The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

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Meeting

Love Hotel in Doganzaka, Shibuya, Tokyo

Love Hotel in Doganzaka, Shibuya, Tokyo

A busy few weeks of meetings and making plans.

No not these sort of meeting in the picture above of course.

Hope this is suitably anonymous.

Talk soon

Damon

Radically Different

helmet with a hopeful message at left wing demo in Tokyo

helmet with a hopeful message at left wing demo in Tokyo

Lots of security police taking notes at a left wing demo in Tokyo

Lots of security police taking notes at a left wing demo in Tokyo

Members of Zengakuren student union at a left wing demo in Shiba Park near Tokyo Towe, Tokyo

Members of Zengakuren student union at a left wing demo in Shiba Park near Tokyo Towe, Tokyo

A left wing demo in Tokyo

A left wing demo in Tokyo

Sorry it has been a while since I posted here.

Have been very busy with other jobs and my kids were on Spring Break which has pretty kept me away from the computer. But been plotting and planning in my limited free time and hope that I will be able to post a bit more regularly for the rest of the year.

It has been a quiet spring photographically too as I seem not to have had enough time to head out and shoot anything much for myself. A few weeks ago I did manage to get along to another one of my regular left-wing protest however. This one was related to a court case going through the glacial Japanese justice system that questions the legality of land appropriated from farmers for the construction of Narita Airport. Protesting against Tokyo’s international airport, which has been in operation since 1972, may seem like rather old news but the story of the abuses the farmers suffered and the actions they undertook to stop its construction is more complicated and it is easy to see why some of these old guys are not just letting it go, as I have written before. This article on the subject by journalist, William Andrews does a better job of explaining some of the history and personalities involved too.

Apart from William Andrews and the ever interesting David McNeill, who occasionally get articles on the Japanese extreme- left through an editor’s “public interest” filter this is still a relatively unknown and massively under-reported section of Japanese society and that fact has been interesting me for many years.

The story of the Japanese left is interesting because the existence of such political passions in Japan is unexpected. Many people’s impression of Japan is that it all works well and everyone is happy: thus there is no real need to protest for improvements or call for revolution. Also the Japanese are often reported as, and indeed famously appear to be, politically apathetic. Yet even a very touristic dig into recent history will show you that extreme views, on either side of the political spectrum, have a long tradition in this country. The Fascism of the 1930s and 1940s is one example that had global implications everyone understands, but little is known now of the the equally vehement left-wing that attempted to counter it or the prominence they assumed in post-war Japan, until the Cold War intervened.

The message of the left has been, since that time, ignored and easily ridiculed by a compliant media but is starting to sound relevant again as it is very clear that things are not all going well in this land whose society was once famously summed-up as “127 million people, all middle class.”. How Japan and the left-wing are adapting to that fact is a story I am keen to follow.

The extreme-left are still far from popular to be sure and are considered by many as dangerously anachronistic, but the grudging tolerance Japanese democracy has had to give them over the years now means their age-old warnings against power and the indifference of corporate-politics are finally getting heard anew. Or rather ordinary people who once believed they were doing just fine, and the politicians they unthinkingly voted for and the companies they unthinkingly worked for cared for their lives, have realised that is no longer true and found that their anger at this situation already has a voice.

This could be an interesting time in Japanese politics. Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, though the holder of a policy mandate, is by no means the preferred choice of many voters because of his promises. He has to be careful when and where he pushes his nationalistic ideals, that will keep his backers happy, and whar compromises he will need to make, with a larger and predominately suffering population, in order to keep that mandate.

This is easy to see at the demos where the Police, that are always a heavy-handed presence (second image), are looking unsure exactly how they are to deal with the sudden relevance of those they come to control and intimidate. There is no longer the forced smiling of demo-policing that I observed a few years ago, under the administration of the Democratic Party of Japan; the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Abe and Taro Aso have a longer experience of power and are far keener to shift the narrative and much bolder in trying to silence detractors. But the left’s long opposition to nuclear energy and militarism has meant a radical presence at most of the very inclusive anti-nuclear demos over the last three years and have led to a subtle shift in its perception. While ever the voice of the proletariat was painted as a destructive, deluded minority it was easy to force its anger and make it even more unattractive. When labour unions and student activists started to need riots and Molotov cocktails to get their points across, the overt subjugation by the security-services was easier to justify to a population that wanted a much easier life than the one revolutionaries promised. With the forceful blessing of the Americans of course. These days, when a lot of Japanese people, that have never before been driven to an active disagreement with politics, feel their leaders’ indifference to issues such as pacifism, nuclear power and global corporatism leaves them little choice but to march and punch the air in anger alongside those that they once feared, the rise of the left or at least some acceptance of its message, is harder to ignore.

I do not know if the Japanese left can or even want to lead this struggle. The call for change is a universal phenomena at the moment after all and protests against global capitalism and its supine political enablers are rampant in many countries. Yet we still do not know if this will be enough to force actual change in places that do not have so many of the entrenched traditions and restrictions that are self-imposed on Japanese activism.
I do not have an answer to this. But I am going to keep watching to see what happens.

Anyway here is an updated gallery of  the Japanese left-wing at my photoshelter archive for you to get some flavour of these protests.

Later

Damon

Remembering That Afternoon

Japanese earthquake March 11th 2011 Japanese earthquake March 11th 2011 Japanese earthquake March 11th 2011 Japanese earthquake March 11th 2011 Japanese earthquake March 11th 2011 Japanese earthquake March 11th 2011

Three years ago today, at 2:46 on a Friday afternoon, the Great East Japan Earthquake struck the Tohoku region of north east Japan.

I was out in Tokyo that day, walking around Mejiro when the building started to wobble and shake violently. It was obvious something big had happened, what I didn’t know then, and what I wouldn’t be able to find out for several hours after, was just where it had struck and how big it actually was.

The scenes I saw and the people I have spoken to in Tohoku since that day have deeply moved me. Yet if I am honest it is that afternoon in Tokyo that is clearest in my memory. Wandering the streets in a community of forced pedestrians all calmly looking for a way out of the place and all similarly unsure what or where the bad news was. People checked phones for information but many were not working. Those outside watched buildings away in the aftershocks, those inside, in cafes and mobile phone shops or banks, train stations and hotel lobbies, served massive crowds of customers without anger, making room for stranded salarymen to get a seat on the floor, charge their phone; sneak a view of a TV screen perhaps and drink a coffee to keep them warm.

There was fear but no panic and it was a truly humbling experience to see so many millions of people carry-on without complaint, despite the very real stress they were under.

I will never forget it. just as I will never forget the almost 20,000 people who died that afternoon too.

I am unable to head north this day to give my wishes directly to those that survive them but I will stop what I’m doing for a minute at 2:46 today to those that I will never be able to meet.

Damon

 

Where’s the Money?

Bitcoin protest in Tokyo Bitcoin protest in Tokyo Bitcoin protest in Tokyo

Had a good day on Friday. Catching up with some friends I hadn’t seen in a while and shooting a newsworthy protest. Not the usual sort though…

It was a very quiet protest: just one man holding a sign that was curt, with real anger at the unfairness of the situation , but strangely polite; simply asking;  “Where is our money?”

There had been two men, even three or four on occasion, as the severity of the Bitcoin crisis at the Tokyo-based Bitcoin exchange company, Mt. Gox, became clearer. But according to the Tokyo Police, more than one person is a demonstration and thus needs a licence. To get a licence you need to notify the authorities of the route your demo will take. All Glaswegian bitcoin trader, Kolin Burges, wanted to do however was stand outside Mt. Gox’s offices and hold his sign. Unable to get a license he continued his protest alone.

Mr. Burges arrived in Japan on February 12th, two days after Mt. Gox suspended all trading in bitcoins. A press release given out by the company on that day stated this was due to: “a software flaw that would allow people trading in the virtual currency to defraud the exchange.”

This was not exactly reassuring news to investors like Kolin. Having  only started investing in bitcoins last June and then giving up a career in software design to do it full-time from December, finding himself unable to withdraw his assets from his account was quite a shock. So, he came to Tokyo to confront the company directly about its problems and any plans they had to rectify them because the usual customer service approaches had proved unhelpful and uninformative.

“My Funds were stuck in a Mt. Gox account and there was no adequate explanation as to why they were stuck or when I would be able to access them.” He told Channel 4 News in the UK on February 26th. “I decided to go and ask them in person.”

On Friday he was more succinct: “It was a lot of money. I wasn’t going to let them just take it away.”

Kolin seems much too nice a guy to get angrier than that, though it is obvious he is. He has over $260,000 worth of bitcoins whose wherabouts are unknown yet his protest was quiet, meditative even: he merely stood with his sign, ate a sandwich or worked on his computer as passers-by stopped to look, confused for a moment about what a group of journalists and a lone protester were doing here in the grey back-streets of Shibuya.

It would be easy to say it was a peculiarly stage-managed act of ersatz victimhood for the benefit of the press, after all he is a trader who should have  known the risks involved in trading generally and especially in a new and relatively un-tested currency. But that negates the very real indifference Mt Gox appears to have treated its customers with when things started to go wrong. In merely trying to get someone from the company to explain the situation to him, you have to admire the fact that he was willing to travel all the way from the UK to try and get an answer that should have been quickly emailed to all concerned investors. When even this direct approach didn’t work it is also easier to understand why you would court media attention to raise the profile of the issue. Especially when the protest was visibly pointless in its original target, demanding, as it was on Friday, answers from an already empty office.

“I’ve been here everyday for two weeks. But I’m arriving later and later each day.” said Kolin as he started another protest late Friday afternoon by checking the internet to get the latest news on the crisis. “If [Mt. Gox] declare bankruptcy today I don’t know if it is worth coming here anymore. I’ll probably just go home.”

He knows he is unlikely to get his money back this time but has not lost his faith in the Bitcoin system, telling Channel 4 news that, “Once Mt. Gox is out of the way, Bitcoin will be stronger.”  He also mentioned that even though he has lost a lot of money, he is still ‘up’ on the investments he made.

***

Later Friday evening the 28-year-old, French CEO of the company, Mark Karpeles, announced at the Tokyo District Court that Mt. Gox was filing for bankruptcy protection. He reiterated that the Bitcoin industry was still strong and growing and blamed the collapse on, “a weakness in our system.” The company’s lawyer stated that nearly all the 850,000 bitcoins in the customers’ accounts had been lost. This is about 7% of the total number of bitcoins in circulation in the world and is worth almost half a billion Dollars.

The year started very differently for Mt. Gox. At the end of last year it had been the largest Bitcoin exchange in the world, handling 80% of the global transactions of this five-year old crypto-currency. Though withdrawals of bitcoins were suspended on February 7th, due to ‘unusual activity’ on the site, no one expected the business to fold as a result and the losses to be quite so large.

There were rumours of course that the problems were because Karpeles had orchestrated a massive swindle: that the ‘unusual activity’ was what the company was doing itself and stories of hacking attempts were just convenient covers for fraud. The internet gossip was aided in these worst-case imaginings by Karpeles and Mt. Gox’s almost total silence on developments, so much so that many people assumed he had already fled the country with his investors’ money.

When asked if he though he had been a victim of a crime though, Kolin Burges was clear: he considered Mt Gox itself to be the victim of an ‘outside theft’ .

Something perhaps that investors in Bitcoin might have to get used to.

Like any internet business there were always going to be issues of security and many academics have argued that some sort of illegal interest in bitcoins was inevitable considering not only the way the value of each coin had increased so dramatically over the last year, making them more attractive and profitable to steal, but also the way the deregulation and anonymity of the Bitcoin business itself had been useful, from its outset, in hiding the commerce of the underworld. When the FBI shut down the SIlk Road website in October 2013 due to the large amount of drug deals and other illegal activity taking place there, they confiscated 3.5 million Dollars worth of bit coins.

Indeed it was the lessening of this air of criminality that had enabled the brand to boom in 2013 and had attracted investors like Kolin: ordinary people who wanted to get a little richer and had an interest in alternative forms of finance (as let’s face it the established banks are hardly any less gangsterish or any less reckless in their approach to trading currencies).

It appears that Bitcoin is fully on the radar for exploitation now. Dell Secure Works analysed computers around the subject recently and found 150 distinct cases of malware designed specifically to steal bitcoins. Coupled with glitches in the system that had enabled users to trick  it into thinking a transaction had failed,  and allow traders to buy double the amount of bitcoins they had paid for simply by quickly clicking on the buttons, and you had a scandal waiting to happen.

A report in the Daily Beast by Jake Adelstein managed to interview a former employee about the professional and security culture at Mt Gox. the employee, who wished to remain anonymous, called Mt. Gox ‘A dysfunctional organisation’. On the personal honesty of Mark Karpeles the employee is more forgiving though.

“He’s a workaholic and a geek, but a good-hearted geek. He just has very limited management skills, a little hubris, and didn’t pay attention to accounting. He only 27 or 28 years old.“

“It’s his own fault.” Said Kolin about Karpeles. He doesn’t want to get drawn on the details because, like everyone, he is still unsure of them but basically thinks the CEO could have done a lot more to improve the security of the computer systems he was using. He has been contacted by lawyers in the United States, where many investors are already building law-suits against the the company and Karpeles himself, but is unsure if he wants to go down that route. Mt. Gox is also being investigated by the Japanese and US authorities and according to the Wall Street Journal, a  small army of bitcoin enthusiasts and hackers are already trying to find the missing coins.

As each day goes past there appears to be a lot of evidence that Kolin’s and others’ suspicions about lax security measures at Mt. Gox are probably true. The company folded with a massive 27.4 million Dollar discrepancy in it accounts and liabilities of 63.67 Million Dollars to 127,000 creditors. A leaked crisis strategy paper (which has not been confirmed as genuine yet) seems to suggest they were discussing how to fix these problems in their operations, some of which seem to have been ignored for years. But was it too little, too late?

“This was an amateurish and incompetently managed company. ” Andreas Antonopoulous, chief security officer at Bitcoin wallet Blockchain.info,” told Forbes Magazine on Feb 28th. “It will be replaced by competent operators who will run better exchanges.”

Indeed Mt. Gox’s many mistakes in their operation appear to have been legendary enough to have even created their own term for incompetence. “To be goxed”, apparently means to be fooled or trolled repeatedly in the language of the Bitcoin treaders.

Kolin was quite adamant that if Bitcoin is to continue and flourish in the way he hopes, it will need to lose some of its maverick character-traits, even though these are, of course, what has made it so attractive to many investors in the first place. In an interview with Asahi Television News he expressed his hope that there will be a ‘forensic investigation’ into the causes and links of the Mt. Gox debacle and changes made to the way companies that facilitate bitcoin trading are managed in the future.

“I think there should be a certain degree of regulation. I think exchanges need to be accountable for their security precautions and have to be able to prove they have the money to repay their customers.”

Perhaps this time he will be one of the unlucky ones and not benefit from the growing pains of the Bitcoin system by getting his own money back. However he is determined  he wants to follow-up on the issues this experience has brought to him and write or talk about it.

“I know I am not going to get my money back.” said Kolin as he held up  his polite sign outside the empty Mt. Gox office. But perhaps he will use his own loss to make sure others are not similarly mistreated in the future.

Anyway I hope Kolin does get some good news from this. It was a pleasure meeting him and learning about his story and I wish him luck recovering at least some of the money he lost.

More images of Kolin Burges protesting outside the Mt. Gox, bitcoin exchange,  company office in Tokyo at my archive here:

Later

Damon

More Snow

Heavy Snows in Yokohama Heavy Snows in Yokohama Heavy Snows in Tokyo Heavy Snows in Tokyo Heavy Snows in Tokyo Heavy Snows in Tokyo Heavy Snows in Tokyo Heavy Snows in Tokyo

Though the sun is shining as I write this, this weekend has been another one of heavy snows and freezing temperatures.

It’s not as wet and windy as the weather in the UK apparently or as cold as it has been in North America this winter. Indeed walking through Ueno Park on Friday  it was quite beautiful to be honest.

Do hope that Spring is going to arrive soon however.

Later

Damon

 

The Clean Up

A Japanese policeman clearing snow in Tokyo after heavy snows fell on Saturday February 8th

A Japanese policeman clearing snow in Tokyo after heavy snows fell on Saturday February 8th

A policeman clears snow in front of a Koban (police box) in my home town in Tokyo.

We had a lot of snow on Saturday. Apparently it was the most snow to fall on Tokyo in 16 years.

Bit of a winter wonderland out there that day to be honest though I was busy with kids and missed most of it.

Now the sun shines, the temperature is rising and all that snow is melting or being cleared.

The policeman above wasn’t too happy I took his photos. But you’d think they would like to be seen performing a useful public function sometimes.

Later

Damon

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