The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

The Rising Left

This year there will be an election in Japan, before September ends the incumbant Prime Minister, Taro Aso, has to take his politics and his plummiting popularity to the people and ask them to support him and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) one more time. Now Prime Ministers may come and go quite regularly in this country but the LDP has been been an almost constant fixture of government in Japan since the end of WWII and at any other time the calling of general election would be pretty much a formality. Those that bother to vote tend to vote LDP and those do vote for the opposition, Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) tend to  assume that the LDP will win anyway and everyone just settles into to things going on as they have before.

Well this year “more of the same” is basically what no one wants.  Japan is suffering, like the rest of the world, in the current economic crisis and people want leaders that know what to do to fix their woes. Now it`s not as if Japan hasn`t lived through economic crisises before, indeed it could teach most countries a thing or two about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps; but Japanese people have finally begun to wonder when their prolonged stoicism will begin to pay dividends; when the results of their hard work will be used to repair the economy and when the powerful will show their long-overdue gratitude.

After the Second World War the only way Japan could possibly go was up and it was also understood the only way up, as a defeated nation, was to work hard to put the past behind you and reinvent. So that`s what the Japanesae did in a most spectacular fashion. In less then forty years the country went from a bombed wasteland to a booming world player with the second largest economy on the planet.

But a lot of the success was built on lies and of course the bubble had to burst, as it has done now for America and Europe. What was different in Japan though was, unlike in America and Europe whose peoples have quickly punished and berated their leaders for allowing gigantic corporations to trace devient paths into greed, was the fact that the LDP, that had similarly guided and permitted such bubble building excess in the 1980s, was never blamed at the ballot box: voters just turned-out as they had before and voted for the same people in the hope that they, despite mishaps, would repeat their earlier success and everything would be “genki” again.

That was twenty years ago now and though the media still talks of Japan`s Lost Decade the years now stretch to double that time and a new economic crisis has hit Japan with the same leaders making the same mistakes they did then. The difference this time is people see the mistakes being made and are less prepared to give the government the benefit of the doubt. The LDP `s stay of execution may have finally ended.

These days forty-four percent of all workers in Japan are classed as part-timers and as such are entitled to nothing. They get no insurance, or access to union representation to help them avoid exploitation (and they are often exploited) . They have no access to company housing, no subsidies for health care and worst of all can easily be dismissed when companies` profits slumps and they needs to save money. This less than human treatment is what people have come to accept if they want to work for companies that often seem to support and be supported by the government. In the fifties and sixties people worked hard because they could see the results changing  their lives almost daily: living standards rose, life got better, the country got better, everything had a purpose. People still work hard now yet they do not see any improvement in their lives. These are the “working poor”, a new phrase for Japan but already a familiar one that describes those who work in low-skilled and low salary employment and those that bought into the post-war work ethic when the bubble burst and carried on with their lives; got married, had children and dreamed of promotion and status in society and who cannot now stop and get off this cruel treadmill of hope. For them daily life is a struggle to stay where they are, the companies extorting longer hours and reduced salaries from them as demons of destitution snap at their heels. The young meanwhile, seeing that and wanting something else, anything else, have, over the last two decades become almost totally apathetic in their interests in a career, politics and sometimes even in their own lives. Most continue to work hard at jobs that demand as such; but with little ambition attached to the routine many have become content to live for the moment, spending their wages on fashion fixes and escapism as they try not to think about the future.

Then the Sub-prime crisis hit and though the Japanese government successfully managed to pass some of the outfall of its own ineptitude onto the American financial sector Japanese people could readily see governments in Europe and the States energetically trying to repair the damage and, at times, even accepting blame for the mess. This contrasted sharply with the policies and attitude of their own government (the same government that had acted the same way in 1989 when the bubble burst) and many are beginning to think another party is long overdue a chance.

It is hard to describe the sea-change in attitude here to politics, not for all people by any stretch of the imagination; and how long the convictions of newly converted opposition supporters will last when this anti-LDP fad has run its course is hard to say. I wouldn`t be surprised to see a new Prime Minister, just before the election, claw back a winning majority as older voters lose their bottle for real change at the ballot box. But it is not the old that matter that much these days, it is the young and though only around 30 percent of people under thirty actually voted in the last election the energy surrounding them this time is hard to ignore. It could be the Obama effect, his out-reach to the young also invigorated an interest in politics here, not least because it was done in a way that most young Japanese could understand: on the internet and via cellphone. Suddenly Japanese people could see politics as not only cool but convenient and interest has surged.

One of the most surprising benificiaries from this influx of democratic energy and connectivity has been the Japanese Communist Party. Founded in 1922 it may have a rather anachronistic name but its message has greater appeal and is distributed in a far more modern way than either of the two main parties. The Communist party of Japan has always followed its own tune, withdrawing from the Global Communist Agenda in protest at Stalin`s abuses and taming the messages of Marx and Engels to the current belittlement of the Japanese worker has struke the right chord with the disenfranchised Japanese would-be voter. And even though the leader, Shii Kazuo, may look like your quintessential salaryman, even before President Obama made it mainstream he was using the internet to campaign and recruit. These days the Japanese Communist Party even has its own YouTube channel and boasts around a 1,000 new members joining each week making it, officially, the fourth largest party in the country with about 7.25% of the vote in the last general election in 2005 (against a very popular Junichiro Koizumi of the LDP) and holding 18 seats in the parliament.

Of course that`s just the mainstream left wing, other socialist and communist groups like the Rengo Union with its 6.8 million members or the militant Dora Chiba marxist union that grew from the Chiba area railway workers union represent stronger and more or sometimes less focused voices. Dora Chiba for example has campaigned on everything from the building of Narita Airport to the Iraq War and is shown in the photographs at the top of this post at a rally in Yoyogi Park where it was lending its muscle to a protest against Hosei University`s restrictions on student political activities among other issues.

Will Japan ever become a Communist country? I doubt it. Yet the growth in interest in the left wing has to be good regardless of the politics you believe in. The last twenty years have seen Japan lose so much of itself to those that cared only about themselves. Maybe there is still someway to go to really animating the politics of debate and passion in this country but it wasn`t that long ago that Japanese activists were every bit as radical and intent as there peers in the US or Paris, or even more so. The fact that there are students again wanting to take part in political events in Hosei University has to be a welcome sign of a recovering political maturity. Sure some of this interest may be misguided, foolish or even pointless and those that organise and take part may be naive or over zeolous. And I`m sure some is just a fad, worn like a costume for the duration of their student lives. Yet the messages stick even if the reality of conviction changes with time. 1.6 million people daily read The Red Flag Communist newspaper and take the issues to heart; 1,600 people turned up to feed homeless people over New Year in Hibiya Park with the Moyai Foundation; a novel about the hardships of working on crab canning boat, written by Takiji Kobayashi, who was tortured to death for his Communist ideas in 1933, is a national best sellers.

Where all this interest is going I don`t know, but politics matters and compassion matters even more and at long last, after such a long time of really not feeling anything at all, Japan is again alive to the fact that people should be treated as people and that the Japanese people are the only ones that make this happen.

More images of left wing protests in Japan at my photoshelter archive here.

Damon

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One response

  1. Pingback: Tears and Anger « sungypsy blog

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