Japan after Japan

Post-3/11-protest in Tokyo. Redwolf, leading activist. Author's own photos. cc by sa 4.0After 200 years of relentless growth and rampant
acceleration industrialized countries seem to have reached an end point. After
living under near constant mobilization with one foot in tomorrow land we are
sensing limits all over the place. From limited natural resources to our
limited capabilities in handling larger than life technologies (e.g. nuclear
power). Some call it "peak everything" (Heinberg). Others refer to it
as "after future" (Berrardi). In other words: 200 years after the
"futurist turn" (Sloterdijk) almost everything that was launched in
the name of gloomy progress reaches an ideological and operational deadend.

Take Japan as an example. Since the 1980s it has
represented the future like no other country on this planet. Now it is deeply
burdened by all projects, all movements and all the policies that created its
futuristic appeal: toxic waste, mountains of national debt, ideological
shipwreck. At this juncture a decision is needed: Could the future begin anew
after all the burdens are left behind? – although hardly anyone can imagine
when that will be. Or does the future begin in the here and now? – this place
and time, where we are potentially able to envision another place and another

As the historian Eiji Oguma suggests, the most
important insight of the moment is: "We can't go back to the
1980s".  Naturally, people are still
struggling with what this implies. Looking at it from a global perspective, two
things seem clear. Firstly: a new tale of the future cannot be implanted top
down. Not again. It must emerge bottom-up.

Secondly: we should not abandon the future only
because "it has failed us" (Berrardi). We should not wait until the
mess, which the production of futures has created so far, has been cleaned up.
As a political vehicle, the future is way too important. In that sense the
Berliner Gazette project TACIT
FUTURES proposes: rather than having arrived after the future, we are at a
crucial turning point in the production of futures.

At the event "TACIT
FUTURES: Japan after Japan" Berliner Gazette presents "Tell the
Prime Minister" by Eiji Oguma as a starting point for discussion about
common futures and the future as commons. It is a documentary film about
post-Fukushima social movements in Japan and depicts an unprecedented
mobilization, which, lasting until today, the film documents as a historical
event in progress. The product of an almost boundless collaboration, the film
is composed of footage by numerous independent and amateur filmmakers who
granted Oguma access to their footage. Footage that captures intimately and
authentically a multiplicity of dynamics and faces, actions and testimonials
from within the movement. It is a cinematic experiment that comes to terms with
the social experiment that is under way in Japan today. Further information here.

Krystian Woznicki (KW): How
did the authorities and social systems in Japan manage to suppress social
movements and protest until the post-3/11-uprisings? Could you explain the
vacuum of a public political sphere in Japan and the kind of governance that
helped create that vacuum?

Eiji Oguma (EO): I read one blog by a participant in the anti-nuclear
movement after the Fukushima incident. He was an activist in the 1970’s and had
stopped until the incident occurred. He said in his blog, “Now is the time we
have to do demo. Japan was a country people did not need to do demo from 1970s
to 2011, when people could get good jobs without any protest.” “To be honest, I
was active until the early 1970s but it was activity for self-satisfaction and
self-liberation. We did not feel any crisis in Japanese society for real.” I
think it would explain your question. Japan was the country where, “people do
not need to protest”.

However, as a sociologist and historian, I know
Japan was not “all middle class society” even in the 1980s when “Japan as number
one” was a buzzword. Less than 20% of the work force in Japan in the 1980s
worked at middle or big sized corporations which were so well known in western
countries thanks to the power of Japanese exports. The Japanese government
supplied subsidies, public works (mainly construction), and protection (mainly
for agriculture) for the people who worked in domestic industries in local
areas in exchange for demanding their votes for LDP, the conservative ruling
party. The Japanese government contained any social problems by deploying such
a cycle: economic growth through exports, increase of tax income, provision of
subsidies and public works for the weaker parts of Japan, tax reduction for
city businessmen and their families, an increase of consumption, and economic

In this situation, LDP managed to maintain power
while containing social movements. From the 1970’s to the 2000’s, social
movements rose in Japan mainly due to problems that emerged on the peripheries of society,
for example, amongst Korean minorities, Okinawans, or in segregated downtown

Japan enjoyed such stability and prosperity as only
a developed country in Asia’s “factory of the world” could expect, until the
end of the Cold War when China entered the world economy and started to take the
place of Japan. After that, the stagnation of the Japanese economy began. This
stagnation broke the cycle in the 1980s. The Japanese government tried to
prolong the cycle, but this led to a huge budget deficit. In 2000, the
government started cutting subsidies and public works. It had already caused instability
and anxiety in society long before the Fukushima incident.

KW: How
did the sudden outburst of post-3/11-uprisings find new, unexpected and
unscripted forms of social protest to fill the vacuum? How were those new forms
of protest perceived by the general public? How did the authorities react?

EO: The Fukushima incident was only a trigger of
the new social movements. In these 20 years, Japan has experienced a stagnant economy,
a 15% reduction of the average annual income of employees, an increase in
precarious jobs which occupy 40% of total employment nowadays, atomization and
isolation caused by globalization and IT technology, the huge budget deficit
bequeathed by policy dysfunction, and lack of transparency in political
decision making. LDP lost power and was defeated by DPJ in the elections of
2009. These factors all existed before the Fukushima incident.

According to my research, many activists of the social
movements after the Fukushima incident are members of what can be described as
the  “cognitive precariat”, who have been
highly educated but are unable to enjoy reasonable employment prospects. They
are skilled in IT, design, illustration, music, event organizing. They are
totally different from the traditional activists who used to report back to
established trade unions or leftist parties.

For example, my documentary recorded 8
interviewees. The four males include the Prime Minister at that time, a
hospital worker, a young entrepreneur who is now CEO of a childcare goods trading
company, an artist/anarchist. The four females are a Fukushima refugee
housewife who lived at a 1.5km distance from the nuclear plant, a young shop
clerk, a Dutch woman who is working at a US-affiliated company, the leader of an
organizing group of the movement. Except for the housewife from Fukushima, all
of them represent diversity and the change of Japanese society. The prime
minister is a former civil movement activist in the 1970s who was affiliated to
the DPJ.

The hospital worker has a Ph.D. but could not
get academic jobs. The young entrepreneur is independent from the big
traditional corporations. The anarchist is a part-time lecturer and
contemporary artist who plays music. The Dutch woman represents the effect of
globalization, the shop clerk graduated from art school, the woman activist was
an illustrator.

You may imagine what kind of movement they would
create between them. The movements after Fukushima were full of illustration,
music, organizing, knowledge, skilled in IT-use. I think the character and features
of these movements were similar to contemporary global democratic movements throughout
the world.

At first, people in established sectors,
especially the Japanese mass media could not understand what was happening.
Japanese mass media had had no similar experience of having to cover huge
social movements for the previous 30 years. They had connections with labor
unions and leftist parties but no contacts or skills to help them report on
these new movements. At first they ignored the movements, then portrayed them
as strange outsiders or a cultural fad. Japanese mass media actually failed to
report on the movements at all until the activists finally met up with the
Prime Minister. They were too entrenched in the social structure of the1980s
and had no framework to understand the new situation. However, and I hate to
say it, reactions from the authorities and the people in mainstream sectors,
especially the more elderly among them had the same reaction as the mass media
at the time.

KW: What
are the rules for protest in Japan? Why does the police try to partition the
mass of protesters into small packages and keeps them lined up in a narrow row
on the street as if making space for the cars (although traffic is suspended)?
Why do protesters willingly obey? Has there been any modification to that
practise since 3/11?

EO: I guess ‘the rules’ might seem strange to western
European people. However, demonstrations are actually prohibited in Singapore or
Malaysia, of course in North Korea. But the level of democratization in Japan
regarding permission for social movements is roughly average for that in all East
Asian countries.

Japanese police are strict in keeping social
order, including traffic control. Since the 1970’s they have focused on keeping
“Japan a clean, neat, safe society“ which many foreign tourists say they
prefer. After 11 March, social movements tried to break “the rule” at first,
but met the heavy police response I describe in the film. The activists finally
noticed that such an effort might cause endanger the movements of ordinary participants
in a way that would be harmful to the movement. They changed their approach to activities
and succeeded in mobilising 200 thousand people to gather in front of the Prime
Minister’s office in the summer of 2012. I remember that the activists said,
“We have to proceed one step at a time.“ But I don’t think you can really
characterise the people struggling in that situation as “willingly obedient“.

KW: Did
the post-3/11-movements inspire new policies in Japan? Did they have an impact
on formal politics?

EO: The answer must be ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. Regarding
my role in the meeting with activists and the Prime Minister which is recorded
in this film, I was a mediator. I have been a participant in the movement since
April 2011 as an ordinary activist who became one because I realized it held
the prospect of changing society. Although I attended the meetings of organizers,
I did not give any advice because I felt that was not my role and that they
were skilled in mobilizing people.

At the high point of the mobilisation, in July
2012 when 200 thousand people gathered in front of the Prime Minister’s office,
I told the organizers I could introduce politicians to them, including Mr. Kan
who was the Prime Minister at the time of the disaster. Many of the activists
knew my face as a regular participant. But they did not know I was a professor.
However, they accepted my offer because they needed to have good contacts and I
have established a certain credibility among them as a modest, but regular
participant. The administration and activists asked me to attend the meeting as
a mediator, but I did not speak in the meeting because I trusted these people
to be the skilful activists I knew they were.

After the meeting, DPJ administration declared an
abolition of nuclear energy until 2040. I know the decision was made not only
because of pressure from the movement, but also because it was a political opportunity.

The DPJ administration failed to cope with the nuclear
disaster and lost support at that point. And the election for party leader, as
it happened, was booked for September 2012. Although Mr. Kan had already
resigned from the role of prime minister at that time, he had changed his
opinion on nuclear energy as a result of his experience of nuclear disaster. The
DPJ and the prime minister desperately needed to improve their popularity and
votes from among Mr. Kan‘s faction in the party’s leadership elections. That
was because Mr. Kan and his faction, whom I made a point of introducing to the
activists, still had some influence over the DPJ administration.

Most of the 54 nuclear reactors in Japan were built
before the 1990s, when GDP and electricity demand peaked. This means that most
of the nuclear reactors will have reached the end of their lives by 2040. In
May 2012, all of the nuclear reactors had stopped production, but there was no
shortage of electricity supply. I thought that political decision by DPJ was a reasonable

To sum up, it was a combination of new movements
and old politics that contributed to the decision to abolish nuclear energy. I
knew that the meeting was only a kind of political ritual, but the ritual was a
mechanism for social progress. Myself, a professor,  ordinary participant and mediator at one and
the same time, might have been one tiny factor in that process of change.

KW: For
many observers the year 2011 marks a unique moment in history, because around
the globe various societies experienced breakthroughs – from the revolution in
Egypt to the post-3/11-uprisings in Japan. Alain Badiou speaks of the
"rebirth of history". What is the perception of the international
situation from the point of view of the protest movements in Japan?

EO: Have a look at the woman who blows the horn
in the demonstration which was recorded in the later part of the film. She has
graduated from a university in the arts, and made her debut as a Manga writer.
However, the Manga industry is so exploitative that she gave up writing Manga.
Then she became a planning manager in the development department of a big stationery
company. But the hard work made her ill and after she married her business
colleague, she quitted her job. After the Fukushima incident, she joined the anti-nuclear
movement and took her place as a designer of flags and placards. She divorced her
husband when he opposed her participation in the movement. Now she is working
as a part-time librarian in a university and continuing to be active in the
post-2011 movements.

Her face in the film seems full of anger,
liberation, anxiety, and sadness. Anger against what? Liberation from what?
Maybe nuclear disaster could have brought a death and a reincarnation to her
social life. I think she represents all the instability and vitality of the
world’s global movements since 2011, and human being in a time of historic

KW: The
"rebirth of history" has created the potential for inventing new
narratives of the future. How did this incident give rise to future narratives
that are emerging bottom-up rather than top down? What kind of new, bottom-up
and democratic visions of the future have emerged? 

EO: Specifically in Japan, "we can't go
back to the 80s" means a departure from stable, organized, wealthy society
such as we had when “Japan was number one“. However, the top-down form of
politics does not work any more, not only for social movements, but also in wider
politics. Regarding Japan, LDP which represents the established sectors in
Japan has lost over 80% of its party members since 1991 due to the reduced
budget for public construction works, economic stagnation, the ageing and
depopulating of local society, the decline of religions, and the atomization of
the people.

LDP seems to be trying to capture floating votes
by appealing to rightist-oriented slogans similar to the manoeuvres of many eastern
European administrations. But I think it shows that even LDP cannot live
without bottom-up support. It shows also that social movements could have some
impact on the political situation. I am not in the position to predict future
because I am not a fortune-teller. However, as a sociologist and historian, the
contemporary situation is on the move and dependent on something not yet
certain. In the world we live in now, even dictatorship would not last long without
some form of bottom-up democracy.

The German version of this contribution is available under the title
der Zukunft"

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