New Players in the Hood

Organized by David Chiavacci and Julia Obinger, the conference “Activism in Contemporary Japan: New Ideas, Players and Arenas?” (November 5–7, 2015) aimed to shed light on the changing scope and relevance of civic engagement in contemporary Japan. To critically discuss these latest developments, emerging issues and theoretical implications, the conference brought together social and political scientists with media scholars, as well as Japanese activists involved in recent projects.

Julia Obinger

Japan’s voluntary sector is multifaceted and dynamic, and the incorporation of NPOs saw a remarkable boom in the late 1990s after new legislation was passed. Simultaneously, small niches of subcultural activism developed, enriching Japan’s protest culture with new tactics and repertoires, which were applied for example at protests against precarious working conditions of young freeters, against the Hokkaido G8-summit in 2008, and against the Iraq war in 2003.

Despite all this, the absence of large-scale confrontational public demonstrations and citizen protest movements—or the virtual absence of media coverage—has led to the impression of an “invisible” and thus powerless civil society in Japan. This is also due to general avoidance of potentially controversial issues and confrontational tactics by most social movements in Japan. However, this also means that social movements were never able to establish themselves as a fundamentally new force within the existing political power relations in Japan. Consequently, academic studies spoke of pre-Fukushima Japanese civil society as a whole that is composed of multiple, small-scale organizations, attributing to this civil society only a small degree of political leverage, especially in comparison with other industrialized nations.

The “triple disaster” of 3/11 came as a turning point, both in terms of civic activism and of the understanding of Japanese civil society. New citizen groups formed and large-scale anti-nuclear demonstrations emerged, as well as movements in reaction to recent controversial legislation. In particular, the planned “reinterpretation” of Article 9, which postulates Japan’s renouncement of ever again using force as a means of settling international conflicts in its post-war constitution, has prompted students to form the SEALDs (Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy) groups, who experiment with yet fresh protest tactics.

The conference was opened by a comprehensive keynote speech by Patricia Steinhoff (University of Hawai’i), who addressed theoretical questions regarding the interplay between Japanese research on Activism and European and American perspectives on the issue. In her closing argument, she reminded us to not be content with simply applying Western ideas to the Japanese context, but instead to continuously strive to extend the collective understanding that those theories embody.

Citizens and government

The first panel on established forms of activism was opened by Gesine Foljanty-Jost (Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg), who explored the role of the “citizen-as-activist” in Japan. She argued that there has been a paradigm shift from a vertical policy-making approach towards a “partnership approach” between citizens and local governments, which has been accompanied by new opportunities for participation in Japan. However, both the lack of resources and restricted political opportunities create limitations in realizing political innovations in the short run. Her paper was followed by Christian Dimmer (University of Tokyo), who presented a case study of Japan’s “First Collective House” Kankanmori in Tokyo, whose history can be traced back to the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s. He argued that, as an experiment with new forms of social relations, this project prefigures a more inclusive, just, and sustainable future society. As the final speaker within this panel, Gabriele Vogt (University of Hamburg) presented another intriguing case study, in which she focused on the lessons to be learned from the emergence and failure of the Okinawa Reversion Movement. While marginal in terms of resources, this movement’s prevalent strength relied on innovative strategies of contentious action, and was based on its strong movement identity, which was framed along a joint historical consciousness of the activists.

The second panel, which focused on theoretical perspectives on activism in Japan, was opened by Simon Avenell (Australian National University). He presented us with his current work that aims to further a more transnational perspective on Japanese environmental activism since the 1970s. He discussed the central role of intermediaries, so-called “rooted cosmopolitans,” who relayed information to local Japanese groups about movements abroad and helped to connect activists across borders into transnational mobilizations. Fabian Schäfer (Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg) then explored the chances and limitations of online social media network sites for becoming alternative political spheres after 3/11. Based on his case studies, he tentatively argued that within these newly developing online spheres lies the potential of forging alternative sites of digitally enhanced civic participation, or, what he calls “social non-movements.”

The third panel, which centered on emergent forms of activism, began with Carl Cassegård (University of Gothenburg), who shared his research on homeless activism in contemporary Japan. He specifically explored the meaning of space within these groups, arguing that access to alternative arenas, such as counter-spaces or no-man’s-lands, has been an important aspect in processes of empowerment, leading to the strengthening of this subaltern groups’ self-confidence as political actors. He was followed by Julia Obinger (University of Zurich and SOAS London), who presented her on-going project on political consumerism in Japan. Against the background of changing roles and expressions of Japanese consumer citizens, she interpreted political consumerism as an emergent field of unconventional form of civic engagement. Apichai Shipper (Georgetown University) then spoke about immigrants’ rights activism and xenophobic activism in Japan, assessing the background of both pro-immigrant and anti-immigrant activists in Japan. He found that, despite the obvious differences in their respective views, these groups did surprisingly share a similar socio-economic background.

The fourth panel sought to bring together Japanese activists from various fields to share their first-hand experiences in current projects. The panel was chaired by Yoshitaka Mōri (Tokyo University of the Arts), and the participants were Shiraishi Hajime (journalist and activist, Tokyo), Sakurada Kazuya (media activist and lecturer, Osaka) and Narita Keisuke (activist at the Irregular Rhythm Asylum, Tokyo). Each participant briefly presented their current work, showcasing different facets of innovative forms of engagement in contemporary Japan. Both the panel and the subsequent discussion were conducted in Japanese. The audience, who used this unique opportunity to gain insights into the daily work of these activists, engaged in a lively discussion.

Back towards the local level

The final panel of the conference addressed post-Fukushima activism, which includes anti-nuclear protests as well as reconstruction efforts and represents one of the most pressing current issues in social movement research on Japan. Koichi Hasegawa (Tohoku University, Sendai) opened the panel by sharing his theoretical work on the effects of social expectation on the development of civil society in Japan. He argued that the successful implementation of social expectation played the central role for creating a social flow towards non-profit organizational activities and for the passage of the Non-Profit Organization Law (NPO Law) in Japan in the 1990s. Then, Ayaka Löschke (University of Zurich) gave insights into her on-going Ph.D. project on a nationally organized mother’s network, who began campaigning against nuclear power and advocating for radiation safety directly after 3/11. She showed how the focus of the network has changed since 2011, suggesting that a shift occurred from the national level back towards the local level. The final paper of this conference by Robin O’Day (University of Tsukuba) presented first findings on the SEALDs network in Tokyo from a joint research project at Tokyo’s Sophia University. With his audiovisual presentation, which is based on current interviews and broad ethnography, O’Day showed how this student group developed its own particular way of contesting the Abe government, discussing successes and challenges of this emerging network.

SEALDs activists protest against the revision of the war-renouncing article 9 of the Japenese constitution. (Picture by Robin O’Day)

This conference brought together eminent scholars in the field as well as Japanese activists to discuss current issues in social movements and activism in Japan. Since the paper presentations and discussions proved so fruitful for all participants, the organizers decided to publish an edited volume, which is currently in preparation.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 5/2016, pp. 28–29)