Christmas Demo

On December 18, 2010 I went to Harajuku to attend a Christmas concert at the Tokyo Union Church.  I was a little wary of passing through the station because it was “illumination” time on Omotesando, the long tree-lined avenue that leads from the station up to Aoyama Street.  It is these trees that were decorated with Christmas lights.  Several years ago I had inadvertently planned to meet someone for coffee in Harajuku on the very day that the trees were first lit up.  When we left the coffee shop to go back to the station, we got caught up in a mob of “illumination-seekers,” a crowd around the station so dense that not only could we not move independently within it but, I found out too late, we could not even leave it to go somewhere else less crowded.  Fighting against panic, I was pushed and shoved and jostled and squeezed all the way into the station and onto the train, an experience I do not want to go through again.

It seems I was not the only one fed up with the crowds, for in the following years neighborhood associations in the Harajuku and Omotesando areas decided to put the illumination display on hold.  The illumination seekers created too much trash; the cost of the lights and electricity bill were too high; and the lights were damaging the trees.  This past December, however, they decided to have the display again, this time using more energy-efficient, tree-friendly light bulbs.  So I wondered what lay in store as the train pulled into Harajuku Station on a twilit Saturday afternoon.

It was indeed crowded, but I found everything highly organized.  Men in official-looking gear were barking orders as we got off the train and climbed the stairs to the exit, keeping people who were exiting to the left and people who were coming in to the right.  As long as we kept moving in our appointed line, we could flow smoothly through the ticket gates and out of the station.

Looking toward Harajuku Station

Just one wave in the oncoming tide

I immediately climbed the pedestrian bridge that led to the other side of Omotesando, hoping to avoid the mob on the street level below, but here too were men barking orders through bullhorns:  “Keep moving along!”  Below was a sea of Japanese flags.  This time I had inadvertently run into a protest march.

It was a demonstration organized by the Ganbare Nihon! National Action Committee, or Stick to your guns, Japan! National Action Committee.  (According to our translation staff, this organization has no official English version of their name, but our office dictionary translates ganbare as “Hold out!” or “Stick to it!” or “Show your nerve!”)

This group was formed in February, 2010 for the purpose of “arousing the people to patriotic action,” according to Wikipedia.   Since the incident in September when a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japan Coast Guard vessel in waters around the Senkaku Isles, they have been holding similar protest marches around town, with several thousand participants, calling for Japan to stand up firmly to China.  I knew about these previous marches only because they had been reported on an on-line alternative news site; there had been not a peep about them on NHK news or in the Daily Yomiuri newspaper.  But this was my first real look at them.

For years, right-wing protests have taken the form of ominous-looking black sound trucks speeding through town blaring ultra-nationalist invective interspersed with an ear-splitting rendition of the “Ride of the Valkyries”—or something equally histrionic—through loud-speakers set on their roofs alongside a fluttering national flag.  What I saw below me, apart from the waving flags, was completely different.

Rather than ominous black, the protest was painted in bright cheerful red, white and green.  Participants held not only flags but bunches of blue, white and yellow balloons, creating a festive atmosphere.  There was even one fellow dressed in a Santa Claus suit.  Rather than dour-faced old men hidden inside sound trucks, the marchers looked like they came from all walks of life.  There were families with little kids, housewives, working people, students, men and women of all ages.

“Overthrow the DPJ Cabinet!”

I descended to street level and headed toward the church, pushing my way through the crowds milling about on the sidewalk, and all the while keeping an eye on the passing protest, which kept on coming in waves from the direction of Aoyama Street, heading toward Shibuya.  While I saw a few placards declaiming about the Senkaku Isles, I started to notice other messages as well:  “Overthrow the ‘Ultra-Left’ Kan Administration!” “Denounce desecration of the Imperial Household!” “Dissolve the Lower House at once!” “Crypto-Communist Cabinet!” “Why Doesn’t the Media Report on our Demonstrations?” and even one seemingly English sign: the incongruous “NO WE KAN!”

Wikipedia‘s article on this group describes them as “conservative.” Their slogan is “Grass (common people) Rising Abruptly” (as opposed to describing themselves as a “grass-roots” organization).  They are opposed to voting rights for foreign residents, call for the dissolution of NHK, and want the Japanese government to stand firm against China’s attempts to claim the Senkaku Isles as its own territory.

Although they have taken clear stands against certain things, it is not clear what they favor in a positive way.  I got the impression of a lot of disaffected people finding an outlet for their frustrations in an acceptable and supportive group setting.  While it is true that the mass media ignores them, perhaps this snub is a blessing for them for it allows the movement to operate under the radar, so to speak; to grow and spread while other people are looking the other way.  Yet they do bear watching in the event that their cuddly exterior hides from view a darker purpose, which has yet to coalesce and come boiling to the surface when least expected.

Peace on the Earth, Goodwill to Men

The lights were pretty, but Christmas music beckoned further down the road.  I pushed my way through the crowds and arrived at the concert just in time.  Inside the church, a different kind of festive atmosphere prevailed.  “Silent Night, holy night, All is calm, all is bright,” the choir sang as further waves of protesters passed by its doors.  Outside the moon was keeping watch.










NO WE KAN! What could this mean?  Transformational grammarians might gnash their teeth over this one, but if we look at it not as English or as anything created by grammatical rules, it might begin to make sense.  Think of it more as a collage of images, whose purpose is a political statement.  Begin with a little historical background:  The Obama campaign’s use of the slogan “Yes We Can!” during the 2008 presidential election.  These words caught on and resonated here, giving people a sense of hope and possibility.  Then the Democratic Party of Japan swept away or seemed to the old guard Liberal Democrats and installed Yukio Hatoyama as the new leader of Japan.  But President Obama turned his back on him and his plans for change which did not jibe with the American military agenda.  In comes his replacement, Naoto Kan, whose name coincides somewhat with the last word in the Obama phrase.  So now it’s “Yes We Kan!”  Except Kan can’t either.  So people fed up with both parties get together and start saying “no” to Kan and the DPJ.  In other words, “no” to the whole “Yes We Can!” dream that government cannot really deliver on.  This negation is achieved in a linguistic collage by changing the “yes” to “no,” but keeping the affirmative form of “can” in the image “Kan.”  It’s not meant to make sense grammatically.  Don’t even try.


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