The Politicization of Precarity-Anti-Nuke Protests in Japan Since the Great Tohoku Earthquake

From the Series: 3.11 Politics in Disaster Japan: Fear and Anger, Possibility and Hope

Photo by IAEA, licensed under CC BY SA.

If the four months since the 3.11 disaster brought a definite disillusion with Japan's political establishment, the same period has witnessed an upsurge in political protest that could be considered the greatest in decades. A resurfacing of latent streams of political resistance can only explain part of the explosion in popular dissent invading the public consciousness. The all-pervading threat of nuclear radiation and the looming collapse of a particular way of organizing power relations intersect not in nihilism, but in a widespread recognition of the precarization of everyday life and an irrefutable sense of political urgency. Most remarkable is the demographics central to the mobilization of this emerging political subjectivity, for it is the freeter – those young “irregular” workers of the post-bubble "lost decade" who, with their labor continued to sustain the service economy of Japan, Inc. even as it abandoned them – who have taken to the streets in collective disapproval.

On April 10th, one month after the disaster, 15.000 demonstrators marched peacefully against nuclear power in Kouenji, a small station in Western Tokyo. That the organizers, when applying for a demonstration permit to the police, reported an expected 500 participants should be seen not as an indicator of pessimism, but exactly as the sort of tongue-in-cheek humor that has put the Kouenji-based Shirouto no Ran ("Amateur's Riot") on the map of resistance culture in Japan. Within just a few years, they have become an important node of a new wave of autonomous political activism, popularly referred to as the “precariat movement.” Within a vocabulary of political critique against neoliberal reform voiced through idiom of personal hardship ("ikizurasa") and a reappreciation of the street as a definite venue of political expression, they have lead the collective ongoing effort to politicization freeter marginality as an emergent political subjectivity invested with agency through a shared notion of precariousness.

And yet, on April 10th, the day of the gubernatorial election (that concluded with 79-year-old Shintaro Ishihara’s fourth consecutive victory), traditional politics were not entirely scorned by the crowd. Overwhelmingly, it was the very act of voting that was discussed: ”The poles closes at eight, you can still make it!” These conversations carried on within the spectacle of the demonstration, parallel to the exuberant language of street politics. The demonstration thus constituted a more immediately experienced public sphere – the encounter with which, for many participants, was likely their first.

The subsequent May 7th demo, while gathering even larger numbers, became a return to a more exigent street politics, as it moved out of Kouenji and into the hostile shopping avenues of Shibuya and Harajuku. Police repression caught up to the organizers with the impetuous arrests of two participants, identified by authorities as somehow central to the organizing body, forcing the other organizers to divert attention and resources to legal support activities (see video below). On June 11th, one month later, such incidents were avoided when 20,000 dancing demonstrators peacefully "took the square" outside of Shinjuku station (arguably one of the most "public" spaces in central Tokyo) in homage to the recently unfolding events in the Middle East.

While Governor Ishihara—himself attracting criticism for proclaiming the 3.11 disaster "divine punishment" for Japan's monetary greed—has abstained from comment, his son Nobuteru (also a career politician within the LDP) maligned the demonstrations as "mass hysteria" orchestrated by elements of the revolutionary left; an ”anarchic” crowd with neither intention nor ability to think seriously about alternative energy sources. Ishihara's ad hominem attacks reaffirmed the political establishment's cynical attitude toward its own citizens, and appear likely to increase public antipathy against complicit politicians.

Joined by discrete flash mobs congregating on the National Diet "wearing something yellow," and groups of Fukushima mothers who formed human chains around Tepco headquarters, the demonstrations are just the most spectacular hues in a growing spectrum of protest, the most concrete manifestations of a germinating political subjectivity, where an all-out denouncement of nuclear power also entails a critique of the fundamental protocols of Japan, Inc.

Phrased in the precariat movement's insistence on exploitation, this critique is being carefully reconstituted as we speak, rekindling a bond between political engagement and everyday life, and instilling a sense of political agency in Japan's neglected youth that will be not easily dismissed.