If you were in the Tokyo neighborhoods of Koenji on April 10, Shibuya on May 7, or Shinjuku on June 11, you might have seen (or more likely, heard) thousands of demonstrators weaving through the streets, waving signs and chanting slogans in opposition to Japan’s atomic energy policies. In the past few months, some worried Japanese have turned to these marches to express their unease or outright anger over the handling of events at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. For many, it has been their first time engaging in such a public and assertive display.
That includes Rumi Arai, who is better known as hip-hop M.C., Rumi, who made scalding appearances on the mobile stages leading the Koenji and Shibuya marches.
“The impression of protest in Japan is that it’s for extremists on the right and left,” she says. “I never expected to get involved in demonstrations or that sort of thing.”
Arai was in London on March 11, and paid close attention to European reactions to the disaster, such as when more than 200,000 Germans took to the streets to protest against nuclear power on March 26. “Looking at the situation,” she says, “I felt I had to get involved.” So the April 10 event became, not just her first time performing at a march, but her first time participating in one at all.
Arai’s music channels anger into fun, drawing on the loud, hyperactive rhythms of British jungle and dubstep for edgy party tracks such as “Heso-Cha,” from 2007′s “Hell Me Why??” release, and “Goinjuu” (“Deathbed”), from 2009′s “Hell Me Nation.” Her voice has a cutting edge, and her records are full of high-energy righteousness. She often alludes to politics, whether it’s the prickly isolation of modern Japanese life in “Saboten,” or the foreboding sense of being the play thing of larger forces in “Kami no Pappetto” (“Puppet of God”) from her 2004 debut, “Hell Me Tight.”
That she’d never taken her dissatisfaction to the streets comes down, she says, to culture. “(In Japan), people just don’t like the idea of demonstrating, of making a lot of noise. It’s in the national character. People don’t even like to talk about politics. They’re afraid of disagreeing, or of seeming ignorant, so they just don’t bring it up.”
Since the earthquake, Arai says she has seen the danger of that passivity.
“My sister has got a baby,” she says. “I keep telling her not to go out in the rain, and all of these (things that risk radiation exposure). But she doesn’t believe me. They’re not saying that on TV, and people have a lot of faith in TV. There are huge differences between people getting their information from the Internet as opposed to TV.”
Arai believes the street demonstrations are a way to catch the attention of people like her sister, “At the Shibuya demonstration, I looked at the passersby, and some of them were just looking at us, thinking, ‘yuck.’ But some people were really listening. I think they realized this (issue) has something to do with them.”
Music is an important way of making things more inviting. The so-called sound demos, protests that feature musical performances, are — in contrast to the austere atmosphere of many right-wing demonstrations — at least as much about dancing as sloganizing. Arai is conscious of her role as a sort of Pied Piper: “Of course, I really am angry, but if you show too much of that, you’ll scare people away.”
She sees at least some positive impact. “There have been demonstrations every week — not just sound demos — and bit by bit, the people watching from the sidelines have turned into participants,” she says.
Her main aim, though, isn’t to mint new antinuclear activists. “I just think people need to think about it more. The people outside the demonstration, just walking — that’s what I want to say to them.”
Arai sounds uncertain of whether she and other demonstrators are succeeding.
“I thought everyone’s consciousness would change, just because the situation seemed like it would get so bad,” she says. “It has changed a bit, but it’s still a pretty small number of people.”
That doesn’t mean she’s giving up. “Even if I’m not performing at a demonstration — I’ll be there.”
Rumi plays June 25 at Club Sonic in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. She appears on several tracks on the upcoming album by dub/reggae group The Heavy Manners, out later this year. Her single “Jyaakuna xxx” (“Wicked xxx”) is for sale at www.diystars.net/hearts, with all proceeds going to Tohoku earthquake relief.