AAS Annual Meeting

Japan Session 278

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Session 278: Spaces of Contestation/Contestations of Space: Counterculture and Public Space in Postindustrial Tokyo

Organizer: Christian Dimmer, University of Tokyo, Japan

Chair: Tom Havens, Northeastern University, USA

This interdisciplinary panel explores an emergent youth counterculture of political activism and alternative lifestyles in relation to the production of space in contemporary Tokyo. In recent years growing frustration and disaffection with unfavorable socio-economic conditions related to post-industrialization and globalization, and an ineffectual political process, have manifested themselves in the formation of alternative social networks, identities, and spaces. Comprised largely of young people working in various forms of insecure and irregular employment, this network has established ‘underground’ cafes, bookstores, recycle shops, used clothing stores, art spaces, communal living spaces, and labor unions for non-regular workers. Members have also staged a number of highly aestheticized protests in the heart of Tokyo known as ‘sound demos’ which contest dominant meanings and uses of public space. The papers on this panel present ongoing research on various facets of this counterculture with a particular focus on the intersection of power, resistance and the production of space.

Whose Public Space? Mapping Tokyo’s Contested Geographies Between Global and Local Transformation Processes
Christian Dimmer, University of Tokyo, Japan

No single day and place could have illustrated the growing tensions in Tokyo’s public spaces more vividly than Shibuya on May 4th. Sponsored by local businesses and policed by private security forces, a well-attended art event temporarily occupied Park Avenue. Deceivingly named ‘Art Re-Public Shibuya’ the art happening presented a politically denuded version of ‘reclaim-the-streets’, utilizing a familiar global iconography of the spectacle and advertising through well-tried viral strategies. Only one block away and mostly ignored by the masses of Shibuya's shoppers, art functioned in a very different context. In Miyashita Park a group of resident activists employed art as a means of resistance against the privatisation of a public park and the expulsion of its homeless population. Like many other recent contestations of public space, such as those in Tokyo’s Akihabara, Shimokitazawa, Shinjuku, or Koenji, as well as in Kyoto’s Umekoji, these examples show how, in Henri Lefebvre’s sense, different representations of space collide in contemporary metropolitan Japan. The purpose of this paper is to broadly map out these contested urban geographies and show how public space has reemerged for the first time after the turbulent 1960s as political battleground and catalyst for protest while it has simultaneously been co-opted as event stage, or clean frontispiece, for neoliberal place marketing strategies of the entrepreneurial city.

Representing Thirdspace: Autonomous Geographies in Miyashita Park
Love Kindstrand, University of Chicago, USA

In this presentation, I revisit the contested nature of urban space and the “lure of binarism” in its contemporary conceptualizations. Using ethnographic data from my ongoing study of the movement against the planned “Nike-ification” of Miyashita Park in Shibuya, Tokyo, I situate the activists' creative reconceptualizations of public space. Specifically, the movement’s attempts to establish “spaces of representation” in Shibuya’s highly commercialized cityscape will be explored. Employing Edward Soja’s concept of ”Thirding-as-Othering” as a way to transgress and reconstitute the dichotomy of private and public, I examine the liminal nature and political potential of the marginalized spaces “in-between.”

Freeters into Precariat: Counterculture, Counterspectacle, and the Production of Alternative Space in Dystopic Tokyo
Colin S. Smith, , USA

Since the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy in 1990, the ranks of young part-time and temporary workers known as “freeters” have swelled. Growing frustration among young people with the lack of good jobs and the failure of conventional politics to provide a viable solution has materialized in recent years in the form of a new social movement and countercultural scene composed largely of these young irregular workers. In alliance with anti-neoliberalism social movements in other countries, they use the politically charged term precariat (precarious + proletariat) to describe themselves. Their protests are directed against neoliberal economic policies and the privileging of consumer capitalism as well as the lack of regular jobs for young people. Over the past five years, this movement has staged a number of unusual public protests called "sound demos"--unusual because they incorporate rave music, dancing, costumes, and floats--in the heart of Tokyo. Their politics are also expressed through alternative social spaces and networks composed of countercultural bookstores, cafes, bars, art spaces, discussion salons, recycle shops, and communal living spaces in central areas of Tokyo. These remarkable developments have implications for understanding resistance to large scale processes of neoliberal globalization as well as for the ways in which Japanese society and culture are transforming. This paper exmaines how this social movement and its associated countercultural scene and precariat identity have been developing through both the production of public spectacles and the production of alternative spaces and networks. It argues that the alternative spaces and networks are as important a part of their politics of contesting neoliberal globalization and resignifying the dominant meanings of urban space as the public protests are.

Globalisation from Below: Producing Commons in Tokyo’s Radical Spaces
Alexander J. Brown, University of Wollongong, Australia

In 2008 activists from around the world traveled to Japan to participate in a series of protests against the G8 summit in Hokkaido and to discuss alternatives to neoliberal globalisation. Tokyo’s network of radical spaces provided the infrastructure for this global convergence. This was a moment of heightened intensity in the ongoing encounter between Japanese and non-Japanese activists which occurs in these spaces. Radical spaces in Tokyo provide points of contact between activists who might otherwise have great difficulty making contact with one another due to language barriers, the size of the city and many other obstacles. They provide a place for gatherings, sewing circles and demonstrations, not to mention meeting more basic physical needs such as accomodation and sustenance. Through their encounters in radical spaces, activists create ongoing networks of communication and collaboration which cross national borders and challenge the capitalist system. Though Tokyo’s radical spaces are sites of resistance they are, at the same time, and much more importantly, directly productive of common cultural and social forms which exist outside of capitalism. This paper will explore the development of these ‘global commons’ in Tokyo’s radical spaces.