Occupy Japan

2011 was, for people around the world, the year of the uprising. It played host to the Arab Spring, to massive protests in Russia, and to the Occupy protests that began on Wall Street and spread around the world. It was a year that provided strong and convincing testament to the power people wield when they are united, righteously indignant, and motivated by the realization that they have little to lose and everything to gain. On October 15, protesters ‘Occupied’ the streets of Tokyo. Compared to the protests that have begun to change the face of politics in the United States, the Tokyo protest was underwhelming. The group of around 300, containing a disproportionate number of non-Japanese and claiming to represent the 99% in a city of 15 million, was less than convincing. It received almost no mainstream media coverage.
As in every society, protest in Japan has a long history. From seppuku, to the post-war political protests, to the recent anti-nuclear outrage, the populace has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to voice disagreement and outrage. This should come as no surprise since the desire to stand up for what you believe in and to fight back against injustice is not exclusive to certain nationalities. It is part of being human. For this reason, it is strange that Japan has not experienced a greater uproar. The original Occupy Protest was a response to a government that had been co-opted by the wealthy and failed in its duty to represent the people. Yet Japan, where the façade of democracy is so thin, where unelected bureaucrats run the country and a steady stream of political scandal and corruption forces one prime minister after another from office, seems to have missed out on the grassroots outrage that has proven so effective and inclusive elsewhere. Why isn’t Japan occupied by the discontent?
Japanese people currently face a staggering assortment of problems. Their economy has been slowly collapsing for the last two decades and they seem unwilling or unable to contend with looming problems such as a birth rate that will result in 30% of the population being over 60 years old within the next 20 years. They live and work in the first-world country that boasts the lowest quality of lifestyle, that is renowned as being the worst in which to be an employee, and (perhaps as a result) that has the highest suicide rate. Entrenched mechanisms of control such as alcohol and gambling addiction exact heavy tolls while the mental health infrastructure trails a quarter-century behind those of other developed countries. Their younger generation is increasingly uninterested in sex (remember the birth rate statistic), drops out of school at record rates, ties North Korean students in foreign language proficiency, and has taken to locking themselves in their rooms, sometimes for years on end, in order to avoid the pressures of society. The government is a leaderless throng of self-serving, unelected bureaucrats who seem motivated only to prop up the house of cards long enough to turn a sizable personal profit and ensure a sinecure awaits them upon retirement. Instead of acting in the best interests of the country or its people, they spend their time auctioning off government contracts, paying corrupt businessmen with taxpayers’ money, and ensuring their own kickbacks in the process. They control the media to prevent being exposed while making sure that the education system and popular entertainment maintain low expectations and keep everyone well-trained not to ask questions. With the country facing natural disasters, social breakdown, and economic collapse, the solution they proffer is to ganbare, essentially saying that the problem isn’t the system; it’s that the people with the least weren’t giving enough. It wasn’t the greed and short-sightedness of the wealthy and powerful that screwed things up, it was that the powerless were lazy and undisciplined. So get back to work and maybe we’ll reward you with a new pachinko parlor or TV personality to worship. Just something to keep you busy so you don’t have to waste time thinking.
The exploitive nature of this (or any) system requires a population that can be controlled, and the easiest prey for such a system is an anaesthetized one concerned only with hording petty material amenities, keeping their bellies full of celebrity endorsed food, and fetishizing kawaii as a remedy for spiritual and existential hollowness. Infantalizing this population through constant safety warnings, dependency inducing relationships, and pop culture aimed at entertaining 7 year olds helps to reduce any remaining resistance. When the top selling publications in the country are fashion magazines and beauty salons outnumber even convenience stores on the streets, is it any wonder that people remain distracted by questions like “How can I be better looking” instead of “How can I make a difference”? As long as there is more popular concern over the ranking of AKB members than the $35 billion that is spent by the nation’s leaders each year on business entertainment (a euphemism for prostitution), the powerful will remain in power and the situation will continue to worsen.
The time for demanding change came many years ago. The system will not change itself, and there are those who have a vested interest in preventing it from being changed. But the combination of short-sightedness and self-interest that underpins it has always been a formula for instability. When it collapses, it will be those with the least who pay the most. The only way to avoid this is to get people interested. Without interest there will never be action. The part of Japan that most needs to be Occupied is not its streets, but its minds. Even though many of us are foreigners, this is something to which we can contribute. If you care about this country, get involved. This country needs a revolution driven by grassroots, bottom-up change. Its people need to assert their right to live better, more dignified lives as productive members of a fair system that no longer serves only to further enfranchise old-boy networks and the wealthiest few. Instead of reading anime and watching game shows and proclaiming your love for this culture, do something to help it. Educate yourself about what is really going on. Refuse to watch it slowly fall victim to ignorance and apathy. And next time you meet a Japanese person, don’t talk about how cold it is, where you’re from, or how well you speak Japanese. Ask them what they think about their government or how they would spend their time if they didn’t have to work six days a week. Ask them what it is that they really want for themselves, for their children. It will be uncomfortable. Change always is. You probably won’t make many friends. What you will make is a difference. Nothing can happen until someone starts the discussion, so it might as well be the loud foreigners who do it.
– i

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