ProjectsPast and current JFS projects


January 17, 2011


Develop New Political Literacy

college_mourisan.jpg Copyright JFS

Lecturer: Yoshitaka Mori, Associate professor, Department of Musical Creativity and the Environment, Tokyo University of the Arts.

Something you cannot see when you see passively

The "literacy" in today's topic means reading and writing ability. "Develop New Political Literacy" means, therefore, to develop the skills to read and write about politics.

When you read, there is something you can see only when you get yourself actively involved in what you're reading instead of reading it desultorily. Writing is very important to develop your reading skills. I find it interesting these days to see more and more people are involved in politics by sending information or expressing their ideas by means of images and through the Internet. You can see quite different pictures of politics even by sending a short message.

The contemporary society makes people passive. In the past, power equipped with compelling force was used to control people. In modern society, in contrast, people are controlled through their sight, which is controlled by media. I would like to discuss how we can claim such politics of today back to our hands by carefully looking at the cities and towns where we live and using our daily means.

"Politics" may sound something far away from many of you. The negative emotion we feel when we mention "politics" may come from our sense of helplessness. Our participation in politics is generally limited to the form of indirect democracy through voting, but that form of participation does not make any difference. Such a sense of helplessness is overwhelming many people.

From the 1970's through the 1980's Japan saw a lot of civil and social movements. They seemed, however, imitating some of the existing formats of politics. Those movements were very often led by prominent leaders, who were supported by intellectuals. They were not, therefore, bottom-up movements. Whereas recent movements by young people are formed through the accumulation of what the individuals are doing. Instead of electing leaders through voting, these people are directly involved in democracy in person. This is the politics where people are thinking by themselves in their daily lives instead of participating in the Diet or local assemblies.

Can't we work out a form of politics where we discuss with people around us and form a consensus rather than the one where we choose something from given choices? What is very important here is to see from individual perspectives, rather than from the national perspective. For example, isn't it possible to start from a small unit such as "What can I do in this community?" and broaden the perspective to the world at the same time?

There are growing number of movements around Japan where people shoot the film of what's happening in their community and upload it to YouTube, or publicize what they see by distributing a free community paper in a DiY (Do it Yourself) approach. I would like to introduce three of such cases, which represent recent political movements.

Who are "residents?"

Let me begin with a redevelopment project in the area around the Shimokitazawa railway station in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo. In October 2006 the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) approved a project plan to build a 26-meter-wide (at widest point) road, as wide as an artery road, and other roads including a rotary in front of the station. The TMG's go-ahead coincided with the decision by the urban planning panel for Setagaya Ward to approve a plan for building tall buildings in the area.

The plans posed several problems. First, they would fragment the bustling community of Shimokitazawa. General stores, restaurants, clothes stores, coffee shops and clubs with live music sprawl around Shimokitazawa Station, which makes the town attractive. These small shops will be forced to move out once the redevelopment project starts, which will destroy the charm of Shimokitazawa as a town where people can enjoy walking around without worrying about vehicles.

The redevelopment plans are called "Plans without residents' involvement." Survey results released by the Shimokitazawa Forum, a citizens' group based in the town, showed that 60 percent of those who live in or often come to Shimokitazawa, including those doing businesses like shop owners in the town and young people living there, are opposing the plans. The Setagaya Ward government is, however, proceeding with the plans mainly considering the views of the owners of lands in Shimokitazawa without talking frankly with "residents." Many of the owners of lands, buildings and stores around the station are not living in Shimokitazawa. Some of them, therefore, don't care about the town's charm but just want to see the land prices go up. They often frown on the present Shimokitazawa where noisy young people are hanging out around the clock.

A group called "Save the Shimokitazawa" was established to get the voices of those who live in or often come to the town heard. What makes this residents' movement special is that so called cultural figures such as musicians, actors and writers joined it. Supporters of this movement are "Shimokitazawa Forum," made up with people of the shopping district. and "Mamore Shimokita! Gyosei Sosho no Kai (Protect Shimokita! Administrative litigators)," which aims to think about the issue through a judicial contest.

Traditional residents' movements have generally been driven by people who own land there and live there. In the case of Shimokitazawa, in contrast, many people who may technically not be "residents" are involved in the movement. The government, if addressing the issue in the framework of a traditional residents' movement, may not have to concern about those people. Normally the local government care about land owners, and registered residents at best. What's interesting and special about the movements in Shimokitazawa is that people who are not residents in traditional terms, such as students, "freeters (job-hopping part-timers)" and other young people, initiated and have been expanding the movement by inviting well-known people who often visit Shimokitazawa to join their movement.

They drive the movement in quite a different way from the field that has been traditionally called "politics." They organize such events as symposia, live shows, exhibitions and cafe talk shows, enjoying them like a school festival.

Unfortunately the redevelopment plans have not been stopped at present. Some of young assembly members are, however, posing a question, "Do we really need the redevelopment project?" and voices calling for rethinking of the plans are increasing, which is a silver lining.

Carry on matsuri (festival) based in local shopping district

The second case I'd like to share with you is Koenji, Suginami Ward. I'll talk about a recycle shop chain, which has an unusual name of "Shirouto no Ran (layman's uprising)" and is located in the Kitanaka Dori shopping district near the Koenji railway station. Hajime Matsumoto, the manager, and the staff of "Shirouto no Ran" are multiplying its shops, such as second-hand clothes shops and cafes, up to fourteen so far in the district.

One of their shops is a coffee shop during daytime and turns into a bar at night. One corner of the shop is used to broadcast Internet radio programs and to offer other interesting projects. On the other hand Mr. Matsumoto and his friends really like staging demonstrations. For example, they undergo a demonstration calling out "Cut my rent to free," claiming that they should not be obliged to pay rent, and "Give my bike back," protesting against the municipality's removal of the bicycles they parked near the railway station. Many of their arguments make me wonder if they are serious or joking. Listening to them carefully, however, I realized that financially struggling young people (they call themselves "poor people") are thinking seriously about how they can enjoy their daily lives.

What they are trying to do could be called a DiY economy, in which they circulate money within themselves wherever possible. When they get together they have a party on the street. They also screen a film or hold a talk show in a small event site in the district. They are not necessarily seeking to make profits but rather seeking to create opportunities for enjoying themselves.

What's interesting about them is that they are getting well along with people in the local shopping district. Local adults look on warmly while young people are going reckless, which I've never seen in any residents' movement. Probably that's because some of the young people are unexpectedly hard workers, keeping their store open till late at night and thus invigorating the shopping district. With a sex trade shop located at one end of the narrow street, the Kitanaka Dori shopping district used to make women hesitate to walk alone at night. It was still not a "shutter street (street lined with stores that wet out of business)" but there used to be several vacant stores with no tenants.

Their political movement is a kind of "matsuri (festival)." What they call out in their demonstrations, such as "Cut my rent to free" and "Give my bike back," represents the desperate wishes of young people, in particular "freeters." They are not, however, demanding the resolution of their rent or bike problems but they are demonstrating from a view point of how they can develop an autonomous economy, which is really interesting. That is, I think, how these "freeter" generation is trying to survive.

Protect a park that provides a community space

Lastly let me talk about the protest against the "Nike Park" development project in Miyashita Park that is managed by Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, and located near the Shibuya railway station. The park is the only green area in the messy neighborhood. Since the mid 1990's, like other large parks in Tokyo, the number of rough sleepers has been increasing in Miyashita Park. It has often been used as the starting point of demonstrations. Nike, Inc's Japan unit planned to purchase the naming right of the park from Shibuya Ward and develop "Miyashita NIKE Park" that has a skateboard field. You will need to pay for using some parts of the new park. A protest against the development plan is undergoing.

The protesters say they sense behind the plan the Shibuya Ward government's intention to get rid of the homeless people and prevent the park from being used as the starting point of demonstrations. There is, they say, also a problem in the plan's procedure. The plan is being carried out by the top-down decision by the mayor and some members of the assembly. It was not, they argue, announced to the park users or presented formally to the assembly for judgment. Protesters say the plan has not gone through any democratic procedure. They cast a doubt about the legitimacy of the plan that allows the park to be used for a private firm's advertisement without a formal consensus.

At present (May, 2010) supporters of the protest campaign are taking turns to come to the park and block the construction from being started. What makes this movement special is that artists have been involved from an early stage. They bring in their works, produce works in the park, hold exhibitions and screen films.

Seen only as an issue of Miyashita Park, this protest might be misunderstood. Some may say that what they are doing is a mere illegal occupation. Let us think about it, however, in a broader scope of time.

The area from Miyashita Park to Yoyogi Park has played an important role in social activism since the 1990's. Back then, a lot of Iranians came to Japan to work but they lost their jobs later as the "bubble economy" collapsed. Yoyogi Park served as a community site for the Iranians for a certain period of time.

Around the same period, attacks on the increasing rough sleepers in the park came to be exposed to the public. Responding to the problem, "Inoken" (the Shibuya Harajuku Society for Life and Rights) and "Nojiren" (the Shibuya Free Association for the Right to Housing and Well-being of the Homeless) had been established mainly by students. Makoto Yuasa was one of the activists in these movements. Yuasa has been working dedicatedly to solve the problem of poverty by such means as "Toshikoshi Haken Mura" (A shelter for jobless or homeless people set up during the year-end and new-year holidays). Some of other people involved in the Miyashita Park protest have also been in the social activism since the days of those early movements. If seen as the continued structural change since the 90's, this issue cannot be seen as just an illegal occupation but as something that presents different aspects.

When we talk about politics, we tend to think of the national government alone. Today, however, I talked about cases of "politics" closer to us, which are happening in different places in Tokyo. If you get yourself involved in even only part of such politics you will see better what's happening in the local community and find it interesting. That means the governments will go ahead with things by catering only to a part of the interests involved if residents don't pay attention to their local politics. We should be involved not only in the national politics but in what's happening around us and voice what we feel or think through our media. That's one of key approaches to get "politics" back to our hands.


Yoshitaka Mori is an associate professor, Department of Musical Creativity and the Environment, Tokyo University of the Arts. He specializes in sociology and cultural studies, focusing on the relations between media/culture and politics
B.A., Economics, Kyoto University; M.A., Media and communications and Ph.D., Sociology, Goldsmiths College, University of London. Research associate and associate professor of Kyushu University before the present post; Visiting fellow of Goldsmiths College, University of London in 2002-2003; Editorial Board Member of Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Journal (Routledge)
Publication in Japanese includes: "Culture=Politics: Cultural and Political Movement in the Age of Globalization"; "Popular Music and Capitalism (Popyura Ongaku to Shihonsyugi)"; "The Thought in the Streets: A turn in the 1990s (Sutorito no Shiso)"