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Fill Up the Square, Square the Circle

August 1, 2011

by Yasuo Akai

I thank Jayda Fogel for her revision and critical advice.

Democracy is born in learning.

People are now occupying public squares in Greece, Spain, the UK, the US, and of course, in Arab countries. In Europe these protesters are called (or call themselves) “indignant” to signify their feelings of surprised anger for an action they have deemed wrong or unjust. In this vein, the Spanish protesters call themselves “los indignados.” They are indignant because they are losing their jobs, homes, pensions, social securities, public services, and educational programs, because of a debacle outside of their responsibility. These innocent consumers, workers, students, and jobseekers, are blamed by the authorities and corporate media for an economic crisis that was actually caused by the irresponsible monetary policy of the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—a financial mafia whose practices threaten these people’s sovereignty. Now, because the taxpayer’s money is being spent to bail out those most responsible for the economic damage, the successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have inspired these people to take to the streets.

Before we had been fairly skeptical of the effectiveness of occupying public squares—unaware of how powerful the impact could be. In her recent post entitled “Occupations and days of action” on her blog I cite, political scientist Jodi Dean admits that, “one of the things I’ve learned this year is that my skepticism toward occupation as a specific strategy (on college campuses, say) is wrong and short-sighted.” She continues by judging that regardless of whether or not it brings an immediate radical change it “can be vital learning opportunities.”

Some blogs posts such as “Guest Blog: Spain’s ‘Indignant’ Give Lessons in True Democracy” by Maria Carrión on naomiklein.org andDemocracy is born in the squaresby C.G on Occupied London: from the Greek Streets depict what the “vital learning opportunities” are like in Puerta del Sol, Madrid or Syntagma Square, Athens. Protesters are camping there, forming what Carrión calls a “micropolis” where people debate, express ideas, and have fun. The micropolis consists of a “maze of plastic carps held together with chicken wire and makeshift poles, complete with its own radio station, daycare center, dining areas, first aid posts, legal aid, clinics, libraries (including one for children) and information centers, which conduct meeting and workshops on issues ranging from the environment to immigration rights,” and a walk this can yield “a live poetry reading, a political debate, a cello concert, a yoga class, a kids’ theater performance, or a film screening on a king-sized bed-sheet.” The conservative government of Madrid fiercely tries to discredit their actions, accusing them of harming the local businesses—an accusation that will sound familiar to those of us in Tokyo. In contrast, Carrión denies this saying that, “the cafés and grocery stores are doing healthy business thanks to the protesters (I believe that this is exactly what happened on April 10, in Koenji, Tokyo).”

C.G goes on to describe how the people’s assembly in Syntagma Square organizes, “everyone has a right to speak and in the beginning of each assembly, after reading out and approving its topics, tickets are distributed to everyone who wishes to do so; speakers are selected by draw during the assembly. Usually speakers range between 80 and 100 in their number, while more than 2000 people take part in the assembly on a daily basis.” They have working groups, including “those of technical support, material supply, artists, cleaning, administrative support, canteen-nutrition, translation, respect (patrol), communication/multimedia, legal support, neighborhood outreach, health, time bank and service exchange,” through which the protesters participate “based on their own capacities.”

These movements are described as ‘spontaneous,’ ‘participatory,’ ‘grassroots,’ ‘bottom-up,’ ‘inclusive,’ ‘nonhierarchical,’ ‘leaderless,’ ‘DIY,’ and ‘festive.’ Many analysts say that the internet—or social media—make such ways of movement organization easier—pointing out the collective disillusionment with party politics, as well as with the representative democracy.

Their distrust of the mainstream media is evident. Why else would these young Spanish protesters call themselves the “indignant?” They protest the mainstream media who call them the “Neither-Nor” or “Ni-Ni” generation (neither working nor studying). This is similar to that of the Japanese media who, borrowing from the UK media, refer to similar Japanese youths as “NEET.” They have been badly misrepresented by the mainstream media. The media, blaming these youths for their own plight, attack them saying that, “the system is not the problem. You are just lazy.” The blog post “Democracy is born in the squares” also expresses this distrust. “The stance of the movement toward Mass Media is also differentiated, with the refusal to engage with them, not even by way of issuing press releases” allows them to create their “own channels of communication.”

 Hara Kouki and Antonis Vradis, the members of the Occupied London Collective, in their contribution to Al Jazeera English, explain the Greek protesters’ “strong popular belief that the country’s highly powerful media conglomerates have held a significant stake and, arguably, a role in running the country over the past few decades.” They go on calling the transformation of the protesters’ collective understanding of their country’s history, an emergence of “a culture”; “a culture that sees political and corporate media representation as part of the plexus of power that has misruled Greece.”

 The same holds true for what has been going on in Japan since the Fukushima nuclear disaster. In his writing entitled “Introducing Post-war History in the Nuclear Accident Debate,” Yoshihiko Ikegami describes how the Japanese people have begun to revisit the introduction of nuclear energy throughout their nation’s history. A lot of footage showing how the Japanese people have debated nuclear power plants for decades, how spin doctors have defended the state’s nuclear policy, and how fishermen and farmers have fought against the construction of nuclear power plants, has been uploaded on You Tube or other video sharing sites. Among them, Ikegami pays attention to a documentary film produced in 1994 by NHK, the Japanese public broadcaster. NHK, a news outlet whose news shows tend to pass on the authorities’ spin, occasionally produces interesting documentary films that are often based upon the testimonials of retired bureaucrats. The documentary film Ikegami cites, investigates how Japanese powerful media conglomerates, namely The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper and Nippon Television—both of which were owned by Matsutaro Shoriki, who used to be a high-ranking bureaucrat during World War II and thus considered a class A war criminal—played a crucial role in the orchestration of the massive propaganda campaign “Atoms for Peace,” which played a key role in introducing nuclear power plants to Japan. Ikegami points out that despite a huge effort by the US-Japan authorities, it took a decade before the first commercial reactor became operational because the popular movement against use of nuclear power was so strong. He goes on to argue that we must rewrite our history of protest culture; a history that he says has not been evaluated properly.

 As a person who was educated in Japan in the 1980s, I can remember how bitterly people talked about the popular movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Just so did the authorities once defeat the protesters, dispersing them and containing each of them in a cocoon of an ideological capsule hotel (which reminds me of Matrix).Many fictions, cartoons, and popular music laughed at the emancipatory struggles of the time—parodying the old fighters’ manner of speaking, the songs they sang, and the clothing they wore. And they claimed to be a subculture. No wonder manga has become an ideological state apparatus (these days the Japanese government subsidizes manga and animated cartoons, calling them “Japan cool”).

 However, the dissidents have survived (again, like the Matrix). Indeed the most important feature of the current Japanese movement is how the young protesters have begun to rediscover and connect with the older dissidents. Having been marginalized by corporate media and the authorities those scientists, engineers, lawyers, journalists, and various other citizens who have long opposed the state’s nuclear policy, have become irreplaceable to the movement because they provide the theoretical basis for those activists newly participating. The secrecy of the nuclear power industry, as well as that of the authorities and the corporate media who has downplayed the Fukushima nuclear disaster, has become unpalatable to the public. Because of this there are rallies, gatherings, lectures, and teach-ins, taking place every day in Japan.

“Esta revolución no es de derechas ni de izquierdas, es de sentido común”

In a Reuters’ photo of the protest in Puerta del Sol, a protester holds a placard reading “this revolution is neither left nor right, it is common sense.” In other words, when your boat is sinking it is insignificant whether you stand on its right or its left, ultimately the boat must still be fixed. The protesters and the authorities use the same rhetoric—initializing a call for unity—but their plans head in opposite directions. Having said that, I am afraid that I am oversimplifying—not all the protesters are calling for unity. Rather their emphasis is on diversity and inclusiveness, and they tend to praise themselves for that. They proudly claim that “each and every one of us speaks for him or herself” and that makes Jodi Dean’s “skin crawl.” I understand what she is talking about—I agree with her view that neoliberalism enhances isolation, individualism, and personalism, and thus that it prevents people from expressing solidarity with one another. I also understand why she says this—because in America oppression and freedom of choice come hand in hand in a very obvious way, “you cannot have single-payer healthcare because it violates your freedom of choice!” But I dare to say that Japan is more oppressive than America because this country simply places each individual in a cocoon, without gifting each the illusion of freedom of choice. I even think that both the Spanish protesters who call themselves in the humorous—and ironic—way and the young Japanese protesters who try to differentiate themselves from the older leftists share a same problem. Though I am not critical about those who say, “I’m not a leftist, but I oppose nuclear power plants,” I think that it is important to think what makes them say this. I recently read that in his blog Hajime Matsumoto (one of the young organizers of the current anti-nuclear power plant movement) wrote about his recent experience of talking with some of the older protesters. What he learned, was that those old fighters in the 1960s also had fun, and their rallies were just as festive as ours today.

 Those in power, though they call for unity, do not want people to be united; they just want to erase difference between people instead. But what makes people connect with one another is actually difference. I have no illusions about freedom of individual choice, but I do believe that we need to keep out differences tangible. There can be no commitment without difference. It is because of our differences that we learn, and change, and evolve. And it is during this learning process, that a general will can be allowed to emerge.

 The Japanese government has been busy calling for national unity via the mainstream media and ad agencies since the earthquake hit. Those big TV screens mounted on buildings keep saying that we are one. If I had the sunglasses that appeared in John Carpenter’s great flick They Live, they would read “obey.” Those TV screens have become so iconic that the American TV drama Heroes places them everywhere when they try to recreate Japan. My European friends once described the square in front of the Hachiko Exit of Shibuya Station—well-known for three big TV screens that overlook and bombard people with noisy advertisements—as Orwellian, and asked me why Japanese people were not against this. I answered that those people were so thoroughly brainwashed that they no longer felt that way.

However I was wrong, on June 11, 2011, more than 20,000 protesters marched against the state’s nuclear policy in Shinjuku, Tokyo, and occupied a square in front of the East Exit of Shinjuku Station, known as “the square in front of ALTA.” ALTA is the name of a TV studio that has aired a well-known noon TV show hosted by an iconic comedian, which has taught the Japanese people when they should laugh for nearly three decades. In a way, the studio symbolizes the status quo—despite having a name derived from the word “alternative.” Of course there is a big TV screen mounted on the building (a shopping mall) where the studio resides, which continues to send the state’s messages. When one views those messages, contrasted against the crowd facing it, one might begin to discern the hypocrisy of the state and the mainstream media (even if one was without John Carpenter’s sunglasses). The protesters, using a projector, projected their own demands on the wall:

  1. Stop operations of all the nuclear power plants that are currently operational.
  2. Don’t resume operations of those plants currently suspended for scheduled check-ups or the other reasons.
  3. Abandon the scheduled construction of plants.
  4. Withdraw the policy that allows the children in Fukushima to be exposed to annual 20 millisieverts of radiation completely.
  5. Shift the energy resources from nuclear power to renewable ones.

Yet, I would not call these demands a general will of the protesters—although of course many of the protesters agree with these demands. In my view the state’s nuclear policy is already dead and those in power, like the famous Monty Python pet store sketch, are just stubbornly arguing that their dead parrot is still alive, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Japan’s decision to continue maintaining the nuclear power plants is an irrational one. A nuclear power plant is a Rube Goldberg machine—huge efforts, small results (just boiling water). The Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan suggested in May that the Chubu Electric Power Company suspends operations of the Hamaoka Facility (deemed the most dangerous because it is located at the predicted epicenter of a huge earthquake) and this electric company reluctantly followed though. But this decision they say, is only effective until they build a barrier that protects the facility from tsunamis. In other words they are saying, “no, no! It’s just resting!” Those Japanese nuclear power plants prolong their lives because they are heavily subsidized—over 90 percent of Japan’s energy budget goes towards nuclear power. The electric power companies operate the nuclear power plants because they can make a killing by just having those plants, and also because the law allows them to avert responsibility when a disaster hits their facilities. Moreover, economic giants such as Hitachi, Toshiba, and Mitsubishi, who build the plants, are actually capable of developing renewable energy, and I believe that they are doing it. But because of government subsidies they continue to try to build more nuclear power plants not only in Japan, but also across the world. The nuclear industry is alive because they are allowed to steal taxpayer’s money—akin to those “too big to fail” banks. Those forerunners of nuclear power use, General Electric and Westinghouse, no longer see nuclear power as profitable, and American environmentalists often explain that American companies are no longer capable of building nuclear plants. The GE engineers who built those crippled reactors at the Fukushima facility are retired. Westinghouse is now owned by Toshiba. These days few students are willing to study nuclear power. No one sees the future in this industry.

This cul-de-sac of the nuclear industry was already alarmed by Japanese ex-nuclear power plant engineer Norio Hirai more than a decade ago. His I Want You to Know What a Nuclear Power Plant Is explains that Japan is neither capable of building plants properly nor of maintaining them let alone of dismantling them and dealing with the waste—one of the reasons the authorities decided to continue operations of those old reactors of the Fukushima facility was that they had no ability to dismantle them. Hirai’s writing describes that when he gave a lecture and described the 300 years it would take (precisely it will take longer: plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years) to get rid of nuclear waste, a teenage girl began to cry. Hirai continued by describing the girl’s reaction.

Finishing my talk, I took some questions. An 8 grade girl, crying, spoke to us, “you adults are liars, hypocrites. I came here to face you all. I wanted to know who you are. You say you are against pesticides, golf courses, and nuclear power plants. You say you do so for your children. I’m sure you’re just pretending to act against all this. I live in Kyowa Town, near the Tomari Nuclear Power Plant, and I’ve been exposed to radiation. The ratio of babies with leukemia is higher around nuclear facilities in Sellafield, England, than in other places. I know this because I read a book. I’m a girl, and I will probably marry someday. Is it ok for me to have a baby?” No one had an answer for her.

“If a nuclear power plant is that horrible, why didn’t you all go against it more seriously when they started building it? You even allowed them to build a No. 2 reactor. I don’t care about electricity. I hate the nuclear power plant.” The No. 2 reactor of the Tomari Nuclear Power Plant had just been put into operational testing.

“For what reason are you meeting here? If I was an adult and I had a baby, I’d use violence to stop it. I wouldn’t hesitate to risk my own life.

“The radiation I’m exposed to is now doubled because of this second reactor, but I won’t leave Hokkaido.”

I asked her if she had ever talked about her anxiety to her mother or teacher. “My mother and teacher are here now, but I’ve never brought this up before,” she said. “We girls always talk about this. We can’t marry. We can’t have a baby.”

I was told that their teachers did not know that they thought this way.

I have recently realized that what Hirai described here was not an exaggeration. A radio show has reported that when the adolescents in Fukushima talk back to their parents and teachers, they nihilistically say, “I don’t care about my future. I cannot have a baby anyway!” This story refreshes my memory—I am old enough to remember how Chernobyl upset us pupils, and how especially the girls feared the consequences.

By keeping those nuclear power plants operational, we are not only borrowing from the future, but also killing it (not to mention this outrageous allowance of 20 millisieverts). If you are against capitalism or neoliberalism, I want you to go against nuclear power plants in your country as well. The Fukushima disaster stands as a consequence of excess of power, and of capitalism.

One of the reasons I do not call those five demands the general will, is that our problem will not end if we simply shut down the nuclear power plants—a fact that I believe many of the protesters know. The people in Japan are all more or less exposed to radiation. They have to live with it now, eating and drinking more or less contaminated food and water, inhaling the contaminated air, and walking on contaminated soil. They have to think about how to share risks, and they have to think about how to cope with the waste (excellent nuclear engineers are still necessary for this). Moreover, I personally do not believe that the use of renewable energy resources will simply make the world a better place. My concern about the ongoing debate over climate change is that it seems to me as though those in power, and other economic giants, are just trying to literally make money out of the air (CO2). They are buying the Amazon, privatizing lands and waters, and extracting lithium (or whatever), yet it is the consumers who are being blamed by mainstream media for global warming. This seems dubious to me. Even if we were to successfully shift the energy resources, this system of exploiting poor people will remain. Those in power are busy measuring the value of the air we breathe, and putting a price tag on it. We have to get out of this prison of measurement. Regardless of whether or not climate change threatens us, mother earth has never been harmonious. We cannot prevent natural disasters from occurring, but we can fix a world an earthquake much smaller than those in Japan, claims ten times more lives in a poor nation like Haiti.

What a revolution changes is the past, and what might have been becomes that which was.

I believe that one of the reasons occupying public squares is such a powerful act, is that it reveals the real—and ugly—face of power. This is especially true when we remember how the police have reacted to the protests, and how a conservative politician has tried to discredit those protesters (they are really afraid of us, a good sign). According to Occupied London, a Greek reactionary talking head publicly denounced the protesters for being faceless, and therefore leaderless. But I challenge you to think about this in another way: that power itself, is faceless. We sometimes call it the nuclear industry, or the military industrial complex, or corrupt politicians, or even more simply we call those in power ‘tyrants.’ However, no matter what label we attach to them, these ‘powerful’ people remain as faceless as the cops in riot gear attempting to disperse the protesters. This power, which imposes austerity measures and builds nuclear power plants, is faceless in their collective unity. Therefore to fight it, we too must act against it collectively.

Additionally both the austerity measures, and the nuclear power plants themselves, have been claimed to be practical solutions by the authorities—even though many no longer see nuclear power as practical. What kind of practicality is this when these policies are destroying people’s lives? We tend to accept the “necessary evil” when told that it is the ‘practical’ choice, one of the reasons that the Japanese people have accepted nuclear power. I believe that, especially in Japan, they tend to consider that what serves the corporations and authorities will concurrently serve the public. They see the corporations and authorities as experts who fix problems. Now the government of Miyagi Prefecture relies on a think tank from a prominent Japanese investment bank to plan the reconstruction of the devastated area because these officials believe that they know stuff, thus excluding locals from the planning. I am not simply demonizing big corporations (although I could easily call it a “shock doctrine”). My concern lies in how many of these public officials are asking ‘experts’ what to do, and so many Japanese people appear to take this for granted. This is a technocratic country, driven not by the ideas of philosophers, political scientists, or sociologists, but instead by the cool ‘logic’ of engineers. Many people believe that questioning the system is a pompous act and thus useless, and it is why the leading activists who have opposed nuclear power plants are engineers. This is strategic. In Japan the people do not trust a political scientist who says that “nuclear power plants are bad,” but when an engineer speaks these words they listen. And when an engineer speaks like a philosopher they acknowledge him, which is far less than those actually trained to the craft. Although an expert can explain a condition or situation, it is ultimately up to us to make the final decisions. There is always a gulf we must leap between knowledge and judgment. What makes this leap possible is not blindly choosing “the red pill or the blue one” offered by these experts, but instead lies in the questioning of why those two choices are the only ones available. Slavoj Žižek’s reading of Immanuel Kant’s term “public use of reason” may be relevant here. In his Violence: six sideways reflections (Picador, 2008), Žižek interprets Kant’s notion of “public use of reason” as a way a singular subject participates in the universal. “In his [Kant’s] vision of the public space of the unconstrained free exercise of reason, he asserts the dimension of emancipatory universality outside the confines of one’s social identity, of one’s position within the order of (social) being (p.144)” In other words, the demands of times always come down to “either the red pill or the blue” one (or yellow, green, or whatever), but freedom cannot be practiced by simply choosing one from them. Instead, freedom comes down to an examination of what has gone into the creation of those conditions and choices. But Slavoj Žižek was not the first person to introduce me this concept. A decade or so ago, a Japanese man born in 1908 and who studied philosophy at Tokyo Imperial University (later, the University of Tokyo) described this to me. He warned me that it would be a disaster if Japanese universities simply continued to busily produce useful experts. He was right. Absolutely right. Now it is easy for us to laugh at those spin doctors, the academics at the University of Tokyo who still defend the state’s nuclear policy, but I do not suspect their integrity. They have been genuinely pragmatic, a tragedy in and of itself. That is why I can claim that if the so-called Bologna process continues, what Europeans will get is a second Japan or even a second Fukushima. In Japan, only those scholars who have maintained Kant’s good old principle have long opposed the state nuclear policy. One of those conscientious scientists is Hiroaki Koide, a senior researcher specializing in nuclear engineering at Kyoto University, who has opposed the use of nuclear power for four decades. In a recent interview he explained how he came to this determination. As a student during the 1968 students’ revolt, he learned that a university should be a place where students and professors debate and research freely, without being restricted by the demands of times. I recently heard that a Japanese Jungian (sub)cultural critic (yes, there is such a thing) had created a narrative whereby Koide became a hero of the NEETs. I furiously oppose her view. Hers is a subtle, but heinous spin. It implies that only those who have no real job can admire Koide, saying—if I translate it—“those who support Koide, you are idealistic. Grow up and be practical, or you won’t get any decent job forever!”

The Japanese people need a forum where they can debate things freely, without being disturbed by the mantra of “being practical,” where each individual does not have to remain feeling powerless in front of their computer display or TV set. At the very least they do not need analysis that treats a symptom (such as nuclear power plants) of the system as one of individual idiosyncrasy. We often mistake a collective choice for an individual one. I agree with Jodi Dean, who writes in her blog that “the most significant aspects of our lives are not personal choices,” and that “the point of revolution, of radical change, is making these choices part of a conscious collective process.” The most important events in our lives are the things that just happen to us, that we allow to just happen to us. However, we can do something to change these events by joining, and thus by becoming a part of them. The protesters in Japan are not necessarily railing against consumerism or capitalism. Tens of thousands show up because of one simple demand: to “stop nuclear power plants.” The protesters’ political affiliations vary from those good old leftists to a few populist nationalists, as well as those without a clear political affiliation. Many of them may say, like the protester in Puerta del Sol that, “this is about common sense!” I have my own opinions about the nuclear issue—I have far more demands than the five projected—and even though the general will of the protesters is anyone’s guess, I am still cautiously optimistic about this movement.

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