literature, manga and cinema (most notably, many sexploitation films) at the time and in the years afterwards, but the performers here indulging in New Left cosplay were born this century. The exploitation is insouciant and quite possibly even oblivious. (For context, though, the group certainly is very aware of the punk tradition in Japan; its name references Burst City, the 1982 film that is a major part of the punk rock canon.)

Another generation Z-er, the artist Jun Inagawa has achieved prominence for fusing street art and otaku culture, but his self-referential moe imagery is also seemingly intermixed with student activism motifs. Emblazoned with the words “otaku” and “anarchy” (in the Roman alphabet) and moe (in kanji), the main white helmet featured in his 2019 exhibition in Tokyo perhaps encapsulates the ambivalence of kyōsanshumi: superficial and visceral, yet also representative of a significant cultural shift. That Inagawa has claimed in an interview that the helmet, which he also wears in publicity shots, was actually inspired by Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is also intriguing. Though clearly not a military design, Inagawa’s visual cribbing suggests that such motifs are seeping into art and pop culture by osmosis, diverted through alternative filters, false memory and misinterpretation. The artist collective that Inagawa leads is called WANK Dōmei (Wank League), echoing (even if unwittingly) the many other dōmei that dominated the New Left but paired with the provocative English that Inagawa frequently employs.

jun inagawa artist

Artwork by Jun Inagawa

This mode of casual exploitation is not limited to Japanese leftist movements. Uesaka Sumire is a voice actress and idol whose fandom is the Soviet Union, which she draws on as material for her music and persona. Sengun Joshi (literally, Military-First Girls) is an all-girl cosplay “fan club” for North Korea. Similarly, the Nazi chic of benighted music groups in South Korea and Japan has rightly received widespread condemnation.

The moderation and softening process can inevitably descend into cynicism. Just as high-end fashion has exploited the the Rote Armee Fraktion, so we find Isetan Department Sore in Shinjuku — yes, Shinjuku, the notorious site of riots and counterculture in the 1960s — housing a fashion and culture retail floor called Tokyo Kaihō-ku, appropriating the word (meaning roughly “liberated quarter”) that was used, in emulation of what was happening in Paris and elsewhere, to describe areas of the city occupied by activists during the height of the protests. Such words as kakumei (revolution) have become cheap marketing slogans.

None of this, it should be stressed, equates to rehabilitation or release from the heavy baggage of the past. And the subcultural fandom or even mainstream (re)consumption also does little to address seriously the position of women in social movements in Japan, historically or currently — something which a scholar like Chelsea Szendi Schieder is thankfully working to offset with her upcoming book Coed Revolution: The Female Student in the Japanese New Left.

Building on this research, we can identity several key archetypes of women activists in the Long Sixties (in both the mass media and how the movements presented themselves at the time and subsequently): the victims and saints (Kanba Michiko, Tōyama Mieko), the femme fatales (Shigenobu Fusako), the witches/crazies (Nagata Hiroko), the “Gewalt Rosa” (violent Rosa Luxemburg). How far has historical memory, the best efforts of scholars notwithstanding, really evolved? Or has the recent idolisation and “feminisation” outlined above merely added new archetypes, such as the “Agnes Chow type”?

For the first volume of the mammoth 1968 by Oguma Eiji, a leading figure among the younger generation (i.e., younger than the baby boomers) of historians examining the post-war era, the cover is a female student activist in a helmet, almost too willowy and pretty for the helmet that perches on her head. An Agnes Chow type? Seemingly as a complement, second volume, solidifying the standard narrative of a movement failed and traumatic, shows a rugged male activist as he is escorted away by police.

eiji oguma 1968 cover

The cover to the first volume of Oguma Eiji’s 1968

eiji otsuka shojo united red army emperor

Aida Makoto’s artwork on the covers of Ōtsuka Eiji’s books

Earlier, in the 1990s, the manga critic Ōtsuka Eiji, who hails from the post-1972 generation and has written extensively about the spread of shōjo culture in Japan, attempted to reclaim Nagata Hiroko from her notoriety as an evil “witch” responsible for a violent purge, discovering something “pure” and innocent about her from her later interest in shōjo manga. Ōtsuka’s output is prodigious and cannot be easily summarised here, though one detail may suffice for now. Two of his most noteworthy books in this context are available in editions with a striking artwork by Aida Makoto, Beautiful Flag (War Picture Returns) (1995). Originally in the format of two folding screen paintings, the panels each feature a schoolgirl in a war-torn landscape, holding up the flag (one Japanese, the other South Korean): a heroine fighting for — what? For her country? The “flag” (whatever it symbolises)? Democracy? The people? Citing wartime propaganda, the bijinga (beautiful woman painting) genre and shōjo tropes, Aida deliberately leaves things ambiguous. Regardless, each girl is noble, strong, determined. Agnes Chow, as she is seen in the eyes of her many admirers in Japan.


Posted in Essays | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Anti-2020 as a transnational movement: Creating autonomous spaces through international protest and solidarity against the Olympics

Anti-2020 as a transnational movement: Creating autonomous spaces through international protest and solidarity against the Olympics

This article is based on the original English version of a chapter published in German as “Anti-2020 als transnationale Bewegung: Die Schaffung autonomer Räume durch internationalen Protest und Solidarität” in NOlympics. Tōkyō 2020/1 in der Kritik, eds. Steffi Richter, Andreas Singler, Dorothea Mladenova, Leipzig: Leipziger Universitätsverlag, 2020.
Publisher website

A group of people is gathering on the east side of Shinjuku Station in central Tokyo on the evening of July 24, 2019. While there is nothing unusual in this per se, given that Shinjuku is one of the busiest districts in the city, the makeup of the people is strikingly different from a regular evening crowd. There are, of course, lots of Japanese attendees, but also Americans, Koreans, French, and other nationalities. People are unfurling large banners with anti-Olympics slogans in multiple languages. Others are preparing handfuls of flyers to distribute to passers-by or getting the sound equipment ready. This is the main street demonstration in a weeklong series of transnational anti-Olympics activities, an unprecedented project that brought together peers from Olympics host cities past and future around the world.

Though this year the rainy season has been atypically long, resulting in cooler July weather—especially compared with 2018’s fatal summer—it is still sticky and humid in Tokyo. It is hard to imagine running or doing sports in this temperature, but the 2020 Olympic Games are set to open in exactly one year’s time. And all the people gathering here in Shinjuku are determined to stop that from happening and to voice their opposition to the Olympics in general.

Earlier in the day, activists from Tokyo, Seoul, LA, Hong Kong, and Taiwan had convened in Asakusa—one of Tokyo’s premier sightseeing destinations—expressly to target tourists by staging an impromptu protest with placards outside a famous landmark. The motley band of activists then headed to Tokyo International Forum, where an official one-year-to-go event was taking place with the Japanese prime minister, representatives from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and other dignitaries. Notwithstanding the heavy security, the activists held a mini protest outside the venue, even engaging in banter with one surprised IOC member as he was walking to his vehicle.

In Shinjuku that evening, the speeches start and we hear from activists talking passionately about their own cities’ contexts in their own languages, translated on the spot into Japanese by volunteers. News camera crews maneuver to get shots of this cosmopolitan assembly. It is a curious, loose rally that defies simple description. There are scholars and young students, veteran activists and novices. It is not only the foreign faces that make the attendees stand out. Someone in the South Korean contingent, for instance, wears a mask of bark from a forest controversially logged as part of the redevelopment of Pyeongchang for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

A phalanx of police officers appears and, as is customary with protests in Japan, begins urging the organizers to start the march according to the registered itinerary. The non-Japanese participants have been warned to take care with the police, who have arrested members of the anti-Olympics movement in Tokyo at previous protests. In the end, though, the police are less aggressive than at past demonstrations, and rather seem nervous about handling the participants—numbering around 230, much higher than the estimate the organizers had registered—and perhaps especially so because so many are foreign citizens. The modus operandi is typical enough: officers start marshaling the marchers along one lane in the road while the traffic continues beside them, constantly exhorting people to stay in line and keep moving. The march snakes forward boisterously with call-and-response slogans, winding its way around Shinjuku Station to an audience of thousands. After completing a full circuit of the station, the march veers off into the side alleys of Kabukichō and we are suddenly almost rubbing shoulders with the onlookers. People wave, take photos, or simply watch with bemusement. In some ways, this is just another weird street occurrence in Shinjuku, a district long known for its noisy counterculture underneath a commercial veneer. But what is taking place this evening is actually an unprecedented political event.

Finally, we arrive back at the small plaza area on the east side of the station, where the mood is exhilarated. For many of the non-Japanese participants, this was a whole new kind of street protest; similarly, for the Japanese participants, who comprise the anti-2020 movement in Tokyo, the transnational nature of this modestly sized yet unique gathering was also a completely fresh experience and one of the best-attended street protests of the movement to date.

Drawing on Olympics discourse by Jules Boykoff and social movement analytical models by Della Porta and Tarrow as well as Castells, this article will outline the anti-2020 Olympics movement in Tokyo and what I argue is its most significant achievement so far: mobilizing an ambitious, transnational alliance with like-minded partners around the world. As explored through four case studies of activities, this border-crossing network takes locally specific issues and pairs them with more universal problems, forming a broader struggle that reciprocates with its peers in other Olympics cities in terms of both ideas and discourse as well as practices and activities. The result is a bigger, better, and more effective anti-Olympics movement that will keep on building momentum even after the Closing Ceremony for the Tokyo Games. Moreover, the process of engaging with this transnational network creates heterogeneous autonomous spaces when activities come together, both reflecting the aspirations and ideological outlook of the participants and also functioning as a vibrant counterpart to the sanitized vision of internationalism and diversity promoted by the official Olympics.

We are living through what is regarded as a golden age of transnational activism and social movements, from anti-globalization and global justice to Occupy, antifa, and Fridays for Future (Baumgarten 2014). Others have already investigated the relationship between mega-events and alter-globalization, and proposed sport as a transformative agent for social movements (Harvey, Horne and Safai 2009). The transnational and globalized nature of Olympics protest, however, remains relatively under-studied. Cottrell and Nelson (2010) have previously argued for its significance but their intervention focused more on the macro-political contentions and the broader actors (including institutions and states). It is now necessary for research to prioritize grassroots transnationalism as a potent network.

nolympics anywhere japan tokyo


This article is developed out of a much longer thesis submitted in the summer of 2019, updated with new data and findings from another major case study. I locate this version of the study primarily as an ethnography of a social movement within the field of cultural anthropology.

I have been conducting fieldwork on the movement since 2016, borrowing here from Spradley’s framing of participant observation in terms of a “social situation” comprising identifiable actors, activities, and place (Spradley 1980, 39). I treated my range of interviewees and fieldwork events in terms of what Spradley (ibid., 42–44) calls clusters or networks of social situations based on both physical proximity and interrelations, which reflects my understanding of the key groups as a single social movement (as discussed later).

My fieldwork took the form of participant observation at events, protests, and other activities. I have been able to attend a number of public and non-public events during my time in the field. I could also keep close track of events I did not attend through online reports or asking participants after the fact. My resulting data were primary materials and resources (statements, leaflets, published essays and articles, social media posts), field notes, and interviews. The latter, which comprised both formal (in-depth) and informal (interactions during fieldwork and meetings) examples, were conducted with participants selected based on accessibility and demographic range (a university professor, the homeless, civil servants, other kinds of workers, with ages varying from forties to sixties). Such interviews were typically an hour in length and took place at convenient locations like a restaurant or office, or at the “tent village” in which certain participants live in Yoyogi Park, or before and after regular group meetings. I could compensate for a deficit in interview data somewhat by consulting previously published interviews. Unlike other similar studies of Olympic Games dissent or impact, I did not study one single “host” community per se but rather a network, meaning my interviews were focused on activists, though many of these are also direct members of the evicted communities.

As always with this kind of research, ethics and “distance” is a constant concern. Remaining neutral as a researcher studying a movement with which one has personal sympathy presents multiple difficulties. This is not an exclusive dilemma; various Japanese scholars have contributed academic interventions about Tokyo 2020 while also participating in and/or organizing anti-Olympics events. Neutrality was further complicated in my case as the people in the movement trusted me more and more, and I became directly involved in certain aspects (for instance, helping to organize an international symposium in July 2019 and assisting with some translations, though tasks that ultimately boosted my understanding of the dynamics and discourse of the movement). I attended many demonstrations but initially did not actually march during the protests. Eventually, though, it became apparent that it is hard to conduct effective participant observation unless one participates as well as observes. Moreover, remaining on the sidelines with a notepad and other tools hindered the process of communicating and engaging with the subject of study, and formed a potential obstacle to building trust.

While this article attempts to set out the broader anti-2020 context for the study, unless explicitly stated otherwise, terms like “anti-2020” and “the movement” herein refer to the specific cluster/network of groups and activists that I am treating as a single movement, rather than the overall anti-2020 movement(s) or oppositional voices to the Tokyo Olympics in general. Furthermore, my use of “Olympics” and “Olympic Games” principally refers to the Summer Olympics and encompasses both the Olympic and Paralympic Games, except when stated otherwise.

Models and Processes of Transnational Practices

Cristina Flesher Fominaya proposes a distinction between transnational social movements and global social movements (2014, 40). The former implies social movements operating at local and national levels while making efforts to transcend this to build networks across borders. Global social movements, on the other hand, are themselves envisioning their scope and sphere as international from the very start. An anti-Olympics movement is arguably both in part, just as the Olympics themselves are, though it is the endeavor to go beyond the local host city’s dilemmas that distinguishes the most impressive anti-Olympics groups—like the Tokyo movement. Central features of any global movement, Flesher Fominaya argues, is heterogeneity of the protests, which involve non-institutional and institutional organizations, and encompass individual activists and advocates as well as much larger groups and blocs. While the overall anti-2020 movement in Japan certainly conforms to this categorization, the specific movement in this study is a less convincing fit. It is indeed a heterogeneous network of small groups and individuals, but one whose scope is nonetheless limited to a certain section of local grassroots homeless advocacy activists and left-wing activists from anti-nationalist, pacifist, and anti-emperor circles. As we shall see, its international aspirations were acquired, not present from its inception.

If we can thus distinguish a global movement from a transnational movement, what does the latter actually do that embodies this “transnational” character? When searching for transnational frameworks, the superficial approach is to point to a symposium with foreign speakers or translations published by activists as evidence of a movement’s “international” dimension. Such examples certainly abound in the 2020 movement, but what we can also see in Tokyo, and what I argue truly qualifies it as transnational, is reciprocity; a boomerang effect, whereby activists at different sites across borders bounce off each other, responding to and extending their practices depending on what peers do in the other cities.

Della Porta and Tarrow (2005, 2) outline three processes of transnationalization in social movements: diffusion, domestication, and externalization. The 2020 movement manifests all of these; in particular, its engagement with anti-Olympics discourse like Boykoff’s notion of celebration capitalism (discussed below) demonstrates the way ideas spread to Tokyo from other cities, are absorbed and adapted to local contexts, and then used to fuel challenges to supranational institutions (namely, the IOC). As my case studies will illustrate, the anti-2020 movement is becoming increasingly ambitious with its “externalization” by holding protests and summits in Tokyo with fellow activists from around the world.

NOlympics Anywhere

Boykoff (2017, 175) delineates two typologies of political activism associated with the Games: athlete activism and political movements resisting the Games in host cities. Among the latter, a recent transnational network has emerged collectively embracing the NOlympics Anywhere slogan. It is a set of left-wing, pro-community movements focused on social (namely, gentrification), environmental, and economic concerns, and identifying the same ideological forces behind the problems with the Olympics: nationalism, capitalism, and neoliberalism (Robertson 2019a). This global NOlympics Anywhere network comprises Comitê Popular Rio Copa e Olimpíadas, Anti-PyeongChang Olympics Alliance, NON aux JO 2024 à Paris, NOlympics LA, and others (OlympicsWatch, n.d.).[1]

Given the universal visions of Olympism (IOC 2015, 12–14) and the international nature of the Olympic Games as an event, it is perhaps hardly surprising that anti-Olympics movements, including 2020’s, are likewise transnational and international in their activities and perspectives. In so doing, they can surpass the inherent NIMBYism of a residents’ movement campaigning against a local development project: rather, opposing the Olympics in your city is ultimately not just about your own city. The activists who take up the mantle of fighting the Olympics in this way are archetypal examples of what Boykoff (2020) calls “NOlympians.”

As Boykoff (2014, 103) notes elsewhere, transnational activism has facilitated an increase in Olympic protests over the past 30 years—greatly accelerated, of course, by developments in digital media and technology. One comparative study has shown that protests have grown in frequency, scope, and scale across transnational networks, and are contributing to the negative image of the Olympics among residents of potential host cities, so much so that the pool of willing bid candidates is dwindling (Cottrell and Nelson 2010).

It exceeds the scope of this article to analyze fully the emergence of NOlympics Anywhere, which is still a nascent and developing force. Nonetheless, it is clear that the most prominent drivers of the movement so far are NOlympians currently or formerly based in LA and Rio, whose efforts have also been central to the transnational aspects of the Tokyo movement. And it is also clear that this network has recently reached a significant stage in its development. Indeed, Cerianne Robertson (2019b), who is closely involved with NOlympics LA, suggests that before 2019 “there was no single transnational anti-mega-event movement” but events organized during the year crystallized efforts into a sustainable, formidable movement.

Not every anti-Olympics protest or opposition movement in a host city is automatically part of this new NOlympics Anywhere movement—something which, as shown below, is also true of Tokyo. What these groups in this loose network do share are such qualities as: an opposition to holding the Olympics in their own respective city but an opposition to the Olympics in principle; an association with the politics of anti-capitalism, anti-neoliberalism, and anti-globalization; a membership composed of a healthy mix of community stakeholders, activists, and scholars; a strong affiliation with homeless advocacy, campaigning against gentrification, or otherwise supporting the vulnerable; emerging from grassroots groups and activism rather than institutions; and embracing a transnational field of vision. Current NOlympics Anywhere groups readily link up with other anti-Olympics or related groups beyond the host city, or even with transnational civil society organizations like Greenpeace or Amnesty International. More broadly, NOlympics Anywhere is part of the new wave of activism that exists “beyond borders,” in parallel with the global justice movement that emerged from the 1990s as a call for greater social equality in response to economic globalization, human rights injustices and environmental destruction.

Opposition to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Surveying the immense output of discourse already produced (Amano and Ukai 2019; Hangorin no Kai 2019a; 2020 Orinpikku Saigai Okotowari Renrakukai 2019), criticisms of Tokyo 2020 can be classified into issues that are specific to Japan and Tokyo or into issues that are related to the Olympics in general.

The main opposition to Tokyo 2020 pivots on concerns over Fukushima and lingering radiation risks as well as what activists decry as the “myth” of the “reconstruction Olympics,” an organizer slogan that claims the Games will help Tōhoku (northeast Japan) recover from the 2011 disaster while glossing over other issues and actually benefitting only Tokyo. Other identifiable criticisms of the upcoming Games include many that are made about the Olympics in general (Boykoff 2011), such as the commercialization, elitism, and wastefulness of hosting. Further dominant strands are nationalism (that is, the Games encourage nationalism), health concerns (for athletes, volunteers and staff, and spectators, especially in terms of construction worker safety, Tokyo’s summer heat, and the polluted water in the bay), gentrification and evictions of homeless and vulnerable communities (in Tokyo’s case, most notably at Meiji and Miyashita parks), discrimination (in terms of binary classifications of able and disabled, winner and loser, men and women), environmental issues (particularly the alleged use of timber from threatened rainforests), and fears over increased security and surveillance of the civil society.[2]

The Anti-2020 Protest Movement(s)

Mirroring the dual nature of the discourse, the activism mobilizing against the 2020 Olympics is likewise both related to specific issues and to the more general stance of opposition to all Olympic Games.

Anti-2020 voices have emerged from a range of different groups and people, including parliamentary parties, scholars, far-left activists, former athletes, residents, architects and designers, environmental campaigners, small businesses, and even far-right figures. There was opposition also during the bid campaign, as there had been during the bid to host the 2016 Games, though the 2020 bid immediately took on a different scale and character as it came soon after Fukushima and Prime Minister Abe Shinzō made the much-quoted promise at the final IOC selection session that the Fukushima situation was “under control.” This was criticized by many anti-government movements, regardless of having a focus on the Olympics or not, as proof of the government’s dishonesty about Fukushima.

Together these various voices in the overall anti-2020 movement(s) form something similar to what Fine (1995, 129) calls a “bundle of narratives” and “idioculture” across myriad values and views. These groups and stakeholders are diverse and not always opposed to the 2020 Games in principle, let alone the concept of the Olympics. Many are single-issue groups and campaigns, related to specific aspects of the preparations for 2020 like a venue or design.

Within this idioculture, the movement studied here is conspicuous because of its fundamental opposition to the Olympics for both general reasons as well as those specific to Japan and Tokyo, and because of its transnational practices.[3] Its output and activities are also prodigious, far outstripping those of other opposition voices. For these reasons, I argue that it is more important than other Japanese groups and movements involved in the overall opposition to 2020.

The movement broadly comprises the following two groups.

Hangorin no Kai (literally, Anti-Olympics Group) focuses most prominently on homeless evictions and is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit launched in 2018 seeking compensation.[4] Some of its leading members are themselves homeless, though this is not an identity that exclusively defines their activities: they were also, for example, involved with campaigning for the residents evicted from Kasumigaoka Apartments, a public housing complex near the New National Stadium. Hangorin no Kai’s practices encompass talks and study groups, marches and protests, and also guerrilla actions and civil disobedience. It does not publish a gazette or print media, instead relying heavily on free online platforms for disseminating its materials. There are around ten main members who meet regularly, though its protests and rallies can attract up to 80 participants. Founded in January 2013, it grew loosely out of the homeless advocacy group Nojiren (Shibuya Free Association for the Right to Housing and Well-being of the Homeless) and the Minna no Miyashita Kōen o Naiki-ka Keikaku kara Mamoru Kai (Coalition to Protect Miyashita Park from Becoming Nike Park), which was central to the original protests against Shibuya City’s redevelopment of Miyashita Park up to 2011, as well as a group protesting the 2020 bid, Tōkyō ni Orinpikku wa Iranai Netto 2020 (Tokyo No Olympics Network). Members felt that people were not doing enough to combat the threat of 2020 in the form of street protests. It swiftly established a reputation for lively, often parodic, marches and demonstrations. Two central figures in Hangorin no Kai said that the group is even seen sometimes as almost “extremist” by others in the movement; a patently inaccurate label in many ways, its associates have nonetheless been arrested and its events attract the heaviest police attention.

Okotowa Link was founded in January 2017.[5] It is quite different in terms of structure, style, and membership, with a more comprehensive, network-like character and, as such, a broader focus that encompasses the full gamut of Olympics issues. It is more academic and educational, organizing regular symposia and study groups, publishing booklets, and only occasionally holding rallies and marches. Though less strident, two interviewed members said that Okotowa Link’s network is informal enough for people to form different “teams” to work on individual issues and projects within the general framework of anti-2020 activism. There are some 20 core members who attend the main meetings, bringing with them their own networks and causes, and, by pooling resources, its events often attract 100–200 attendees.

I situate Hangorin no Kai and Okotowa Link as one interlinked yet loose social movement, though this categorization is imperfect and it is also often necessary and illuminating to separate the groups. The activists, too, are aware of the differences and tensions between their diverging practices and focuses. Nevertheless, many are involved across both groups, which also directly co-organize various events together. Even for events organized individually, each other’s representatives will attend, give speeches, and distribute leaflets, and the slogans used in a march may relate to their respective causes. One germane encapsulation of the “movement” is a book, The Anti-Olympic Manifesto (Ogasawara and Yamamoto, 2016), which brings together the network of activists and scholars (from various fields) to contribute essays and translations on the various issues related to Olympics discourse, and is one of the movement’s most significant achievements to date (not to mention, one of the most notable early academic interventions in Japanese on the 2020 Games).

The anti-2020 movement conforms to Boykoff’s (2017, 175) categorization as “actions orchestrated by political groups that strategically use the Olympics to amplify their dissent.” At times, the Olympics seem less the main “platform for protest” than just the latest part of a wider, longer-running campaign against anti-homeless policies, nationalism, nuclear power, and so on.

Boykoff (2011, 46), borrowing from Tarrow, defines some Olympics activism as “event coalitions” as opposed to campaigns that form a “convergence” of networked movements. In the case of the anti-2020 movement, “convergence” seems a particularly apt descriptor, given the presence of two main intertwined groups but also various other overlapping groups and causes. (By contrast, the local protest network that opposed the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics was arguably more like an event coalition because it did not last beyond the immediate moment of the Games, leaving behind a paper trail but relatively little else concrete.) Activists have formed discrete support groups for certain legal cases (arrested members, court cases, and so on) or campaigns (such as evictions and park closures in Shibuya), while the movement’s network also encompasses infoshops, homeless and day laborer advocacy groups in Shibuya, San’ya, and Osaka’s Kamagasaki (Airin), as well as activists campaigning against the emperor system, police stop-and-frisk tactics, the arms trade in Japan, the controversial relocation of Tsukiji Market, and many other causes. The movement is a bold, if at times somewhat convoluted, confluence of activism. This networked nature of the movement, though, spread across the two core interlinked groups while also readily intersecting with other related organizations, makes the anti-2020 movement open to alliances with various partners and is key to its ability to adopt transnational approaches.

Origins of Transnationalism in the Anti-2020 Movement

During the bid campaign, activists realized that the struggle was not only about blocking the Games coming to Tokyo but also about opposing the Olympics anywhere, because the key issues were shared by cities, even if the details differed. This epiphany prompted them to announce an appeal online for international solidarity and start trying to contact activists from Madrid and Istanbul, the other two cities bidding for the 2020 Games.

Ichimura Misako, a leading member of Hangorin no Kai, then went to Rio during the 2016 Games to link up with local activists at a week of anti-Olympics protests, meetings, and presentations—an experience that she told me proved eye-opening in showing her that a transnational approach was key to developing the Tokyo campaign. She also launched Hangorin no Kai’s Planetary No Olympics Network project before her trip as a way of linking up global movements. She has since continued to play arguably the most central, indefatigable role in organizing transnational activities among people in Tokyo, Seoul, LA, Paris, and beyond.

While the personal efforts of Ichimura and another veteran activist, Ogawa Tetsuo, have meant that Hangorin no Kai is the group within the movement most overtly engaged with overseas peers, even the founding statement of Okotowa Link emphasizes its transnational commitment (and, accordingly, was translated internally into English): “Our anti-Olympics movement for 2020 summer in Tokyo, stands together with those in Rio (2016 summer), in Pyeongchang (2018 winter) and in Beijing (2022 winter). [The] modern Olympics, when seen globally, have lacked [the] full support of the hosting civil societies, which fact encourages us to cherish the international anti-Olympics solidarity” (2020 Orinpikku Saigai Okotowari Renrakukai 2017).[6]

Types of Transnational Activities

The transnational activities of the Tokyo campaigners have taken a number of forms: networking with activists based overseas, including Japanese activists in France and America; promoting the efforts and output of peers as an act of solidarity and information-sharing, especially through social media and other online platforms; hosting overseas visitors from anti-Olympics campaigns when they come to Tokyo (trips that Japanese activists often at least partly fund) and teaching them about the contexts for the Japanese protests; organizing joint actions and demonstrations; and translations of materials and discourse, from social media content through to long articles or full statements—both translating the movement’s own content from Japanese into English (and sometimes also other languages like Korean), and materials from peers or other international sources into Japanese.

This latter activity alone marks the movement out as quite unusual among Japanese social movements, which are typically monolingual. Of course, these translations are particularly valuable on a practical level for disseminating, but a transnational mindset influences the movement’s language in a more fundamental way. Regardless of concrete efforts at exchange, the movement feels an urge to frame its ideas in bilingual or even multilingual ways. Though the transnational practices became more prominent from 2016 onward, Hangorin no Kai adopted the internationally recognized “No Olympics” name and slogan quite early, in 2014. And while this also reflects a wider Japanese-language shift, the movement consciously and liberally mixes the native Japanese word for Olympic (gorin) with the loanword (orinpikku). Similarly, materials like leaflets and placards as well as verbal slogans at demonstrations deliberately blend English and Japanese, even if not specifically targeting overseas groups, media, or citizens.

This emphasis on translation and multilingualism is not just about effective communication; it is also linked to the movement’s engagement with overseas discourse. Even putting aside its importance as an encapsulation of the work of many of the key Japanese thinkers associated with the movement, The Anti-Olympic Manifesto is conspicuous among the many other recent books published on the Olympics (and the books published by the Nagano Games protest movement, for instance) for its ambitious range of translated articles by figures like Boykoff, supplemented by commentaries and introductions by local scholars to concepts such as celebration capitalism. In this way, the movement is seeking to ensure that its own ideas and circumstances are known outside Japan, and likewise the discourse and situations of anti-Olympics movements and thinkers around the world are available domestically.

The prolific anti-Olympics scholar (and former athlete) Jules Boykoff borrows from Naomi Klein’s notion of disaster capitalism to describe the Games as “celebration capitalism.” Identifying the Athens Games in 2004 as a turning point, Boykoff asserts that “hosting the Olympics is a celebratory spectacle that is more about economic benefit for the few than economic prosperity for the many” (Boykoff 2014, 2). The Games allow state actors to introduce strategies that ordinarily we would not accept, thriving on the social euphoria of the festival to privatize and commercialize public resources, increase security and policing, and militarize public space. In effect, the taxpayer subsidizes the commercialization and privatization of such sites: in Boykoff’s pithy phrase, “the public pays and the private profits” (ibid., 3).

Boykoff’s theoretical model is frequently referenced by the Tokyo movement in its pamphlets and speeches, applying it directly to the circumstances it is fighting against. In particular, Suzuki (2016), who has also co-authored a paper on the eviction of Kasumigaoka Apartments residents due to the 2020 Olympics development, introduces celebration capitalism, along with the power of the civil society to resist, in an article included in The Anti-Olympic Manifesto accompanying his translation of an article by Boykoff. Elsewhere, Suzuki (2015) also outlines celebration capitalism in more detail. Though critiquing Boykoff for only covering a limited number of Games—omitting, for example, the Nagano Games, which would be of particular interest to a Japanese audience—and for inadequacies in how he distinguishes neoliberalism from celebration capitalism, Suzuki ends by speculating how celebration capitalism might be applied specifically to Tokyo 2020, not least the permissive attitude toward the Games’ ever-increasing budget as well as the dangers of the real costs of 2020 being concealed within the “indirect” infrastructure developments that are often not part of the formal Games plan. Another scholar associated with the movement (and the co-editor of The Anti-Olympic Manifesto), Yamamoto Atsuhisa (2019) has memorably adapted Boykoff’s model at a recent symposium, reclaiming its roots in Klein’s disaster capitalism to demonstrate how 2020 is exploiting the spectacle and excitement of the Games to cover over the ongoing uncertainty in Fukushima and incomplete reconstruction in the northeast of Japan.

But celebration capitalism does more than just provide the movement or others with a neat slogan. Boykoff’s main emphasis is on economics and security as well as how the Games fit into the dynamics of global capitalism and neoliberalism through public-private partnerships. While many of the scholars associated with the movement have also discussed the Olympics spectacle and nationalist festiveness that are tenets of Boykoff’s celebration capitalism (Ukai 2016), a more concrete and accessible application is the grassroots issues of evictions and local gentrification. As Boykoff writes, “with celebration capitalism, ‘undesirables’ who might taint the celebration are swept out of the way and special rules are instituted to undermine political dissent” (2014, 74). In the Tokyo movement’s eyes, the treatment of the homeless and public housing residents at Meiji and Miyashita parks and Kasumigaoka Apartments fully confirms to Boykoff’s assertion, as does the introduction of an anti-conspiracy law (Hangorin no Kai 2019a). Boykoff’s translator and commentator in Japanese, Suzuki, agrees, highlighting the New National Stadium expansion that necessitated evictions from Meiji Park and Kasumigaoka Apartments as a major example of the “quiet progress” of celebration capitalism that must be challenged by citizens (2015, 70).

In this way, transnational anti-Olympics discourse is an interface bridging the idiosyncratic, unique, and local (in the case of 2020, such factors as Fukushima and the emperor system) with universal issues (nationalism, security, privatization of public space, gentrification, environmental destruction, labor exploitation, etc.). It can take small, local sites (Meiji Park, Miyashita Park) and contextualize them within other international struggles.

I will next examine the movement’s transnational practices through four case studies.

Rio de Janeiro Fieldtrip

Ichimura Misako’s research trip to Rio de Janeiro in 2016 resulted in a study session in Tokyo upon her return as well as a bilingual (English and Japanese) zine-style booklet in which specific developments in Rio are compared and linked to those in Tokyo. Such analogizing is not unproblematic, given the gross differences in scale between the unrest and displacements in Rio and Tokyo, but Ichimura’s framing is driven by her genuine attempt to show solidarity regardless of such specifics.

The booklet starts not with Rio but with an outline of the upcoming 2020 Games and the problems of evictions in the city and nationalism at schools, whereby children are encouraged to watch and support the 2020 Games (referred to by activists as “Olympic education”).[7] In the next sentence, the introduction jumps to general anti-Olympics arguments, before then turning to focus on Rio. When surveying Rio’s “Olympic hell,” Ichimura draws attention to gentrification in Rio through the exclusion of the homeless and street vendors. She also notes in the zine that she was able to share anti-2020 stickers with protest organizers, who surprised her with their knowledge and concern for the Meiji Park evictions: “It made me so happy. The numerous problems associated with the Olympics are happening in every host city, and people resisting the Olympics are paying attention across national boundaries.” Likewise, Ichimura communicated to locals that “the struggles in Rio are heartening for people facing Olympic evictions in Tokyo” (Ichimura 2016, unpaginated). Her trip proved a chance to exchange knowledge and build contacts between Rio and Tokyo, but this was also a process of emotional investment in each other’s situations.

Ichimura told me that her experiences in Rio taught her especially about the need to cultivate links across different communities. Whereas until then, her anti-Olympics activism had been largely rooted in the homeless community in Tokyo, she now saw the necessity of working with other movements related to feminism or education. More concretely, she noted, Okotowa Link’s name was actually in part inspired by the “Olympic Calamity” slogan used at an anti-2016 protest Ichimura attended in Rio.[8]

PyeongChang 2018 Joint Solidarity Activities

During PyeongChang 2018, activists from Hangorin no Kai and Okotowa Link traveled to South Korea to join locals for a protest and forum event in Seoul the day before the Winter Games started. And then on the actual opening, the Korean and Japanese activists demonstrated in the cold outside the gate of the main venue with multilingual banners carrying such messages as: “Olympics Kill the Poor” and “Reverse the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.”

Another symbolic yet physical connection between the two anti-Games struggles was provided by activists back in Tokyo: at the same time as the Opening Ceremony was taking place in Korea, large letters made from cardboard were temporarily attached to the hoarding around the Miyashita Park construction site, where a rough sleeper community had lived until the park was closed as part of the redevelopment of Shibuya for 2020 and beyond. The letters spelled out “NOlympics Anywhere,” embellished with handwritten messages in English, Korean, and Japanese, while a small number of members held a demonstration on the street in front of the hoarding.

A creative and parodic style of protest was also on display in this transnational venture, whereby the activists from the two countries later dressed up as ghosts and “paraded” around Gangneung, which was hosting the ice events, pretending to be the spirits of the trees felled for the development. This mirrored the “zombie” workshop that Japanese activists did on March 27, 2016, when they dressed up and roamed the streets around the New National Stadium as if the recently evicted had returned from the dead.

Anti-Olympic Torch Handover

The Korean activists then came to Japan in November 2018 to bring the “Anti-Olympic Torch” to Tokyo. Also known as the Olympic Poverty Torch, this decidedly makeshift torch prop fashioned from a toilet plunger first appeared in Vancouver for the 2010 Games and has since passed through each host city, imitating the actual torch relay and accumulating fresh text and messages every time. It is a physical embodiment of the NOlympics Anywhere movement and message, spreading from city to city. (In this way, by receiving the torch, the Tokyo movement has been effectively anointed as the “official” anti-Olympics movement for 2020.)

anti-olympics protest torch handover tokyo

An improvised “handover ceremony” was staged in front of the New National Stadium as the culmination of a fieldwork tour of the Meiji Park area where Tokyo activists guided around the Koreans (and a Japanese activist involved in the Paris anti-Olympics campaign). Rather than just outsiders coming to observe the situation in Tokyo, however, the event integrated visitors with the locals. Someone who used to live in the park attended, for example, as did a former Kasumigaoka Apartments resident, and both gave short speeches about their experiences and took part in the handover ceremony with the Koreans. This curious event was both provocative (everything was watched and recorded from across the street by many police officers) and tongue-in-cheek, especially the participation of a cross-dresser who staged a comic calligraphy performance in front of the stadium by writing the characters for “anti-Olympics” (hangorin) and then pretended to die. But it was also genuinely practical in terms of networking and education. It ended with an information-sharing session for the Olympics resistance activists from Tokyo, Paris, Seoul, and, by video link, LA. This was just one of several activities held over nearly a week, including a full-day tour of Tsukiji and the bayside venues by car to view the developments, during which the torch was openly carried by different attendees.

The torch has remained with the Tokyo movement ever since and, for example, was taken up to Fukushima for the anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2019 when activists held a street protest locally, spoke at a talk, and visited such locations as the TEPCO-funded J-Village soccer venue, which will host the start of the actual torch relay in 2020. This is what Della Porta and Tarrow refer to as the domestication part of the transnational process: the transnational symbol of the anti-Olympics movement is taken to the very heart of the contested sites over the Tokyo Games, from the parks from where people have been evicted to the construction sites where workers have died, and the disaster zone that is still suffering from the effects of the Fukushima crisis.

This is also a specific learning from the activists’ trip to South Korea, where they saw that the Anti-PyeongChang Olympics Alliance was taking the counter-torch around to link up with other movements, such as groups protesting military bases or discrimination against the disabled. “The Tokyo 2020 venues are not only in Tokyo, but the areas of Kantō, Tōhoku, and even Hokkaidō are being politically used by national policies,” Ichimura said. “Since the [official] Olympic torch will travel around the country as a campaign to mobilize people, we wanted to learn from the Anti-PyeongChang Olympics Alliance and travel around ‘extinguishing’ the flame.”[9]

International Anti-Olympics Week

From July 20, 2019, an “international get-together” series of events was organized by Tokyo activists in Hangorin no Kai and Okotowa Link as well as other peers in their networks. It was, in the words of the participants themselves, a truly “unprecedented” transnational project (NOlympics LA 2019): hundreds of attendees across the week of events, including dozens of people from anti-Olympics movements in host cities past, present, and future around the world—from Nagano (1998), London (2012), Rio (2016), and Pyeongchang (2018) to Tokyo (2020), Paris (2024), LA (2028), and Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta (both potential bidders for the 2032 Games) as well as attendees from the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, and Osaka (which hosts a world expo in 2025). Some were involved in the planning from the early stages; others just joined in when they heard about the events. The participants encompassed grassroots activists, residents, researchers and students (including this author), journalists, and filmmakers. Particularly prominent attendees were the scholar Jules Boykoff and journalist Dave Zirin, who are both major figures in the Olympics field.

tokyo 2020 olympics protests transnational events

The main activities during the week were: a fieldwork tour of the New National Stadium and bay areas, which are the two main zones of the 2020 Olympics venues in Tokyo; a symposium at Waseda University with Jules Boykoff and Japanese speakers; a fieldwork trip to Fukushima; a press conference; a media workshop; the street protest in Shinjuku described at the start of this article; a teach-in for researchers and journalists; a seminar for activists on housing rights and environmental issues; and a final panel discussion led by activists. Some of the events were more performative, such as the streets protests and actions, but most were practical and functional, serving the purposes of sharing information and materials, education, and networking. The activities concluded with a “joint statement in solidarity” by five anti-Olympics groups that was prepared during the week and then formally agreed by attendees on the final day: not just a declaration that they stand with each other as brethren but rather an expression of an assertive, proactive stance demanding an end to the IOC itself (Hangorin no Kai 2019b, 52). Instead of giving up the struggle once the Games are over or the bid aborted, the joint statement is a commitment to a longer fight that is fundamentally transnational in nature. But it is not just about rejecting the Olympics for all cities; it is also about imagining alternatives to how our cities are run in terms of such things as housing, communities, and policing (Robertson 2019b). By the autumn, Hangorin no Kai had published a multilingual zine (ibid.) documenting the week’s achievements, crowdsourcing the translations and writing from among its network.

In many ways, the week of activities felt like the culmination of the previous transnational efforts of the anti-Olympics movements around the world: passing on the anti-Olympic torch (which was a constant presence during the week); building on the online exchange that had already taken place; learning from earlier visits and trips to organize more ambitious activities; and using the events to engage with discourse like celebration capitalism, which was the central theme of the symposium. But it was not a grand finale—rather, the transnational activities continue, growing from what took place in Tokyo that summer and the knowledge bases and alliances that were fostered. There have been subsequent events and projects offline and online (notably a visit by Japan-based activists to their peers in LA for a series of events in December 2019), carrying on the exchange of information and solidarity as the global movement now looks to 2020 and beyond.

Reciprocal Activities Across a Transnational Network, Creating Autonomous Spaces

What is paramount about these transnational activities is not only the joint nature of their organization, but their reciprocation and how they represent sustained attempts to build a transnational and transregional campaign. Ichimura’s contact with Rio activists, for instance, resulted in the three-week “Rio 2016, PyeongChang 2018, and Tokyo 2020 Anti-Olympics International Solidarity Tour” in February and March 2017, involving visiting Brazilian and Korean activists who took part in talks and protests organized by Hangorin no Kai and Okotowa Link. In response to the actions by Korean and Japanese protesters against PyeongChang 2018, LA campaigners issued messages of support that echoed the main environmental grievances of the Koreans as well as the shared concerns about gentrification that lie at the core of their own campaign (NOlympics LA 2018). The multilingual traits are mutually imitated: this is not merely a tactic by a Japanese movement aware that Japanese-language messages will have little global reach. The American group has, for instance, protested to the IOC in September 2017 with banners of solidarity in French, Japanese, and English. After PyeongChang 2018, the South Korean activists continued to support and promote their Japanese peers’ campaign, holding a boisterous protest in Seoul in March 2019 in which they distributed the Tokyo movement’s materials.

As they participate in transnational practices, the members of the movement in Tokyo are connecting with global mega-event discourse and protest tactics. Together this forms what Della Porta and Tarrow call “transnational collective action” (2005, 2–3). The actions and practices are shared across groups and activists internationally; it is not just an accidental, ad hoc, temporary coalition or convergence organized as a gesture of solidarity. There is continuity, whereby slogans, resources, and know-how carry forward, including beyond 2020 to Paris in 2024 and LA in 2028. LA activists, for example, have launched a website, OlympicsWatch: “a transnational archive of content and ideas that challenge official and mainstream narratives about the Olympics.” It is “heavily inspired” by RioOnWatch (a news website that emerged from opposition to the 2016 Olympics), but “also draws on the work of a number of platforms that have challenged mega-events around the globe, including Games Monitor from London, NOlympics LA, and the call for a Planetary No Olympics Network from Tokyo, among others” (OlympicsWatch, n.d.). It will eventually grow into an online platform sharing research and toolkits for future anti-Games campaigners and NOlympians to use.

In this way, the transnational practices embody the commons of the global anti-Olympics movement: just as the struggle over the disputed sites in Tokyo of Meiji and Miyashita parks are framed as a fight for the right to the city and for public land and the urban commons, the transnational network and joint activities represent an attempt to form a shared body of ideas, rights, practices, and resources. Reflecting the movements’ concerns with the socially vulnerable and urban gentrification, the transnational activities resist Olympics developments by creating bottom-up, flat, DIY, autonomous spaces that are accessible and flexible, and work to dismantle power structures: the struggle against the Olympics is not only a fight to preserve and create such spaces, but the struggle itself manifests one such autonomous space through its everyday practices (Hangorin no Kai 2019b, 51). In this sense, the movement is prefigurative; that is, it reflects its ideals and arguments in how the members live and behave, which boosts credibility and motivation. As Graeber has argued, in the “best tradition of direct action,” the “organization [is] the ideology” (2004, 84).

Such abstract aspirations aside, the practices have impacted individual participants in concrete ways. One interviewed activist from Okotowa Link said that, for him, the international exchange had clarified the “dangerous potential” the Japanese school system possesses for “mobilization by nationalist agendas like the Olympics,” whereby children are taught to support Japanese athletes during the sporting events. Similarly, a Hangorin no Kai activist said that interchange with visiting Korean and Brazilian peers taught her how unusual (and thus dangerous) “Olympic education” at schools in Japan was. Even for Okotowa Link, which is more domestically focused, the members benefited personally from the transnational activities. The visit to Korea to join protests there in February 2018 was inspiring and informative, two Okotowa Link interviewees said, who found it particularly revealing of their own shortcomings as a movement. “The local activists could organize and mobilize much faster than the Japanese counterparts,” they said, “and there were many more young people than in the Tokyo movement, including women.”

Similarly, the week of anti-Olympics activities in July 2019 gave both sides—visitors and locals—takeaways in terms of tactics and approaches. Organizing the seminal series of events was an exhausting experience for Tokyo activists, though one that taught them a lot about how to manage issues of language and scheduling (Hangorin no Kai 2019b, 50). For the visitors, “this one week showed the possibilities of global democratic action” (Gaffney 2019). At the final panel event, an activist from America particularly cited the opportunity to meet directly with people in Fukushima and see the sites there as powerful and inspiring for their own efforts against the 2028 Games. Likewise, the presence of the visitors boosted the Shinjuku march and its attendance and press coverage (by comparison, another Hangorin no Kai protest in Shinjuku on October 31 attracted a more modest number of around 30 participants).

In this way, we can see that what Della Porta and Tarrow call the externalization of the transnational movement is actually a mutual learning process: the Tokyo activists share and work with fellow NOlympians outside Japan, and those results are then carried forward to contribute to future movements—the next anti-Olympics campaign, of course, but also subsequent movements that the Tokyo activists organize locally.

Networked Social Movements

Based on the case studies and assessment above, this transnational NOlympics Anywhere movement can be understood in terms of Castells’ notion of multimodal “networked social movements” that avoid formal structures and embrace a mix of platforms, particularly those online and in the streets of cities (2015, 249). Castells describes a “rhizomatic revolution” that is slow and unseen yet networked and always connected through nodes (ibid., 147). Castells proposes his model based on analysis of social movements that have emerged globally in the past few years: movements that eschew formal leadership and adopt technologies and a mix of platforms, and often occupy urban space as part of their practices. They are simultaneously local and global with a focus on solidarity and a sense of “togetherness.” They start online but end up occupying urban space, forming a “hybrid of cyber space and urban space [that] constitutes a third space [called] the space of autonomy” (ibid., 249).

That space is the dual nature of the anti-2020 movement as both a Tokyo and a trans-city movement. The movement shuttles between an online and offline space; it is not simply that the former functions as a place for disseminating advance information about an event or for publishing images and videos about an activity in the latter, but rather the websites and social media accounts form a multidirectional and dynamic platform in their own right, releasing statements and translations, sharing content from peers, and appealing for support on issues. The streets and online sphere are equally important to this movement, and both serve to connect it with other groups in the anti-Olympics network and interact with them. It is, as Castells describes, a multimodal movement loosely networked across preexisting social networks as well as previously unconnected networks: a network of networks. The networked nature of the movement is both internal—networked within itself across the two main groups and others, and between online and offline tactics—as well as external, whereby the movement interconnects rhizomatically with other anti-Olympics movements around the world. This decentered structure allows movements to reshape and reform, to welcome new influences and allies, and to reduce their vulnerability to repression since their physical sites are few.

Problems with a Transnational Framing

My emphasis on the transnationalism of the anti-2020 movement is not without problems, not least because, as members themselves admit, these transnational endeavors are heavily dependent on the initiative of certain individuals like Ichimura, building on their previous experience fighting the attempt to commercialize Miyashita Park as a Nike-sponsored facility (Cassegård 2014, 167–79).

The groups in the NOlympics Anywhere network are similar and share many facets, but they are also disparate: they vary in terms of their tactics and structures, the degree to which they reference ideological frameworks, and their memberships. While such differences arguably show the diverse nature of the movement, they can expose gaps in knowledge and sophistication. The LA activists, for example, launched a successful online crowdfunding campaign to raise money for their trip to Tokyo, whereas the Japanese movement usually obtains funds through its immediate network or merchandise sales. In general, NOlympics LA has a much more polished, media-savvy web presence, in contrast to the somewhat low-fi presentation of the Tokyo groups that can be confusing to newcomers. This is not wholly surprising, given that the NOlympics LA activists tend to be much younger than their Japanese counterparts—something, though, which rather reflects the wider state of social movements in Japan than a specific failing of the anti-2020 movement to attract younger generations.

The validity of equivalence between the Olympics struggles is another issue the movement is still navigating. Though the joint statement in solidarity (Hangorin no Kai 2019b, 52) claims that “the specifics may differ in scope and scale [. . .] the broad forces that the Olympics unleash wherever they take root are the same,” this can be problematized by suggesting it is disputable to equate the immense levels of violence and unrest in, say, Rio linked to the 2016 Olympics with the evictions caused by 2020 that, albeit very grave for the individuals involved, are much smaller in number.

The 2020 movement is flexible and tolerant, open to feedback from others (Tokyo activists, for instance, changed the organization of the housing seminar at the request of American visitors) and constantly striving to overcome the challenges it faces in terms of its limited resources. It acknowledges shortcomings and embraces a “motley” identity (Hangorin no Kai 2019b, 2, 25, 50). In the process, it is transcending its occasionally clumsy or haphazard approaches to form a heterogeneous, autonomous space that also functions as a counterpoint to the bowdlerized visions of “diversity” espoused in the official publicity for the 2020 Games as well as by Shibuya City (Homma 2017; The Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, n.d.).


This article has argued for the importance of the anti-2020 movement’s transnational activities, analyzing them through the models of Della Porta and Tarrow as well as Castells. These activities allow the movement to transcend its temporal and geographical limitations, and connect with a broader, more ambitious network of like-minded groups around the world. The process of engaging in this network produces accessible, diverse autonomous spaces where the participants can conduct practical tasks such as sharing knowledge and resources while also boosting each other’s effectiveness, without compromising their commitment to local concerns. The approaches they take are prefigurative in that they reflect the aspirations and ideologies of the movement through their very actions. And this DIY transnational network of diverse groups stands in stark contrast to the polished, expensively publicized “internationalism” of the official Olympic movement.

The data forming the basis for this article only go as far as the summer of 2019. The movement and its transnational network are busy with many more activities in the run-up to the Games in 2020. Since this study has been undertaken while the movement is still very much ongoing, its approach was largely empirical and made only modest attempts at applying analytical frameworks. Once the dust has settled after the 2020 Games, one hopes that further assessment will prove easier, including more theoretical study.

If we truly are living in a golden age of transnational activism, it is notable that the most prominent movements (Occupy, Fridays for Future, #MeToo, and so on) have so far had relatively little impact in Japan (Boyd 2019; Fahey 2018; Takahashi 2019). NOlympics Anywhere is potentially an anomaly in this respect. Tokyo activists’ bidirectional participation in the transnational movement of NOlympians not only contributes to anti-Olympics campaigns globally post-2020 but will also surely help build momentum and mobilization for subsequent local opposition in Japan to Expo 2025 in Osaka, the mooted bid by Sapporo for the 2030 Winter Games, and beyond.


Originally published in a German translation by Dorothea Mladenova as “Anti-2020 als transnationale Bewegung: Die Schaffung autonomer Räume durch internationalen Protest und Solidarität” in NOlympics. Tōkyō 2020/1 in der Kritik, eds. Steffi Richter, Andreas Singler, Dorothea Mladenova, Leipzig: Leipziger Universitätsverlag, 2020.
Publisher website

nolympics tokyo 2020/1 in der kritik

1. In keeping with the informal nature of the network and its component groups, it does not have an official name. For the purposes of convenience, this article uses the network’s most prominent slogan as a label, which Robertson (2019b) also adopts. The activists may often refer to themselves as “NOlympians” (cf. Boykoff 2020).
2. For a useful overview of the anti-2020 issues from left-wing perspectives, see issue 194 (April 2014) of Impaction, issue 1273 (December 2017) of Kenchiku jānaru, and the April 20 and September 7, 2018, and October 11, 2019 issues of Shūkan kinyōbi.
3. To take just the prominent issue of Fukushima, which is possibly the most commonly shared grounds for anti-Olympics sentiments on the left in Japan, anti-2020 protest has somewhat surprisingly not fully converged with anti-nuclear activism, whose mainstream criticizes Prime Minister Abe Shinzō for “false claims” about Fukushima and continuing to push nuclear power despite the ongoing concerns with safety and the recovery operations, but does not overtly oppose the 2020 Games in and of themselves (Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes 2019).
4. Hangorin no Kai initially used the English name People Against the Olympics and later started to call itself No Olympics 2020, No Tokyo 2020, or even No Olympics in Tokyo 2020.
5. Its name in full is 2020 Orinpikku Saigai Okotowari Renrakukai—literally, 2020 Olympics Disaster Liaison Group. In English, it has adopted a variety of names, including Another Olympics Disaster? No Thanks! and, most recently, No 2020 Olympics Disaster OkotowaLink. Its name is parodying the IOC, here rendered as the “International Okotowari Convention” (International No Thank You Convention).
6. Translations of Japanese-language are the author’s own, unless otherwise stated in the bibliography. Some sources, such as this one, are available in English prepared by the groups themselves. Minor modifications have been made to the English when necessary.
7. For an explanation of the Olympics- and Paralympics-related curriculum at Tokyo schools, including its aims, Tokyo Metropolitan Government has published an official English-language video:
8. Personal email correspondence, July 2019.
9. Ibid.

2020 Orinpikku Saigai Okotowari Renrakukai. 2017. “A Declaration of No Thank You to Tokyo Olympics.” 2020 Okotowa Link (website). Updated January 22, 2017.
———. 2019. Han-Tōkyō Orinpikku gaido BOOK [Anti-Tokyo Olympics Guidebook]. Tokyo.
Amano, Yasukazu, and Ukai Satoshi, eds. 2019. De, Orinpikku yamemasen ka? [So, Why Not Stop the Olympics?]. Tokyo: Akishobō.
Baumgarten, Britta. 2014. “Culture and Activism Across Borders.” In Britta Baumgarten, Daphi, P. and Ullrich, P., eds., Conceptualizing Culture in Social Movement Research, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 91–112.
Boyd, Oscar. 2019. “Extinction Rebellion climate protest arrives in Tokyo with ‘die-in’ at Yoyogi Park.” Japan Times, October 19, 2019.
Boykoff, Jules. 2011. “The Anti-Olympics.” New Left Review 67: 41–59.
———. 2014. Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games. 2nd ed. Abingdon: Routledge.
———. 2017. “Protest, Activism, and the Olympic Games: An Overview of Key Issues and Iconic Moments.” The International Journal of the History of Sport 34, no. 3–4: 162–83.
———. 2020. NOlympians: Inside the Fight Against Capitalist Mega-Sports in Los Angeles, Tokyo and Beyond. Black Point: Fernwood Publishing.
Cassegård, Carl. 2014. Youth Movements, Trauma and Alternative Space in Contemporary Japan. Leiden: Global Orient.
Castells, Manuel. 2015. Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Cottrell, M. Patrick, and Travis Nelson. 2010. “Not just the Games? Power, protest and politics at the Olympics.” European Journal of International Relations 17, no. 4: 729–53.
Della Porta, Donatella, and Sidney Tarrow. 2005. “Transnational Processes and Social Activism: An Introduction.” In Donatella Della Porta and Sidney Tarrow, eds., Transnational Protest and Global Activism, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1–17.
Fahey, Rob. 2018. “Japan Isn’t Ready for a #MeToo Moment.” Tokyo Review, May 24, 2018.
Fine, Gary A. 1995. “Public Narration and Group Culture: Discerning Discourse in Social Movements.” In Hank Johnston and Bert Klandersman, eds., Social Movements and Culture, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 127–43.
Flesher Fominaya, Cristina. 2014. Social Movements and Globalization: How Protests, Occupations and Uprisings Are Changing the World. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Gaffney, Christopher. 2019. “Global solidarity against the Olympics.” In Hangorin no Kai, Transnational Anti-Olympics Event in Tokyo 2019, 42–43.
Graeber, David. 2004. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.
Hangorin no Kai. 2019a. “Orinpikku ni hantai suru 11 no riyū” [11 Reasons to Oppose the Olympics]. Hangorin no Kai (website). Updated April 26, 2019.
———. 2019b. Transnational Anti-Olympics Event in Tokyo 2019. Tokyo: Hangorin no Kai.
Harvey, Jean, John Horne, and Parissa Safai. 2009. “Alter-Globalization, Global Social Movements and the Possibility of Political Transformation through Sport.” Sociology of Sport Journal 26, no. 3: 383–403.
Homma, Alexandra. 2017. “‘Turning differences into strength’: An interview with Shibuya Mayor Ken Hasebe. Japan Today, November 10, 2017.:
Ichimura, Misako. 2016. 2016 Rio Anti-Olympics Report. Translated by K.T. Bender. Tokyo.
International Olympic Committee. 2015. Olympic Charter. Lausanne: International Olympic Committee.
Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes. 2019. “March 10 No Nukes demonstration: ‘Together With Fukushima.’” Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes (website). Updated February 11, 2019.
NOlympics LA. 2018. “NOlympics LA Statement of Solidarity with Pyeongchang.” NOlympics LA (website). Updated February 7, 2018.
———. 2019. “Anti-Olympic Organizers From Eight Cities Head to Tokyo for ‘NOlympics Anywhere’ Protest.” Around the Rings, February 7, 2019.
Ogasawara, Hiroki, and Yamamoto Atsuhisa, eds. 2016. Han-Tōkyō Orinpikku sengen [The Anti-Olympic Manifesto]. Tokyo: Kōshisha.
OlympicsWatch. n.d. “About.” Accessed November 23, 2019.
Robertson, Cerianne. 2019a. “The Transnational Anti-Olympics Movement Takes Off: A Report From Tokyo.” RioOnWatch, August 26, 2019.
———. 2019b. “NOlympics Anywhere: A transnational movement to stop the Olympic Games is gathering strength.” Play the Games, December 3, 2019.
Spradley, James P. 1980. Participant Observation. Fort Worth: Harcout Brace Jovanoich College Publishers.
Suzuki, Naofumi. 2015. “Tosho shōkai: Jules Boykoff-cho ‘Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games’” [Book Introduction: Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games by Jules Boykoff]. Hitotsubashi Annual of Sport Studies 34: 60–70.
———. 2016. “Shukugashihonshugi ni taikō suru shimin no chikara” [The Power of Citizens to Resist Celebration Capitalism]. In Ogasawara and Yamamoto, eds., Han-Tōkyō Orinpikku sengen, 157–61.
Takahashi, Ryusei. 2019. “Why aren’t more young people fighting climate change in Japan?” Japan Times, November 5, 2019.
The Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. n.d. “Games Vision.” Tokyo 2020 (website). Accessed November 23, 2019.
Ukai, Satoshi. 2016. “Imēji to furēmu—Gorin fashizumu o mukaeutsu tame ni” [Image and Frame: For Counterattacking Olympics Fascism]. In Ogasawara and Yamamoto, eds., Han-Tōkyō Orinpikku sengen, 6–21.
Yamamoto, Atsuhisa. 2019. “Boikofu-shi no kōen o ukete, shukugashihonshugi o Tōkyō 2020 no bunmyaku de kangaeru” [In Response to Mr. Boykoff’s Lecture: Thinking About Celebration Capitalism from the Context of Tokyo 2020]. Paper presented at Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games (FO kenkyūkai), Waseda University, Tokyo, July 2019.

Posted in Essays, Resources | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment