01. Reclaim the street in Japan

"Shiroto-no-ran (Amateur's Riot)" and "Tenjyo-Sajiki"

Kencihiro Egami                                                                                                                          



This essay will treat a mutual relation between the political activities and the artistic and cultural activities in Japan.  The “reclaim the street movement” is generally well known as the radical direct action which emerged from Europe and North America, in the middle of the 80’s, in order to protest against the capitalization of the urban environment, particularly at the level of the street. People who got involved in this movement considered not only the functional meaning of the street but also the phenomenal and symbolic aspects of the street as a place for communication.

  This essay will focus on two cultural activities in Japan; one is a Japanese avant-garde theatrical group, which was active from the end of the 1960’s to 1970’s and is called “Tenjyo-Sajiki (The upper gallery); ” the other one is the new generation of Japanese cultural and political activists organizations in the the present era, called “Shiroto-no-Ran (Amateur’s Riot).  The activities of this group cover a wide range of topics, including: organizing demonstrations, running a recycled-goods shop and organizing workshops locally in Tokyo. Each group has been assumed to have few common traits in both political ideologies and the forms of expression. The former has mainly considered in the context of the history of Japanese artistic avant-garde in the 60’s and the later has been referred as a germ of new political movement from 2000 to the present.   “Tenjyo-Sajiki” is an experimental theatrical company that emerged from the Avant-Grade movement of the 1960’s. It aimed to throw the established order into confusion and shake “the reality” of the rationalized society by using fantastic and irrational motifs such as incantations, necromancy, and superstition.

  “Shiroto-no-Ran” emerged as a new political movement in 00’s in Japan. It also aims to deconstruct the Capitalized urban environment, liberates the street and restore the communal autonomous zone which consists of the diversity of the mob, affections and its fraternization. Of great importance is a description of both movements as the counter actions against the development of Capitalization and dehumanization of the urban space. Both activities have attempted to break the “Spectacle” space governed by capitalistic modes of production and relationships, but there are also the differences of each activity in terms of the object, the method of action, and expression.

Student and artistic movements of the 1960’s

There were social, political, and cultural movements worldwide in the 1960’s.  In Japan, the social movements or political struggles against the imperialism and any hierarchical institutions, which maintain the capitalistic social system were spread all over the country. On behalf of the working class, the students became the subjects of the social movement and carried out the struggle against the Government and hierarchical authorities in order to realize the “Revolution”, which was illustrated by the Marxit-Leninist manifesto. However the student activists acknowledged themselves as the “Avant-Garde” in these social movements, considering themselves leaders of all the classes in the “Revolution.” However the more their struggles became aggressive in terms of being radical, the more their area of political actions diminished in size, from the city to the campus.

  Artistic vanguard movements, which emerged from the second half of the 60’s until the middle of 70’s, were also sharing the same basis with the student movement in fighting against any authenticity and intending to have the revolution be realized.  However, the artistic vanguard groups were more concerned with the idea of “Liberation from a prison called the ordinariness ” than the capital concept of “Revolution.” Therefore the street became the main field of the artistic expression for the avant-garde theatrical company. Because, until the end of 60’s, the streets Rhad not been paved with asphalt in every corner of the country but numerous numbers of road building projects took place in short time and a network of roads improved gradually between 60’s and 70’s. Hence, the street was on the edge of changing from its original function that allows connections between people along with purpose of giving a platform for communication, to that of merely being the path for car traffic.

  Therefore it is reasonable that the avant-grade artistic movement of the 60’s and 70’s was mainly led by the underground theatrical groups and the experimental cinema ones. They were really aware of the traditional functions of the street in Japanese culture.  The street was always the place where “meeting of people” happended by chance.  They also realized the power of the body, which has a feeling of real solidity as the living flesh and blood, which can’t be translated to an abstract figure , like a citizen or a nation. This is the reason so many Japanese avant-gardists in 60’s were concerned with the naked body of a performer and the performance, which exposes the body to the public. While the roads were inevitably reconstructed by the rationalized economic and legal systems, people on the stages, dancers, performers rushed out in to the street and took place to disrupt the motorization with a feeling of real solidity between the group. Consequently both movements, the avant-grade cultural and political movements can be called a grand fight against the abstraction of the urban area in terms of its materialistic ideology governed by the notion of economic utility and efficiency. However the student movement put more emphasis on a group mentality and party feeling with regard to the base of the political activism.  Each student group wanted to mock the narrow view of each school of Marxist or Communist parties, where differences between members of one group was not supported and an order of a direction committee. Hence, members in each group dismissed affection, desire and feeling, which are inherent in a person and, moreover, criticized the personal affection and reason of the bourgeois taste.

Japanese avant-grade theater “Tenjyo-zasiki” and the “street play”

Shuji Terayama, a Japanese avant-garde poet and dramatist, was one of the most influential persons of the Japanese avant-garde movement in 60’s. Terayama was active in the field of an avant-garde play and was concerned in the “happing” ,which is derived from the Surrealism movement in the 20’s and inspired by Lsutreamont’s poesy, "beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella". His artistic creed was this; “the play should be the actual and physical practices to subvert a bourgeois consciousness, called the “reality of the daily life” and bring an onlooker into a place for encountering the “others” (Terayama 1972:38). Therefore, Terayama had an affinity with the idea of “Revolution”, which aims to subvert the “ordinariness of a petty bourgeois’s life”. Terayama produced and organized a variety of theatrical activities, which undermines the distinction between “the reality and the fiction”.

  Terayama’s theatrical expression had the apparent tendencies in terms of its idioms. Creating the new theatrical language of the human body, praising irrationality and absurdity, a revival of magical experience, organizing the happening by the excessive illusionary staging. The symbolic and magical rites, for instance a practice of infanticide, an abandoned old people’s and a lover’s suicide, a baby lost through abortion, and so on, were a main motif of his play. These motifs were quoted from the painful pre-modern manners and customs, which have been handed down in a village community in Japan. This sort of atypical idioms in terms of their artistic expression was set out powerfully in his theatrical company, ‘Tenjyo-Sajiki’, which was established in 1967. Each of the performers attired in the ominous and odd beings, for instance, a hunchbacked man, a voluptuous posture, a large woman and white painted men. These strange figures intentionally imply something to overstep from the normality of the body. Terayama called his theatrical activities as the “avant-garde style of show tent ”. Their performance and appearance were producing a grotesque and unpleasant atmosphere in the urbanized environment.

  In 1975, Terayama and his theatre took place the large-scaled street play called ‘Knock’ in Asagaya, where is a ward in a suburb of Tokyo, in April 1975. Terayama and his member of a theatrical company made a plan to perform a number of plays everywhere at the same time in the town all the day. Each performance took place separately, and had its own scenario and direction. Literally, the performers were performing as knocking on the doors of the unknown neighborhood. When an audience set foot on the town, the map, which indicates the place of performance was handed from the performer. Then people walked around the town in search for the performances.

There were a variety of scenarios for the street play.

For instance,

“When an audience encounter a performer in the street, he or she was asked to exchange the clothes, which they were dressed in for the performer’s one. It was up to an audience whether they agreed it or not. When they agreed and did it, the positions between the audience and the performer had been reserved (Risei Kishida 1975).”

“Some performers who were in a public bath suddenly begun to do physical exercise. The audience were also directed to go to the public bath, where the performance took place. Then the public bath turned out to be a place for  “happening” from its original function (Risei Kishida 1975).”

“An audience was instructed to become a member of a pseudo-family by the performer, and got them to behave as the real family in 30 hours (Risei Kishida 1975).”

  As before, their performances were aiming to deconstruct the conventional distinctions between “reality” and “fabrication” of a life, an audience and a performer, the family and the others, and so on. The performances have a specific instructions to stir up people’s consciousness about the “ordinariness” and induce them to get involved in the “Happening”. This tactics is called, “organizing the contingency (Terayama 1975:78)”. Their artistic expressions were emerged from the interrelationship with a coming groundswell of sentiment in favor of a revolution. This showed a definite tendency in a way of their artistic expression toward the direct action, which takes place in the public space. It can be said that “Happening” was the very effective method to suspend the ordinariness of daily life and intervene actively into the emerging situation in the street. However the Happening itself needed to be planed and well organized beforehand in order to achieve the effect, which they intended. Therefore “strangeness” and “radical expression”, which make a differences from a familiar scene was a prerequisite of performance. The street play “Knock” evoked a massive response the moment it took place. Ironically, their experiments were not regarded as the performance but as a sort of group. Consequently, the residents noticed the police and they interrupted the performances on the way.

After the age of politics in Japan

Ironically, the leftist student movement in Japan finally brought destruction on themselves through losing the actual connection between them and the laboring class. The loss of connection led their strategic coalition into a long series of vicious infighting caused by narcissistic adherence to the ideology of the revolution. Taking place at the end of the political season, Japanese social structure had radically shifted to what Marx called “the substantial subsumption of Capital”. The student and artist were gradually losing a realistic perspective on the struggle for the street and the field of their expressions shifted into the institutionalized space (such as the universities, museums, galleries).

  Even though new-left movements did not end, it seemed that there had been no cultural and artistic movements that had a definite intentionality toward political issues, and an affinity to the street between the 1989 and 1990th. Yoshimi Shyunya, a Japanese sociologist, argues that since the 1980’s, Japanese society had experienced a grand transformation economically, politically and socially. The breakdown of the model of an industrial power and a welfare state in the 70th set off a structural readjustment in the chief industrial model from heavy industry to an information and monetary one. This process synchronized with the financial globalization in the world. The LDP (the Liberal Democratic party of Japan), which has been in power for a long time, willingly embraced the very Neo-liberalistic economic policies derived from "Washington Consensus", which was the first manifesto for market fundamentalism in 1989. This consists of some very radical proposals, such as:  currency fluctuation, trade liberalization, deregulation (the privatization of national companies), and so on. It caused Japanese society to break out of the welfare state and enter into the member of bloc of free nations, where all things, commodities, human labor, and money can be objectified for market exchange and evaluated by money price in the market. Consequently, this caused radical change in the values of the Japanese people.  The transformation also made the value of money very high and created a competitive mentality amongst the people. These changes are products of the market economy that may or may not have been fully known to the people, but they caused the breakdown of the concept of lifetime employment in Japan and increased the flexibility in the job market. The effects fall disproportionately on the weakest members of society, women, children, elder people, unemployed, homeless people and young people, and so on.

The revival of the street reclaim actions in Japan

However, the precarious situations in Japanese society made people begin to give attention to the political issues again but differently compared to the 60’s and 70’s.   Since 2000, especially after the 9-11 in America, some young people and students became aware of the problems of Neo-liberalistic policies in Japan and have started to reorganize the sphere of politics through the organization of new unions, collectives, and affinity groups in order to reconnect themselves to the society and create an alternative life style in their own way.

  “Shiroto No Ran” (‘Amateur’s riot’ in Japanese) is a young activist group whose activities are based in Koenji, a local city area in Tokyo. Their activities began in 2005. Two members, Hajime Matumoto and Hikaru Yamashita, moved to Koenji and opened a small privately-run shop, which combined a recycled-goods shop, a secondhand clothes store, a bar and a internet radio station, in one of many declining local shopping districts. Since then, they have been building upon the various political and cultural actions through trying to blend into the local community and their neighborhood. And their activities also have opened a new phase of the struggle over the street in Japan.

  A number of people in the neighborhood who went the shop as a customer ended up engaging in the management of the shop.  The shop is run on a self-paying basis or by working as a part-time worker. Their basic activity is commercial, but the usage of the shop varies in compliance with their wishes or needs for creating the linkage with the activists, artists, workers, part-time worker, students, customers, and so on. They do not set their goal at the expansion of the cultural and political influence nor achieving any power structures, yet they do care about the liberation of the street based on the idea of “autonomy” in a sphere of life and the “recovery of totality of human life”, which has been divided by the division of labor, market economy, and a regulated social policy. 

New vocabularies of the politics for affectivity

Even though the members of “Shirouto-no-Ran” (but it is always fluid) are in favor of the ‘Left’ in terms of political stance, they intentionally call themselves ‘amateurs’ and the ‘poor’, instead of “pro-left activists” or “an avant-gardist”.  They prefer to call themselves “idlers” and “useless fellows”. At the same time, new vocabulary of slogans has emerged from these new political movements in Japan. However it would be helpful to understand how their approach to  politics differs from before. These argots imply the political identity of a new generation of social movement, which has been emerging since 2000. This also implies that the political subjects have varied in accordance with the social, political and economic situations in Japan, where they are living under a Neo-liberalistic worldview. In Japan, the students, workers and citizens have been considered the majority of political subject by many. The poor, homeless, unemployed, women, and homosexuals, had been eliminated or marginalized from politics. Japanese people experienced and enjoyed immense economic prosperity in the 80s and 90s. A majority of people got out of politics and so, lost the way to engage in political activities. The value of politics was diminished in terms of people’s daily life and finally was inverted by the value of Economy. As Mikio Wakabayashi points out; “people were gradually losing the alliance between politics and life. Economic value, money and labor took precedence over morals, culture, and politics. Many Japanese believed that gaining money is the sole way to lead a happy life. The communal collectivity based on tie of neighborhood, strong kinship relations, and a sense of camaraderie in the workplace dissolved (Wakabayashi 1996:68).” At the same time, the new categories of people were created and redistributed in order to disassemble the middle class and introduce greater hierarchy in the society. The ideological slogans, for instance “to be rich is good and to be poor is not” or “the unemployed, homeless people and part-time worker are useless,” and so on, began to spread by the name of the “self-responsibility” after the introduction of Neo-liberalistic policies in 2001.

  In order to dissent from these ideological tendency, the new vocabulary of political slogans, which is a sort of non-material products emerged from the everyday language.  The vocabulary expresses the historical condition of people’s daily life under the Neo-liberalistic policies. For instance, “Amateur” is a term, which does not fit in any sort of linguistic pigeonhole.  It dose not classify people in terms of nationality, gender, profession, color, etc.  “Shiroto (Amateur in English)” implies the fundamental commonality among people. Activists’ calling themselves ‘Amateur’ and ‘Poor’, renders these terms a sort of agency for creating new collective subjectivity, which can be applicable to all of the people. These names give us a communal cognition, which restores the solidarities with the others.

Like their group names, their slogans seem to have nothing to do with existing politics or any radical ideas.

For instance,

“We won’t pay rent!”

“ Mickey Mouse is an utter villain!”

“We are useless and won’t to be useful for society!”

“Let me take a nap while working!”


“Slack at my job!”

“We won’t do what they told us!”

“Hanging around the street and taking it!” and so on.

These slogans sound foolish and childlike but also tell us unmistakably that new political awareness has emerged.  It has emerged from an “ordinariness” of life, not from a sophisticated ideology or an academic jargon of politics. As already mentioned,  political awareness gave way to economic interests in Japan, with people beginning to view politics and political issues as having nothing to do with their daily life, their job, friendships, a way to spend a day off, and so on. They believe that what constitutes  the “ordinariness” of life is not political affairs but economic ones.  However, the Situationists go further;  they revealed and criticized the “ordinariness” as the perpetual process of dehumanizing the world by the Capitalistic process of producing. The “ordinariness” of life is the subjective experience of alienation from their labor, people, and themselves more or less.

  Hence, raising one’s views, desires, mental afflictions to the public became one of the most important actions for the social movement. The new generations of activists gradually became aware of the importance of these actions, even though the groups’ views seem to be not worthy of serious consideration. Actually these voices, which come from people’s daily experiences and feelings, have a potential for non-material productivity.  The ideals produce a domain for direct democracy and for communal affectivity in the public space.

  Since then, giving a voice to personal affection, desire and uneasiness and bring them out to the public has become the main subject matter of politics. What is needed for creating the political collectiveness is not reading thick classics of Communism in order to express their antipathy against Capitalism and Neo-liberalistic ideology but to come together and cooperate in finding a way to share ideas and voices (which have been considered as private affairs), and express them in the public sphere, diffusing them in the streets. As A.Negri pointed out, naming a new subjective is the source of the “constitutive power”. It gives us an appropriate understanding of the social, economical and political conditions, which create “a sine qua non” for the historical subject. Also naming themselves “Amateur” and “Useless” is an art of dissent, which aims to subvert a Neo-liberalistic sense of values and the hierarchical ideology governed by Marketplace principles in Japan. “Shiroto-no-ran” is an answer from the people who are living under the precarious situation. As they say “Of course we are poor, but so what? We will teach the lesson about the power of the poor to you rich!”

A pot struggle, the indigenization of tactics of direct action.

The political activities of “Shirouto-no-Ran” seem to be absorbed in having fun and joyful party time rather than being serious in their struggle against the ‘Corporate and Political power.’

  However their political actions have some distinct features, which are; the orientation toward an autonomous livelihood zone in the city, creating a festival and communal space temporarily, mixing political actions with cultural ones, participating in local economy, and diffusing the affinity network. These activities are not something special for them, but are becoming common with other new political activities in Japan. Sometimes, their actions make the existing left activists feel aversion and agitation, because of the happy-go-lucky mood and appearance of the demonstrations. Actually, their political actions are seemingly quite playful, unserious, prankish in terms of their appearance. However, the carnival-like mood of their actions implies the emergence of a new possibility that political actions are aiming at an “affective composition (S.Shunkatis 2008:51)”.

  A member of “Shirouto-no-Ran”, Hajime Matumoto has started his street action with  tactics called a “pot struggle”. He holds a pot party in some public spaces in Tokyo, in an underground passage, in a commercial building ,in front of the gate of the Defense Agency, and so on. People gather together, bringing a pot with foodstuff, alcohol and a kotatsu (a Japanese low table with a heat source covered with a quilt, used for keeping warm in the winter).  Then the people set up the kotatsu and sit around it, cooking a hot-pot meal, then enjoying and drinking in the public space. This might be called the “the indigenization of tactics” for reclaim the street.

  This is a good example of how people can make use of their cultural customs to take radical action against the political authority, which attempts to confine the freedom of expressing, enjoying and sharing the life. A one-pot meal is the most well-known cooking through all generations in Japan. A scene of people sitting around a one-pot meal is very popular among a large majority of Japanese because it is associated with the symbolic image of a happy family and people in a traditional place for making communication with others.

  As aforesaid, in Tokyo, the police have been maintaining strict control of the freedom of expression in the public space after the student movement in 1969.  Terefore, bringing a pot out from a room and exposing this culturally intimate custom to the street turns out to be a very aggressive action against the police surveillance and the strict crackdown on the public area and street. Whenever the police intervene and force people to abandon the pot-party on the street, what is revealed by this scene is the invisible security system of public space and its violence in disruption of the affective expression of people.  However, it also reveals how an everyday affair has the political potential to undermine the “ordinariness” of the city governed by the power structure

Experiencing the demonstration.

Organizing and holding a street demonstration is one of the most popular tactics for them. An intention of demo is inherent in their affective desire for creating the temporary autonomous space in a livelihood zone. Therefore, the demonstration is not just the means to appeal their political claim to the public but is a temporary place where people can get involved in the process of creating the autonomous zone in a mass of march, experiencing the collective affinity with others and sharing it as long as they are marching on the street.

  The “Give us back our bikes!” demonstration was the first carried out by Shiroto-no-ran  in Koenji in 2005.  The idea of demonstrating came to mind from the incident where a member’s bike was removed by a ward office. The group gave people previous notice that they would have a spree on the street. That day, a hundred people came together to march, although they did not really know what they were asserting with this march. They hired a truck and put an audio system into it, and also put a turn table on the rear platform. The big and colorful banners, which have a variety of slogans were placed at the head of the march.  People were following the truck, which had a big speaker for playing. The followers danced to the music, and the party warmed up and people got excited about it.  Punks were shouting from the rear platform, and  demonstrators were moshing and finally broke through a siege of police lines, and scattering across the street, dancing until the march was ended.

  The “Three persons demo” was the counter action against the excessive policing by the riot police. While they over-reported the expected number of participants, around three hundred peoples, to the police, that day, only three of them made a sudden appearance for the march. The three were hanging around some places where they used to go when being surrounded by the riot police. They filmed this scene and uploaded it onto ‘You tube.’   

  “Koenji-Ikki” (A riot of Koenji) was the Shiroto-no-ran group’s largest scale political action. This action can be called the radical diversion of an existing election system to the direct action for realizing a “direct democracy” and “autonomy” of the city where they live. 

  One ringleader of “Shiroto-no-Ran,” Hajime Matsumoto, made a plan to stand as a candidate for an election in Koenji town, a ward in Tokyo. He and his comrades started an election campaign in April 2007, although his objective was not to be elected and became a member of a ward assembly; instead he aimed to create a “temporary autonomous zone” during the election campaign period.

  As a matter of course, an election system is the base of an indirect democracy. Yet, this representative system had been keeping people at a distance from the direct democracy, maintaining an inequality between people in terms of real political representation.

  Therefore, “Shiroto-no-Ran” set their objective on a different level from the other candidates. Wining the election did not matter to them. Instead, the most important thing to them was creating the “temporary autonomous zone” during the campaign, where the zone unfolds (reveals) itself under the name of an “election campaign”. According to the election law in Japan, candidates are entitled to make use of the public spaces and streets, whose use is not permitted for demonstrations. “Shiroto-no-Ran” noticed this provision and took advantage of it. They cleverly used the election system against the asymmetrical power relations between voters and a candidate for representative and converted the existing system to the mode of direct action, which deconstructs the existing political system and realizes the “world after the revolution”.  For 8 days, they had been preempting the space in front of the Koenji station and held a variety of cultural events, such as a dance party, playing of live music, a lecture meeting, and so on. On the last day of the campaign, they held a big gig. The flow of people was interrupted and the area in front of the station turned into big festivities and a mosh pit by a number of amateurs, and poor, useless fellows. They were dancing and chanting the slogans; “This is the world after the Revolution!”, “This is exactly we wanted to do!”, “This is autonomy, isn’t it!”.  This wild enthusiasm lasted until the campaign ended.


At a glance, “Shroto-no-Ran” doesn’t seem to have a concrete political end. The purpose of their demonstrations seems ambiguous and inconsistent. This is the reason that the “Shiroto-no-Ran” is often regarded as a group with no unity of purpose, which has no concrete demands or objections to the authority, but just a party group. This kind of criticism often comes from some citizenry, civic activists and the conventional Left wing activists. This criticism is partially appropriate, because it hopes to reveal the difference from the character of the political and artistic movements of the 60’s. At that time, the most valuable goal for the artists and activists was achieving the title of “Avant-Garde”. The “Avant-Garde” is a sort of honorable medal, which assures the activist of his or her unique and radical approach to an unexplored (and controversial) area of study, expression and thought.

  However, the problem of “Avant-Garde” activism is that this great idea lacks the means to share what they experimented with others so that the experience-based knowledge can be available for all people. Only few people can achieve this grant, as the avant-grade artists and activists, from their predecessor. Hence the notion of “Avant-Grade” is the very competitive and exclusive in its nature. D. Sloan pointed out that the “experimentalism looks over the reproducible or sustainable, which are inherent in human social ties (Sloan: 2008)”. Terayama’s theatorical experimentalism were radical and progressive in terms of its expression, but this expressionism made the movement difficult to last longer and widely due to its “Avant-Grade” style.

  What is interesting about the “Shiroto-No-Ran” is that the “temporary autonomous zone”, which they are creating through their political actions is a site for wild merrymaking and riotous gaieties, which is opened to all people who want to have fun and share it with others. While “Koenji-Ikki”(A riot of Koenji), the election campaign in 2007, seems to be legitimized by the law, it also de-constructs the system of the representative democracy from the inside. The political actions, which are emerging these past few years in Japan become gradually aware of a political potentiality of collective affection, with produces a very carnival-like and affinity-based tactics. Their political object is the re-creation of the “politics” which emerges as a space for “something common” from the street and it also results in the deconstructs the representative political systems, which maintain the “ordinariness” in a life and the authenticity of the power on behalf of the name of people. In “temporary autonomous zone”, the distinction of class, jobs, gender, race, nationality disappear in front of our eyes.  In its place, a real democracy can emerge where people present themselves as into a body of distinct but collective beings who are constantly exchanging their feelings, affection, thoughts, ideas, and voices.

Kenichiro Egami (Researcher/Photographer)