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Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011
Occupy where? Kasumigaseki?
The Occupy Wall Street protest that started in New York in September has spread rapidly throughout the United States and may continue to spread, perhaps even to Japan. The movement has interacted, in a virtual way at least, with the Arab Spring movement in the Middle East as well as with the "indignado" ("indignant") movement in Spain and other parts of Europe. Around the world, people are taking to the streets to express their frustration and anger over political and financial systems that no longer work for the majority.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has not yet delivered a specific manifesto or list of demands. That may prove to be its strength as the protests continue to expand and diversify. The protests tap into a deep well of anger over economic malfeasance that has wiped out jobs, home ownership and a decent standard of living. This much is clear: The protesters are fed up with the status quo and want reform of political and financial systems. So far, the protests have remained neutral, friendly and most important of all, non-violent.
Most of the protests have yet to use the word "corruption," but when the mechanisms of transparency, adherence to laws and regulations, and punishments for lawbreaking can be routinely avoided, it would be hard to find a better word. The word "corruption" has been reserved in recent years for problems in developing countries. Yet, the American bank bailouts, which have so incensed protesters, can be understood as a diversion of public funds to the wealthiest members of society with little to show for it in return. A problem by any other name is just as bitter.
In Japan, similar problems have festered. Some 2.04 million Japanese are on welfare as of June, according to a report from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry last week. That is the highest number since 1951. In addition, according to the same ministry's report on Aug. 29, the percentage of irregular workers in the total workforce is a record 38.7 percent as of October 2010. "Irregular" means a contract with little security and lower pay than regular employees.
For young people, conditions are even worse. In 2010, 45 percent of workers aged 15 to 24 held irregular jobs. Only 56 percent of new college graduates received any kind of job offer at all by October of 2010, the lowest percentage ever. With figures like these, someone has a right to be angry. So, why don't Japanese protest?
The answer is, they are, a little. Since the Fukushima nuclear crisis, the public has been holding small rallies and marches in front of the Diet building and the Kasumigaseki bureaucratic offices on an almost daily basis. An anti-nuclear rally in mid-September drew 30,000 to 60,000 people, depending on whose figures you believe. That scale of protest has not been seen in Japan since the student protests of the 1960s. The anti-nuclear sentiment may well spill over to other issues.
Yet, there is little sign of a larger movement to occupy anywhere in Japan. Part of the reason is CEO pay is not as outrageously high, nor as flaunted, as in America. Nor has the burden of housing loans devastated Japanese homeowners as the subprime housing loan crisis did American homeowners. And despite job-hunting pressures, college graduates in Japan are not strapped with an average of $22,900 in college loan debt like American graduates. Still, the current protests in New York have latched onto problems more entrenched and widespread than in the past — problems that provoke just as much resentment in Japan as elsewhere.
The belief that the financial system remains essentially sound but needs a touch-up here and there is still stronger in Japan than in other countries. Most workers, and most students looking for work, want stability and security. Instead, they have employment conditions rife with stress and competition, increasingly subject to the whims of economic pressures. It may take time to awaken to the understanding that gaman, toughing it out, may no longer be a constructive strategy.
The protests around the world arise from impatience with unfair conditions and a sense of hopelessness that changes will not happen anytime soon. The protests are right on target when they point out how the negative effects of the current economic recession fall unfairly on the politically and financially weaker members of society. They are also right to demand fairness and to remind those in power of the strength of numbers.
Mass movements are not always correct, but those that last have good reasons for lasting. The current protests have aimed at improving the conditions of ordinary people and fighting against injustices, yet the movement is still in its infancy. The protests have already succeeded in making the voices of average people heard above those with much more money and power. You cannot occupy everywhere, but this movement gives every sign that it will spread, perhaps snowball, and just might help make things better for all people.