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.

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