Thursday, 27 December 2012

Kasumigaseki as a movement space


Having left Tokyo behind, I want to write a few words about the space that impressed me most there. Believe it or not, but it’s Kasumigaseki. Usually this is a dull area dominated by grayish government buildings, but every Friday evening, when the anti-nuclear power movement holds its weekly demonstrations in front of the prime minister’s residence, the entire area turns into a lively and heterogeneous movement space.

These demonstrations started in March this year and reached a climax in June and July, fuelled by public anger at the announced restart of the Ōi nuclear reactors. On one occasion, the 29th of June, the crowd reached 200,000 in number according to the organizers, flooded the pavement and spilled out onto the street, creating a liberated zone right in front of the prime minister’s residence.

Although the number of participants have dwindled since then, thousands of people still gather here every Friday. Importantly, the area still functions as a vibrant movement space, with lots of groups engaging in various activities and lots of people strolling around, talking, playing music, distributing or reading pamphlets or signing petitions. Although popularly known as kantei-mae demonstrations – demonstrations in front of the prime minister’s residence – the activities are spread out over much of the Kasumigaseki area. Not all who come to protest chant protest slogans close to the residence. Many mix with the activists of the “tent plaza” outside the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry, hold a one-minute speech in the Speaker’s Area, or enjoy the performances of the “Drums of fury” (Ikari no doramu) as the group noisily and merrily parades from Ministry to Ministry with their drums, trombones and saxophones, followed by an enthusiastic crowd.


This is the tent plaza, a remnant of what was once also known as Occupy Kasumigaseki. The reception is a small square-shaped hole in the tent wall, but the tent is surprisingly large inside. Climbing inside I felt like entering a hidden cave. The tent has been maintained since September last year. When the government issued an order to clear the area in January, demonstrators flocked to protest and protect the tents. Today the remaining tent is squeezed it by a row of small metal fences saying “State property Entrance forbidden”. No one seems to care about them, so perhaps one should rather say that the fences are squeezed out by the tent?





The Speaker’s Area was established in the summer this year and is located at a corner opposite to the National Diet. Anyone can speak freely for a minute, provided it’s about nuclear power. The first time I visited it a man was holding a speech, saying it was absurd to chant “Protect the children” when it was his own generation that had caused the mess. The children don’t need us to take care of them, he said. They know better than us. My impression was that this is really a place where ordinary people speak who wouldn't ordinarily hold speeches (although sometimes, like on the day before the general election to the house of representatives, bigwigs and celebrities like Ozawa Ichirô, Utsunomiya Kenji and Yamamoto Tarô also came to hold speeches here).



The road in front of the Diet is a relatively quiet place where individuals and small groups find the space and peace do their own thing. Here I met a man whose sole activity seemed to consist in blowing in a vuvuzela. It was a surprisingly good sound, creating an almost serene feeling. “Konbanwa”, he smiled and looked happy.

Seeing him, I realized that I had experienced this kind of space before, or at least something similar. Often, when I lived in Kyoto, I used to walk along the Kamo river bank, which is truly wonderful place - a "no-man's-land" which is open to all, yet quiet and out of the way. This is a place where people often go to practice music or recitals, probably just for the fun of it since they are not necessarily skilled. The river bank is also a favorite spot for young lovers, and many homeless people live there. It is a tolerant space where people are free to engage in many activities that would be subject to negative sanctions in ordinary public spaces. Seeing the vuvuzela guy, I couldn't help thinking that a similar no-man's-land had reappeared here in the midst of Kasumigaseki, as a by-product of the anti-nuclear power movement.

Next to the vuvuzela guy was a space where two rows of candles had been laid out on the edge of the pavement, close to the park. People were sitting down there, taking it easy, playing guitars and listening to music. A girl explained to me that it was a gathering called "Beautiful Energy". They started gathering there a little over a month ago.



Near the crossing where one turns from this road up the Gumizaka street leading up to the prime minister's residence is an exhibition of satirical placards, drawn by a former manga artist. The picture I like best shows two pro-nuclear politicians blowing in pipes like the rat-catcher of Hamelin. Terrified parents try to stop their children: "Don't follow them!".



Following Gumizaka towards the prime minister's residence, one arrives at the kantei-mae demonstration. People leave part of the pavement open for ordinary passers-by (this is apparently a condition for the police to tolerate the demonstrations). Activists of the Metropolitan Coalition against Nukes lead the participants in chanting rhythmical slogans. Usually there are also monks beating their drums, and a lot of activists from various groups distributing leaflets. Often I've seen people of the newly formed Japanese Green Party (Midori no tô, or Greens Japan) holding their flag.



Looking at the signs, flags and placards can be interesting. Once I saw a guy with a Blues Brothers-look who came walking with a sign hanging over his stomach in which the familiar datsu-genpatsu (quit nuclear power) slogan had been replaced by the words datsu-bôkoku (exit the dead [or doomed] country).



This is a big flag I saw when I followed the "Drums of fury" on their tour around the area. It depicts Takakura Ken, and the words say: "Where are you going, Ark Sakura without honour or humanity? Thanks for dying, nuclear Japan" (Jingi naki hakobune Sakura-maru, doko e iku? Shinde moraimasu, Genpatsu Nippon). The words allude both to the famous old yakuza movie Jingi naki tatakai and Abe Kôbô's novel Hakobune Sakura-maru.



Since the demonstrations are held in the evening it has become popular to bring your own e-book reader and use it as a luminous placard (some with downloaded readymade images such as the Che Guevara picture above). Other solve the problem of how to make placards visible in the darkness by attaching flashlights to them. Some make pretty lanterns by placing lamps inside pet bottles.

I also saw placards indicating affinity or continuity with the anti-poverty movement of recent years, e.g. placards saying "Anti-nuclear power, anti-poverty" (Han-genpatsu, han-hinkon).

Often one sees a group of "no nukes" bicyclists passing by here, with glittering and colorfully decorated bikes. One of them is Santa:



An element of the demonstrations that can't be missed are the performances of the "Drums of fury", which usually parades down from the prime minister's residence to perform outside places like the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry and end up with a splendid final performance in the park entrance in front of the Diet.

This is a space for strolling, rather than for standing in one place. To walk around here, talking to people, and enjoying people doing all kinds of odd things is a pleasure. That a space for all these various activities has come into being is very important - or at least so I believe. Although chanting protest slogans is certainly necessary, I'm sure these other activities are just as important in attracting attention to and sympathy for the movement.

They are also important as outlets for people's creativity. Things like the Speaker's Area or Beautiful Energy had to be invented, or re-invented, by activists in the course of the movement. Part of the reason that activism is empowering is that it liberates people from routine. I'm glad when I see these activities, because I think that only activities or situations in which you have participated as a creator or co-creator can feel really and fuly satisfying and I also think that they are the ones that are most likely to remain with you afterwards as a dear and beautiful memory.

Still being an outsider to the movement, I don't know how it will be affected by the new Abe government. But I can guess. On the one hand, Abe's pro-nuclear stance will fuel new protests. On the other hand, his generally right-extremist and nationalist political views will mean that new issues will arise, diverting the energy of many activists away from the issue of nuclear power.

The emergence of the Abe government will almost certainly mean different things to different parts of the anti-nuclear power movement, which is far from unitary. The movement contains environmentalists concerned with promoting renewable energy, "zero-becquerel" activists driven above all by the fear of radiation, and farmers and other local Fukushima residents concerned with how to recreate their devastated communities. To most of these groups, the emergence of the Abe government will represent a setback. Nuclear power risks being be overshadowed by other issues, and increased repression against the movement is also probable.

However, what is very evident here in Kasumigaseki is that the movement against nuclear power also contains a democracy movement, with many activists who are enraged in particular by the power of the "nuclear village" (the elite of politicians, bureaucrats, corporations and researchers supporting the Japanese nuclear industry) and more generally by the way power is exercised in Japan. Here I find many of the young freeters who took the initiative to early rallies in the wake of the 3.11 disaster, such as the actions in front of the TEPCO headquarters or the "Stop the nukes" (Genpatsu yamero!) demonstrations, and also many intellectuals, writers and academics. To many of these activists it is the high-handed state - the same state that governed Japan during the war and whose system of governing remained after the war - that is the prime enemy, rather than the threat to the environment per se. 


To the "democracy movement" part of the anti-nuclear movement, this high-handed state is personified in Abe, a nationalist who deeply identifies with his grandfather, prime minister Kishi Nobusuke, who was the primary antagonist of the demonstrators in the AMPO-struggle 1960 and who was himself a politician and elite bureaucrat engaged in building up Japan's wartime empire. The emergence of the Abe government could well strengthen this part of the movement. If this prediction comes true, then the anti-nuclear power movement will not necessarily be weakened. Instead Abe will have catalyzed its transformation in the direction of a democracy movement.

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