Exclusive report by Alfie Goodrich in Tokyo: In a week that has seen the approval rating of the current Japanese Prime Minister, Taro Aso, fall to a new low – below 18% – this evening I witnessed first-hand how the State deals with public protest against the premier and his government. [Gallery of photos at the end of this article].
At the South East exit of Shinjuku station, the busiest in Tokyo, a small group of Anti-Aso protesters gathered this evening to make their point; that the premier should step down. The group comprised no more than ten well-dressed protestors, one with a megaphone [standard public-address equipment for everyone in Japan from shop assistants to right-wing ultra-nationalists], two with handmade posters and placards, the rest dishing out handbills containing the sailient points of their argument.
There is an excellent article here which has a fuller explanation of events, in Japanese and English, and which explains more about the exact [and bogus] pretext on which the Police broke up the demo, the presence of plain-clothes officers and more about the exact clauses of public statute which allow demonstrations and the distribution of handbills on the street.
Five minutes into their protest the Police started arriving. They mixed with the crowd and moved inwards to isolate the protesters. Ten minutes after that, the Police were still arriving. By the end of the protest there were around 30 to 40 Police, outnumbering the protesters by about three or four to one. At this point, happy that they had the upper hand, the Police completely surrounded the group of protesters and forced them up the stairs towards the station and away from the growing crowd of passers-by who had gathered to watch and listen.
I was with the protesters and I was pushed up the stairs by the advancing line of Police. By this stage I was beginning to wonder what sort of democracy I was living in, where a small group of disenchanted locals could not gather to protest their frustration and disappointment in their Prime Minister without being herded off the street and into silence by the Police.
Japan is not known, especially in recent times, for keeping any one of its Prime Ministers for long. In fact there have been almost half a dozen in the last three years alone. Coming to power last November, after a leadership election in his party that was farsical to say the least [pointless would be another word for it, so inevitable was the conclusion], he did so on the promise of having en election by the following month. It was in fact at a press conference a week before the leadership election that he made that promise. I was there and I remember the words coming from his mouth.
Aso’s promised election has not materialised and even now, with his approval and that of his cabinet so low, it seems he has little intention of giving the populace a chance to speak. In fact he has said he won’t, not until Japan has taken appropriate steps to stabilise its economy. An economy that many feel he is doing very little to steer.
The Japanese people are renowned for their political apathy. And after public demonstrations back in the late 1960s which left many of those involved publicly stigmatised, eased out of their jobs or positions at universities for being unpatriotic, it is also hardly surprising that they do not often take to the streets to protest against their government. However inept that government may be.
Apart from the image of Taro Aso that adorned the home-made poster carried by one of the protesters tonight [on which the group had renamed him 'Taro Ass-hole'], there was one other image I am left with in my mind this evening.
And it is an image that provides some sharp contrast to the way the Police quickly dealt with and broke up tonight’s very small-scale show of public frustration.
That image is of a two kilometre-long line of right-wing ultra-nationalists – the Uyoku Dantai – who passed our flat in downtown Tokyo last year. These guys, in their black and white vans draped with the old Rising Sun imperial flag and blaring slogans at full volume, is not a rare sight in Japan. Smaller groups of them are out all the time. The day in question happened to be the old emperor’s birthday, hence the two kilometres of vans, cars, buses and four-wheel-drive vehicles bristling with loudspeakers and tannoys, blaring their own version of how they would like Japan turned around [i.e. sent back to the time of the 1930s].
So loud were they that in our 8th-floor flat, my wife and I could not hear each other speak even with the double-glazed windows closed. When my son arrived home from school he could not make us hear the door-bell and we finally found him downstairs, 30 minutes later and in tears because he thought we had left home; scared away by all the noise which was – at street-level – ear-splitting for an adult let alone a six year-old who had no idea who all these people in vans were.
The Police presence at this right-wing noise-festival? One plain-clothes police car at the back of the column.
When my wife rang the local Police to complain about the noise and how it was frightening our children, the officer on the phone simply replied: “Well, sorry, nothing we can do. They have a right to make their point.”
I didn’t see much of that ‘right-to-make-their-point’ afforded to the protesters tonight.
Photographs from this evening’s protest by Alfie Goodrich
http://asou.taose.jp/ – website of the group who organised the protest [Japanese only]
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