A good day shooting on Friday. More about that later.
After the shoot I walked around a bit to grab some street shots in the unexpectedly good weather.
Luckily Typhoon Neoguri missed Tokyo and I could enjoy the sunshine and colours of Ginza in the image above.
Or Visa Versa?
A quick zip around, between meetings, to the Softbank store in Omotesando on Friday to photograph the latest robot Japan’s cutting robotics labs have produced.
Called Pepper it is billed as an emotional robot that can recognise faces and have “real” conversations with people.
Quite impressive but not really sure what is does other than provide limited friendships for the lonely.
It’s current usefulness is not the point though. This technology is still developing and all these quite amazing creations so far are just the evolutionary links on the way to a robot that is able to perform in a capacity, and with an identity, that may allow us to interact with it in a human way.
Even in my lifetime the steps towards that goal have been monumental. Who can really predict where the next forty years will take us.
Am busy this weekend so going to be hard to get out to the Sanja matsuri ,which is taking place in Asakusa this Saturday and Sunday.
Still I have seen and shot a fair few mikoshi festivals and though Sanja is a big one, indeed it is considered one of the three great festivals of Tokyo, they do kind of resemble each other. Sanja is mostly different in the number of heavily tattooed supporters you can see and the crowds you have to push through to see them. My friend, Chris Willson got a great image of the tattooed supporters in the Sanja matsuri here.
The festival actually started on Friday, when the mikoshi were pulled out from storage and readied for carrying. Various other cultural events take place that day too. I was free most of yesterday and went along to shoot some of the preparations the most spectacular of which was a parade that included these Shira-sagi no mai (White heron dancers).
Hard to frame them to get the heron’s (or crane’s) head in and not include too much of the crowd. But really like this shot.
Been busy with other jobs since I shot these few images on a day out with the family last weekend. But it was a good day and wanted to post them up.
On Sunday we took a train and a bus out to the Sagami River near Sagamihara and Zama in Kanagawa for the Sagaimi Odako matsuri.
In this festival, local people fly very large kites above the fields and riverbanks in a tradition that is meant to ensure a good harvest. Even away from the festival ground I found some farmers flying their own large kite from the back of the farm truck (bottom photograph).
Though we nominally went there on a family day out, and because some Ultraman thing was there for my boys, I did manage to grab a few quick shots of the kites flying. Though there was also music, dancing, Samurai costumes and kids sumo to keep us entertained.
Apparently the largest kite flown in Japan can be seen at this festival (photo 1,2,& 4) It really is the star of the show and a monster of a thing at 14.5 metres by 14.5 metres and weighing in at nearly 1,000 kilogrammes, Quite amazing actually that a hundred people could manage to hoist it into the air for a short flight, which started at 3pm, Though two of them did end up in ambulances for the effort. (photo 5)
The kites are made of bamboo and handmade Japanese paper. and watching them tie the things together and take them apart at the end of the festival was interesting, though I couldn’t get many images of that as Ultraman and last buses beckoned.
Maybe a dedicated trip next year as I wasn’t expecting it to be so spectacular.
A colourful day at Tokyo Rainbow Pride festival yesterday.
In its third year now this is one of the world’s great gay pride events.
A week long celebration of homosexual culture and acceptance. It culminates with a large parade and fair in Yoyogi Park.
A lot of interesting people are “on display” and everyone just seemed to be having so much fun. Will certainly go again.
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 much kept me away from the computer. But been plotting and planning in my 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 many opportunities 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. He has to be careful when and where he pushes the nationalistic ideals that will keep his backers happy, and what 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 happening 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.
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’ .
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:
Though the sun is shining as I write this, this weekend has been another one of heavy snows and freezing temperatures.
Do hope that Spring is going to arrive soon however.
Tatsuo Suzuki is not the most famous of candidates in the upcoming gubernatorial elections in Tokyo yet he has a long history of battling the establishment and working towards a fairer, society as a left-wing lawyer and union activist. He is standing this time in the hope that the people in Tokyo might actually want a change from the usual collection of self-interested eccentrics and corrupt careerists they usually get. He seems genuine enough: it is not easy being an anti-establishment lawyer and standing against the ideas of the people who expect you to be come one of them when you qualify as a practitioner of law. He has taken on cases that rattle the bars of vested interests like defending political prisoners like Fumiaki Hoshino.
His policies this time include halting the constitutional reforms promised by Prime-Minister, Shinzo Abe and indeed even aim for the complete over-throw of the Abe government itself. He is anti-nuclear of course yet unique among the candidates also believes the Olympics are a vast, wasteful vanity project that is taking away much needed funds from the reconstruction in Tohoku and feels that the city does not deserve this event while ever the Fukushima crisis is most obviously not under the control Abe promised it was.
A principled man, but a very long shot for electoral success I fear.
I photographed him campaigning and giving some short speeches to the anti-nuke faithful protesting outside the Diet Building on Friday night. I was quite impressed that these protests are still able to draw enough of a crowd to raise some noise and inconvenience the police the bit. Far from their popularist heyday of course but the call for a change of direction in Japanese energy policy is still one that resonates with many people despite the government’s attempts to neuter the debate or rewrite the narrative. Suzuki San found a sympathetic crowd for his rather short message but many people there, who you think would be natural issue allies, seemed to have never heard of him.
Anyway I wish him luck.
Very busy, too much to do really. Need more hours in the day.
Covering the elections for latest Tokyo Governor race can cause you to run into some interesting people.
Probably my favourite oddball is the former Chief of Staff at the Japanese Air Self Defence Force (JASDF), General Toshio Tamogama.
The leader of the right-wing group, Ganbare Nippon he is well known as a historical revisionist. His most famous controversy surrounded an essay he wrote in 2008 that questioned the accepted understanding of Japanese military aggression in the lead up to the Second World War.
His modern political ambitions match these prejudices and he is running on a overtly nationalistic platform which has gained the full support of the the popular though similarly controversial ex-Governor, Shintaro Ishihara.
Worrying that opinions like the one these men share are so prevalent these days. I think Tamogami is a very dangerous and deluded man, who is, unfortunately, still likely to win.
More stock images of Toshio Tamogami electioneering in Tokyo at my archive site here:
My sons love this character and, as I have said before, there is something to be said for studying the genre. Certainly the influence of this benevolent alien and his brethren on the lives of Japanese boys is immense. I am surprised my sons haven’t grown out of it yet. Then again though the event was nominally for the kids I noticed quite a few adults got a buzz from watching and meeting their heroes in the flesh. Indeed even I get a little smile on these days when I get to shake hands with Ultraman Zero or Mebius.
Anyway my ongoing project on Japanese heroes has a few more images added to it and my boys had a really good time, that’s them in the bottom right of the top photo shouting at one of the monsters.
I had a pretty good time also.
Have a happy New Year everyone.
Been a very busy Christmas with the kids so not had much chance to shoot or write here.
Out yesterday with my sons at the Mitsubishi Minatomirai Industrial Museum (Gijutsukan) where they got to fly a helicopter and a jet-liner simulator. Crashing both! They also travelled into space (Sola in the second photo) and under the sea and learnt all about energy saving and generation including some unashamedly pro-nuclear power propaganda. Small museum but quite cheap and fun.
The longest time was spent with Wakamaru a bright yellow communication robot that doesn’t even attempt to cross the “Uncanny Valley” but did again made me forget for a second that it was just a walking-talking tape-recorder and genuinely worry that my sons’ constant questioning must have begun to annoy it. (last photo)
Will be going again, without the kids, as I want a turn flying the helicopter and airliner too.
Anyways as I said busy which will explain the late Christmas wishes: Hope you had a good one!
Will get my New Year‘s message in early at least.
Hope 2014 is a great year for you all. Talk soon.
Been a busy week of protests in Tokyo. The draconian State Secrets Bill has seen some energetic protesting. I will go into this in more detail later when I can use pictures and write more about the massive threat to Japanese democracy this stupid law entails.
In the meantime have a look at some images and an informed and informing write up by Rob Gilhooly here
Today’s protest genuinely seemed like a mix of all those against it. There were the Hokkaido farmers Union leading the march with red jackets and bandanas and artist and activist, Yohei Miyake bringing up the rear with musicians and dancing. many of the people seemed quite ordinary not too many activists or the usual left-wingers and right-wingers. Indeed a facebook group that hopes to educate people about the TPP and create debate had invited many right-wing, LDP voters to express their anger at Shinzo Abe and they marched quite happily alongside people that didn’t share the same politics at all.
Emboldened perhaps by the week long protests against the secrecy laws that could be used to hide the details of this globalising trade pact as well as the troubles at Fukushima Daichi and the re-militarisation of Japan it was demo of resigned passions allowing it to be quite lightly policed. It is still a subject about which I need to understand a lot more however.
Feeling a bit like Christmas there.
Busy as lots happening in the Japanese news lately so talk soon.
Interesting read here in the Japan Times by the William Andrews about the case of Fumiaki Hoshino who was convicted of killing a policeman in a riot in Shibuya in 1971.
Nicely updates something I wrote before yet never quite got around to investigating more. In interviews with Hoshino San’s wife Akiko, we learn more of the petty cruelty of his detention like the 20 day punishment he got for washing his feet without permission after stepping on a cockroach or the lack of adequate heating and air-conditioning to deal with the the extremes of Japan‘s seasons.
The cruelest revelation of all is that Akoko San has never even touched her husband since their marriage in 1986. Conjugal visits have been denied and even a request to have his baby via IVF (In Vitro Fertilisation Treatment) was rejected.
Never mind the fact that his twenty year sentence has been extended indefinitely and numerous appeals refuse to reject the confessions that were used to convict him even though they were withdrawn soon after they were given with claims they were forced. Never mind the appearance of new evidence that casts doubt on the identity of the person responsible for the policeman’s death or the unbelievable fact that the prosecution is allowed to hide that evidence.
It all looks like a huge miscarriage of justice that has got both The United Nations and Amnesty International interested. Even after nearly forty years in prison the most amazing thing we learn in the article is that Fumiaki Hoshino is still optimistic that he will be released one day.
Here’s hoping he is.
Out of shot here were quite a few police too but just liked the detail in the bars of the gate, and the bars and grills, meshes and cages protecting the building especially with the bright blue security guards outside.
Sorting images now and a few other irons in the fire. Busy but loving it.
Anti-nuclear activist, Taro Yamamoto stated his intention to continue as a politician on Tuesday, despite facing censure in the Diet for handing a letter, out-lining the situation in the Fukushima clean-up, to Emperor Akihito at a royal garden party last Thursday. This taboo breaking action has since caused a storm of protest from commentators in the media and politics who found the action arrogant and disrespectful.
By personally giving the 79 year old Emperor such a letter, Yamamoto San ignored several strict protocols against drawing any member of the apolitical monarchy into what is by default a political debate. Calls for harsh punishments from other politicians, especially in the pro-nuclear, ruling LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) and members of the far-right, might now cause problems for the career of this independent lawmaker who was only elected to the House of Councillors in July. Indeed some politicians, that might have been considered natural allies such as Kazuo Shii, leader of the Japanese Communist Party and a noted anti-nuclear campaigner himself, have also questioned the thinking behind Yamamoto’s action with Kazuo San saying that “[Yamamoto] did not understand the constitution.”
The former actor has said, he regrets causing the Emperor any trouble and that he was not sufficiently aware what the consequences of his action would be. For example he says he did not expect the delivery of the letter to be so widely reported and has accused the media of allowing his actions to be used for political purposes that attack him and the anti-nuclear movement. He strongly denied intending to use the Emperor to further his own political purposes however saying he only wished to inform him of the situation affecting Fukushima residents and the health issues of those that are tasked with the clean-up there. Criticising some of the politicians now calling for him to resign he pointed out that many of them saw nothing wrong in using other members of the Japanese Royal Family to help Tokyo secure the 2020 Olympic bid. A fact, he argues, that was much more overtly political and thus unconstitutional.
The letter apparently remains unread as it was passed quickly onto to Grand Chamberlain, who was accompanying the Emperor and Empress as they met some of the 2,140 guests in attendance at the biannual event. If it was a pointless act that crossed boundaries of taste and legality and could effectively end his political career, why, you have to ask, did he do it?
Taro Yamamoto moved into politics when his acting career ended after he made his support for the anti-nuclear movement that grew in Japan after the March 11th nuclear accident in Fukushima public. It was not your usual celebrity band-wagon jumping: in fact, in a industry where famous people do not usually have opinions and certainly not ones that might be considered damaging to companies, like TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company – the operators of the Fukushima plant) that fund the media with their huge advertising budgets, it was a spectacularly reckless move.
Though the first opinions he expressed on Twitter, were perhaps understandable in the aftermath of the events that shocked the whole country; his subsequent treatment by the media seems to have galvanised a more determined and combative approach to the unique issues of nuclear energy and safety faced by an earthquake-prone Japan.
Taro Yamamoto seems always to have followed his own, sometimes reckless, sense of personal morality and appropriateness. An article in the Japan Times earlier this year, profiling his burgeoning political ambitions, showed how his belief in social responsibly was instilled in him at a young age by a strong mother who would force him to donate a percentage of his New Year Money (Otoshidama) to good causes and regularly take him and his sisters away to The Philippines or elsewhere to work with the poor. In the same article he is aware that his celebrity also gives incredible weight to the message and is something he can use to embolden the anti-nuclear agenda, saying: “I really need to do acting work as well, so I can stay in the public eye and continue drawing attention to nuclear issues.”
After failing to win a seat in the Lower House election in late 2012 Yamamoto and an army of 1,200, mostly young volunteers, steeled themselves for a run at a seat in the Upper House elections this summer. The hard work of campaigning in the summer heat and on the internet finally paid off however and he was elected as a Tokyo Councillor on July 21st. Running as an independent he succeeded in securing a seat without having to make any deals or compromises with larger or more established parties and politicians; putting him in a position to take his anti-nuclear message to the heart of government and hopefully have it listened to.
Obviously the realities of politics have proved more exacerbating for Yamamoto than he imagined. The ruling LDP are determined to control the debate on the nuclear energy. The idea is being propagated that the nuclear crisis is under control; the areas affected by contamination are being cleaned and thus Fukushima is ready for re-population and the people to get on with their lives. With a compliant media parroting the party line and the diversions of a successful Olympic bid, where the Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe promised a global audience the crisis was “under control”, the stories of the the 150,000 people that had to evacuate the countryside around the the Daichi plant and the corruption and ineptitude of the operators before the accident and, now, in the clean-up process is slowly disappearing from people’s consciousness.
Taro Yamamoto did not enter politics to get rich or carve out a career in industries that lobby the power people like him gain after election. He would have been more admired and richer if he had remained an actor. He seems to care passionately and genuinely about the situation in Fukushima and appears determined to keep the debate current. But though he declared that he was “no longer alone” when he won the election it is possible that he found his voice much smaller than he had predicted.
There was a moment after the tragedy in March 2011 when the anti-nuclear message resonated widely. But the voices have grown weaker now, the touristing rebellion of many of the older protesters has moved to a grudging acceptance of the inevitable return to routine or even a full embrace of the new, comforting propaganda. Those that still passionately hold the hope they can make a difference can be found outside the diet building almost every Friday; but their numbers are shrinking and their motives and characters are being mercilessly othered in the press.
Questioning the official line is going to become more difficult as the voices against it grow weaker. Soon, new laws, being rushed through by the LDP will limit an already anaemic journalism’s legality in uncovering political secrets and this will further remove the options of arguing against the government’s agenda: that Fukushima will lose its notoriety nationally and ultimately internationally also.
Yet many know the Fukushima clean-up is cosmetic at best and a down-right lie at worst. Many know that the money and motivations to find alternative energies and rebuild the Tohoku coast is instead being diverted to building more nuclear power-stations or into nationalist projects such as Antarctic whaling.
Taro Yamamoto recklessness in breaking a taboo and trying to inform the Emperor of the plight of his people could be judged ill thought-out and punishably impolite; yet it is more likely a brave, calculated risk designed to change the narrative. He has worked too hard to throw away the advantage he has by actually being in power. Of course the demands on his resignation may grow too vociferous to ignore. The notoriety he now has may yet backfire and put an end to a new and promising political movement. But he has at least kept the subject of the problems in Fukushima in the public’s mind a little longer and though the path to this kind of influence over the electorate has been an unconventional one we may be seeing a new kind of politics emerging here, one that needs to challenge and change the normal, acceptable, appropriate and traditional ways of wielding and deferring to power. One can only hope that Emperor Akahito might rattle his own bars a little too someday.
Big typhoon on its way called Wipha apparently whatever that might mean.
Summer now seems an age away though it still quite warm.
Getting busy some very nice possibilities ahead photographically wise.
The memorial is small: a makeshift alter on a tiny oblong of unused ground next to the train tracks; surrounded by plastic construction site fences that are much too cheerfully green. Behind it a couple of rough tin and wood shacks are collapsing in on themselves and the passing commuter trains on the other side wobble the ground like an earthquake. It is an extra-ordinarily ugly location to honour the life of a woman who did an extra-ordinarily brave thing.
On October 1st 2013 Natsue Murata was driving back to her property company office with her 67 year old father, Shigahiro. They had stopped at a level-crossing just outside Nakayama Station, in Yokohama’s Midori Ward, at around 11:30am when she noticed an old man laying on the tracks. They were at the head of the line of waiting cars and she could see clearly that there was something wrong. The crossing barriers had already closed but the man wouldn’t or couldn’t move to the safer side of them. A train was approaching: the crossing signals alarms were incessant with that warning, but forty year old Natsue knew he was in danger and couldn’t just sit there and watch him get run-over by the train.
“I have to help him.” She said as she got out of the car.
“Don’t go. There isn’t enough time!” Her father called after her but against his advice, she crossed the barriers and tried to pull the old man to safety.
The train driver saw her struggling to move the man and applied his emergency brakes but couldn’t stop in time and Natsue was struck by the train and killed. She had managed to move the 74 year old man enough to save his life however. He sustained head and back injuries, including a fractured collar bone, but is expected to make a full recovery.
The old man doesn’t remember anything of the incident and apparently only became aware of his surroundings in the ambulance. Some people have commented that he may have been trying to commit suicide but it is more likely he had a seizure or “senior moment” on the crossing.
“My daughter was someone who could not ignore a person in trouble.” Shigehiro told the Japanese newspaper the Asahi Shimbun.
“I have to console myself with the fact the old man is alive.” He said, adding that he hopes the man lives to a very old age.
The trains that were stopped for several hours by the accident last Tuesday rattle by frequently again now. The crossing signal sounds and the cars, trucks and pedestrians stop and wait at the barriers until it is safe to cross. The routine returns to normal and the heroism and unluckiness of that day become part of the background like the pure white table cloth covering the makeshift alter which is stained now where the rain has washed the colours from the flowers that are piled above it.
The memorial was set up on the October 2nd, the day after the accident by JR (Japan Railways that operate the Yokohama Line), so many people have left flowers and cards that many of them have had to be moved to another location. More people arrive daily to offer prayers for Natsue however. A piece of cardboard lays on the ground in front the alter for people to kneel on when they pray and two security-guards bow and welcome those that come to offer condolences.
Not only locals have been moved by her selfless act. The Japanese government and national Police Agency (NPA) have presented a medal with a red ribbon, the highest civilian honour, and a silver cup to the Murata family to mark their daughter’s courage. The Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, also sent a letter of gratitude. Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshida Suga, personally handed the letter to the family on Sunday. In it the PM expressed his condolences and honoured her courage in putting another person’s life before her own.
When politician, especially ones as unscrupulous and stupid as Abe it is easy to be cynical. Perhaps he is coat-tailing an act of unusual courage for political gain: something he can spin into some sense of unique Japanese fortitude that suits his nationalistic agenda. But if so he would need to ask why no-one else there that day thought to help the old man or Natsue as she struggled to move him.
It makes him more human perhaps; more caring in a way his other policies are not but I do not think it so shallow a ploy. Perhaps like many people he has asked himself the question we all do at such events: would I have helped? Would I have been brave enough to do what she did? I’d like to think I would; but with a train baring down and a statically higher risk to my own life as the rescuer, I wonder. I wonder.
All of which makes Natsue Murata’s sacrifice all the more extra-ordianry and maybe that is enough to make all of us, great and small, honour her and we should just leave it at that.
Took the kids out to the Miraikan science museum on Sunday so they could enjoy the Thunderbirds exhibtio that is running there until September 23rd.
Well that’s my story and I’m sticking too it.
Busy at the moment.
The Yasukuni visit on August 15th is a ritual for many photographers in Japan; we go to see a side to Japan that is often hidden but which bubbles below the surface of most interactions. Because on this day, the day that marks the end of the Pacific War and Japan’s defeat, the unique pride of the Japanese in themselves is on full display.
And it is a display for the best part: a strutting peacock in khaki and medals display of historical myopia and stupidity. Patriotism is one thing, and a worthy one at that, but here, on this day, people look to the past to find the cause of their present discomfort, laying their search wrongly and missing the message in remembrance: They see a small Asia country respected through its export of discipline and order not the fear created by the colonial adventurism of its despotic military rulers. They see romantic hopelessness and the divine sacrifice of youth toward a passion of place not the national embarrassment that should be the kamikaze. They see the faces of millions of innocent men branded evil by unwelcome and uncouth enemy lords, without realising that at least 14 of those faces deserve that very description. And they see conspiracies of foreign subjugates to belittle Asia’s natural leader not the collective response of an organic new world order and the beginnings of post-colonialism, Asian or otherwise.
What they do not see enough is the waste of life that was the Pacific War. An easy victimhood can be found in the numbers of dead but they blame he wrong people for those lost souls and put defeat down to diet or bad luck.
Almost every year my photographer friends and I go to see the dichotomy of Japanese nationalism here. There is a superciliousness to it that is laughable when the history is recalled yet it is a sort of pantomime of self-regard that is of course interesting as a photojournalist; with posturing men in uniforms they have not earned and a mania of flags, fights and misplaced anger. The constant question foreigners get asked, when talking to people at Yasukuni on this day, is where we are from. The openness of the relationship that ensues depends on answers stuck in past animosities. Obviously British and American citizens are derided whereas Germans and Italians are treated as brothers and welcomed.
The biggest pantomime is the annual “will he, won’t he” of politicians’ visits who nominally go to remember the war dead, but actually do so to make political statements and cement their right-wing credentials. This year Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, (who right wing credentials are quite strong) stayed away in a realpolitik attempt to avoid increasing tensions with China and South Korea after territorial disputes and several racist gaffes by senior cabinet members. At least three of his cabinet ministers visited the shrine however and 77 other Liberal Democrat Party lawmakers (LDP) also did. In total 89 politicians paid their respects at Yasukuni on Thursday. I watched some arrive; driving up in their cars and getting out, in formal frock coats, to polite applause. Famous faces got loud cheers and the less famous a mere smattering of sweaty hand claps from the more enthusiastic onlookers, before embarrassment that they didn’t actually know who that person was sent them silent.
Last year only 55 politicians came to Yasukuni on August 15th and indeed the whole place seemed busier this year. A spokesman for the shrine told the press that 175,000 people had come to pay their respects, up from 161,000 last year, and the queue of people waiting to pray stretched back far further than I have ever seen it before.
Maybe the current troubles with its far too critical neighbours is causing this surge in national pride. But these are not your rabid right-wing activists in Uyoku jump-suits. Most of the visitors were mostly ordinary people, living ordinary lives who may never express openly, at any other time,, the feelings they have. They may work, live and study with foreigners every day without their dislikes getting in the way. Perhaps they do not even feel that dislike day in, day out. But is must be there , mustn’t it? For the wish to march with a flag on the street and to express your belief in your nation’s exceptionalism is not normal. Pride I get. Patriotism I understand. Respect for victims of war I agree with. But Yasukuni is not about any of those things, it is about expressing a political opinion that places all other nations below your own and refuting the lessons of history, with an apparent intention of repeating the mistakes of the past. It is about nationalism and xenophobia. The politicians know this; the right-wing ideologues and their foot-soldiers know this. The foreign media know this. Yet a visit to Yasukuni is still reported as an innocent expression of commemoration and hopes of peace. Yet can it ever be that when the shrine so disingenuously ties the unpleasant aspects of Japanese history to the memories of its victims?
Are the Japanese people really so stupid, or do they really feel that dangerous pride again?
Confusing and troubling day as you feel for a moment there that you do not understand this country at all. Men in shirts and ties insult you to your face whereas other men in boiler suits with swastika badges apologise for standing on your foot while they are fighting with riot police in an attempt to cause real physical harm to peace protesters.
Can’t keep away.
More images of the Yasukuni Shrine end of war celebration on August 15th at my archive site here:
Picture from inside a police kettle near Yasukuni shrine yesterday, as they tried to contain the right-wing activists and para-militaries from attacking the peace protesters’ march.
It was a new technique the police are using that I have never experienced here before.
Sitting down in bars and cafes; buying drinks and socialising with the uyoku is also another technique I observed yesterday for the first time.
Funny sort of day. Lots of new experiences.
More to come
Off out with my boys today.
Due to family pressures (it was much more of a beach holiday for the kids!) didn’t actually get to see much of the festival itself but did meet and get interviewed by William Adams himself (bottom image). As the real Will Adams died in 1620 it wasn’t actually him of course. Indeed it wasn’t even an Englishman but a Japanese man in a blond wig and Elizabethan clothes who was very hot in that get-up but also very happy to share the history of Ito and tell me about the blue-eyed samurai who came to Japan 400 years ago and became a friend and advisor to the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu.
I know a thing or two about William Adams as he is from my hometown of Gillingham in Kent. My dad’s interest in history plus his connections to the sea made the name something I grew up with. When James Clavell’s Shogun was shown on the TV in my youth we all watched it religiously. I learnt my first few Japanese words from watching it; indeed it would be true to say that series piqued my initial interest in Japan itself.
There was a touch of home also as the parade, that is the main event of the festival, got ready when I met and briefly spoke to four exchange students from Medway who were leading the parade (third image). The students: two women called Sally Jeffery and Molly Ellwood and two men called Matthew English and Lare Erogbogbo were somewhat hot and flustered and seemed either unimpressed or too tired to react to this chance encounter with a Kentish compatriot.
Japanese people love organising photo calls and poses and all lots of old men and women were fussing around them of them. It seemed everyone had a job and a particular place to be stand and smile to do so our conversation was brief. Though it appears they are over of a few weeks, heading off to various cultural events and having a good time despite the heat. Indeed Lare seemed to be loving the sunshine.
Then it was back to the beach, past the statue of William Adams that commemorates his connection to this town (It is where he oversaw the building of Japan’s first western style sailing ship) and then a sunburnt afternoon with the kids at the beach and fireworks over red wine at night kind of a day.
A mostly good day out to be honest.
Hope to go again next year.