Saturday, 29 August 2009


I like sitting down in Kubikubi Café and talk. It’s a shack set up on the Kyoto University campus by Inoue Masaya and Ogawa Kyôhei, the two founders of Union Extasy, a labor union for the university’s part-time employees. I’d like to use this blog to clarify to myself why I like this café. By doing so, I also hope to get a little closer to understanding why I like so much in the Japanese anarchist movement today. Perhaps I should point out that by anarchist movement I don’t mean a political movement in a narrow sense, but a cultural current or sensibility shared by many activists today. I’m not sure Inoue and Ogawa would accept the label anarchists, but I think they would.

I first heard about Union Extasy in 2007 when it was still new. I remember that Inoue (jokingly?) said that he and Ogawa were looking for a third member. They had a captivating and funny pamphlet with a violin-playing grasshopper and the slogan “Roudou ni yorokobi o!” – We want ecstasy in our work!

Inoue has a background in Ishigaki Café, a café he and his friends had set up on top of the stone wall surrounding Kyoto University in 2005 to prevent the university from tearing it down. Resting on a small platform five meters above the ground, the café was a “house above the trees”, with a fine view of the Hyakuben crossing below. I always found it especially beautiful at night, when it seemed to hover like a phantom above the street. They managed to keep the café running for seven months (selling the cheapest coffee in Kyoto and becoming popular with passers-by and locals in the process). Amazingly, the university caved in and agreed to leave part of the wall. I remember thinking at the time that this was a true TAZ (temporary autonomous zone). Did it matter that they lacked a “serious” ideology or “serious” goal? Some people thought so, but I’m not sure. At least they didn’t frighten people away by talking too much about politics. They squatted on a stone wall in the middle of winter and turned it into a café. Personally, I think that going through such trouble without any “serious” ideology – as if it were the most natural thing in the world, simply for the fun of it – is even better than having an ideology. To add a comment on a more serious note, I think that, regardless of content, it’s important for everyone to try to fight institutions and power from time to time, for the sake of training if nothing else, and in order to expand the sphere of possibility and freedom. And if you need to fight, then fight the strong, never the weak. That’s the best education you can get if you want democracy (and by that I don’t mean majority rule but a society in which everyone counts, the disenfranchised above all). When power becomes too powerful, we will need people who know how to cause trouble. Take people who hide away refugees, for example. Yes, they cause trouble for the immigration authorities but such people helped the Jews escape Hitler sixty years ago, and they help me breathe a little freer today.

Before meeting Ogawa Kyôhei for the first time this year I had already heard much about him in connection with Kinji House, a free space he opened while squatting in an empty part of a university building in the mid-90’s. He and his brother Tetsuo have what seems to be a wonderful talent for questioning conventional borders between private and public. His brother is an artist who has lived for many years in the homeless village in Yoyogi Park in Tokyo, where he and Ichimura Misako has set up the café Enoaru (meaning “there are paintings”, a pun on Renoir or “Renoaru” in Japanese) and who is famous for the “isourou” (a word meaning to live in other people’s houses) lifestyle he led earlier, moving from one acquaintance to another, and asking them to participate in his projects. For those who know Japanese, there are wonderful descriptions of the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the homeless village with its many homeless day laborers and foreign workers in Gendai shisô (2006, vol. 34-9). Although I haven’t read it yet, Dear Kikuchi-san (2006), a book written by Ichimura Misako (and published on Ogawa-san's small publishing house Kyototto), also appears to be a very good account of this village.

Union Extasy entered into a strike against Kyoto University in February this year in order to protest against the “rule” that part-time employees automatically lose their jobs after five years. Starting with a squat around the big camphor tree (“the symbol of Kyoto University”) in front of the clock tower, they quickly gained attention – and much laughter – through their methods, emphasizing funny and drastic (shocking?) artistic performances. For a glimpse of these, see this You Tube clip with Ogawa’s performance in an oil drum which served as their bath tub on the day of the entrance examinations. The words he’s screaming – “Zenin goukaku!” – mean “Let everyone pass in the examinations!”. Placing a big tuna head in front of the tent was another drastic way of getting their message through. “Kubi” means neck or getting decapitated and is a common word for being sacked. In April they opened the Kubikubi café. The price of a cup of coffee is the guest’s annual salary divided by ten thousand (so a part-time teacher gets away cheaply while a member of the university board will have to pay ten times as much). The taste of the coffee, by the way, is good.

This time the cause they are fighting for is serious. Part-timers make up 2600 of the university’s employees. Most of them are women and like female irregular workers elsewhere in Japan their salaries are steeply below that of regular (mostly male) employees. At Kyoto University, the part-timers earn 900-1200 yen per hour, a typical freeter wage that corresponds to something like ten American dollars, more or less.

So why do I like Kubikubi Café? I actually don’t know. I feel welcome when I go there. It’s a shack and hot in the summer, which means I don’t need to dress up. The people who run it are friendly and appear to have plenty of time. The material shape of the café is perhaps also important. Just as Ishigaki Café it lacks walls. It is easy to enter – easier than Ishigaki Café, which felt a little like a fort since it had to be entered by climbing a ladder, which was of course kind of cool in its own way – and gives the impression of permeability and openness. You can easily sit down when you want to and leave when you want to. When I’ve found a book or magazine that looked interesting, I could borrow it. And the coffee, as mentioned, is good.

I like the atmosphere of gentleness. Anarchism goes well with gentleness. It also goes well with parties and festivities. Just as with Dame-ren I am struck by how Ogawa and Inoue demonstrate the possibility of combining these aspects, of combining energy and non-energy. They have a relaxed, laid-back attitude, but their action is perceived by many as provocative and drastic. There is something about both of these aspects – the gentle laidbackness and partylike energy – that is lacking in people caught up too much in the everyday life of work and career. To get away from the closure of such an everyday life you need imagination and the readiness to let imagination influence your lifestyle. I like the café because it evinces this imagination and this readiness! (There´s the answer I was looking for!)

At the time of writing, the university is trying to get the café closed down and the union members evicted, but the café is still operating. The union and the university have filed mutual law suits against each other. This week Inoue and Ogawa have travelled to Tokyo to open a second Kubikubi Café for two days outside the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. If they get evicted, they write, they will set it up in Hibiya Park just across the street instead. Good luck!

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The start of a leisurely voyage

I read or (re-read) a few texts by Dame-ren yesterday as part of my preparations for my trip to Tokyo in September. I would like to jot down a few thoughts that caught hold of me while reading (and which refused to let me go).

Dame-ren (”the league of good for nothings”) was a group that became famous in the 90’s for rejecting the Japanese work ethic and affirming the life-style of so-called losers in Japanese society: jobless, poor, or unpopular young men and women – usually freeters (”free Arbeiter” or people lacking a regular job), unemployed, dropouts from school or university, homeless, NEET (Not in Employment, Education, or Training), social withdrawers or mentally disabled. The lifestyle of dropouts, they affirmed, could much more fun and rewarding than that of being a ”respected” citizen or regular employee, worrying about his or her career, income or status. Their main activity was talking and having fun together without spending much money. Despite the flippant attitude, Dame-ren also had a serious aspect, helping the ”losers” in society to regain confidence, restoring their will to associate with other people and generally providing areas in society where the pursuit of alternative life-styles were possible. They also served as pioneers of the precarity movement (or anti-poverty movement), one of the most vibrant and interesting social movements in contemporary Japan.

Here are a few quotes from the book Dame! (Good for nothing!) from 1999. First an enthusiastic 1992 poem by the young Kaminaga Kôichi:

"Hey, you, why are you working so hard?
with just a single day off a week
overtime until late at night every day
hardly able to get enough sleep
the only time for yourself you get is in a crowded train
And the work you do is totally meaningless
Just inflaming people’s desires
At the work place no one cares about you as a person
The way you spend the money you earn is as worthless as your work
Who knows when you’ll collapse from stress and overwork?
Is there really anything good in your life?
Despite all this, why do you work? [...]
'Those who don’t work are good for nothing'
'Dropouts from society are the losers in the competition'
All you who care for nothing but what others think, here’s our reply:
'You’re the ones who are wasting your life'!"
Here Kaminaga recalls reciting some lines from Terayama Shuji's "Sho o sutete machi ni deyou" (Throw away your books and go out in the streets):

"What resounded most within me while reciting were the words of the 'stuttering man': 'Have you seen it! That while the words of order and subjugation are smooth, the sun stutters, the heart stutters, all forms of resistance stutter, stutter, and scream while stuttering...'. Reading these words, I felt I should be more angry. The reason people aren’t angry is absolutely not that that the state of the world or life is wonderful. Isn’t it that they lack sufficient imagination?"
Finally, here he gets serious about what is so good about talking and associating:

"To show up and disappear inconstantly at other’s events without having been invited, or distribute leaflets and suddenly addressing strangers and getting involved in deep talk, or casually join parties meant to be private – all that has to do with the pride of the nomadic warrior. I like acts that turn the city into a place for encounters. It’s a hackneyed phrase, but it’s more rewarding to associate with a single person that to read a book. To bite into a person and talk about life – there is narrative and poetry, and above all that’s where you can find the quiet (or hot) anger calling for a struggle against the state of affairs"
In statements like these one gets a glimpse of why talking and associating and having fun had political import to Dame-ren. It meant going beyond capitalist society, since it implied treating others as more than mere convenient means, and since it yielded up pleasures one could't find on the market.

The quotes are not exactly representative of Dame-ren. They are probably all a bit more “serious” and sober than the usual or average Dame-ren statement. In fact, what made them catch my attention is that they seemed to contain something a little bit different from what I already knew about Dame-ren from other sources.

A blog, I think, should be a medium för ideas in motion, snapshots of thinking, mental notes during a leisurely dérive through empty moonlit streets or maybe a playful adventure rather than a retrospective assessment. Lukács defined the mood of the essay as a longing for an idea not yet born. There is something in these quotes that hint at such an idea. To some people, Dame-ren’s advocacy of dropping out may seem passé, having lost much of its relevance as irregular or precarious employment has become the default option for young Japanese. But nothing that arrests thinking is passé. If you hear a nice sound, you stop and listen. If you notice a delicious scent, why not follow it? This is not the place for me to state what I think that idea is. To search for it will be my pleasure. Conclusions are a way of blinding oneself to clues. Some time in the near future I will try to get my hands on the Terashima Shûji book. That will be the clue I will follow. We will see where it leads. And then we shall see what we shall see.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.