Japan after Japan

Post-Fukushima social movements, the rebirth of history and tacit futures. An interview.

Eiji Oguma Krystian Woznicki
9 March 2016

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 time.

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 growth.

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 areas.

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 one.

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 change.

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 "Wiedergeburt der Zukunft"

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