Anime, manga, Japanese video games. I love it all. I found Japan through my love of their art, music, and other media – I fully admit to being one of those dorky girls that’s into all that stuff. Japan is a complex place; so much is nuanced, from their language to their rich, ancient history. The more you study Japan, the more questions you have…and I know I’m far from the first person to have made that observation.
But I think my most troubling question is political. Is Marx welcome in Japan? What does their current social and political landscape tell us, and how does it reflect what’s going on in the U.S. right now?
On the surface, the similarities between America and Japan are striking. Japan’s government is being hijacked by militant far-right nationalists, their airwaves are overrun with the shrieking of a small but really loud faction of nazi internet trolls, and tension is growing against ethnic minorities. There’s a hostile current running through the Japanese working class, resentful of South Koreans for causing – or so they believe – a lot of the troubles Japanese people face. A group called Zaitokukai, short for Zainichi Tokken o Yurusanai Shimin no Kai (在日特権を許さない市民の会 – Association of Citizens Against the Special Privileges of the Zainichi), has formed with the express purpose of denying rights to Zainichi, or permanent Korean residents of Japan. They’re a small fascist political action group, but they’ve definitely made waves since their formation in 2006, launching online harassment campaigns against prominent Korean writers and activists. It’s easy to look at them and see the likes of Gamergate, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Breitbart, which is frightening because they’re not afraid to inflict violence to achieve their aims (they’ve been arrested for fighting counter-protesters more than once). With a membership of between 9,000 and 15,000, they’re hardly a mass movement. What they are, though, is loud and determined, and they’re getting widespread attention…they’ve even got world-famous voice actresses preaching their platform. That’s like One Direction campaigning for Trump.
I brought up Zaitokukai because they’re a good example of grassroots ethno-nationalism in action. Fascism tends to start at the bottom, and it usually starts small, just by tapping into populist anger. What we’re seeing across the world, and especially here in the U.S., is that when the working class gets swindled by big business and trade deals that only benefit the top 1%, it seems easier for so many struggling workers to look at “the other” in our society and blame them. People are discouraged and angry, and they’re not looking left for the answers. Instead, the far-right seems like a more tempting solution to their problems. In Japan, angry working people are taking out their frustration on ethnic Koreans. Here in the U.S., a billionaire con man from Manhattan rode working-class rage to the White House, even as many people are still learning what the word “socialism” means. We’re taking our economic anger out on Latinx people, and our police are allowed to murder black people at will.
When things get bad, it’s way easier to scapegoat our minorities than it is to stop and look up to see the plutocrats sneering down at us.
A failure on the part of the U.S. Left has been for us to ignore just how deeply capitalism is entrenched in a given society. Here in America, it’s easy to just look back to McCarthy and the Red Scare and blame that for American anti-left indoctrination. But it might go deeper than that. Japan has been deeply classist for centuries, and remains so today. Classism and capitalism go hand in hand, since one tends to reinforce the other. When you consider the 2012 case of Rina Bovrisse, an employee of Prada Japan, you see that misogyny is also part of the mix – a Tokyo District Court threw out her lawsuit against Prada Japan, even when CEO Davide Sesia claimed that he was “ashamed of her ugliness”. Sesia once told Bovrisse that fifteen shop managers and assistant managers “needed to disappear” because they were “ugly” or “fat.” Women over 30 are considered “old,” and Prada outlet stores are commonly called “garbage bins for old ladies.” The fact that one of the country’s highest courts didn’t take this woman’s lawsuit seriously, forcing her to take her case to the UN, says a lot about the country’s deeply reactionary culture. A patriarchal society that views women as commodities is a fertile seedbed for exploitation; capitalism thrives on inequality.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a vast desire for equality in Japan. At one of Zaitokukai’s anti-Korean rallies, huge numbers of Otaku (anime fans) showed up as counter-protestors, holding signs condemning racism and shouting anti-racist slogans. Japan has a strong, growing feminist consciousness as well — feminist author Mitsu Tanaka has been agitating for women’s equality since the 1970’s. “I realized that men only saw women as a convenience – either as mothers or ‘toilets,'” Tanaka says (using the word “toilet” to refer to a repository of male bodily fluids). “While it might have been difficult (to stand up to men) as individuals, it ultimately became possible when women stood together, side by side.”
Tanaka’s call for female solidarity, as well as the young anti-racist crowds coming out to support their Korean friends and neighbors, seems to be a yearning for a true leftist movement in Japan. Over the last decade or so, the Japanese Communist Party (日本共産党, Nihon Kyōsan-tō) seems to have steadily gained ground; as of 2015, the JCP jumped to 21 seats in the House of Representatives, making them the world’s largest non-governing communist party. As their membership surged after the financial crisis of 2008, it seems easy to see that many Japanese people are looking to the left for solutions to working-class problems. The Japanese Communist Party calls for an end to the long military alliance with the US, the removal of American bases and armed forces from Japanese soil, and forcing North Korea to the bargaining table by nonmilitary measures. On the equality front, the JCP promotes legalization of civil unions for same-sex couples. This is a highly radical stance in a country where women are still required to take a man’s last name when she marries, though the measure might seem halfhearted to westerners. Josef Stalin once deeply criticized the JCP for their pacifist stance and their reluctance to fight a campaign of covert warfare against the Imperial government. The JCP’s stance on the Emperor may be the most controversial; the Central Committee promises that, under their leadership, the Emperor would be allowed to remain, so long as the role of Emperor becomes purely symbolic. This position has chafed leftists for decades.
Naturally, a global working-class consciousness might be more necessary now than ever before; it’s the only force that can stop the rise of fascism across the world. Whether it’s through the Japanese Communist Party or a yet-unknown radical coalition, we westerners need to lend all the support we can to our leftist comrades in Japan. Socialism in action would start a brilliant chain reaction across every facet of Japanese society, and its effects would arguably be more visible there than anywhere else.