Dystopia of Civil Society

(Original text in Japanese below)

Chigaya Kinoshita

In his “A Response to Rebecca Solnit,” Yoshihiko Ikegami highly appreciates A Paradise Built in Hell, and at the same time argues that the principle of hope inherent in the disaster utopia might not work for the present situation in Japan, confronting as it is not only natural disaster by earthquake and tsunami but also nuclear disaster. As he points out, radiation exposure causes calamities not only on living humans but also future generations. And nuclear accident deprives us of the place/space itself where the utopia can come out of disaster. Unfortunately hopes for recovery drastically diminish here. In the worst case, parts of Fukushima and Ibaraki prefectures will be no man’s land for an indefinite length of time. Possibility for a recovery of community is zero in such condition. Now it must be considered how one can talk about the disaster utopia in the present situation of Japan in relationship with the previous nuclear disasters in Ural 1950 and Chernobyl 1980. This is our task.

However, I think that the difficulty of building a disaster utopia in Japan is not simply due to the characteristics of nuclear disaster per se but something else. For instance, some foreign media have repeatedly praised diligence and order the Japanese people sustained in confrontation with the critical situation, but at the same time expressed a sense of oddity that there have been so little critical discourses and actions being observed there.

It is not that there have been no resistances, though being scarce. I shall name a few examples here. The resistance that has been most spoken about so far among the general public took place in professional baseball. After 3/11, the home stadium of the Eagles based in the northeast has been damaged and out of use. In response, the Pacific League to which the Eagles belong determined to postpone the season until April. But the Central League whose member teams are centered in Tokyo and Osaka areas insisted on the determined date of March 25th. The background to this insistence is problematically interesting. The one who was behind this coercion was Tsuneo Watanabe, the owner of Yomiuri Newspaper. Once an agent of CIA in the cold war age, Watanabe played a major role in introducing nuclear power plant in Japan during the 1950s. (I shall write a piece about the US/Japan strategy vis-à-vis the introduction of nuclear power.) The intension of Watanabe to start the season on the predetermined date was evidently to create an image of successful recovery by shifting the public attention from the on-going nuclear disaster to the baseball season. The teams of the Central League followed this decision.

Meanwhile the union of professional baseball players declared: “it is nothing but conceit to start a season in this situation,” and its intention to go on strike. Public opinion largely supported this, and finally the Central League was forced to delay the season. The union was able to express their voice under the state of emergency only because it had a previous experience of all team strike against amalgamation plan in 2004. This strike was a rare example that achieved a wide range of support from Japanese public who generally hold anti-strike sentiment. At that time as well, the main enemy of the players was Watanabe, and the axis of opposition has returned in the current dispute, with repeated success in establishing a commonsense with the public. Such was the motive drive for the radical response of the players.

Another example is the struggle of Ohta Kinoshita, the former news desk of Nippon Television Network. He was the one who reported the critical accident at Tokaimura Nuclear power Plant in 1999. At the wake of 3/11, he gave up his post at the TV station, and began a blog <http://twitter.com/KinositaKouta> to propagate the danger of nuclear energy. With his profound criticism of Japan’s mass media that is spreading ungrounded optimistic views, and resisting accusations against himself being escapist and traitor, he persists in his critical conviction by giving up his high salary job.

There are lineages of such oppositional spirit in Japan that are not familiar for foreign media, but they are unfortunately very rare.

At the wake of 3/11, the transportation system and infra-structure of Tokyo were plunged into chaos. All workers had difficulties in commutation. Foreign owned enterprises announced to their employees that they did not have to come in for work. It is said that foreign workers did not come following the reasonable recommendation, but alas! Japanese workers came to work by making tremendous effort to reach the metropolis.

There are more examples like this, say, of conformism. Fukushima University is in Fukushima City, located within 60 KM radius of the power plant, where radiation is detected well over the standard measure. The university dares to resume its courses in May. The president issued a declaration that sounded nothing but a self-enlightenment; the administration ignored the objection of some faculties and accused as traitors those who refuged outside the prefecture; to the students it vaguely suggested that they go home when the government issues the order of standing by at home. The resumption of courses in coming May will inexorably bind all students and all university workers. The administration has no concern about the lives and well being of the students and workers; it just seeks to carry out its everyday business, blindly obeying the order of the Ministry of Education.

While the disaster of the nuclear accident is getting worse and worse everyday, Japanese society is held tight by such conformism. Observing this, many of us immediately think of the total war mobilization during the Pacific War. They might associate Fukushima University with Kamikaze attack, or they might find it as derivative of the traditional characteristics of diligence and submission. Stereotypically this can be deemed the nature of nationalism of Japan-type.

However, it is my contention that the basis of the present conformism is not there. Foreign media have been reporting also about the insufficiency and incapacity of the Japanese government in terms of emergency measures and information disclosure. What is at stake here is a question of Japanese civil society that approves of such problematic governance. I think that the problem exists not in nationalism but the structure of the civil society. The present conformism must be analyzed from the vantage point of class struggle within Japanese society after the high economic growth of the 1960s, where the civil society has come to be dominated by capital, while its class nature has been made invisible within the civil society.

A clue to approach this issue is “the death by overwork [karoshi].” This internationally circulated term signified a serious social problem during the 1980s when Japan was celebrating the bubble economy. After having overcome a strong yen in the mid 80s, Japan’s economy began to enjoy prosperity since 1986. In consequence, the sense that Japanese are rich and the society is wealthy generally spread. On the other hand, however, also generalized was the image of the Japanese as working bees, based upon the fact that the workers work intensely for long hours. The incredibly speedy economic growth and karoshi both indicated an abnormality that derived from a same root. Here I would like to pay attention to the fact that the Japanese workers were not mobilized and driven by such external coercion as the state of total war. Workers would not likely work so hard and long as to reach karoshi by an external coercion. Karoshi became a wide social problem only because of the existing structure in which the workers voluntarily devoted themselves to their companies to the extreme.

I doubt that this structure is derivative of the tradition and convention inherent in Japanese society. At the end of the Pacific War, from the 1940s through the 60s, there was a powerful labor movement. Up until the mid 1970s, strikes and street actions were part of the everyday landscape. Thereafter, however, strikes drastically plunged and the industrial actions of labor unions fell to the bottom. Be it white-collar or blue-collar, as the workers lost their class-consciousness, they came to identify themselves dominantly with their companies. Despite the increase of working populations under the high economic growth, the rule of conservative LDP lasted for such a long time, because the working class supported it instead of the Japan socialist Party or the Japan Communist Party that tended to social democracy. In this manner, the myth of the Japanese being obedient and diligent got fixed only during these forty years.

A work-centrism grasped the entire society under the directive of capital; autonomy was totally lost in domains of everyday life and culture; the view of life was homogenized under the idea of company=citizenship, based upon the principle of competition among individuals. These broad senses of everyday life were created after the defeat of class struggle, which are the very disciplines that would not allow resistance, disobedience, and exodus at this moment.

Certainly the enduring recession that began in the 1990s and the abuses of neoliberal reforms leveled the economic basis for creating and sustaining the everyday senses of Japan’s civil society. At the moment, however, the collapse of economic basis have not yet triggered the willingness of the people to look for an alternative, but are rather spurring on the tendency to compete their submission even harder for survival. Now what is grounding Japan’s conformism is a delusive obsession: “if I am kicked out from my job, my everyday life, I won’t be able to come back.” On top of that, as people are confronting threats of radiation that is invisible and may produce long-term effects as opposed to immediate, this prolonged state of crisis is reinforcing the structure of Japan’s corporate-civil society.

I am aware that the actual difficulties of Japanese society cannot be reduced only to the problematic of class. Its nationalism should be shed light on in itself. There are many more moments to be scrutinized in relationship with Japan’s crisis: i.e., globalization, neoliberalism, disaster capitalism, empire and the US, correspondence or mirroring with the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, whereabouts of social movements, etc. What I wanted to clarify in this short piece were that the present crisis is rooted in the way of Japanese modernity; and that Japan is confronting a tremendous social and political shift that cannot be spoken of, without rethinking its past and present in their entirety. Now in spite of its superficial tranquility, Japanese society is about to be losing its coherence of past-present-future and torn apart into pieces.