The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

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 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.

Later

Damon

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