POINT OF VIEW/ Genichiro Takahashi: When it's fun to take to the streets, people can change society

September 19, 2012


I was asked, during an appearance on a TV news show, to comment on the flap caused by a group of Hong Kong activists who illegally landed on the disputed Senkaku Islands in mid-August.

So, I said with complete candor, "To me, this is an issue I couldn't care less about. I am much more apprehensive about our country making a big deal of its 'territory' and ignoring other issues that really matter to the people."

I returned home from the TV studios to find my Twitter account overflowing with replies, many of which were outright nasty. I was reviled as a "traitor to the country" and labeled "anti-Japanese." Some of the tweets amounted to death threats, while others threatened to get me and my family.

There is no need, nor obligation, for individual citizens to speak in unison with the government. We are human beings first, who happen to be Japanese citizens. Every human being is different. I mean no offense to robots, but only in a "robot nation" should all citizens be required to think like everybody else. I believe I'm quite "normal" for having these thoughts.


A year and a half after 3/11, I think many people have come to share the awareness that our society is thoroughly flawed. But then, what should we do about this? What sort of society should we build?

For the first time in decades, tens and hundreds of thousands of people are gathering around the prime minister's office as part of a weekly protest. It certainly has been quite a while since the last time our country had such massive demonstrations. But there are always skeptics who ask, "Can demonstrations change society?

Kojin Karatani, a philosopher and literary critic, answered this question in "Hito ga Demo wo Suru Shakai" (Society where people demonstrate) in the September issue of Sekai (The world) magazine.

"Demonstrations change society, because by taking to the streets, the demonstrators change society into one where people demonstrate," Karatani stated.

Facetious as his answer may appear, that was not his intention. On the contrary, Karatani actually "nailed" the question in a way non-believers in the power of street demonstrations didn't expect.

For non-believers, "Can demonstrations change society?" is a rhetorical question, or another way of saying, "Demonstrations aren't enough to change society." And perhaps their reasoning goes something like this: "Under a parliamentary democracy, elections are the only means by which we can change our society."

Takumi Sato, a sociologist and historian, warned in a Tokyo Shimbun column in late August that a "society brought about by demonstrations" is not necessarily a happy society. His argument is reasonable, since it is a fact, as he went on to explain in the column, that "the Nazis rose to power through popular demonstrations and political rallies that would become routine under the Third Reich."

But on this point, let me note that those demonstrations and rallies orchestrated by the Nazis were in support of dictatorship and violence. In contrast, the "new" demonstrations we are now witnessing in Japan appear to represent a resolve to move as far away as possible from "dictatorship and violence."


The Occupy Wall Street movement rose suddenly in New York City and occupied a park in Manhattan. In the process, the movement came to take various forms, but the message common to them all was to correct social disparities.

Ikuo Gonoi, a political science researcher who observed an Occupy rally from close quarters, summed it up as a "general assembly where debates are held by the consensus method without a leader."

If this is a bit too abstract, here is how a woman, who actually participated in an Occupy rally, put it: "When too many different opinions are voiced, it gets pretty difficult to sort them through, and that takes a lot of time. What you really want to say can often come out only in a nuanced way, and people won't understand you until you've talked about it thoroughly with them. And for that, it is vital that you are in an environment where everyone is really interested in listening to what other people are saying."

I believe her observation contains the ultimate wisdom to be practiced by anyone who rejects dictatorship.

"From Dictatorship to Democracy" by Gene Sharp has been read around the world and influenced movements such as democratization of Myanmar, the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements.

Sharp, a political science professor at the Uiversity of Massachusetts, stated in his book that "nonviolent action" is the most powerful force to counter dictatorship. Eight decades after the era of pro-Nazi rallies, the world has learned a few things and made some progress.

In "Shakai wo Kaeru-niwa" (In order to change society), sociologist Eiji Oguma delved deeper and wider than Gonoi in exploring a "society where people demonstrate." Oguma explained democracy and politics by tracing their religious origins, and argued that parliamentary democracy is nothing more than one form of politics that was established only a few centuries ago.

"Democracy is rooted in 'festivity' in which everybody revels and wants to participate," Oguma wrote. "People become lively and energized when they feel they are representing something that transcends them, and are at one with that something."

Oguma went on, "It is fun to be active and 'create a society' together with other people." That is to say, by not waiting passively for someone else to create a fun society, people change themselves and others through each process of society-building. And once they have realized what fun it is to change, their society is already a place where people demonstrate.

Critic Masakuni Ota, who for years has been involved in social movements of all stripes, noted that he was at first "confused by the novelty of the 'Friday evening rallies,'" but soon experienced a "sense of liberation" he did not feel in his day-to-day life.

"When people are having fun and feeling liberated, they learn fast, and the scope of their learning is wide and deep," Ota wrote. And when they are in such an environment, nobody "reviles or rejects one another."

Creating such an environment is the only way to change our society where people revile and reject one another.

* * *

Genichiro Takahashi is a novelist and professor at Meiji Gakuin University. His novel "Sayonara Kurisutofaa Robin" (Goodbye, Christopher Robin) was selected as the recipient of this year's Tanizaki Junichiro literary prize. "Hijoji no Kotoba" (Language in times of emergency), his latest work in which he examines post-3/11 language, is being received well. He was born in 1951.

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Genichiro Takahashi (Photo by Hiroki Nishida)

Genichiro Takahashi (Photo by Hiroki Nishida)

  • Genichiro Takahashi (Photo by Hiroki Nishida)

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