Occupy Tokyo lacks focus but still demands change

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

Tokyo wo senkyo seyo! (東京を占拠せよ! Occupy Tokyo!”)

Tokyo’s “Occupation” last month was a relatively small-scale affair, with crowds measured in hundreds as against thousands and tens of thousands elsewhere in the world. But is size everything?

Uōru-gai wo senkyo seyo, (ウォール街を占拠せよ, Occupy Wall Street) was itself a laughably small movement when it started on Sept. 17 — a handful of demonstrators in a New York park protesting various social ills and claiming to represent “the 99 percent” — the vast and growing majority of have-nots enraged at the rapacious “1 percent” whose bloated wealth they feel contrasts gallingly with, and is to blame for, their own downward mobility.

The movement grew, became a storm, spread worldwide. If “the 99 percent” were less visibly numerous in Tokyo than elsewhere, one possible explanation, an American protester suggested to the Asahi Shimbun, is, “Nihonjin wa seijiteki na giron wo suru bunka ga nai, (日本人は政治的な議論をする文化がない, The Japanese don’t have a culture of political dispute”).

Or of political enthusiasm, he might have added. A ruling elite of faceless bureaucrats, colorless politicians and interchangeable revolving-door prime ministers has long ensured that Japanese politics remains devoid of the theatrical elements that enliven other democracies. That, together with a general sense of wellbeing — of growing wealth equitably distributed — kept people largely nonpori (ノンポリ, apolitical) for a generation.

That may be changing.

Sekai kakumei (世界革命, world revolution) is what some Japanese bloggers and tweeters have been calling for lately. Twitter, in the days leading up to the Oct. 15 Tokyo demos, twinkled with tweets like, “Iyoiyo Nihon demo! (いよいよ日本でも! Finally, Japan too!”); “Nani!? Tokyo senkyo suru no ka! (なに!?東京占拠するのか!What!? They’re occupying Tokyo?”); “Amerika de okite iru ookii demo no yo ni, Tokyo de mo keikaku ga aru yo desu (アメリカで起きている大きいデモのように、東京でも計画があるようです, It seems there’s a plan for a big demo in Tokyo, like the ones that’ve been happening in America.”)

What was uppermost in the minds of the protesters gathered in Hibiya Park and Roppongi on Oct. 15? Broadly speaking, “99 pāsento no tame no shakai, (99パーセントのための社会 , a society for the benefit of the 99 percent”). The whole Occupy Wall Street movement has so far been — maddeningly to some, hearteningly to others — unspecific, and 東京を占拠せよ was no exception. Tezukuri no purakādo (手作りプラカード, handmade placards) read, “Minna ni ie wo! shoku wo! (みんなに家を!職を!A house and job for everyone!”), “Genpatsu hantai! (原発反対!, Oppose nuclear power!”). There was even a placard to answer the objection that those seemingly disparate goals may not belong in the same protest: “Genpatsu mo kakusa mo nekko wa hitotsu (原発も格差も根っこは一つ, Nuclear power and the [wealth-poverty] gap have one root”).

Anti-nuclear activism in fact seemed to overwhelm the economic issues — not surprising, perhaps, given the price Japan is paying for its stubborn reliance on nuclear power in the face of persistent safety concerns. As one protester put it to the Asahi, “Genpatsu ya shinsai to itta tēma no hō ga nihon ni kurasu 99 pāsento no hitobito no mondai dakara (原発や震災といったテーマの方が日本に暮らす99パーセントの人々の問題だから, the themes of nuclear power and earthquake disasters are the problems of Japan’s 99 percent”).

Is mere unfocused fuman (不満, discontent) enough to fuel an enduring movement? Some say it is the best fuel of all, and exult in the absence of a unified mokuteki (目的 , goal). Why burden a more or less spontaneous uprising with definitions and boundaries that exclude people? As it is, dare de mo sanka dekiru (誰でも参加できる, anyone can get involved) — from underpaid hiseiki rōdōsha (非正規労働者, irregular workers) to advocates of datsu genpatsu (脱原発, eliminating nuclear power) to students protesting takai gakuhi (高い学費, high tuition fees) to tariff-protected farmers opposed to the budding international free-trade Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Japan is currently agonizing over whether to join.

Yes, but … say others. As one Twitter user put it, “Mokuteki ga hakkiri shinai. Kantan ni setsumei shite itadakemasuka? (目的がはっきりしない。簡単に説明していただけますか? There’s no clear goal. Would someone please give me a simple explanation?”)

To which request there doesn’t seem to have been an answer. Perhaps there simply is no simple explanation. Or if there is, it’s embodied in one word: henka (変化, change). All over the world, the conviction is growing that something is rotten and must change. Different people feel victimized by different ills and seek different changes — inevitably, in times as complex as these. The slogan that best expresses it all is, Shōrai naki wakamono (将来なき若者, young people with no future). How did the 21st century, once the image of future become present, come to this?