Protests are nothing new in Japan — as early as the 17th century, peasants protested against the shogunate and the feudal system it upheld. Yet despite such a history, modern Japanese aren’t known for taking to the streets in anger. This isn’t to say that protests don’t occur — demonstrations have taken place in recent years over Sino-Japanese relations and the presence of US airbases. But the gatherings have tended to attract little attention outside the region.
Recently, though, a string of anti-nuclear demonstrations sparked by the Fukushima crisis has been making headlines overseas as writers speculate over the global implications of Japan’s disaster.
One of the first gatherings occurred on March 27, with around 1,200 people demonstrating in front of Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s headquarters in Tokyo’s Chiyoda-ku. There were then at least two notable gatherings in April, one that took place in Koenji on April 10, and another that took place in front of TEPCO’s headquarters again on April 26, marking the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. On May 7, there was a gathering of anti-nuclear protesters in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, while just last Saturday, in neighbouring Shinjuku-ku, a collection of several rallies morphed into a crowd that some estimated at more than 20,000 people — a sizeable number for Japan.
One of the organizers of the Shinjuku protest, Hajime Matsumoto, couldn't believe the number of people who showed up. Matsumoto runs a thrift shop called Shiroto no Ran, or Amateur Revolt, through which he has attained a following amongst the vibrant community of artists and activists in Koenji. This relationship between art and activism in Japan appears to be very close, and is one of the interesting facets of Japanese protest culture. ‘Illcommonz’ is another individual who highlights this relationship, having recently held an exhibition featuring items from popular culture dealing with nuclear technology.
The ties between art and activism may have been born out of necessity. In a nation that stresses conformity, a burgeoning yet naturally nonconformist activity such as protest would need to be sheltered from the social pressures against it. Artists and punk musicians form a perfect enclave within which activists can thrive, much like the beatniks and hippies did for anti-war protests in the United States.
The flipside of this is that the anti-nuclear protests have so far resembled bohemian carnivals rather than what many in the West would describe as genuine protests, with an eclectic melange of clowns, musicians, and street performers interspersed amongst pedestrians, leading to satirical articles such as this one from Vice.
All this means that it’s unlikely that the anti-nuclear protests mark a real embrace of demonstrations, and the protests certainly lack the anger and revolutionary mind-set that have made the Arab Spring demonstrations successful. Still, the relatively large turnout of people drawn from different demographics at these anti-nuclear protests is unprecedented, and represents something new – even if it isn’t revolutionary.