How to Protest Like The Japanese
Last weekend, Japanese protesters staged the biggest public demonstration in Tokyo since the 1970s, but because Japanese people are so nice it was more like Hay-on-Wye than a siren-soundtracked, policeman-burning black blocalypse. The anti-nuke parade swamped the city streets with apologetic sweetness, as protesters followed a step-by-step guide to protesting as described in the My First Demo cartoon pamphlet handed out to all in attendance. It was a totally cute day out.
Given that young Japanese are often written off as a bunch of useless, apathetic dickwads by their scornful domestic media, 15,000 people marching through the capital expressing their discontent for the massive nuclear fail currently mutating fish over in Fukushima is a pretty significant event.
Japan's original wave of protest in the 60s and early 70s was the real deal. Kids would get themselves into violent clashes over everything from the re-instating of fascist-era government officials and trade deals with America, to the building of new airports. Perhaps it was out of fear of a new wave of grassroots dissent that the mainstream Japanese press decided to completely ignore the fact that the current protest was even happening. They prefer the kids being lazy dickwads after all.
The guys who organised the protest call themselves “The Revolt of Amateurs,” which doesn't exactly exude self-confidence and pretty much sums up the well-meaning but unfocused vibe. The majority of people there were marching for the first time, just curious to check out the scene, so it didn't feel very angry. After too many years playing Metal Gear Solid, a few crazies were relishing the opportunity to shout and rant about how they should have organised helicopters, but generally everyone just did what they liked and expressed themselves in their own style, at times making it feel a bit like a traveling Uniqlo ad.
Only in Japan would the act of protesting involve fighting for your right to apologise and take the blame for a massive natural disaster.
The last stretch of the protest got a bit more hectic. There were only a couple of lanes available on the street so people were spilling out all over the place and climbing stuff. The police were trying to get the protesters back onto the road, but it was impossible to distinguish between the protesters and pedestrians. A drunk guy nearly got beaten up, but in the end he didn't.
It's basically a fun guide to what a demo is and how to have one in style. Here are a few snapshots and quotes to give you the general idea.
Ghandi-san features in the pamphlet as the inventor of the protest. I don't want to be all Captain History about it, but I'm not sure he did. The French revolution was pretty much a very large, successful protest and the whole Jesus-on-a-cross thing was a good piece of resistance theatre.
Here is a guide to drawing a nuclear logo, illustrated by a monkey and a bear-child, two symbols of autonomy and defiance guaranteed to freak the Japanese authorities into nuclear reform.
This is how to make banners telling people to eat more fish. Like the Japanese don't already eat enough fish.
There are lots of little practical tips for how to prepare for the big day. Don't forget to bring balloons and bubble blowers.
Direct quote: "It might be nice to bring snacks since no one can be happy on an empty stomach. Share your snacks with everyone."
Japanese people are very delicate. This panel confronts the harsh reality of going on a demo, but puts a positive spin on it: "Protesting in spring might be harsh for people with hay fever, but still, you can put stickers onto your mask!"
Perhaps the nub of the contradiction at play is summed up by the pamphlet's explanation that, "protests are similar to society; it's important to find a place you feel comfortable in and to stay there." Hmm. Find your corner and sit there in silence? That doesn't sound revolutionary to me, but conversely quite traditionally Japanese. My friend Yuriko who was down the front said that the whole premise was a little shaky – that people weren't really sure what they were protesting against, just that they were unhappy and worried about nuclear power in general. But despite that, it still felt like something big and significant. Having had so much bad luck recently, perhaps the demonstration acted more as a collective airing of peoples' fears and frustrations than a protest against anything more specific, which given all they've been through is fair enough really.
WORDS: ALEX HOBAN
PICTURES: YURIKO YAMAGUCHI