From Shaking Islands, A Nation Divided

We have been in a strange mood since the earthquake and the nuclear plant accident. It is strange because as long as we stay in Tokyo--even though we know that something has irreversibly changed—the city landscape seems the same as it was before March 11th. As media coverage of the disaster has gradually ebbed, shallow TV chat shows and sitcoms have come back. Most people seem to be busy in their own business of everyday life, even though they are very much aware of the fact that people in Tohoku (and particularly in Fukushima Prefecture) are still struggling with the aftereffects of the earthquake.

Japan is completely divided into two: those who are still in the middle of the everlasting disaster and those who are forgetting or at least want to forget it. Those who are struggling with the crisis are getting more pessimistic as, in economic terms, there is neither sign nor hope for recovery. This is a type of ‘denial,’ in a psychoanalytical sense; people look away from the reality of the disaster because it was so traumatic. Even the disastrous political malfunction in the Diet may be one side effect of this disease.

The optimistic slogan ‘Be one, Japan (Hitotsu ni Naro Nippon)’ championed by Fuji Television, unintentionally tells us that the Japanese people are not, in fact, ‘one’ anymore but fractured, even polarizing into two. And this gap will spread over time, as it will take far longer to reconstruct cities, towns and villages and to revive the economy than the government is expecting or at least telling us.

It is ironic that the issue over radiation following the Fukushima nuclear plant accident is creating a kind of a common basis beyond the gap because almost no one can escape radioactive contamination wherever one lives. Because radiation is invisible and its aftereffects will appear neither at the present nor even in the immediate future; on this, everyone shares fear and anxiety.

It may be wishful thinking but we are seeing a newly emerging street politics organized by young people who previously have had no interest in politics. Among them, an anarchist group called the Amateur Riot (Shirouto no Ran)—a group formed around a recycle shop—has  successfully organized a series of protest rallies: on April 10th in (their neighborhood) Koenji, on May 7th in Shibuya, and on June 11th in Shinjuku. Large crowds (15,000-20,000 people) gathered each time and these numbers are growing. Their carnivalesque style of street demonstration with a variety of music from rough punk, reggae, techno, and drum circles to Japanese traditional music and dance along with colorful clothes and carefully-designed banners and messages is attracting different kinds of people and inventing a new form of cultural politics. Shiroto no Ran is also trying to produce an alterative economy based on DIY practices by organizing squatting-styled (but legal) recycle shops, bars and restaurants. Done for their own collective survival, this is also a form of everyday politics. 

The earthquake and the nuclear plant accident make us to rethink how we should understand nature, technology, and history. They also make us reconsider and reexamine key political concepts which we have used as the foundation of: civilization, progress, and democracy as well as economy, society, and culture. Almost every day, we still are being physically and psychologically shaken by aftershocks; these will continue for some time. It may be a great opportunity to create a new economy, a new politics and even a new philosophy on these shaking islands as the great philosophes did after the Lisbon earthquake. But it is very difficult to be very optimistic so far.