JAPAN | POINT OF VIEW/ Hajime Matsumoto: Influence politics with street demonstrations

Posted on July 28, 2011


JAPAN | ASAHI SHIMBUN | 28 July 2011


Using the Internet, we organized a street demonstration against nuclear power generation in Tokyo’s Koenji district in April. This was followed by another in May in Shibuya, and then one more in Shinjuku on June 11. They were lively, almost festive affairs with reggae musicians and traditional “chindon-ya” street performers marching with us.

Some people came toting their laptops to stream the events on the Internet, which resulted in a lot of people showing up and joining us along the way. The three demonstrations attracted a total of about 50,000 participants, mostly young people.

When we were planning the April demonstration, it was still less than a month after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11 and the resultant nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant. The entire nation was in a state of quasi-mourning then, and I wasn’t sure if it was the right time for us to take to the streets and protest against nuclear power generation.

But we went ahead anyway, and were pleasantly surprised to receive an overwhelmingly positive response. Many people thanked and congratulated us for what we did. I imagine everyone felt something was not quite right about all that “self-restraint” business going on in society at the time.

People realized it was perfectly OK to openly voice their fear of nuclear power generation. On June 11, exactly three months after the March disaster, anti-nuke rallies were held at 140 locations throughout Japan.

If you believe you can leave it to the political party or politician you’ve voted for to change the world for the better, you’ve got it all wrong. If you really want anything to change, you must assert your political convictions by participating in a demonstration, for instance, so that your action may influence politicians.

Taking to the streets is the most direct form of political participation. At election time, candidates promise all sort of things, and you might vote for someone running on an anti-nuke platform. But unfortunately, we all know too well that whether our elected representative will follow through with his or her campaign pledge is another story.

I was thrilled by the outcome of the recent popular referendum in Italy, as it was an obvious case of the Fukushima disaster forcing the Italian government to switch its nuclear policy. But in a plebiscite, it’s the government that asks the people what they think of a particular issue. In a demonstration, on the other hand, it’s the people who express their anger or whatever message they wish to convey to the government. This, I believe, is a more “genuine” form of popular participation in politics.

Under our current election system, it is impossible to quickly fill the Diet with anti-nuke legislators. But if more people start demonstrating in real anger against nuclear power generation, the incumbents won’t be able to ignore the groundswell of public opinion, and that may lead to changes in the nation’s energy policy.

What is most important is that people must get into the habit of voicing their complaints. We’ve got to stop acquiescing with passive democracy and regain true, participatory democracy. And my belief is that taking to the streets is one effective means.

It doesn’t matter if a demonstration turns into a raucous, festive occasion. Traditionally, demonstrators were a serious bunch shouting slogans in unison. The very thought that this is the only proper way to demonstrate is what keeps people from participating in politics in their daily lives.

Talking politics shouldn’t be divorced from anyone’s day-to-day life. For musicians, music is their means of self-expression, and for dancers, it’s dancing. When thinking of what to write on the signboard you are taking to a demonstration, you feel the satisfaction of participating in it by your own choice. And unless the experience is fun, you won’t want to do it again.

I was inspired to organize those anti-nuke demonstrations by the recent string of popular revolutions in the Middle East, where the Internet played a vital role in getting the word out for people to share. Since our April demonstration in Koenji, almost all the other anti-nuke demonstrations in Japan have followed a similar pattern.

Recent demonstrations are not a “display of mass hysteria,” an expression Nobuteru Ishihara, secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party, used when he commented about the results of the referendum in Italy. He is completely wrong. The people are finally regaining their senses, and I believe they are beginning to make a difference, albeit gradually.

(This article was compiled from an interview by Shigeki Tosa.)

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Hajime Matsumoto is an organizer of June 11 demonstration against nuclear power generation. Born in 1974, he organized a protest movement against a cafeteria price hike while in university. He currently runs a recycle shop named Shiroto no Ran (revolt of an amateur) in Tokyo’s Koenji district. His published works include “Binbo-nin no Gyakushu!” (The poor strike back!).

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