AAS Annual Meeting

Japan Session 156

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Session 156: Voices from the Margins or Truer View of Mainstage? Grassroots Politics, Activism, and Social Movements of Civil Society in Japan

Organizer: Millie Creighton, University of British Columbia, Canada

Discussant: Scott North, Osaka University, Japan

Japan is often conceptualized and presented as a homogeneous society. In recent decades much work has been done showing the presence and realities of defined minorities in Japan, but less on revealing the diversity of the so-called mainstream Japanese populace, or the divergence of the populace from governing leaders, in terms of social thought, political, ideological or other forms of consciousness. This panel explores citizens’ activism, small group movements, political and ideological demonstrations, constituting both visible and invisible civil society in Japan. The papers show that Japanese are involved in various movements that confront or contradict assertions that everyone thinks or acts in the same model. Papers by O’Day and Weather address important contemporary responses to the prolonged negative economy and rise of freeters (youth who cannot obtain usual adult work track jobs), discussing activism in union activity and through public events as well as demonstrations. Papers by Creighton and Steinhoff delve into citizen movements and issues of both visible and invisible civil society that are also linked to long-standing debates over various aspects of Japan’s constitution, including its Article 9 renouncing militarism, and articles guaranteeing freedom of thought and consciousness. Through the papers attention to people’s involvements in citizens’ and union movements, grassroots networking, demonstrations, and public events–often promoted for fun but with a political or ideological message–the presenters show diversity of sentiment among Japanese, and how large numbers of people, sometimes the majority or even overwhelming majority, deviate from an oft projected model of so-called mainstream Japanese.

Marginal Workers and Dissident Labor Organizers in Japan
Charles Weathers , Osaka City University, Japan

Unions throughout the major democracies have sought to revitalize themselves by putting greater energy into organizing new workers and representing low-wage employees. In Japan, the declining union movement and exploding working poor population make clear the need for such activism, yet the most determined efforts have been made by independent unions and activists rather than major unions. To explore this situation, I examine the activities of three organizations that have relatively good reputations for organizing new members, particularly low-wage hiseiki rodosha (non-regular workers): UI Zensen Domei (retail and distribution sectors); Jichiro (local civil servants); and General Union (foreign workers). Their organizations and organizing strategies differ greatly. UI Zensen Domei (1 million members) organizes energetically but values close cooperation with managers; Jichiro (950,000 members) has a cautious leadership, but small networks of “dissidents who campaign aggressively and often in defiance of top leaders on behalf of low-wage public sector employees; and General Union (350 members) differs from numerous other left-leaning community unions not only in membership diversity, but also in its strong commitment to organizing. The cases draw on interviews with organizers and activists in all three organizations and fieldwork with community unions. The use of three cases enables us to grasp the broad range of non-regular employment conditions and organizing approaches. Further, comparative analysis is advanced by contrasting the strategies and activities of the “mainstream and cooperative UI Zensen Domei with grass-roots activists in organizations such as Jichiro and General Union.

Dancing in the Streets: Protest in a Japanese “Freeter” Union.
Robin O'Day, University of Tsukuba, Japan

This paper is based on ethnographic fieldwork with a labor union in Tokyo for freeter (youth who drift from job to job). In it, I aim to draw attention to the social and cultural processes involved in how the union is domesticating the “anti-globalization” movement to fit the experiences of young marginal workers in Japan. The neoliberal trend towards market deregulation and the corresponding rise in irregular modes of employment has impacted the working lives of many Japanese. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to how these economic changes are experienced by those affected by flexible working arrangements. By looking at the experiences of freeters through the activities of the union, I suggest that the feelings of insecurity often expressed by those in unstable employment is particularly keen in Japan given the importance of work in the construction of self identity. The union is responding to what Japanese marginal workers perceive they are missing in their work and, by extension, their lives in general. I aim to show how a combination of low status, lack of belonging, and little opportunity for advancement in the workplace are providing a context for mobilizing freeter by adopting and domesticating a global discourse of inequality and protest in Japan.

Citizens’ Activism, Japan’s Constitution, Global Article 9 and Okinawan Peace Movements
Millie Creighton, University of British Columbia, Canada

Among the most important debates permeating Japanese society over the past decade, are those focused on Japan’ Constitution, particularly Article 9, in which Japan rejects war and militarism. Japan’s constitutional debates are linked to Okinawa which had the only land battle of World War II and bears the burden of 75% of the US military bases on Japan. This paper explores the citizens’ Save Article 9 movement in Japan and Global Save Article 9 campaign. Over 7,000 Save Article 9 groups emerged throughout Japan, and some created outside Japan. The paper presents research on the Global Save Article 9 Summit held in May of 2008 commencing on the Constitution Commemoration Holiday, and regional Save Article 9 conferences, exploring regional, age, and occupational diversity in Japan through the stories of those involved in the Save Article 9 movement and other peace actinism campaigns, such as the annual Peace Marches held in Okinawa that have been linked to the constitutional issue. Those involved in the work of preserving Japan’s so-called Peace constitution and the Okinawan Peace Marches are sometimes presented as ‘radical or marginal but through their stories, this paper questions that viewpoint. Stories of members of Workers’ Unions involved in both, and those of two Okinawan women, one a former Himeyuri nursing corp student, another a mother who struggled to survive and save her children during the Battle of Okinawa, show that those involved, although positioned as marginal or radical, reflect espoused Japanese values and idioms.

Patricia G. Steinhoff, University of Hawaii, Manoa, USA

This paper is part of a larger project on Japan’s invisible civil society–the thousands of small groups that advocate for a multiple of causes in contemporary Japan. With roots tracing back to the protest decade of the 1960s and lessons learned from the New Left’s confrontations with the State at the end of the decade, these groups deliberately remain small and informal, with few traces in mainstream Japan or in standard indicators of civil society activity. Large demonstrations represent one of the few ways such groups can suddenly become visible to the general public and the mass media. But how can tiny groups with virtually no formal organization mobilize thousands of people for mass events that are not spontaneous collective behavior, but well-planned acts of political advocacy? To answer this question the paper explores the postwar history and recent changes in such demonstrations, the networks that link invisible civil society groups together, and the social processes and institutions that make these events possible despite the absence of large, hierarchical institutions to mobilize participants. The presentation will use visual images to illustrate the wide range of participants, issues, and styles that co-exist in contemporary street demonstrations, and examine how participants interact with security forces and the public. It will also consider the role that such demonstrations play in the broader political agendas of the invisible civil society, including reinforcement of constitutionally protected democratic practices.