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!

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