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Trump shocks Japan’s American expats into action

by and

Special To The Japan Times

Nearly a month has passed since a new administration moved into the White House. Since then, not a day has passed that Donald Trump’s name hasn’t appeared on the cover of newspapers in Japan.

On the day of his inauguration, a combined total of some 800 people took part in Sister Marches in Tokyo and Osaka, making it clear that the new president would face fierce resistance even from across the Pacific.

“Racial tyrannies in foreign policy have already escalated with the Muslim ban,” explained one 34-year-old American Kyoto resident, who asked that her name not be published due to concerns about repercussions from her employer. “As part of his political campaign Trump made alarming comments and threats regarding Japan. If history has taught us anything, Japan cannot afford to be silent on or complicit to racist foreign policies by this administration because some time or another, it should know that it is also under threat.”

The concern is shared by Japanese citizens as well. “I fear that their friends’ and family’s lives will be torn apart by Trump administration’s racist, sexist and homophobic policies,” said university professor Satoko Itani. “If the U.S. government backtracks on decades of progress in terms of equity, civil liberty and environmental protection, it would very likely embolden the Japanese government to do the same.”

New organizations and platforms have emerged in Japan; pre-existing ones are active and are seeing boosts in membership. Many American residents have pledged to be more engaged in politics this year.

“After what I’ve seen in this election I decided to get involved with politics directly,” said Steven Breyak, a 37-year-old American living in Osaka. “I’ve joined the Democrats Abroad, been in contact with my state representatives regarding issues important to me, engaged in a lot of open debate on public media.”

Alliance for an Inclusive America

On Sunday, the multifaith and nonpartisan Alliance for an Inclusive America launched with an estimated 350-strong march starting in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park “to show support to those affected by the recent Muslim ban and other Trump administration actions impinging on the human rights of members of our shared global community.” Before the march, organizers gave short speeches, and this was followed by a high school student’s rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

“The ban. The wall. The othering. All end here,” declared Ric Fouad to the gathered crowd.

Fouad, 56, a lawyer and child welfare advocate, explains that the Alliance has two main objectives.

“The first is to serve as a clearing house for information among various groups in Japan who are organizing activities with a general goal of preserving America as the civil society that we all cherish,” he says. “And the second overall goal is to organize some of our own activities toward the same end.”

Dakota Access Pipeline campaigns

After a fierce campaign waged by the Standing Rock Sioux and their supporters against the routing of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) through their ancestral lands, former President Barack Obama denied Energy Transfer Partners permission to drill under the Missouri River in December. Just days after his inauguration, Trump reversed course and greenlighted the project, sparking international criticism that he was disregarding human rights and the environment.

In response, newly emerging campaigns are working to pressure Mizuho Bank, Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group and Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ to disinvest their total of $1.5 billion in funding from the DAPL, as two Norwegian banks did in November. A Japan-based Change.org petition to be delivered to banks on Friday by concerned citizens, including indigenous Ainu and Maori, has garnered over 10,000 signatures in a month.

The Japan Stands with Standing Rock NPO is disseminating up-to-date information on Standing Rock in Japanese through events and its Facebook page. 350.org and Greenpeace Japan are encouraging customers to put pressure on the banks by closing their accounts.

Democrats Abroad Japan

After Trump’s election in November, Democrats Abroad Japan began holding monthly action meetings in Tokyo. DAJ Chair Tom Schmid has been encouraged by the response.

“It’s time for us to organize, time for us to be positive by focusing on the issues we believe in and not just trying to tear down the Trump administration,” he says. “So many people are paying attention now in a way that they didn’t before. It’s a great opportunity to tell people what we believe in.”

Out of the DAJ meetings in Tokyo came the Candlelight Vigil, which coincided with the Tokyo Sisters March, as well as a letter-writing campaign to U.S. senators, outreach to local charitable organizations in Kanto and a “teach-in,” which included a presentation by former DAJ Chair Mike Stensrud on the “Indivisible Guide: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda.

To a crowd of around 35 people, Stensrud summarized the 27-page guide, which has been downloaded over a million times. Encouraging people to call members of Congress, join or organize groups and participate in town hall meetings, “Indivisible” uses the strategy of the right-wing tea party as its model.

Writing in The New York Times, the authors — former congressional staff members — explain: “It takes a few pages from the tea party playbook, focusing on its strategic choices and tactics tactics, while dispensing with its viciousness. It’s the tea party inverted: locally driven advocacy built on inclusion, fairness and respect. It’s playing defense, not to obstruct, but to protect.”

Living in a different time zone means U.S. citizens in Japan need to contact their representatives between 11 p.m and 7 a.m. JST. Acknowledging this challenge, Strensrud laments, “One of the things that I always used to find frustrating is that our members wouldn’t actually call up their representatives.” He hopes people can connect with local Indivisible groups in their home states.

“We can introduce the guide to people and maybe tell them where they can find out about groups, but in the end they have to join their own group,” he says.

Building momentum and maintaining engagement is a challenge.

“After a march, you feel like you did something, but if there’s no follow-up, they could be detrimental,” says DAJ Secretary Jenise Treuting. But on the other hand, she believes the marches help participants build a sense that they are not alone. “I guess through the media, basically you feel that something is what most people believe in, but in reality it isn’t,” she says. “That, I think, is the biggest danger.”

DAJ activities are not only for U.S. citizens and anyone is welcome at events, emphasizes Craig Sweet, chair of the Kansai wing of DAJ. “Just because you are an American abroad does not mean you don’t have a voice in American politics,” Sweet says. “Unlike Republicans, Democrats Abroad are like a 51st state, with representation at the national level.”

Our Revolution, Japan

Last March, Bernie Sanders clinched the Democrats Abroad global primary with 69 percent of the vote in a total of 38 countries. Sanders won in Japan by a landslide, winning 1,178 of the votes to Clinton’s 176. Some of his supporters here are organizing Our Revolution, Japan with the mission “to unite our community of progressives to contribute to the action and discussion of a progressive movement at home and abroad.”

ORJ launched in August, and since the inauguration the organization has been lending support to DAJ.

“Trump’s Cabinet picks and his statements threaten many key progressive ideals such as health care for all, $15 minimum wage and corruption-free government and politics,” says ORJ’s Gordon Gaul. “To show our opposition to his actions, we participated in joint rallies such as the Women’s March on Inauguration Day and attended events held by Democrats Abroad Japan.”

Informal groups across the nation

Other people have been gathering regularly in informal groups in Kanto and Kansai and exchanging information.

Aileen Mioko Smith, environmental activist and co-author of “Minamata,” has initiated a discussion group with local residents in Kyoto about how to be active in influencing U.S. politics under the new administration for the better.

“It’s easy to feel active reading the news, but without taking action, you aren’t making the situation better,” says Smith. “From the perspective of U.S. citizens living in Asia, we can support State Department officials speaking the truth, openly protest U.S. government action, write our hometown papers. That is how we can bridge the gap.”

Itani urges fellow Japanese citizens to “voice their opposition to the U.S. domestic and international policies that oppress and take away the rights from people. They can also organize and join the political activism and movements to stand in solidarity with American people. It will send the message to the American people and government that the world is watching.”

There is concern, though, that people will lose focus on the core issues.

“We have to look beyond the surface,” says Linda Crawford, 79, a long-time active member of the Democratic Party in Kyoto. “The people Trump has put in charge want to disempower the departments of education, justice, environment. We need to generate the same kind of energy for uncovering what they are trying to do behind the smoke screen and theatrics.”

Do you know of any similar activities taking place in Japan? If you have a community event planned, please fill in the form at www.japantimes.co.jp/communitylistings-form. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp