Reclaiming Their Streets: Prefigurative Politics on Contested Urban Grounds in Tokyo

Wednesday, July 16, 2014: 9:00 AM
Room: 411
Oral Presentation
Julia OBINGER , Department of Japanese Studies, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
The social vicissitudes of post-bubble Japan left many young Japanese looking for escape-routes not only from the restrictions of Japan’s societal norms but also its highly privatized metropolitan layout. Addressing both issues, a few dozen activists of a countercultural scene in Tokyo have long experimented with alternative urban lifestyles, staging protests that oscillate between the symbolic and the prefigurative: struggling with the oppression in the use of public space, they introduced a countercultural infrastructure of small “autonomous zones” in some lesser-gentrified pockets of Tokyo, where they carve out free spaces for everyday living and flexible forms of political, social and cultural participation.

Moreover, long before “Occupy” even became a global catchphrase, they challenged the configuration of their urban surrounding (as well as local police) by staging disruptive yet playful events, like carnevalesque demonstrations, ad-hoc street picnics or the blockade of contested spaces. They tackle issues ranging from homeless rights to insecure employment, from state legislation to nuclear power; resistance to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics just emerged as their most recent urban battling ground.

In terms of movement studies, their relative successes are puzzling, considering their lack of a clear political agenda or single common cause. In addition, they form a radically unstructured and heterogeneous network that is characterized by a low level of professionalization and deliberate externality to the mainstream social and political institutions. Tackling this seeming contradiction, my paper analyzes the unique characteristics of this network, and proposing ways to re-think categories of “social movements” in Japan on the basis of concepts like subpolitics, prefigurative politics, and DIY-politics.