Amateurs in Tokyo - Reasonable Riots

by on Thursday, 16 May 2013 Comments

Study, graduate, work, start a family,
I've tried my hardest, but I've always been down and out. Whose rules am I supposed to be playing by? What course have I been put on?
Let's break the rules! Take the piss, to get back a bit of logic!

by Zijie Yang, translated by Conor Stuart and Julia Chien from the original Chinese, photos by Park Swan

As I had repeatedly failed to take them up on their invitation, Matsumoto Hajime, the shopkeeper of the Japanese second-hand shop, 'Amateur Riot', and the leader of the social movement under the same name, drew an angry face on my book during his book-signing event and scribbled the message, "You must come to Tokyo!" The truth was, I had never thought of visiting Japan before I came in contact with my friends from the Amateur Riot movement through my participation in anti-nuclear campaigns.

The journey from the train station and on through the subway made a strong impression in me as I saw how the eyes of the Tokyo urbanites darted about, trying to avoid eye contact, as if one extra look would become an irredeemable indiscretion. Growing up in Taiwan, I've often heard about how advanced a country Japan was. Is this indeed the future vision that we as Taiwanese are in pursuit of? Distance and frigidity, urban life in what we refer to as a 'developed country'...

Experiencing Bohemia in Koenji

From Shinjuku station we took the JR (Japan Railways) Central line and headed west. The Koenji JR station, seven kilometers away, is a place that does not normally appear on your average tourist map (although the author Haruki Murakami did once use the surrounding of Koenji station as a setting for his best-selling novel 1Q84.) Indeed, this is not a well-known part of Tokyo; due to the relatively low rent and cost for living, it is a residential district mostly inhabited by young single people, punks and Freeters (a local Japanese term that indicates people under thirty who make a living by temporary part time jobs).

Aside from the second-hand vintage clothes shops and shopping streets near south entrance to Koenji station, the other streets sell mostly everyday commodities for the locals, so most non-locals don't usually go there. Also, due to urban development and how the urban lifestyle in Japan has been transformed, the decline of business in shopping streets is quite evident, as many stores had notices announcing temporary suspension of business.

If you head west after the north exit of Koenji station, you'll see a street that became famous after the publication of Nejime Shoichi's novel Koenji Junjo Shotengai (Koenji pure heart shopping street) that won the Naoki Prize. At the entrance they sell fruits, vegetables, fish and second hand clothes. If you look to the left, past the buskers strumming their guitars under the railway stretched overhead and walk by the pornography shops with posters of young girls, you'll enter the shopping street where the Amateur Riot shops are nestled.

In this relatively run-down business district, these closed stores offer young people a chance to intervene. Here you'll see young people in full punk regalia dining side by side with older men in loungewear enjoying their 350 yen curry rice in a cheap diner run by second generation Chinese immigrants. The clerks of Amateur Riot sit on the street with their elderly neighbours and chat over a couple of small beers. Here you can definitely feel the sense of bohemian freedom wafting along the street.

It's not about ugly, it's about concept

'Amateur Riot' is an urban network formed in 2005 by a bunch of poor, enthusiastic, offbeat young people and their shops. Through fun events they created new ways to establish autonomy and self-regulation in their community. They created their own space, lived according to their own goals and chose to consume within their own network as opposed to major chain stores. They turned all the discontent of young people in poverty into a party, and they hope to transform orderly streets into the playground of the people!

The shops that are still in business are centred around Store No.5 that sells recycled second hand household appliances and Store No.14 that sells second hand furniture, run by store manager Matsumoto Hajime and his fellow storekeepers that form part of a Punk Rock Labour Collective. Apart from this, there's also Store No.16 that doubles as a coffee shop and restaurant Store No.13 that sells vintage clothing and accessories, and Store No. 6 which sells second hand clothes; next door to Store No.6 is Store No. 12 which, as well as being a centre for community activities, is also the broadcasting headquarters for the "Amateur Riot Radio Station" with a feeble signal radius of only 50m. The newly launched Store No.20 despite the 'Unfinished' sign on the door, is led by Kitaura Fuko, who sells super cheap peddler goods brought from countries all around Asia (hats and earrings 500 yen each). Aside from Koenji, stores from other areas in Japan have also joined the Amateur Riot alliance.

On this street it's not out of the ordinary to hear conversations like this:

"Look at this, isn't it ugly~~"
"It sure is! And it only costs 100 yen, great I'll take it!"

In Koenji, "やばい!" (Yabai! – the Japanese word for awful) often appears in daily conversation. A kind of B-grade kitsch sensibility infiltrates the air and the merchandise. Young cute girls shun the high-end fashion wares of department stores, choosing instead to wear self-made clothes and weird apparel verging on the border of ugliness. In fact, on the occasion of introducing oneself, an action that is often carried out quite formally among Japanese people, here you would often hear an exchange like the one below:

"This is my friend, he's a blockhead from Taiwan."
"Really? Haha that is terrible! So you are one of us..."

They're not just laughing, they're living

The power of Amateur Riot is not often felt by outsiders passing through Koenji. During the day, they work as normal storekeepers just like everybody else. To Taiwanese people that are used to keeping up with the latest trends in Harajuku and Shibuya, perhaps this area is nothing but a less fashionable shopping street with a slight punk vibe. However, it's only when one moves amongst the stores in the evening time that one really gets to grip with what this group is all about.

Store 16, with its slightly leaking roof, is Nantoka Bar, which by day is a coffee shop, and at night becomes a late night snack bar. The menu and the proprietor here are different every day, it's run by different friends of Amateur Riot in turns, even offering shift work to impoverished artists from elsewhere in Japan as well as foreign backpackers who can take their alcohol or have a bit of artistic flair, so they can earn a little cash in the expensive city that is Tokyo (I also heard word that a Taiwanese guy who'd never cooked a meal in his life had the balls to do business here despite his lack of culinary skill).

All kinds of people frequent the bar, whether it be the young communist politician, the middle aged man who draws manga for an audience of young girls, the Korean real estate agent, a down and out writer, or the small groups of students and the unemployed side by side with the employees of huge enterprises, who come for a drink after work and chat about all kinds things. What attracts people to this place is neither edgy interior design nor exquisite Japanese cuisine, but rather the cozy atmosphere and sense of community. The Amateurs are great humorists and even I, not speaking any Japanese, manage to venture a few jokes using Chinese characters to chat to people by pen.

Distinct from the generally cold atmosphere of Tokyo, this is a place where you can share your emotions and ideas with others. On Fridays, after work, different civic groups come and hand out anti-nuclear or environmentalist flyers. In the Amateur Riot community centre, you never know who you're going to meet...


Choosing time over money

Japanese university students graduating this year who enter the workforce, will get a salary starting from around 70000 NT. Although housing in Tokyo is twice as expensive as in Taipei, there isn't much of a difference when it comes to other expenses. Just as Japanese society is making big noises about the problems faced by their youth, we're often caged in by all sorts of words, which give us the impression that the Japanese live pretty hard lives. However, if you talk about material expenses, it's much harder to get by in Taipei than in Tokyo. Of course, due to cultural differences, Taipei young people have much more freedom in terms of lifestyle choice, which is a feather in their caps so to speak, however, in living this carefree existence, they're ignoring the increasing burden upon them, it's as if the revolution is already over and people are left not knowing whether to be happy or worried about it.

Amateur Riot thinks that the situation of young people is not just bad, it's possibly even worse than it appears; and because of that, we must use our vision to create and affirm a newly defined system of values. Young people pursue mainstream dreams, in accepting an average job, although it gives rich material rewards, it also means they are unable to liberate themselves from work, just as it was described in the novel Brave New World, they become happy slaves of the country and of enterprise. Amateur Riot provides an interesting insight: if we are never to really achieve true equality, then at least we can attempt to provide more opportunities for development under the current framework, that will allow those who have time but not money to be happy and free, and live life with dignity.

 066bOn a Saturday in November 2012, rebellious rockers from Japan, Korea, and Taiwan responded to the call of Amateur Riot, in an anti-nuke protest on the streets of Tokyo.(Photo-Park Swan)

The Anti-nuclear movement needs creative thinking

In developing one's own way of life, one cannot forget, of course, to rebel. In a highly stratified and collective conservative society like Japan, people, in an attempt to integrate harmoniously into their community, will undergo great hardships to maintain etiquette, however, Amateur Riot often use street parties to protest against the regulation of life in modern 'civilised' Japan, they also challenge the rules and limits on public space in the city imposed by the government and corporations. For example, in order to undermine consumer habits which perpetuate poverty, they once held a protest outside a department store holding a sign that said, 'Crush Christmas!', in an attempt to give voice to their disgust at the modern capitalist landscape which encourages consumerism under the guise of a Western religious holiday.

Two years ago just after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Amateur Riot was deeply involved in the anti-nuclear movement, it was through my involvement in anti-nuclear protests that I first got to know one of the major figures of Amateur Riot – the storekeeper of Store No.5, Matsumoto Hajime. This journey to Tokyo started with Matsumoto Hajime's dismay at the Japanese government's big talk about wanting to reopen nuclear plants, as well as politicians going on endlessly as if intent on going to war with Korea, Taiwan and China over the Senkaku islands (Diaoyu islands), which led him to invite musician friends from neighbouring countries in Asia for a guerrilla style anti-nuclear rock-noise protest on the streets of Tokyo. We wanted to shout at Japanese society and my own society: "We don't want nuclear power! We don't want national borders!"

After the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake, anti-nuclear street protests began to stir up everywhere in Japan, almost every week there was an event held by different organizations. In the summer of 2012 a two hundred thousand strong crowd of Japanese protesters assembled in front of the prime minister's official residence; the police responded aggressively and the severity of social controls in Japan meant that many were detained for 21 days under the unlawful assembly laws. Japanese people are more apt to obey the law, so this wave of civil protest was a sign of great discontent, however, the strict social controls would make real resistance hard to muster. Amateur Riot were of the opinion that if they applied for permission to protest legally, a strong police presence would be sent to await orders from the authorities, which would dramatically reduce the power of the protests, and so they decided on a guerrilla style approach, as being unable to have fun on the street while protesting isn't what Amateur Riot is all about.

Social Networking as a tool to evade restrictions on unlawful assembly

To prevent the police from finding out about the protest in advance, news of the street party was only announced online three days in advance, the actual location of the protest was only announced 30 minutes in advance via Twitter. Even those of us that had come from abroad to attend the event only found out on the day that the first stop would be Harajuku, then it would be on to Shinjuku, Ookubo and so on, but as to how long we would stay at one place, or even the  performance line-up was kept under wraps! It really was an urban guerrilla battle!

Normally, if this kind of event is held without first applying for permission, it would very likely be shut down within 10 minutes, and everyone would be quickly arrested and detained for quite a long period of time. Therefore, Amateur Riot applied to the police for a permit for a promotional/canvassing vehicle. At the time of application the police had emphasized repeatedly that this wasn't a permit for a protest, and that it was not permitted for anyone to make speeches from on top of the vehicle and that it was not permitted to stop in a fixed location, but only allowed to broadcast information over a speaker. At the time Amateur Riot questioned this logic saying:"We've never heard that this was the case. Then aren't all the politicians from the Liberal Democratic Party and the Japanese Democratic Party who make speeches outside the train stations also engaging in illegal behaviour?". To their surprise, this retort got them a promotion/canvassing permit for the whole of Tokyo to be carried out within two weeks from 8 in the morning to 7 at night.

The day turned out to be a Saturday, the organizers went early in the morning to borrow a 2.5 ton truck, and put all of the sound equipment and wireless broadcasting facilities inside then drove to the fashionable Omotesandō in Harajuku. As the song 'Bittersweet Samba' poured from the speakers, a strange sushi advert came from the speakers too, just then the three presenters of the Amateur Riot radio station, Matsumoto Hajime, Mahara Nemuya, and the paper tiger Matsumoto Rookie, sat behind a table on the back of the truck facing a microphone, broadcasting right in front of the up-market fashion holy ground that is the LaForet Department Store.

"Today we'll be broadcasting a special program for 6 hours, and we'll be recording it live!"

"Really! First we invite the most dangerous looking band on stage, from Korea it's Mr. Christfuck!"


Getting around the police with shameless guerrilla tactics

  The guitarist strummed his electric guitar violently, unleashing Grindcore music in a wave of roaring bass through the speakers to attack the ear drums of the people on the street. The sound of high decibel hardcore metal immediately attracted a group of what looked to be metal fans to draw near, the more fashionable looking couples on dates however, looked on in dismay then covered their ears and quickened their pace. In an instant, this strange motley crew of guys from Kouenji and their bumpkin groupies from all over the world who couldn't even speak Japanese, had created a massive disturbance in the high-end commercial district, the audience, getting into the moment, started a mosh pit, shoppers, meanwhile, looked on aghast...

Hey! What's all this?," asked the Harajuku police officer who had taken his own sweet time in showing up, the little guy from Kouenji who'd been charged with fobbing them off didn't give them any clear answers. It was only after a lengthy back and forth that the person actually in charge of Amateur Riot emerged with the the street publicity permit signed by a police station in another district. By the time the police officer had asked for instructions from a senior officer and finally announced that the event had to end immediately, the band had already played their last song. The presenters on the truck read out postcards written by listeners and explained to the gathered crowd the current state of the Japanese anti-nuclear movement as if nothing had just happened.

Just as a police van started to head in the direction of the truck, the presenter suddenly announced, "OK! Now we're going to move to our next location, to all our listeners, please check online for our next location." Then the truck drove off just like that, the crowd and the foreign bands after checking the next location headed to the station, leaving behind the Harajuku police officers with a look of stupefaction on their faces.

A little later, in front of the Shinjuku station, after an enthusiastic performance by an Okinawan band, a young Taiwanese anti-nuke activist who had studied in Japan before, Chen Jionglin, explained to the Japanese audience the dangerous proximity of Taiwan's nuclear power stations to the capital city, leaving them dumbstruck. Then the Taiwanese punk group called 'You don't need a reason to fuck' got on stage, leading the audience in Shinjuku in the second wave of enthusiastic moshing. A nearby police officer asked with curiosity if it was a famous Taiwanese band, and at first didn't make any attempt to intervene. This stage of the guerrilla protest managed to pass without incident.


Play in the post-revolutionary world!

Afterwards, I read on a blog a post written by one of the Taiwanese guys who had participated:

'After playing hide and seek in Tokyo, we left behind the shouts, the joy, the fresh blood, the sweat and a legend. That's right, we created a new legend together with Amateur Riot, an unprecedented legend that will never be repeated. I'm proud of you all, everyone!' – Mr Cock

This reminded me of when some older members of the union movement at the Q&A after the screening of one of Amateur Riot's documentaries, expressed that they needed to distinguish the solemnity of traditional social protests from this kind of youth resistance, the main goal of which seemed to be having a good time. His life experience of the pain of protest made it hard for him to accept the idea that having a good time could be a form of protest.

However, I'm of the opinion that workers protesting against capitalists, do need to be cognizant of the risks to their job security, or even the risk of being laid off; but in protest against mainstream society's values, young people who choose to have time but no money are brave. It's not a matter of trying to compare who is worse off in order to prove one's own wisdom to be superior, at the same time as putting energy into protest, one needs to put energy into enjoying life! Heroes with social ideals can choose routes other than just those taken by others before, such as working in NGOs, becoming academics or politicians, you can find your path according to your own situation to create a more diverse future, just like the motto of Amateur Riot says: 'We'll first create a post-revolutionary world!'

About the author:

Zijie Yang is a thinker who undergoes brainwashing through several different channels of white noise on a daily basis, and so has begun to mumble to himself, as if he's about to say something but can't quite get it out. Some call him an idiot, some call him clever, he's hard to reason with. He's currently learning to play the Jew's harp, and teaches the Djembe drum at a community college.





Zijie Yang (楊子頡)


Help us!

Help us keep the content of eRenlai free: take five minutes to make a donation


Join our FB Group

Browse by Date

« August 2012 »
Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
    1 2 3 4 5
6 7 8 9 10 11 12
13 14 15 16 17 18 19
20 21 22 23 24 25 26
27 28 29 30 31    

We have 7374 guests and no members online