The four anti-nuclear hunger strikers sitting outside the office of Ministry of Economy,
Trade and Industry (METI) don’t look even a bit extreme. Although she probably would give them a wide berth and avert her eyes, my mother-in-law would probably not be afraid of them. Take a look at the sweet smiles pictured here and tell me, would you? The leader, Naoya Okamoto (known as Kin-chan) is from the southern prefecture of Yamaguchi, where he’s already had experience as a protester and hunger striker (more about that later). He has a thin frame, an easy and unaffected smile, and a sparkle in his eye. Masaaki, a university student in Tokyo, is the oldest at 22. He has what Japanese girls would consider a cute hairstyle, and often smooths unruly strands into place on camera. Kanta Yonehara, 21, describes himself as a “Tabi-bito”, or traveller, and he looks the part, with his broad-brimmed straw hat and deep tan. Shiori Sekiguchi, the only girl, is a nineteen-year old college freshman from Tokyo. She’s never separated from her hot pink towel-blanket and white bill cap, and speaks slow but reliable unaccented English.
So how do I know these details? Well, it’s the age of the live webcam, and I’ve been checking in on them daily to make sure they’re taking care of themselves properly and holding up under the strain. After all, I’m a mother, and I can’t help imagining what on earth I would do or say if either of my own kids ( eighteen and twenty) announced their intention to sit outside and starve themselves voluntarily during a week of predicted record-breaking heat. Well, the four strikers have finished day seven, and after following them off and on all week, I believe I’d be okay with my kids doing exactly the same thing. Mind you, I will not encourage it, but if the situation should one day arise, they’d have my blessing.
First, let me qualify the hows and whys of this particular strike. Kin-chan and his friends have pre-determined the length of their strike (ten days), and are taking water and salt throughout the day to keep up their strength. They are hunger-striking as a form of non-violent protest against the use of nuclear power. Their official statement reads, “We are launching a 10 day-hunger strike in order to petition the Japanese government to reflect [on] the importance of lives and nature–which is the bread of life–within their policies. These are our prayers as the young generation, residents on the earth who will be forced to inherit the legacy of such responsibilities from you.” As Kin-san says, “It’s a poor legacy to be left with. We don’t want to live with these plants, we don’t want to live with the
contamination they leave behind, and we don’t want to live with risks.” Shiori adds, “I want to respect everyone’s life and graduate from nuclear power, so I’ll also respect my life. I will take care of myself so not to be sent in the hospital.” They are practical, they are calm, they are determined. None of the four speak angrily, and I have never heard even a hint of foul language while watching on the 24 hour camera. Here is Kin-chan’s kick-off speech, recorded in a park in Tokyo, explaining their intentions and stating their convictions. Although (I repeat) his speech would not be branded as “extreme” in Japan, he’s devoted to his cause and he knows what he’s talking about. I like the fact that I don’t catch even a whiff of cynicism in his words, his voice, or his manner. While watching, please be understanding about the English translation. I consider it nothing short of miraculous to have found any translated version at all. It’s not perfect, but try to focus on the young man , rather than any strange spellings or grammatical errors.
…….and now that you’ve had an introduction to the four strikers, here’s a bit more about the history of their particular protest. It’s a continuation of an on-going protest taking place in a tiny island in Japan’s southern prefecture of Yamaguchi, called Iwaishima. An article about this very island and its troubled history was featured in the NY Times this August, thanks to the excellent reporting work of Hiroko Tabuchi, a Kobe native now based in Tokyo (you can follow her on Twitter…she’s always got something interesting and juicy to tweet about). Tabuchi recounted how residents had been fighting a proposed nuclear power plant on their island for three decades, getting older and creakier but not losing
their sense of purpose. “It’s getting hard to keep fighting when everyone’s got a cane,” admitted one 70 year old grandmother, but that wasn’t stopping her. Another 68 year old grandmother became famous for tying herself to the dock on the day that ships sailed in to start the construction work. Since March 11th, the Iwaishima residents have finally begun to make progress, as the nation’s mindset has undergone a radical change and prefectoral officials have come down on the side of the island folks. Still, Chugoku Electric is determined to begin construction (despite the prefectoral government’s refusal to renew their license), and the issue is not yet resolved. And that’s where Kin-chan has been: in Yamaguchi Prefecture, lending his support to the old folks of Iwaishima. It was there that he endured his first ten-day hunger strike, eventually deciding to take his protest to Tokyo to seek a wider audience and extend his protest from one specific place to the broader spectrum of nuclear power plants throughout the country.
Now let’s talk about the strategy of the four young people. How successful have they been after a week of fasting in the public eye? Well, that depends entirely on how you judge success. I was terribly disappointed in the Tokyo Time Out review of the event. Time Out is a well-written magazine for hip young English-speakers living in Japan (borderline-geezers like myself love it, too) featuring current trends, popular products, concert and restaurant reviews, and human interest articles about life in the big city. I had hoped they might give
the protesters some positive publicity that would boost their cause; instead, I found a lukewarm description of a “small sit-in” led by a man who was younger, nicer, and less impressive than the Time Out reporter had expected. Describing the meeting with Kin-san as “anti-climactic”, the reporter admitted that perhaps Okamoto-san would perhaps be someone “to watch in years to come” [but nothing special now, was the implication]. “These are not men chained to trees or holding out in foxholes beneath partially built runways” was the consensus. Well, no, they’re not! And this is not a forest in the Amazon or a war zone in a third world country, either–it’s a main street in Tokyo, and they were behaving appropriately.
According to the hip Tokyo magazine, then, the hunger strike has had little to no effect. The final paragraph of the article reads, “….by pre-scheduling the end of the hunger strike, he [Okamoto] has removed the necessary do-or-die drama that would catch the headlines he hopes for……what is taking place outside Kasumigaseki Station feels brave but restrained. Maybe that’s why the last six months of anti-nuclear protests have, at times, felt like little more than a sideshow.” …..Ouch! Sorry, but that hurt. After reading the review, I decided to see what Wikipedia had to say about hunger strikes, and what constituted a “successful” protest. Here’s what I came up with: “A hunger strike cannot be effective if the fact that it is being undertaken is not publicized so as to be known by the people who are to be impressed, concerned or embarrassed by it.” Hmmm…..that didn’t make me feel much better. Though the group’s website and facebook page have a steadily-growing group of followers and supporters and the live camera shows visitors and interested folks stopping all day long as they sit in the blazing sun, they’ve received no press coverage from major Japanese newspapers at all. Nothing on the nightly news. So how do the four young people remain so positive? Going into their eighth day, they still retain their even tempers and cheerful outlook, describing the day’s events for the watchers on the camera every evening, and thanking (by name) those that stopped to talk with and encourage them.
Taking a hint from Shiori-san, who mentioned the influence of Ghandi, it seems clear that
the group themselves have a very different definition of “success”, and are probably less concerned than I about the Time Out article. Here’s what Shiori says in an interview with a foreign reporter: “I know this hunger strike won’t change a really big thing but I hope and I will be happy if more people will think about this problem….and I really want everyone to know that there are kind of young person that are thinking, really really seriously thinking about our future….I hope you feel something.” Again, her English is not perfect, but watching her using the language so unhesitatingly–making no excuses and focusing intently on the questions rather than her own linguistic struggle–I feel a great respect for her. So many Japanese young people are unable to leave their own insecurities behind and strive to attain English fluency, but Shiori is not one of them. She’s serious, and she’ll be happy if she can influence the people she comes in contact with to think more seriously, and to feel something for her cause. Her goal is to change the hearts of individuals. Ghandi, whose ideals she admires, said, “All true change comes from within. Any change brought about by pressure, is worthless.”
The Tokyo Time Out reporter was looking for drama, but he got a very quiet, respectable protest, focused on individuals…..Again, here’s what the master hunger-striker Mahatma Ghandi said in 1924: “Civil disobedience has to be civil in more senses than one. There can be no bravado, no impetuousness about it. It has to be an ordered, well-thought out, humble offering.” Kin-san and his friends certainly fit this description…. Or how about this? From Ghandi’s later writings: “Inner culture must be reflected in your speech, the way in
which you treat visitors and guests, and behave towards one another and your teachers and elders.” The gentle, unthreatening manner of the four friends has been a delight to watch on camera, and I’ve marvelled at the steady stream of people from all walks of life who have stopped to talk, brought instruments to play, or just stayed to sit with the young people in solidarity. They four young people are unfailingly polite to all, and remember to thank each one by name at the end of the day. My guess is that they have made a lasting impression on those who took the time to stop. They impressed me, and I tell you that is not such an easy thing to do. I am usually far more impressed by the accomplishments of age than those of youth.
By their own standard, then, they have already achieved something. Countless people (well, they’ve been counted, actually, since there’s a counter on the website) have followed them on live camera, many have made special trips to Tokyo specifically to meet and support them, and there’s no doubt in my mind that the guys in suits who commute to the METI building every morning are intensely aware of their presence. Is that not enough? No blood shed, no confrontations, and no internal injuries from extended fasting (you’d better believe that I researched THAT as well. I was rather dumbfounded to realize the length of time the human body can survive without solid sustenance, and reassured that ten days would entail no lasting effects for Kin-chan and his friends. Still, it’s a humbling thing to even consider. Could I myself do it??) ….this is my kind of protest.
In the end, these four young people are beginning to master themselves, and to take control of their own future. Ghandi (again) says that, “Fearlessness is the first thing indispensable before we can achieve anything permanent and real.” And in my mind, Kin-san, Masaaki, Kanta, and Shiori are fearless in more ways than one. Of course, all four can already claim to have achieved a victory of the will that most of us can only dream of. Ghandi says, “To have no control over the senses is like sailing in a rudderless ship, bound to break to pieces on coming in contact with the very first rock.” These four will not break to pieces. They can sit in the hot sun for hours, allowing themselves only water and mouthfuls of salt crystals, AND STILL RETAIN THEIR GOOD TEMPERS. The last is (as you guess by my use of capitals) most impressive. How many reality shows have we watched, where people are simply unable to remain civil on live camera for extended periods of time? These kids put most of us to shame. They have left childhood behind, and are moving toward a future of their own choosing.
……and this is so not-Japanese. Some friends of mine (Japanese) have commented that these young people should be looking out for their futures in a more “traditional” sense. Shiori and Masaaki are college students, and will presumably return to some sort of “normal” life once the strike is over. I wonder. But Kin-chan and Kanta (the wanderer) are
in what would be a “Gap Year” for some societies…there’s no such positive terminology in Japanese. My women friends here in Hadano would be concerned that 1. They will never find a job, 2. They will never find a wife, and 3. They will never become respected members of society because they haven’t achieved either 1. or 2. Hmmmm….it looks like Kin-chan and Kanta are unconcerned, to say the least (I wonder about their parents, though), and certainly by international standards, they are nothing unusual. I want to make it clear to friends abroad, however, that they are very unusual. And that the choices they have made require a great deal of courage, because Japan is still a society where the pattern comes already decided, the choices are limited, and the window of opportunity exists for only a limited time. Because of that, I consider these young people to be especially brave.
So let’s hear it for the Brave and Restrained! If weather permits, and if my family are all healthy and no-one at home needs me for the day, I am off to Tokyo tomorrow to meet Kin-chan and his friends. There will be a demonstration at the Meiji Jingu park as well; perhaps (if I don’t get lost. I am not a Tokyo native) I can do both. I will take my excellent camera and share whatever pictures I get. Good night. It is always late in the evening when I finish a post, and I wonder if I’ll think twice about what I wrote in the morning, but this time, I think I will not. As always, thank you for reading. Take some time to think about the future of our young people and the kind of legacy they deserve. Check them out on their live web cam as well! Find them at http://www.ustream.tv/channel/将来を想うハンガーストライキ-hunger-strike-for-the-future-in-tokyo