25 Years of American Activism in Japan

By Sarajean Rossitto

A history of American resistance in Japan from one person´s experience

As long as I’ve been in Japan since the early 90s, I have seen Americans from different walks of life, different backgrounds socially and politically active in a wide array of issues. I would divide such activism simply into 3 main categories, through the party systems, mostly focused on voting and elections, issue-based work both inside and outside the party framework and community-based work on local issues.

Photo by Rodger Sonomura

Through Democrat’s Abroad Japan, and a lesser degree Republicans Abroad Japan and the Green Party USA affiliate in Japan, action around US politics, policy, voter registration and elections has ebbed and flowed for many years often in 4-year cycles.

The people involved in issue-based work outside the US political party system have included pacifists, environmentalists, progressives and leftists concerned with a wide array of issues from war (in Viet Nam, Iraq Afghanistan) US militarism in the region (opposition to US bases, SOFA policy with Japan) international agreements and treaties (the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, TPP, The Hague convention etc.) and the anti-nuclear movement which is a cross cutting movement with a long history given that we live in the only nation attacked by nuclear weapons. Some have worked with International organizations, with Japanese organizations and others have simply joined as concerned residents. Such activity occupies a deep and broad part of the American experience in Japan.

US Citizens have also taken a lead and worked with Japanese and non-Japanese on local issues in Japan. As the society and the international population in Japan have changed so too have the focal points for community-based work. For example, at the beginning people from western nations took an active, high profile role in the annual migrant workers held every March since 1994. As the type of work, workers and needs have shifted, so too did the make-up of the movement leaders from Western English-speaking white collar workers to Asian and African workers from more diverse ethnic, social and linguistic backgrounds engaged in 3D jobs under less stable conditions.

Photo by Damon Coulter

A number of long-term residents have worked with or formed their own organizations working on local concerns such as orphans, food security, mental health, breast cancer, and gender equality. In the aftermath of the 1995 and 2011 earthquakes, tsunami and nuclear power meltdowns, Americans joined other people from around the world in the relief, recovery and redevelopment efforts as well as in the activism against restarting nuclear power plants.

My own first participation in activism in Japan was 1991 with the first Gulf War, at a time when marches and rallies were heavily policed. While in recent years, police have been easy to deal with as long as protests were not overly aggressive, loud or troublesome to neighbors, the recent passing of the conspiracy law, will likely make us more cautious. Since Japan is already a very safe country, many suspect the new law will result in greater state surveillance although it was promoted to enhance safety and security by 2020 when we will host the Olympics.

In 1991, there were not many people involved in trying to advocate around US policy-making decisions from Japan, but with the second Gulf War during the Bush administration, there was a surge of interest in opposition to US military intervention. It is also clear that every four years we have seen a surge in both political activity and interest by Americans due to increase visibility of issues, policies and party activity around presidential election time. Particular leaders also helped bring out people not necessarily interested in party politics, for both positive (for example Howard Dean, Barak Obama and Bernie Sanders) and negative (for example George W. Bush and Donald Trump) reasons.

Photo by Rodger Sonomura

In 2004, we were able to mobilize people in opposition to Bush through an array of public events such as concerts, fundraisers, and teach-ins, sometimes attracting 100’s of people. Momentum was also built around the presidential election campaign as part of a larger campaign to get US citizens to work on the ground in GoTV, 10 people from Tokyo went to rural Florida for 2 – 10 weeks to do daily canvassing. That year Americans living in Panama, Columbia, the UK and other countries, raised funds and went to Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio to get people to vote. Although Florida went to Bush, two of the three electoral districts the Tokyo team worked in handily went to Kerry.

Given the dark mood after the election, we faced challenges keeping up the interest for the 2006 interim elections, but we still engaged in letter writing and other actions even with limited numbers.

However, the 2004 experience resulted in the birth of the PSC, People for asocial change, a loose network of activists committed making people to be aware of their own power and ability to be actively involved in their own communities. From 2005 through 2010, 10 theme-based symposia were held in Tokyo and each included a series of skills development workshops and panel discussions featuring organziation leaders. The last event was to be held in Spring 2011 but had to be cancelled due to New Zealand and Tohoku disasters. Because our core leaders were active in disaster response, we directed the International community to oirganziations doing needed work through the site I set up on Marfch 14, Japan Volunteers. (See PSC Blog http://people-for-social-change.blogspot.com, Japan Volunteers blog https://japanvolunteers.wordpress.com/ and PSC Tokyo Community events listing http://tokyo-community-news.blogspot.com.

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Photo by Damon Coulter

The 2008 primaries that included then-Senators Clinton Edwards and Obama, brought out new people debating on the issues. The meteoric rise of then-Senator Obama brought new people into the fray and developed new energy and networks of support. This was a very exciting time when we built networks and new relationships with people in different parts of the country. From 2008 to 2016 we saw increased interest in a range of issues including healthcare, police brutality and military policy. While Senator Bernie Sanders inspired a number of people, Hillary Clinton did not necessarily bring the energy and momentum to supporters.

The first meeting for Japan-based Sanders supporters in summer 2015, did not garner much interest however once primary season began support for Sanders was overwhelming among voters in Japan. This spawned Our Revolution Japan. (https://www.facebook.com/ourrevolutionjapan/)

Quite frankly, the 2016 presidential campaign reminded me of working on GoTV in the 2004 campaign in rural Florida. The challenges included 1) the clear lack of interest, energy and support for the Democratic party candidate, 2) the gap between a centrist candidate and progressive party base, 3) the lack of charismatic leadership during the election and 4) a focus on opposition rather than the enthusiastic support for the candidate’s platform. The energy in 2004 was against Bush and the energy in 2016 likewise was against Trump, both lacking a clear positive message of our shared future.
A new wave of resistance: 2016 and 2017

After Trump was elected, new energy and anxiety permeated the American citizens´ community in Japan. Perhaps not since “the peace not war movement” during the Bush Administration had we seen the orchestration of so many group actions.

Soon after the election, after talking with friends from the UK likewise concerned about the impact Brexit would have, I started a new Facebook group for women from various nations concerned about the future. It was originally called Sisterhood Protest but later switched to the Women of the World March in Tokyo. Since DA was organizing an event on Jan 20 and another person was organizing a march on Jan 21, we decided top promote those 2 events and not hold our own March. This page is still used to share information on specific actions people can take to impact decision makers. Women of the World March Tokyo – Facebook group with links to resources and weekly action items  https://www.facebook.com/groups/197623700694595/

Photo by Rodger Sonomura

The merging of these two events was probably the most visible example of activism after Trump was elected. The first global women’s march was held in Tokyo on Friday night Jan 20, the day before inauguration day in Japan. The Democrats Abroad chapters were hosting “President Obama Appreciation” events globally and the DAJ event merged the Obama appreciation with the Women’s March. (DAJ Facebook page with upcoming events as well issued based action info: https://www.facebook.com/groups/demsabroadjapan/)

Quite frankly we had no idea how many people to expect – we were hoping for 100 or 150; but approximately 650 people showed up that night. (This is considered to be a large number of protesters in Japan. The Women’s Day March on March 8 attracted 250 people, which is a more common number for marches not focused on war or nuclear policy.) People came to the January 20th March through various networks, whether they had been politically active in the past or not. People came to be part of a bigger movement against a president who represented many values we were not only opposed to but also repelled by.

The next catalyst for action was the Muslim ban. On a day’s notice, a protest with about 30 people was held at the US embassy. This was organized by one Tokyo resident who felt we could not just let it go. We did intensive media outreach on that day and found the Japanese media to be very responsive very interested – media representatives outnumbered the protesters! This event initiated him to form the Tokyo Advocacy Exchange which uses a Facebook group to share information of how to get involved and actions to take. (Tokyo Advocacy Exchange – Facebook group sharing information, links and resources. https://www.facebook.com/groups/207362363069859/)

Photo by Damon Coulter

The ban also lead to the creation of the Tokyo-Based Alliance for an Inclusive America, a loosely knit group of concerned persons mostly from the US, included persons from the legal, business, nonprofit and interfaith communities. A few hundred people from diverse backgrounds took part and the media again was greatly interested. The Japanese media was particularly interested in how this impacted policy here in Japan towards non-Japanese people. We did not publicly comment on Ministry of Justice policies not only because this was not our main focus but also because Japanese law does not permit public engagement in Japanese policy by people from overseas. (The Alliance and March for an Inclusive America https://www.facebook.com/events/1707377679553220/)

Like the Women’s March, we attempted to maintain a positive tone for the March for an Inclusive America. This tone buttressed our message of tolerance, and acceptance and important role diversity and inclusion play in the US experience.

With the April 15 Tax Day march for transparency and accountability, the Tokyo Advocacy Exchange faced some challenges in trying to excite people. While we were again first given our time zone, we did not receive the support or media coverage as with the previous marches. A few Climate Marches here held in Japan attracting more people than the Tax march but perhaps due to march fatigue, news exhaustion or just feeling fed up with the daily news nightmares, both the public and the media did not join as strongly as they did with the Women’s March and Muslim ban protests.

Photo by Damon Coulter

Besides these marches, throughout 2017 we have had letter writing campaigns and issue events as well as attempts to push people to call their legislators in an organized fashion. Now in 2017, Sanders supporters and/or other people previously not publically active are involved both in and outside Democrats Abroad Japan and have been taking the lead on both issues and events.

We are currently sharing info online for calling and letter writing and action planning within Our Revolution Japan, the Women of the World March Tokyo and DAJ. A regular discussion point has been what we bring to the debate as US citizens who live overseas, who love with access to a comprehensive healthcare system, modern infrastructure that is regularly renewed and without fears of crime or gun violence.

These are a just a few examples from my own experience as a long term resident of Japan, who has gotten a bit fed-up with US politics but has stayed involved none the less because I am always optimistic that people can bring about social change from the grassroots up. Through the PSC, I will be organizing a collaborative event in September that would include INGOs and people from the groups listed here. Our struggle is not over, but part of something bigger than is long-term.

Sarajean Rossitto, Nonprofit NGO consultant. This represents my own views and experience. I do not represent or hold office within any particular organization listed here except for the PSC.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Bonsai says:

    I wrote a blog post after the women’s march in Tokyo. My position is that foreign women in Japan need to be much less culturally submissive…if that makes sense. As a young American who met and married a Japanese man from Sado Island in 1982, I was subjected to the kawaii culture and trained (yes I submitted) to act younger and demure. I didn’t really know any better and though I was being a good wife. Then later I discovered he was a lolikon in the original sense and that his preference was supported by the culture which allowed child porn to be created legally and sold on the open market. The results of this lifestyle/culture were tragic for us and are detailed in “The Six-Foot Bonsai” story.


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