Asia Rights

Journal of Human Rights, Media and Society in Asia and the Pacific

How to Start a Social Movement in Japan


In this recorded discussion, published in the magazine Seishun to Dokusho (November 2009) social activist Yuasa Makoto and Tokyo University Professor Kang Sang-Jung discuss social movements in Japan today. With ongoing economic problems and widening social gaps in Japanese society, increasing numbers of people, including the young, face unemployment or at best insecure and low-paid temporary employment, homelessness and psychological stress and social alienation.

Yuasa Makoto (b. 1969) is among the best known of the social activists seeking to address these problems. Since the 1990s, he has helped to pioneer social movements for the homeless, casual workers and “net café refugees” (young unemployed and homeless people who seek shelter in 24-hour internet cafés.) One of major initiatives was to work with a variety of social groups to establish the “New Year Temporary Workers’ Village” [Toshikoshi Haken Mura] in a park which is located next to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare at the end of 2008. This one-time project provided accommodation, meals and support for homeless people during the New Year holiday season, which is the period when a huge number of temporary workers were suddently laid off because of the economic downturn that followed the Lehman Crisis. It helped to make society and the government aware of poverty as an issue on the social agenda that they could no longer ignore. Yuasa is the Secretary General of the Anti-Poverty Network, served as an advisor on social policy issues to the current Hatoyama government during the winter of 2009-2010, and is the author of numerous books and articles on social problems in Japan.

Kang Sang-Jung (b. 1950) is Professor of Politics, Political Thought and History in the Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies, University of Tokyo. A prominent member of the Zainichi Korean community (the community of Koreans in Japan whose origins go back to the colonial era), he has published widely on political ideas, orientalism in Japan, Japan’s relationship with its Asian neighbours, and contemporary social issues in the Northeast Asian region. He is also a prominent media commentator on political and cultural issues. His book Nayamu Chikara [The Power of Perplexity, published by Shûeisha Shinsho, 2008], which applies ideas from literate and social thought to the anxieties of the young in Japan today, has sold over 800,000 copies. His recent book Rîdâ wa Hanpo mae o Aruke [A Leader Should Walk Half a Step Ahead, Shûeisha Shinsho, 2008] develops ideas on contemporary problems of political leadership based on interviews conducted with the late South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung 

Kang:   In A Leader Should Walk Half a Pace Ahead, putting together my own ideas about leadership, I wrote that maybe today the people who really have the capacity to become new leaders in Japan are young NGO and NPO activists. When I wrote that, I had in mind yourself, Yuasa san, and Shimizu Yasuyuki, who represents the NPO “Lifelink”, a group which works to prevent suicide.

The reason why I thought of you is because it seems to me that in the world of politicians and bureaucrats, academia and journalism, the process of selecting human resources has become institutionalized, and so these spheres just do not produce people who are fine leaders. I think that new visions and organizations and new methods for putting the visions into effect are appearing in places outside these institutionalized systems, amongst people who make use of their specialized knowledge by involvement at the real interface with social problems.

For example – and I’m directing this criticism at myself too – today I think maybe people with real ability don’t remain in universities. When I see postgraduates who are so single-mindedly focused on producing a thesis so that they can get a job, I can’t help feeling that this is not the way to generate new ways of thinking. This is not false modesty. It’s something I feel keenly because I understand that I myself am unable to do this.

You became a postgraduate student, but after that, by various routes you got engaged with support for the homeless and other activities. Do you feel that you were changed in the process?

Yuasa   The greatest change from my time as a postgraduate is that I now try, as far as possible, to find commonalities.

In university seminars and research, energy is spent on trying to find differences – to develop a logic to demonstrate that “my point of view differs from yours, and that my viewpoint is superior or more correct”. So at first, I took the same approach in the movement to support the homeless. But, you know, that’s no way to bring people together. Recognizing the special status of the person who has won the argument is all very well in a contained space like a university, where the value of debate is protected, but in wider society even if you win your argument with others, they just end up resenting you, and you’re likely to sever your human relationship with the other person. So, once I got into my thirties, I started thinking that in order to expand social movements, what was important was not to look for differences but to look for commonalities.

Kang   That’s a really important point.

Yuasa   Earlier you used the word “institutionalized”. For example, now when school or college teachers hold meetings or demonstrations demanding improvements to working conditions, people think that they are just trying to preserve their existing special privileges. In other words, all that we can see is their institutionalized environment, so there is hardly any social impact. I’ve realised that, unless such movements can link up with local parents and children and extend outwards horizontally in various ways, it is very difficult for them to gain general relevance.

The activities of the “Anti-Poverty Network” are developed through the concept of focusing on the problem of poverty, which is the common issue in a variety of social problems, and so extending links between activists engaged in addressing these distinct problems, while at the same time raising social awareness.  In that way, by standing between the various groups, we can start to explain the common issues that underlie the diverse problems that they confront. In that case, even if there are some people who don’t want to cooperate, the only reason is because they feel, well (laughs), “I can’t stand those guys” – that sort of emotional reason that you can’t really argue with.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone collaborates, but I do think that it is important to find these links that bring us together.

Kang    I guess that someone like you can find these links precisely because you are a person who develops your own expert know-how – but it’s also practical know-how – by acting in the world without a guidebook, by trial and error. I think someone who acts as a catalyst, bringing people and organizations together to produce a kind of chemical reaction, is the sort of person who is likely to play a leadership role in the future.

Yuasa   I’m just frantically trying to do what I can, though.

Kang   An approach that looks for commonalities is an important element of leadership. I think two of the behaviour patterns of the erstwhile New Left were the tendency to ignore commonalities and make an issue of differences, leading to repeated splits, and the tendency to attack each other rather than resisting and transforming the system. The most extreme outcome, as in the situation of the “United Red Army Incident”[1], was that this just made the differences more acute, and ended up with the lynching of comrades in the name of “resolving” hair-splitting ideological differences within the organization. At the time everyone (me included) thought this situation was no good. Consequently the enthusiasm for social movements cooled and it became difficulty to get consensus about such movements from the wider society.

Yuasa   I want to try to change the negative image of activists that developed in the 1970s.

Kang   I think you are someone who will change this image. What I’d like to ask you isyou’re your opinion, why did the New Left movements came to such an end?

Yuasa   I feel it was probably because they created movements as an extension of student life. I think it’s a good and a necessary thing to have a strong critical consciousness. But, as I mentioned earlier, if you try to fight out debates in the arena of social movements in the way that you do in a university, it doesn’t work. All you get are endless divisions.

I learnt one thing from the experience of the movement to support the homeless: in developing a movement, you have to be conscious that the organization can generate strong solidarity when the authorities are failing to come up with policies to deal with the problem. But once the government starts to do something, you get a division between those who want to go along with the government’s approach, and those who criticize it. And the more new policies are produced, the more splits you get. The position of individuals and of the organization are constantly being questioned.

Kang   In the case of the Zainichi Korean movement, first of all there was the division between the supporters of North Korea and South Korea. Then there were all sorts of further divisions between those who prioritized ideals and those who prioritized practical gains, as well as between those with different views about North and South. As a result, the movement itself was rapidly weakened. The outcome was that the authorities who respond to Zainichi Korean issues were given a counterpart that was very easy to manipulate.

Yuasa  I really understand your feelings about this. When I started getting involved with the problem of homelessness, it was regarded as a very minor problem, and its significance wasn’t appreciated by others. We couldn’t even get donations of money. We started thinking, nothing good is coming of this, so why bother? The only way to get motivated was to immerse your whole identity in the movement. But what happens then is that activists tend to become isolated and you get a vicious cycle of an increasingly closed, inward-looking movement.

Kang  How did you find a way out of this situation?

Yuasa  Hmm… After 1968, new social movements proliferated. I think these new social movements were essentially based on identity politics. In practice, you can see this if you think of feminist movements, anti-discrimination movements and movements on behalf of the handicapped. When I started to be involved in the movement for the homeless, stressing particularity of social exclusion and of homeless people was seen as a regrettable move within the mainstream of identity politics.

But now the whole economic basis of Japanese society has subsided, and if you’re involved with problems of homelessness and poverty you can see, for example, that some handicapped people are in poverty, but others aren’t, and that there are some people who have slipped through the gaps of the new social movements. Of course, new social movements have achieved many things, but, on the other hand, if movements become too fixated on identity, they end up becoming divisive That’s why I think it’s necessary to relativise movements which tend to focus on their own identity politics by developing horizontal connections.

Kang   In the discussion with the late President Kim Dae-Jung which is included in A Leader Should Walks Half a Step Ahead, Kim says that leaders should be just half a pace ahead of their followers. I feel that this is how you work too.

Yuasa   [Laughing] That’s something I’ve never though about.

Kang   But in effect that’s what you’re doing, isn’t it?

Yuasa   I’d like to conduct the movement in such a way that, say, in 30 or 50 years, neither I nor others will look back and say, “you got it wrong”. So I always have an obsessive feeling that even if I’m doing what seems right now, it may turn out afterwards to have been a mistake.

Kang   If you don’t have those kinds of self-doubts, I think you can summon up more energy. But if you become self-righteous, there’s a risk of violence – as in the case of the Red Army. I think a leader really has to be someone who is very conscious of his or her own historical position.

Yuasa   It’s actually difficult to do that. Just after the New Year Temporary Workers’ Village [toshikoshi haken mura], a lot of people, including politicians and the media, got in touch with me. I kept worrying whether it was OK to get so deeply involved in all this, but anyway, whenever they invited me, I went and talked to them about the situation. I don’t know what the outcome will be in the end.

Kang   I guess the only thing is to feel your way by trial and error, looking to history for guidance.

Yuasa   I certainly want to maintain one of positive aspects of new social movements: the fact that they are movements of the people who are actually affected by the social problem, rather than of outsiders.  I’m involved in the problems of the homeless and working poor and net café refugees, but I’ve never been homeless myself. The fact that someone like me has to talk about these issues, and perform representative functions, means that a movement by the people actually affected has not yet been created. This is an important issue for the future.

However, I can’t deny or abandon that representation. As someone who is definitely affected by society, I have to act where I don’t like what I see in this society.

Kang  Shimizu said exactly the same thing. Finally, if I were to ask you why you are engaged in these movements, how would you reply?

Yuasa   I do it for myself. All different kinds of people come to me for advice, but all of them are people whose experiences make me wonder why they, as human beings, should have ended up in such a dire position. But are these people angry? No, they’re not. They feel responsible, as though it is their fault. Rather than being angry, they tend to say things like “thank you so much for sparing time for me when there are people in a worse situation than me.” Even if I were to say, “you know, it’s OK for you to be more self-assertive”, they still tend to be excessively apologetic and say “I’m sorry for not being more self-assertive”, so it doesn’t help to encourage them. I think that the workings of society have messed them around so much that they have been pushed in this direction. When I confront this reality, the focus of my anger becomes the question – how can we tolerate such a society? I think that has become the driving force for me.

Kang   Combining these ideas from your experience in the midst of social activism with historical perspective and knowledge – that’s really an important approach for bringing about social change.