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Japan has been described as ‘the land of cooperatives’. This chapter looks at the long history of agricultural, consumer and medical cooperatives in Japan, and explores the role of cooperatives in Japan’s informal life politics by focusing particularly on the story of one experiment in cooperative medicine: Saku Central Hospital in Nagano Prefecture, founded in 1944. In the first half of the twentieth century, cooperatism in Japan was promoted both by the government, which saw it as a means of combatting political radicalism, and by some left-of-centre activists who saw it as a path to fundamental social reform. During the 1930s, the Christian social reformer Kagawa Toyohiko gained international fame for a social vision (particularly influential in the United States) centred on cooperatives. Building on aspects of these diverse traditions, Saku Central Hospital was the starting point for an innovative postwar program of rural medicine, in whose development the hospital’s second director, Wakatsuki Toshikazu, played a key role. The hospital’s philosophy defined ‘health’ as a social phenomenon whose scope went far beyond the immediate treatment of diseases. This social vision of health care has had widespread influence in Japan and other parts of Asia.
The Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami of 2011 and the ensuing Fukushima nuclear disaster created huge challenges for Japanese society, and led to renewed interest in diverse forms of informal life politics. This chapter examines how communities in Fukushima Prefecture, Hokkaido and elsewhere responded to the crisis by developing citizens’ radiation measurement schemes, organic agriculture projects and projects to support those who sought refuge from areas affected by nuclear radiation. Though some of these responses were short-lived, the longer term impact of the disaster can, I argue, be seen in the rising interest within Japan in Transition Town and grassroots alternative energy schemes, and in forms of social action which combine artistic with political modes of expression. In examining these developments, this chapter also notes how aspects of the new, post-Fukushima grassroots activism links back to themes embraced by earlier generations of Japanese informal life politics.
This chapter sets out the conceptual framework of the book, examining challenges to democracy in Japan and the world, and recent searches for alternative visions of politics. The end of the Cold War in Europe did not, as some had hoped, lead to a global triumph of democracy. Rather, social frictions associated with the global spread of market capitalism created a crisis of democracy symbolised by the rise of new forms of populism. This crisis has inspired new searches for political alternatives, many of them focusing on grassroots forms of informal politics. The chapter introduces the notion of informal life politics, which will be central to the chapters that follow, and highlights the importance of examining the historical as well as the present-day dimensions of informal life politics in Japan and beyond.
In the postwar era, the ideas espoused by the White Birch teachers in the 1910s and 1920s were revived in new forms, and interacted with the new wave of interest in democracy, rural development and social education. This chapter traces the ways in which this confluence of ideas provided the basis for alternative forms of self-help politics which flourished following Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War and into the high-growth era of the 1960s. Focusing on case studies from Nagano Prefecture, it shows how the reformed and reorganized Youth Groups (Seinendan) and the newly created nationwide network of citizens’ halls (kōminkan) provided a basis for experiments in social education and autonomous local activism, and explores links between rural activism and the nationwide social movements of the 1960s, including the protests against the Ampo Treaty with the United States.
The New Village (Atarashiki Mura) was an experiment in rural living created in 1918 by novelist and White Birch founder member Mushanokōji Saneatsu. Mushanokōji envisaged the village as the start of a social movement which would transform Japanese rural life from below. In fact, though, the village (which still exists today) remained tiny. However, I argue in this chapter that it had an influence and significance which cannot simply be measured by its size. The New Village helped to inspire a boom in the creation of experimental rural communities in Japan and China in the 1920s, and its practical influence even extended as far as South America. Despite internal problems, and despite the fact that Mushanokōji expressed enthusiastic support for Japan’s wartime military expansion, the village experienced a postwar period of revival and continued to be seen as a model for some social experiments in the 1970s, when the rise of environmentalism inspired a new interest in the creation of intentional communities.
The prewar activities of the White Birch teachers, and the related postwar activities of rural youth groups and social educators, provided the basis which sustained a new wave of informal life politics from the 1980s onward. As rural areas began to suffer acutely from problems of depopulation and aging, and as schemes to disperse industrial activities to the regions led to environmental conflicts, local communities looked to alternative forms of endogenous development to secure their own futures. This chapter explores examples of the search for ‘development from within’, focusing particularly on the cases of the Shinshū Miyamoto School (Shinshū Miyamoto Juku) in Nagano Prefecture and other environmental, cooperative and alternative currency projects which are linked to the school through a regional network of self-help action.
An examination of historical traditions of informal life politics in Japan, and their links to similar traditions internationally. Though political life in East Asia is often viewed as highly state-centric, I argue that there is a long tradition of East Asian thought – evident in some forms of Daoism, Buddhism and even Confucianism – which emphasises the importance of non-state everyday action in creating the good society. One practical manifestation of these ideas in pre-Meiji Japan was the emergence of mutual aid groups. The chapter also examines how modern Japanese informal life politics drew on various European traditions, many of which had links to non-conformist Christianity or to the late nineteenth century upsurge of interest in Asian religions. The final sections of the chapter discusses the impact on Japan’s informal life politics of the early twentieth century Heiminsha movement, the Ashio pollution incident and the High Treason Incident of 1911.
This chapter explores the activities of a group of young rural teachers who, in the 1910s and 1920s, sought to develop a radically alternative form of lifelong education as a basis for transforming and ‘humanizing’ industrializing Japan. Their chief source of inspiration was the White Birch (Shirakaba) movement, named after the journal Shirakaba, founded in 1910. The White Birch movement’s founders were members of Japan’s social elite, and the movement is often seen as an intellectual coterie removed from the social realities of early twentieth century Japan. I argue, though, that the schoolteachers who took up and tried to practice the group’s ideas had a much greater connection to everyday social problems. The chapter discusses events such as the Togura Incident of 1918, in which actions by White Birch Teachers led to clashes with the authorities, and goes on to highlight the direct and indirect links which were formed between the White Birch activists and like-minded communities overseas, including the Dartington Hall group in Britain and, in India, Rabidranath Tagore’s agrarian and educational communities and the Andretta craft community.
In this chapter I trace the history of a network of movements originating in the small mountain village of Kangawa, near Ueda City, in the 1920s and 1930s. The first of these was the Peasant Art Movement, a project developed by artist Yamamoto Kanae and others from 1919 onward to promote local prosperity by encouraging handicraft production. This was closely linked to the Free Drawing Movement, in which Yamamoto also played a central role: a project to promote individuality and creativity through children’s art education. A third significant movement originating in Kangawa was the Free University, in which a central figure was philosopher Tsuchida Kyōson. Free Universities, created in Ueda and later in other parts of Japan, aimed to provide adult education to farmers and others, enabling them to acquire the intellectual autonomy needed to be active citizens in a democratizing society. The chapter examines the connection between these activities and the ambiguous role of Youth Groups (Seinendan) in rural Japan during the 1920s and 1930s. It also discusses the suppression of the Free University movement in the context of rising militarism, and the legacies of the movement for postwar Japan.
This concluding chapter offers a reassessment of informal life politics in the modern Japanese context. The activities explored in book can, from one perspective, be seen as having had very little effect on mainstream political life in Japan: indeed, they have often deliberately eschewed engagement with mainstream political institutions. But it can be argued that, as well as improving the quality of life for communities directly concerned, these activities have helped to offer an alternative understanding of ‘the political’ itself: an understanding that speaks to the crisis of democracy which confronts the world today. As this chapter acknowledges, the book has only been able to address limited facets of the rich history of informal life politics in Japan, but it is hoped that it has helped to open up a perspective that can be further developed in the future, as researchers and activists continue to seek a path forward out of the twenty-first century crisis of democracy.
The first two decades of the twenty-first century have witnessed a rise of populism and decline of public confidence in many of the formal institutions of democracy. This crisis of democracy has stimulated searches for alternative ways of understanding and enacting politics. Against this background, Tessa Morris-Suzuki explores the long history of informal everyday political action in the Japanese context. Despite its seemingly inflexible and monolithic formal political system, Japan has been the site of many fascinating small-scale experiments in 'informal life politics': grassroots do-it-yourself actions which seek not to lobby governments for change, but to change reality directly, from the bottom up. She explores this neglected history by examining an interlinked series of informal life politics experiments extending from the 1910s to the present day.