Tetsuo Tanaka has been protesting his dismissal from an electronics company for a quarter of a century. Now his struggle, one of the longest one-man campaigns in Japanese history, is to be the subject of a documentary

It’s a Friday morning in Takao, west Tokyo, and a sleepy gray army of salary-men and women is snaking through the gates of Oki Electric.

At a few minutes before 8 a.m., Tetsuo Tanaka pulls up on a moped outside the factory gates, sets up a mike stand attached to a bullhorn and begins strumming his guitar and singing:

“There is a wall between you and me which we can’t see Wall of borders, wall of language, wall of history and life.”

Nobody — not the bleary-eyed workers, security guards or even the schoolchildren and mothers walking by Oki — acknowledges the odd sight of a middle-aged man in a cowboy hat serenading in English one of Japan’s largest electronics companies with peace songs.

After years of performing here every morning from 8-8.30 a.m., it is as though Tanaka has blended into the background like the local milkman. “He’s nothing to do with us,” sniffs a guard. “He was fired a long time ago.”

Tanaka in fact was fired on June 29, 1981, the day after he refused a compulsory transfer order from his managers. He has been singing his homemade ditties here every day since, outlasting 13 Japanese prime ministers, almost four U.S. presidents and at least three Oki bosses.

Now aged 58, he has spent almost half his lifetime in a relentless quest for justice. “I’m stubborn,” he admits.

The session ends with a quiet prayer. “I pray for the three Oki presidents who have died while I have been protesting. May they rest in peace,” he says, without a hint of sarcasm, adding: “I respect my enemy.”

Tanaka’s struggle with his corporate nemesis began in the late 1970s when Oki dismissed about a tenth of its workforce. He and a small group of other workers fought the sackings, without the backing of the company union.

Married and with two young children, Tanaka sympathized with the sacked employees and believed his reaction was justified. He was met with the full might of a Japanese firm in war mode against a disloyal employee: intimidation, pay cuts and worse followed.

“The management ordered people not to talk or associate with those who were fighting the sackings. They introduced morning calisthenics before work as a loyalty test, like Christians being forced to stand on the picture of Jesus Christ. If you refused to go, you were a traitor. I sat at my desk.”

When Tanaka ran for a post in the company union, he says almost the entire workforce was mobilized against him. At a union meeting of 1,000 employees he took the stage to blank silence. “All of them, except for a few supporters, turned their backs and left.

“My friend said afterward: ‘Their faces were pale and blank, like dead men.’ ”

Shunned by most of his former workmates, Tanaka continued his fight against the restructuring with a handful of supporters before the company ordered him to relocate to a different branch; a common way of punishing recalcitrant Japanese employees.

“It was discrimination because of my fight, so I refused,” he says. After 12 years with the company he joined after college, it was to be his last day of work at Oki.

A terse statement from Oki says simply that Tanaka’s contract was “unavoidably” terminated and that a Supreme Court decision in March 1995 “completely accepted” the firm’s claims. “We have no further comment.”

Tanaka makes a living now teaching music from home but the rhythms of his life are determined by his struggle. He has never missed a date in front of the factory gates except on those rare occasions when he has gone abroad to speak.

Every third Friday he goes to Oki’s head office in Tokyo and on the 29th of each month he camps in front of the Takao factory from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.: his monthly sit-in. He has run for the Upper House, been arrested outside the president’s house and fought his case over 12 years all the way to the Supreme Court.

Nowhere is safe from his unrelenting anger, even the Oki annual stockholders meeting where he uses his tiny stake in the firm to confront its bosses.

In 2003, he and his supporters ensured the company had one of the longest shareholders meetings in Japan that year, before forcing the president to leave under a barrage of questions. “The enemy had to take cover,” says Tanaka, grinning.

Now he is the subject of a new documentary by Australian filmmaker and academic Maree Delofski and her partner Mark Gregory, who say they found Tanaka’s philosophy about his own struggle “very interesting and original.”

“Some unions in Japan seem to have become ciphers of company policy or unions with little independence. The reason he got sacked was because he refused to comply with the company loyalty tests,” says Gregory.

“He felt his sacking very deeply and as an individual he wasn’t going to accept what the company had done to him.”

Tanaka has spent years learning English so he can publicize his fight abroad. His Web site ( www.din.or.jp/~okidentt/eigohome.htm ) includes hundreds of pages of painstakingly translated transcripts.

Several videos show “Roger-and-Me” style confrontations with Oki presidents at rowdy shareholder meetings. The Web site lists his current concerns, including the compulsory singing of the national anthem at school graduations. Tanaka believes his experience points to a deep malaise in a country where blind obedience to authority once led to disaster. In “War” he sings:

“Someday the Draft system may be introduced in Japan. Just as Hinomaru and Kimigayo were introduced in schools. Someday your children may be given a draft warrant. Just as a transfer order is issued to you from your company”

“The Hinomaru is like the calisthenics exercises in my company,” he explains. “They’re testing the limits of what we will stand; our loyalty. They are simple tasks but their meaning is profound in the corporate or the political world.”

After quarter of a century, Tanaka’s face is haggard and his hair has thinned, but he insists he is not bitter. “I’m angry but I don’t hate. I know my philosophy of war. I think the bosses respect me. They’re scared of me because they know I’ve dedicated my life to this cause.”

His demands have remained unchanged: an apology, an admission that the company used bullying tactics and the introduction of a proper, nondiscriminatory management policy. And he wants Oki to employ him to oversee the policy.

It seems as unlikely as the Oki workers breaking into a lusty version of “Fight the Power” one morning, but Tanaka says he sings to give people “courage to fight discrimination” and measures his successes in small victories.

“Since my firing, Oki has been unable to order a worker transferred to a far-away place, sometimes as punishment. They’re afraid they’ll create another Tanaka,” he says.

When the company rejected his demand that shareholders be allowed to use company microphones at stockholders meetings, he took along his own PA system “from which I could be heard 200 meters away,” he says. The next year, the company had microphones for stockholders.

“I will continue as long as my life continues. Look at Oki: they now have 7,000 workers, down from 10,000. The people who harassed me are gone, restructured. I feel sorry for them because they are victims too. It’s the same all over Japan.”

For more information about Tetsuo Tanaka’s battle with Oki, see www.japanfocus.org

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