asiascape vistas

Techno-Culture, New Politics, and Philosophy in East Asia

Asiascape Vistas is a forum for discussion about the many and various dimensions of cyberculture found in or originating from East Asia. Its focus is on the interplay between these media and questions of politics & philosophy. Contributions are from the academic collective responsible for the core project, but other contributions will also be considered by that collective.
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An Amateur Utopia

A few weeks ago I attended a talk by Kinoshita Chigaya, Matsumoto Hajime, and Higuchi Takuro, about young people’s alternative politics in Japan. They spoke about their experiences and a loose group of young people around Matsumoto known as “Amateur’s revolt” (shirōto no ran) in particular, which gathers people in pursuit of an alternative lifestyle in the area around Kōenji station in West-Tokyo. Known for their spectacular events for quite some time, the group became internationally acknowledged for its involvement in organizing large-scale anti-nuclear demonstrations in Japan after 3/11. Matsumoto and Higuchi compared their experience with Japanese demonstrations to contemporary activism in other countries like the “occupy” movement in the U.S. (they had spent 10 days in a tent in Zuccotti park last autumn) or Taiwan. Here and there, they hinted at the possibility of an “amateurs’ utopia.”
Shirōto no ran was one of the key groups involved in the planning of the “Stop Nuclear Power Plants” demonstrations of 4/10, 6/11, 9/11 in Japan. According to Matsumoto, their suspected leading position (in fact, they were by far not the only actor) also made them target for the police, and after the 9/11 demonstration led to several arrests, they decided to take a step back and quit being majorly involved in organizing large-scale demonstrations. Of course, demonstrations did not cease but rather were organized all over the country more locally and on a smaller scale.
In their actions, they reshaped the image and maybe the idea of political protest in Japan variously. First, there seems to be no shared ideological agenda beyond the accumulation of personal interests and a general wish to live and act freely as equal human beings. Second, they don’t seem to be interested in convincing people about their ideas or in gaining more influence in society, for example by building a stronger organization. Listening to Matsumoto and Higuchi, one almost had the impression that their goal, at least to some extent, was to win a game against the authorities and their methods to repress demonstrations. By constantly inventing new crazy ideas nobody would expect, they turned the demonstrations into a kind of game of which they defined the rules each time anew and are still changing them in quite creative ways. In one of the demonstrations in Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s most frequented railway stations, they bypassed the problem that the demonstration was only permitted until a certain time by borrowing campaign cars of politicians, which are permitted to park on the street in front of the station for giving speeches, thereby preventing the arrest of demonstrators who now could be considered as people listening to the “politicians” at the microphone.
Their descriptions of their own as well as other and foreign demonstrations express amazement and joy about the “carnivalesque” atmosphere and the craziness and mixture of the participants more than the political success they may have. Furthermore, they do not expect commitment from anybody. In a strange sense, this indifference, combined with their creative activism, not only suggests a rethinking of the concept of political protest, but it also poses the question of participation and subjective beliefs to each individual from a new angle.
In a sense very democratic, their approach seems to propose accepting a wide range of opinions articulated in discussions. Matsumoto talked about small-scale demonstrations organized by local residents not experienced in organizing demonstrations or political protest in general, for which members of “Shirōto no ran” acted as advisors. With great pleasure he related how everybody from housewife to retired shopowner was allowed to state their opinion on all topics at hand (with opinions for example ranging from “no more nuclear power” to “better standards in nuclear power plants”) and the process of agreeing on a central statement took for hours. Matsumoto ended the account by pointing out that after the meetings, he was not sure if the title “Shirōto no Ran” not really should go to these people, thereby expressing respect for their engagement and the way in which they handled individual differences.
As a community of young people who choose an alternative life not dominated by money or reputation, but rather by the desire to do what they want, Shirōto no Ran provides a creative alternative to the life most people in Japan and elsewhere are used to. Ignore the people in power, Shirōto no Ran aims to create a “mysterious space where anything is possible for anybody who enters.” (Matsumoto) Yet, there still is some kind of ideological basis for all this. Asked about the problem that demonstrations might annoy other people, both Matsumoto and Higuchi argued that life in society is necessarily a burden on other people, and urged the audience to start to cause other people more trouble and communicate individual ideas and desires more openly. Here, I wonder what happens if this turns into the dominant ideology and what happens if such individual expression/lifestyle causes others harm.
At this point, I think Shirōto no ran has had a valuable influence on the Japanese political landscape and the demographics of its actors, at least of variety of age and opinions is the measure. Part of their appeal and potential stems from the fact that they show others that an alternative life and public expressions of political opinions are possible. In their refusal to force their ideas on other people, they at least seem to accept a position as one way among many and do neither claim superiority over other ideological positions, nor demand recognition of their knowledge and expertise. Could they be heading towards a kind of amateur utopia close to that envisioned by Adam Roberts in his New Model Army?