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Sealing the deal on public meetings

Outdoor gatherings are wrapped in red tape

by Debito Arudou

You might have heard recently about Tama-chan, a cute sea lion frequenting Yokohama rivers. He became so popular that the city threw him an unprecedented fish: an honorary Certificate of Residency (“juminhyo”).

This was, uh, fishy indeed to some of the other mammals living in Japan — i.e. foreigners — who cannot get a residency certificate. A quirk of Japanese laws (and unique among the developed countries): only citizens (“kokumin”) can officially be registered as residents (“jumin”), even though foreigners pay resident tax as well.

To draw attention to this unequal treatment, a group of people (including this author), decided to honor Tama-chan’s unprecedented status with a public celebration. On Feb. 22, we planned to dress up as seals, assemble on a Yokohama river bank, and ask: “Can we have a juminhyo too?”

This is where we found ourselves completely at sea with the Japanese police. As you might expect, there are restrictions on the right of public assembly in Japan.

On the surface of it, this is counterintuitive. After all, Japan’s Constitution (Article 21) explicitly states, “Freedom of assembly and association, and all other forms of expression are guaranteed.”

But dive deeper. After we publicized this event, vigilant cops reeled us in for a reality check. Similar to many other countries (Great Britain, for example), public permission was required to demonstrate, to make sure things did not devolve into a riot.

In Yokohama, which falls under Kanagawa Prefectural Ordinance 69, any form of assembly involving a “group” with a public message outdoors (as opposed to a venue enclosed by walls, which makes attendance a matter of free will) requires the approval of authorities.

That wouldn’t be easy. We were to assemble outside a train station, then walk to a local public park. So we would apparently need written permission from: the local shopkeep association (to prance past their storefronts), the Public Safety Commission (“kouan kyoku”) for traffic control, and the parkkeeper (which would involve going through the city).

We would have to bring the local police station all permission slips in person (no faxes or mailed submissions allowed). Then fill out forms (bring a seal, and I don’t mean Tama-chan) providing the organizer’s home and work contact details, times, dates, number of attendees, a map of the route, and the goals of the event. Then we would probably get a permit.

The catch was, we had to file this at least 72 hours before the event, or face a fine of 300,000 yen or a year in jail.

Quite a few hoops to jump through. And we missed the deadline. We couldn’t very well postpone everything, so we asked what the difference was between a group demonstration and a simple picnic.

A picnic, they said, did not involve a public appeal. Therefore we could not display, or broadcast, any messages or speeches to the outside world — be they vocal, visual, or distributed. Technically, we could not even wear clothes with messages. And to make sure we toed the line, the police would be there bobbing around.

Fortunately, we saw how to balance the ball — for like Tama-chan, there are a lot of gray areas. We could, of course, simply meet as friends at an assigned place, wear costumes (some of us came already sealed), sing, paint whiskers on our faces, and subtly toot our own horns.

And if the mass media just happened to join in, there’s nothing illegal about that.

So how did it all go? Swimmingly. Schools of Ethnic Koreans, non-Japanese, and citizens surfaced at the event.

Moreover, our policeman let us off the hook. He left halfway through, and the celebration sailed smoothly on.

But think of the sharks out there who really do muddy the waters. For example, a vehicle (not a congregation of people) trolling the roads (where traffic laws have less strict noise limits) blaring militaristic music (not a specific political message) in the vicinity of what happens to be the home or workplace of a few dissidents. Japan’s “sound trucks” also slip through the nets.