Making 'Citizens' into Political Subjects

Miyume Tanji, Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University [About | Email]

Volume 5, Issue 1 (Book review 1 in 2005). First published in ejcjs on 6 April 2005.

Sasaki-Uemura, W. M. (2001), Organizing the Spontaneous: Citizen Protest in Postwar Japan, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, paperback, 293 pages, ISBN: 0824824393.

The demonstrations of June 1960 protesting against the US-Japan Security Treaty (Anpo) remain a representative image of mass popular protest in post-war Japan. The protest undermines the stereotypical conformist image of Japanese people and may even project a coming-of-age of democracy in Japan.

Organizing the Spontaneous: Citizen Protest in Postwar Japan is a research monograph on the significance of the Anpo protest, converted from his PhD thesis, by Wesley Sasaki-Uemura, who is a university lecturer in the US. The study originates from his contacts with internationally active Japanese citizen movement organization members in the 1980s. Sasaki-Uemura was impressed with the deep-seated influence of 'the 1960 Anpo protests as they related to citizen movements ... in the following decades' (page xii).

But what did the protests mean for the activists of the 1960s? Was it a sign that the protesters comfortably and fully embraced democracy as 'imposed' by the Allies? How did the Japanese war experience influence the protests? Most importantly, how did the period of anti-Anpo protests change the way people participated in politics? Organizing the Spontaneous explores these questions, from the participants' perspective.

Before the 1960s, from the time of World War II and the US Occupation, the project of establishing democracy in Japan had already been debated among Japanese intellectuals. Maruyama Masao's work highlighted the problematic relations between the Japanese individual and democratic political culture (Kersten 1996). And Anpo brought the debate to a wider population, which, for the first time, took action to protest against the Japanese government's treaty ratification with the US, interpreting the treaty as a blatant breach of the principle of democracy written in the Constitution.

Sasaki-Uemura emphasizes the importance of the thoughts of Takabatake Michitoshi, Kuno Osamu, Maruyama Masao, Tsurumi Shunsuke and others: it was crucial for the Japanese people to grasp the positive meaning of participating in the protests in order to embrace democracy fully – mentally and spiritually, rather than merely institutionally. Sasaki-Uemura's reinterpretation of these intellectuals' ideas – introduced earlier in Authority and the Individual in Japan edited by Victor Koschmann (1978) – offers further insights into how these ideas influenced Japanese civil society and how many more people were encouraged to participate in the protests against Anpo.

The concept of 'citizens' (shimin) – often described as 'ordinary citizens' – as a distinctive political subject allowed politically non-affiliated individuals to express their views, opinions and feelings in the form of political action. Organizing the Spontaneous focuses on such citizens participating in four organizations active before and after the 1960 Anpo mass demonstration: The Mountain Range, The Poets of Ōi, The Grass Seeds, and the Voiceless Voices.

Sasaki-Uemura explains that, through their anti-Anpo opposition, 'ordinary citizens' increasingly aspired to convert their everyday life experiences directly into political action. The four groups researched by Sasaki-Uemura embodied the experiences of people of both genders, of various social and economic backgrounds and occupations. His research focuses on their action and emotional commitment to opposing war and the repressive state. As the slogan of the Voiceless Voices stressed, anyone could join. These organizations were loosely structured, non-hierarchical, and placed emphasis on discussions, study groups and raising awareness through newsletters. Sasaki-Uemura identifies such emerging citizen movements in Japan as 'new social movements' (pages 7–8), which prevailed in the subsequent years in Japanese civil society, in anti-Vietnam War campaigns, residents' environmental movements, and consumer movements led mostly by women. According to Sasaki-Uemura, by characterizing themselves as 'ordinary citizens', non-affiliated workers, farmers, housewives, students, intellectuals, artists and poets engaged in political activism, outside mainstream political parties and workers' unions (pages 2–8). Their protests were projected not just against the state's refusal to acknowledge Japanese war responsibility and against Anpo: members of the four groups were also critics of the elitist organizational hierarchy and ideological lines of socialist/communist political organizations. The criticism was that the Communist and Socialist Parties' dogmatic and hierarchical cultures duplicated the oppressiveness of the pre-war Japanese state. In this sense, the anti-Anpo protest was not simply an anti-war protest, but also the Japanese people's attempt at creating their own participatory democracy, beyond the empty postures of the Communist Party.

When thinking about the Anpo period, we tend to overlook that only fifteen years had passed since the end of World War II, and even less since the US Occupation ended in 1952. The activity of all four groups, The Mountain Ranges and The Grass Seeds in particular, concentrated on the creation of historical consciousness regarding Japan's responsibility in World War II. The government's account of the war was to emphasize the Japanese people's suffering and obscure the issue of the State's responsibility (pages 57–63; see also Orr 2001). However, Sasaki-Uemura shows that 'some people did look to themselves and critique their own willing participation in the war effort' (page 63), so that they would not repeat their uncritical subordination to a fascist state. These elements were also expressed by a strong belief in the post-war Constitution. At the heart of post-Anpo Japanese activism was a critical reflection on the government's neglect of citizens' opinions, as well as citizens' neglect of their own rights of political expression.

The jewel of Sasaki-Uemura's book is the detailed accounts of activities and discourses of the grassroots participants. For example, his descriptions of the Mountain Range's camp-style conference held in Shinshū convey the feeling of what it was like to be part of the protest at the time. The purpose of the circle was to 'dig up' personal experiences related to war, and subvert the state government's narrative that defines Japan only as a victim of war and masks its responsibility as a war perpetrator. In doing this, the circle valued creativity and discouraged organizational rigidity. Members were encouraged to drink, with only mild caution against over-drinking: 'Those who want to drink can drink and those who want to skip out can do so as well. Do things freely. You can talk while lying down. We'll be concerned if you drunkenly ramble on, but it's up to you to control yourself. You can't think straight if you're drunk. But the worst, most troubling thing is if you are stubbornly serious' (pages 70–1). As such, 'People roamed about freely and took breaks when they wanted, but everyone was given a turn to speak' (page 71). So much more is explained this way, about organizations and styles of protest, than could be achieved through abstract statements.

Organizing the Spontaneous is an important contribution to understanding contemporary Japanese political activism and for spelling out important changes in the ways people participated in politics around the time of the anti-Anpo protest. Sasaki-Uemura's distinctive contribution is his focus on the 'ordinary' citizens (namely, those who were not members of established political parties) and what protesting meant for them.

The book urged me to raise more questions about the further influences of these Anpo discourses on Japan today. The 'new' and radical generation of the 1960s, former zenkyōtō students and their successors, continue to dominate many areas of contemporary citizen movements, holding on to familiar styles and principles of protest, particularly in mass rallies and demonstrations. Are these more vocal, veteran protesters not alienating the rest of the society, discouraging others from political activism and protest? We should not take the universal connotation carried by the term citizen movement too literally. The term 'ordinary citizens' means only people with certain experiences, networks, and connections. The protesting circles may not be as open to the general public as claimed by these organizations.

For example, females expressing themselves as citizens still predominantly claim to be 'housewives' and 'mothers', relying on the harmless images of these labels. As Sasaki-Uemura points out, female protesters emphasize their traditionally female roles as caregivers. By not challenging the patriarchal status quo in Japanese society, they are more likely to be accepted by the fellow male activists and perhaps a little more tolerated by the government. They are thereby more likely to get what they want. However, does this political advantage not come at the price of reinforcing traditional gender roles in society? Although Sasaki-Uemura describes these women activists as 'feminists', how do these women reconcile maintaining their traditional roles as mothers and housewives with being feminists? Again, the challenge here is ascertaining to what extent we should accept the activists' self-descriptions as truth. These concerns fall outside the scope of this book, but call for attention when it comes to understanding political activism in Japan today.


Kersten, Rikki (1996) Democracy in Postwar Japan: Maruyama Masao and the Search for Autonomy, London and New York: Routledge.

Koschmann, J. Victor (ed.) (1978) Authority and the Individual in Japan: Citizen Protest in Historical Perspective, Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press.

Kuno, Osamu (1996) Shimin Shugi no Seiritsu, Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo.

Orr, James (2001) The Victim as Hero: Ideologies of Peace and National Identity in Postwar Japan, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

About the Author

Miyume Tanji (PhD in politics) is a research fellow at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. Born in Sapporo, she has studied and taught International Relations and Politics at Sophia University, the Australian National University, Murdoch University as well as Curtin University. Her main interest is in protest and social movements in Okinawa and Japan, as well as international relations. Miyume has contributed a book chapter, 'The Dynamic Trajectory of the Post-reversion "Okinawa Struggle": Constitution, Environment and Gender', in Japan and Okinawa: Structure and Subjectivity, edited by Richard Siddle and Glenn Hook, which was published by RoutledgeCurzon in 2003. She is currently writing a book on protest movements in Okinawa.

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