An odd event took place in the streets of Tokyo a few weeks ago.
Angry at reports that the house of Japan’s mega-rich Prime Minister, Taro Aso, was worth AUD$100 million, labour activists representing some of Japan’s most vulnerable workers organised to pay him a mass visit.
Under the title, "What does $100 million look like? A reality tour to Aso’s house", around 50 people, mostly from activist groups associated with Japan’s increasingly precarious labour force, negotiated with police to walk past the house in groups of only five or six, the size limited for "safety reasons". However, as soon as the group set off towards the mansion the cops stepped in, arresting three.
In a country facing the prospect of a long recession, the conspicuous wealth of its new PM has become an uncomfortable issue, highlighting the difference between the plight of ordinary Japanese people and their ruling plutocrats.
With an average tenure of around 18 months, Japanese prime ministers have come and gone pretty quickly in the post war period. Taro Aso was elected by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in late September to take over from the 12-month Fukuda administration, which took over from the 12-month Abe administration. Abe, in turn, took over from the lengthy (by Japanese standards) Koizumi administration, in office for about five years. Neither Fukuda nor Abe faced an election as PM.
The expectation was that Aso would immediately send Japan back to the polls, for what was shaping up to be both the shortest prime ministership in Japanese history and only the second time the LDP had been voted out of office since the end of World War II. The hope was that Aso’s newness might stem the losses for the ruling party.
Then the global financial crisis hit and Japan, already creeping back into recession, joined the rest of the world in shutting up shop. Aso decided to put off the polls, which he can do until September next year, and the Japanese began to take a closer look at their new PM.
Japan’s financial woes are not new. The burst of the economic bubble in the mid-1990s was followed by the period many now refer to as the Lost Decade. A slow recovery attempt followed the burst, characterised by structural reforms and a fundamental change in the nature of work, from near-full (male) employment to an increasingly precarious and casualised workforce.
Aso is hardly new either, having been in the Diet since 1979. He’s also as blueblood as they come, as the grandson of post-war Japanese conservative politician and twice PM Shigeru Yoshida. His wife is the daughter of another former prime minister and his younger sister is married to a royal. Aso family corporate interests include a mining company that built its wealth on forced labour during the war — a bit of history that Aso has tried to distance himself from, while nevertheless enjoying the financial benefits of a corporate history of slave labour.
Despite all this, Aso has a carefully crafted "down with the people" schtick, based largely on his well-known habit of reading comic books, just like any old salaryman or young net geek. He has also tried to play down his wealth by talking about eating instant noodles (though when he mentioned eating them he got the price wrong by around 300 per cent). It’s not quite Malcolm Turnbull’s "I know what it’s like to live in rented flats", but it’s close.
Aso is the first Japanese Prime Minister since the early-1990s to not live in the 1920s-era official prime ministerial residence, the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired "Kantei". He has instead chosen to remain in his own house, the A$100 million luxury pad in trendy Shibuya .
That was the house which the labour activists thought they should take a walk past. Fortunately for them, their arrests attracted quite a lot of attention.
Japanese criminal law allows for 72 hours of detention by police, followed by two additional 10-day periods granted by judges on the request of prosecutors. These requests are almost always successful, and a defence campaign immediately sprang up to prevent the protesters spending more than three weeks in prison for no reason.
Mass net interest in the incident, fuelled by several YouTube videos at the centre of the action spilled over into mainstream coverage and ultimately, the three were released after 11 days.
Over the weekend of 29 and 30 November, PAFF, a labour organisation representing part-time, freelance, "freeter" and foreign workers, which had helped organise the first action went back to Shibuya with several other activist groups for an "Anti-war and Resistance Festival", demanding those responsible for Japanese participation in the US-led War on Terror, including Aso, be called to account.
Having recently returned to Japan after five years away, I went along to check out the action and get a feel for how the police are dealing with protest in Japan. I last lived here during the onset of the Iraq war. As a participant in several similar anti-war demos, I had some idea of what to expect.
The demo consisted of a flatbed truck with speakers blaring music and a small crowd of maybe 200 participants, dressed in a range of costumes, from drag to balaclavas. Placard slogans focussed on Japan’s arguably unconstitutional military participation in Iraq, on police harassment, and general anti-war and anti-capitalist sentiments.
The group of 200 wound its way from the fashion centre of Harajuku to Aso’s home turf of Shibuya, singing, dancing and chanting to the general bemusement of the Saturday evening shoppers.
Leading the group, and completely surrounding it, was a massive police presence. Uniformed officers alone outnumbered protesters, with undercover police also lining the route and harassing participants. Digital still and video cameras were kept trained on the group throughout the march, held by passing "pedestrians", cops on overpasses, and security forces in armoured vehicles. Plain-clothes officers also took copious notes as they followed the crowd. Uniformed police placed temporary barricades between protesters and the general public.
Demos such as this have their roots in radical anti-war protests that started taking place in Tokyo in 2003. Centred on Shibuya’s Miyashita Park, a largely neglected strip of green just off the main drag populated by homeless people living in tents, the protests connected anti-war sentiment with independent musicians and noise artists to create "radical alternative spaces" in the urban consumer culture of Tokyo.
Since then, however, much has changed. Miyashita Park has been carved up by the installation of giant futsal nets complete with floodlights, forcing its residents to the edges of the park. Activists report growing police harassment, particularly after the G8 demonstrations last year. In contrast, there is a growing public recognition of the damage economic reforms have wrought, creating a so-called Lost Generation of unemployed or under-employed youth. "Lost Generation" even made the annual listing of the top 60 Japanese words for 2008.
I’ve lived in Japan on and off since the mid-1990s, but something feels different this time. There’s an edge in the air in Tokyo, a sense of social tension. The famed Japanese politeness is still there, albeit coupled with a weariness and cynicism I hadn’t noticed so much before.
As the post-war economic dream continues its slow death march, increasing numbers of Japanese, particularly the young, are questioning what kind of society they want to live in. For many, it is not a society where its leader owns a $100 million mansion while its youth struggle to get enough money to eat.
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