On Saturday 8 February, M and I took the children to Mount Kagenobu with Bāba, the grandmother of one of Big Sis’s preschool friends. Like our previous week’s walk to the Hachiōji Castle ruins (八王子城跡), this hike began at JR Takao station, from where we took the bus to Kobotoke (小仏). We had taken the same route in the opposite direction on our way home from our last hike and Big Sis recognised it, stunning her adoring father with her growing memory skills. From the bus stop it was a short walk along a sealed mountain road past Hōshūji (宝珠寺) temple to the trail head. From there we headed up a steep, densely forested slope before coming out onto a ridge from where we could see the peak of Mt Kagenobu. After a brief stop at the top of that first ridge, we climbed the final 20 minutes to the summit. At first the trail was quiet, but as the day wore on the crowds started to gather. At the summit, Mt Kagenobu Tea House was starting to buzz. There were hikers eating hot noodles and a wizened mountain man sanding the face of a wooden pestle used for making Japanese mochi (pounded rice cake). We enjoyed our packed lunch of sandwiches, boiled eggs and half-thawed edamame. Then it was time for a look at the beautiful view of Mt Fuji before heading down a different trail towards the Kobotoke Pass (小仏峠). The mountain was getting very crowded and as an increasingly tired four year-old Big Sis began dragging the chain we had to let the groups of hikers pass. On reaching Kobotoke Pass the crowds seemed to thin suddenly and we enjoyed some chocolate cake and gazed out over the valley towards the ridge we had hiked up that morning. An entrepreneurial mapmaker had laid out his wares by the side of the trail for passing hikers to peruse. I ended up buying a map of Okutama (奥多摩) with a future adventure in mind. From here we headed down the mountain towards Bijotani Bridge (美女谷橋) where we found the sealed road once again. We staggered along it to the bus stop which would take us to JR Sagamiko station and from there we were homeward bound.
On Sunday 1 March I joined the League of Good-for-Nothings in local bar and movement haunt Kakekomitei to talk about love. The League of Good-for-Nothings is sociologist Carl Cassegård’s English translation of the legendary Tokyo group Dame-ren (だめ連). Cassegård has written extensively on the group and their contribution to underground culture and the revival of street protest in Tokyo in the 1990s. The translation is an apt and appropriately humorous way of capturing the spirit of the group’s name, which evokes a sense of the absurd by combining the word dame, meaning ‘no’, ‘broken’, ‘useless’ or ‘forbidden’ with the high-sounding suffix -ren, indicating a political league. Since its founding in 1992 by activists Kaminga Kōichi and Pepe Hasegawa, the group’s main focus has been on creating spaces where people who identify with the idea of being dame can engage in open-ended discussions about topics which affect their lives.
Earlier this year, I was involved in organising a symposium on Love as Politics at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies and Kaminaga kindly took an interest in what we were doing and read my paper and that of my friend Nick Southall. The theme for the March event was loosely inspired by the work we have been doing on love and so the organisers asked me to kick off the discussion by talking a little bit about the love festival and some of the ideas which have come out of it. rganisers, kindly read mine and Nick Southall’s talks at last year’s Love as Politics.
The fact that the event was even held at all in the current atmosphere in Japan was significant. The previous week the Prime Minister asked schools across the country to close two weeks before the spring holidays in an attempt to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. In the wake of this request, with which most local education districts have complied, there has been a cascade of of cancellations of gatherings of all shapes and sizes. It’s hard to know exactly what to make of the situation and opinion was divided about the virus threat and the measures taken in response to it among attendees at the event. Some were entirely unconcerned and felt that the government response was a major over-reaction. Others that we should be concerned and take reasonable precautions, even if we remain sceptical about aspects of the official response. As the afternoon wore on some fairly lurid conspiracy theories about the virus were also aired, though not to general agreement. The conclusion that I reached was that it showed once again just who increasingly incommensurable the truth-worlds we inhabit are becoming and how little faith people put in governments and health authorities to respond appropriately.
In this tense atmosphere, a little more than twenty people came together to talk about love. There were many familiar faces and some people whom I had never met. Contributions to the discussion varied wildly, something I have come to expect after many years of organising love reading groups and love festivals. This variety demonstrates the broad range of the conversations which love makes possible.
The discussion began, as it not infrequently does, with the problem of language. The Japanese word for love, ‘ai’ (愛) is a translation word which has been notoriously slow to become absorbed into everyday parlance in Japan. At one point during the discussion, one of the organisers posed a question to the room, asking whether anyone had ever used the Japanese word ai to say ‘I love you’ (愛している). Nobody had. Some had used suki (好き), which is a common phrase with a similar meaning but then suki also means to like, as in to like peas or the colour yellow. As I spoke about love I used the terms ai more or less interchangeably with a Japanese transliteration of the English word love, rabu. This was not a thought-out choice of vocabulary and the question was raised by someone who noticed me doing so as to whether this indicated something unique about the meaning of the English word which might not easily by translated. Certainly the transliteration rabu, which has become nativised in Japanese, is frequently used in pop cultural discourses on love, such as in one of my favourite phrases rabu rabu (ラブラブ), which describes the kind of overt infatuation of young couples we might call ‘puppy love’.
Many other possible Japanese ‘translations’ and related concepts were raised throughout the discussion, from the Buddhist notion of jihi (慈悲) (from the Sanskrit and Pali word Karuna, typically translated into English as compassion) to notions of fraternity, yūai (友愛) or hakuai (博愛). Due consideration was also given to words which incorporate ai in compounds and are used more frequently than ai on its own. These included jiko ai (自己愛) meaning love of the self and aiken (愛犬) meaning a beloved pet. Itōshii (愛しい), meaning beloved or dear, came up as another possibility. Playing on these linguistic ambiguities, one participant recounted how in romantic relationships he had always though that ai would eventually emerge from koi (恋) (passion, attraction), but now wondered whether in fact the reverse might be more realistic.
These definitional and linguistic discussions seemed to set the stage for the conversation as everyone in the room tried to come to terms with what it was we were actually talking about. Unsurprisingly, the definitional question remained unresolved and I think these kinds of linguistic games, while important, can also be a red herring. It was when people started sharing stories that we learned what love really meant to them. The discussion kicked off with a heart-wrenching story, a story which was not framed by use of the term ai or any other term for love but which simply spoke for itself. The most significant thing to have happened in my life, the man said, was when my 23-year old sister drowned while rescuing a child from the sea while holidaying by the coast. The story hit home and while the speaker did not try to interpret it for us, others sought to articulate this story in terms of different relationships of love – the love the speaker had for his sister, the love the sister had for an unknown child. This anecdotal style set the tone for the discussion which thereafter focused more on the sharing of personal encounters with love and lovelessness rather than theoretical grappling with the nature of love.
The stories told were varied and I will just pick out some of them here. Two speakers came from a local grassroots homeless people’s centre. They spoke about nakama (仲間, friends/comrades) as a form of loving relationship that sustains people in homeless communities. One young woman who described herself as a hikikomori (shut-ins who do not typically leave their room) thanked her parents for their love over the years, and also thanked a stranger with whom she talks regularly on the phone. One local poet recited a poem about landmines and spoke about the contradiction between the way that we can become implicated in acts of killing while living ordinary lives but that we simultaneously engage in acts of love. Another woman talked about her struggle to love herself after having always tried to please other people. She suggested somewhat accusingly that perhaps love is actually a product of discrimination – implying that we only love some on the basis of excluding others. A number of people addressed this important provocation as the discussion continued.
There were thoughts on public love – the idea that the protesters who went to protest outside the prime minister’s residence after the March 2011 disaster were motivated by their love for society at large. Another man spoke about his struggles to express love for his family by trying, but mostly failing, to support them financially and of his own parents’ failure to teach him what love meant by example. More than one contributor stated they were wary of using the term love because its meaning had been cheapened for them or because they had seen it used to mask abuse. Another comment, and one which seemed significant given that we were meeting in a not-for-profit bar run primarily for the purpose of facilitating community gatherings, was that love is about making a place for people to gather and be themselves. There was talk of love as forgiveness, love of the self and love of pets. For a young couple recently returned from Goa, India, love was simply opening oneself up to everything and completely accepting the world as it is (opinion was divided on whether this meant opening ourselves up to politicians like Shinzō Abe).
As the effect of the alcoholic beverages most of us were consuming took hold the these wide-ranging discussions began to unravel. I was somewhat relieved when at long last the microphone found its way back to the start of the circle and the formal part of the evening came to a close. The last word in the evening’s discussions went to Boke-san, the owner of the bar in which we were meeting. A talented musician, Boke chose not to wax on any further about the nature and meaning of love but rather to get out his guitar and sing us a love song. Then it was time to eat the curry and rice he had lovingly prepared and have some more informal chats. Dame-ren has always valued the informal spaces of discussion over formal events – whether talks or demonstrations and I welcomed the opportunity to speak more quietly with some new faces. However, soon it was time for me to retire for evening and go home to give love to my family.
When we met before the meeting to develop a rough plan for the afternoon’s discussions, Kaminaga explained to me that there was no particular need for to reach a conclusion. However, having read over the talks from the earlier symposium in preparation for the event the phrase that came to the centre of my mind after the emotionally charged and diffuse conversations of the afternoon was Nick’s definition of love: ‘the struggle to create, maintain, and develop caring social relations’. The afternoon confirmed to me that this dynamic conception of love as an incomplete and ongoing movement towards relationship, rather than as a state of perfect bliss, is the best way to conceive of love in a social field where that which separates us often looms as large as that which brings us together.
Some lines towards a poem
Reading to children is becoming a child once again, in my mother’s old bed in her mother’s house listening to Beatrix Potter
Reading to children is snuggling, cuddling
Reading to children is sharing elephants and fart jokes to comfort a playmate who really wants his mum
Reading to children in a foreign languages is seeing fear and confusion giving way to comprehension, self-confidence and strange grammars
Reading poetry to children is feeling nostalgic for an Australian bushland childhood more familiar from books than Country
Reading poetry to children is glowing inside as you see them appreciate the rhythmic power of the word
Reading to children is awesome!
In recent months as I plough through a research grant application at the office I have been thinking more and more about what I would rather be doing. During a similar period of existential crisis last year I came across a fascinating book by journalist Emily Matchar. Homeward Bound (Simon & Schuster, 2013) examines many of the themes of voluntary simplicity, permaculture living and radical homesteading that have occupied so much of my attention lately. I composed most of this post last year but never managed to finish it so I am bringing it to you now. Hopefully its better late than never!
Like many friends and acquaintances in Wollongong, Japan and elsewhere, I have joined the popular movement to reclaim hearth and home as a form of escape from the capitalist workplace. A few years ago my partner and I read Shannon A. Hayes’ book Radical Homemakers and experienced a real sense of awakening having finally found an author who was able to link the popular resuscitation of the domestic arts with a systemic critique of capitalism. Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound is an insightful and thoughtful reflection on the work of Hayes and others and of the movement of which they are a part. She coins the term New Domesticity to bundle together a variety of cultural practices such as food gardening, attachment parenting, home-based micro entrepreneurship, mummy blogging, homeschooling etc. I have given an inordinate amount of time to thinking about these topics in recent years and engaged in various practical experiments in voluntary simplicity and self-sufficient living. In this book, Matchar explores the class and gender dimensions of these practices. This approach sets it apart from most of the literature by practitioners (although Matchar insists she is influenced by New Domesticity in her own life) which tends towards the celebratory and gives little consideration for the potential limitations of this often highly individualistic approach to social change.
Matchar focuses on women and their relationship with New Domesticity because the vast majority of Etsy shop owners, homesteading bloggers and attachment parenting advocates are women. She highlights some of the contradictions of a philosophy based on the reclamation of domesticity on feminist terms in the context of a society where gender inequality is deeply entrenched. Matchar does not reject the claim of some New Domesticity advocates that their practices are feminist, but she is highly critical of a certain type of New Domesticity discourse on feminism as a social movement which blames second-wave feminism for women’s abandonment of hearth and home, highlighting the long history of women’s role in the household economy throughout the industrial period.
One of the most poignant critiques in Matchar’s book is of attachment parenting. This parenting philosophy celebrates the maternal bond with the child and is popular among many parents who see themselves as progressive. Its appeal in a cold-hearted world is obvious, and I have been influenced by this movement in various ways as I have struggled to figure out how to be a parent. As Matchar points out, however, attachment parenting tends to place enormous responsibility on mothers and tends to naturalise the maternal role as an instinctual one rather than a product of social conditioning. She also points out the philosophy’s origins in Christian conservative circles in the United States, highlighting the conservative ideas about women and their social roles that are coded into its foundational texts. Matchar also mounts an economic critique of the widespread uptake of attachment parenting philosophies by progressive, educated women. In a searing passage, she notes how the embrace of attachment parenting by professional women who have left work to take care of their newborn children seems to coincide with a structural problem: the lack of flexibility at work to accommodate working mothers and the general shitty boringness of many of the jobs these young professional women were doing anyway. The result, a philosophy which validates motherhood appeals much more than juggling childcare in order to return to a job which devalues the female worker in the first place. Matchar thereby criticises both attachment parenting and liberal feminist ideas about the liberating nature of paid employment, noting that it does not necessarily lead to an undermining of patriarchal norms and social structures. Unfortunately, while she raises these contradictions in her own liberal feminist conceptions, they are never interrogated decisively.
Some issues in this book appear to an Australian reader in Japan as quintessentially American. Health care is one example. Matchar cites more than one example of a family that has given up on maintaining any form of health insurance because they simply cannot afford to do so. In Australia and Japan, relatively comprehensive public health systems make rejecting the private health insurance market and living on a low income much less risky. Here I see the potential of a radical homemaking that is not confined to the home but that links up with other homemakers to demand shared access to public goods. However, there is an ongoing tension here within New Domesticity and permaculture practices and philosophies. Libertarian ideas are an important part of the social philosophy of these movements, something which Permaculture for the People addressed in a recent review of David Holmgren’s book Retrosuburbia. Presenter Rebecca Ellis takes Holmgren to task for his emphasis on individualistic and household level solutions to problems such as transport, where abandoning the struggle for accessible public transport means privileging the transport needs of certain types of able bodies and offers little in terms of solidarity with the differently abled.
An obvious hole in this book is its lack of any real critique of capitalism. Matchar’s critique of New Domesticity is primarily posed in liberal feminist terms. There is no discussion of how socialist or Marxist feminist approaches, or perhaps most importantly ecofeminist ones, might relate to New Domesticity or to ideas of radical homemaking. Sylvia Federici’s recent work on commons and commoning provides provides us with some of the tools to connect the dots between the radical potential of radical homemaking and a broader critique of capitalism. In her recent book, Re-enchanting the World, Federici observes of the destruction of local food systems by capitalism:
‘by undermining the self-sufficiency of every region and creating total economic interdependence, even among distant countries, globalization generates not only recurrent food crises but a need for unlimited exploitation of labor and the natural environment.’Sylvia Federici, Re-enchanting the World, 2019, p. 21.
For Federici, as for many ecofeminists, women working the land as subsistence producers are actually guardians of a kind of autonomy from the wage relation. If women can rely on the land to feed themselves and their families then they are not beholden to the job market for their own re/production. It seems to me that the radical potential of the New Domesticity movement is the attempt to create new ‘outsides’ to capitalism that permit autonomous re/productive labours. It remains to be seen whether the growing experiments in backyard food production, networks of community-sufficiency and the rejection of paid work can provide the basis for liberation or by combining with conservative notions of individual self-responsibility and the abandonment of public goods the New Domesticity-style rebellion can actually provide a kind of grassroots accompaniment for the politics of neoliberalism and the far-right. Matchar is right to point to the dangers of New Domesticity. It has the potential to simply reinforce patriarchal relationships in the home and isolate women from relationships of solidarity outside it.
One question that might prove important here is whether men are willing to give up some of the privilege they derive from our gendered place within the capitalist division of labour and join women in forging an alternative both in the home outside it. While Matchar’s focus is on women and feminism, she does talk to some men who have embraced aspects of the movement. What she misses, however, is the sense of liberation from gendered hierarchies that men can derive when we embrace roles that are coded as feminine. For me, cooking meals, assuming an equal responsibility for the management of my household (sharing the mental load) and sharing the work of raising my children is an embodied critique of male gender norms. Since having two small children, however, my partner and I have struggled with the fact that our family structure has started to look more and more like a traditional heteronormative one, with me at work while she remains at home with the children. This situation, which has been difficult to avoid so far, has only reinforced the importance of my doing my share of the housework in the attempt to maintain an equal balance of power between us. Of course, stepping up to the plate to do one’s fair share after centuries of male dominance in the home is really the least we can do. Nevertheless, wearing an apron is for me its own form of new domesticity and I find it to be a powerful way to perform my rejection of the skewed gender ideology that continues to cause me and the people I care about nothing but pain.
On Humphrey McQueen, A New Britannia
An impressionistic review of Humphrey McQueen’s legendary attack on the nineteenth century origins of Australian racism and nationalism and their political expression in the Australian Labor Party. Based on the revised 1976 edition (Penguin).
Humphrey McQueen is one of those legendary figures on the left, particularly among the strange cabal of leftist intellectuals who hover on the edges of the academy, to which I belong. I remember first coming across McQueen the man at an Historical Materialism conference in Sydney. There his presence in the suites of the Sydney Mechanics Institute in Pitt Street added to my understanding of the tapestry of the history and future of leftist thought in Australia that the conference represented. A New Britannia is a powerful intervention in Australian historiography and it generated significant controversy when it was first published in 1970. On the back cover of the revised 1976 edition, I found at a secondhand bookshop in Sydney earlier this year, much marketing potential is harvested from this controversy. The book ‘delighted the critics’, we are told, with quotes from three critical reviews by prominent Australian intellectuals who panned the book as ‘bad’, ‘cock-eyed’ and ‘slipshod’. Having read it as a trained academic, the characterisation of the text as ‘slipshod’ has some merit. The narrative pace is uneven and at times I lost track of what was going on even within a single sentence, let alone across paragraphs. At the same time, its passion and lack of regard for historiographical convention was part of the book’s charm. It sounds like the uncensored scream of a young intellectual looking back on the storied history of labour and working class struggle in Australia and finding plenty of evidence of the racism and individualism of many of our nineteenth century proletarian heroes.
The conclusions McQueen reaches about the racism of Australian left nationalism in the nineteenth and early twentieth century seem commonplace to someone reading the book in 2020. Despite McQueen’s exile from the academic mainstream, it seems many of his conclusions are now widely accepted. However, one wonders whether this acceptance might not have had quite the opposite effect of that which was intended. McQueen’s style of unmasking the left’s historical heroes is characteristic of postmodern labour history, where it seems to have gone hand-in-hand with the general depoliticisation of the subject. For an earlier generation of socialist and communist labour historians, the past was a source of lessons of direct relevance to the contemporary struggle, even though this went hand-in-hand with the romanticisation of past struggles. Today, labour historians see class as a ‘category of analysis’ rather than a political project and one could be forgiven at times for thinking their goal in unmasking the failings of historic movements is to make despair convincing rather than hope possible, to misquote Raymond Williams. This process of depoliticisation is something McQueen rails against, but perhaps it is also the inevitable consequence of the new left attack on the often simplistic partisan historiography of an earlier generation, with their explicit commitment to socialism.
As an attack on the Australian Labor Party, the book ably and succinctly demonstrates the party’s anti-socialist origins. What’s more, while acknowledging the role of corruption in the failings of individual Labor politicians and the party as a whole, he convincingly lays out the more fundamental problem that Labor as a political organisation has never challenged capitalist hegemony. As a result, the party is little more than an institution for furthering the professional advancement of individual members of the working and lower middle classes. When faced with the task of rule, Labor has consistently ruled in the interests of the ruling class because it fundamentally accepts their class hegemony. It may have been a party of the working and lower middle classes, but it has has never been a party for the proletariat. Today, as the proletariat becomes ever-more diffuse and its internal divisions and differences multiply, Labor continues to play a similar role. It organises particular elements of the trade union bureaucracy and the community sector into an electoral machine and in the process provides a means of advancement for professionals in those sectors. Unfortunately, while McQueen’s revelations about the failings of nineteenth century working class heroes are now widely accepted, his critique of the ALP as the party of petit bourgeois racist nationalism does not seem to have made much progress in the academic humanities, probably because illusions in the ALP and allegiance to its politics of class compromise remain so entrenched in the sector.
Reading McQueen in 2020 also left me wondering about the nature of public debate in the era of the multitude. My worn Penguin edition of McQueen’s book, which I picked up in a Sydney bookshop for $6, was published at a time when an audience existed for this kind of complex historiographical debate. The work makes significant demands on its readers, particularly in terms of assumed knowledge about the history and historiography of nineteenth century Australia. That this book, with its red armband political perspective and complex argument could appear in a Penguin edition in the 1970s forces one to reflect on the state of public debate in Australia today. Academic historiography seems to retreat further and further from the mainstream of reading and publishing in Australia. Part of this is surely the result of the relentless drive for academic historians to publish with ‘prestigious’ international publishers, for whom a hundred or so copies sold to university libraries is the extent of their ambition for a reading public. When academic historians do break through into mass-market audiences, their material tends to the well-digested and palatable. I suspect McQueen’s passionate but ‘slipshod’ approach would struggle to find a publisher today.
Furthermore, McQueen addresses himself to an audience that, even if it can be assumed to have largely disagreed with him, was far more unified in terms of a shared political culture than that which exists today. Agreement on truth and the parameters within which to conduct historical debate is harder and harder to find, something to which the issue of ‘fake news’, the election of Donald Trump and the resurgence of the far-right in ostensibly ‘liberal-democratic’ political systems all attest. Increasingly, we inhabit a multitude of overlapping thought-worlds, where understandings of the past and the present proliferate and diverge ever more widely. Would a McQueen-style intervention even be possible in the current climate? While there has been a revival of socialist discourse on the internet and in some left-leaning media outlets in Australia, debate in these forums seems to be dominated by a neo-Keynesianism which McQueen would no doubt reject as forcefully as he does Australia’s racist left nationalism. In his highly sceptical foreword to the volume, Manning Clarke characterises McQueen’s book as a definitive expression of the New Left’s critique of the past. Today it would be hard to imagine a reading public with enough in common in their view of the past to make such a critique even intelligible, let alone for it to carry political weight.
On 19 July 2019 I boarded a plane in Tokyo and headed to Cairns for two weeks of fieldwork connected with my research on transnational activism in the Asia-Pacific. My purpose was to learn about the pathways via which uranium travels from Australia to Japan and the resistance movements and grassroots connections which have formed along the way. Prior to the Fukushima disaster, Australia supplied approximately one third of Japan’s uranium needs, something I first became aware of when anti-nuclear activists from Australia came to Japan in 2012 for the Global Conference for a Nuclear Power Free World. Since that time I have pondered the nature of the nuclear relationship between my birthplace and my second home in Japan. After delving into the history of this relationship from my dusty office in Tokyo, it was time to make the physical journey along the yellowcake road and see where it might take me.
In Cairns I met with local Japanese-Australian people who organise Smile with Kids, a registered charity which brings junior high school students from Fukushima prefecture whose lives have been disrupted in multiple ways by the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster for a ten-day visit to Cairns. The children’s visit happened to coincide with a visit to the city by Peace Boat, a cruise ship with a difference which holds peace and sustainable development education activities onboard during its global and regional voyages.
The ship is part of an NGO which campaigns around these issues and has played a significant role in fighting nuclear power in post-Fukushima Japan. Local activists took advantage of this fortuitous timing to organise a welcome event for Peace Boat passengers and staff at which the Fukushima children spoke about their experiences growing up in the wake of the nuclear disaster.
In Cairns the children stay with local homestay families and take part in an extensive educational programme. One day I accompanied them on a visit to the Cairns cenotaph, where a Cairns-based Japanese man gave a short talk on Australian’s war history and its conflict with Japan in the Second World War. The following day they went to Spring Dew Farm, an organic farm located in the Atherton Tablelands which practices natural farming methods. The farmer is a Japanese-Australian man who took part in an eight-month walk across Australia and Japan in 2003 and 2004 visiting uranium mines and nuclear installations in protest at the devastation wrought by the nuclear industry and in an effort to connect movements and memories in the two countries. After the children had prepared a meal using vegetables they had freshly-harvested from the farm, he spoke to them about the walk.
In Canberra I dove into the archives to unearth the history of anti-nuclear resistance in Australia and the ways it has been entwined with Japan’s nuclear energy needs and with anti-nuclear social movements. I wanted to see how witnesses testifying before the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry between 1975 and 1977 understood the geography of the proposed Ranger uranium mine intended to be built in the Alligator Rivers region east of Darwin. The results of my research confirmed what other sources had suggested: uranium mining advocates made much of anticipated demand from Japan to justify their desire to mine while anti-nuclear activists pointed to growing anti-nuclear sentiment there. Connections between movements in the two countries were still embryonic at that time but I found some evidence that connections were already forming which would later develop more fully in subsequent waves of anti-nuclear activism.
In Darwin I developed an understanding of how uranium mining for the Japanese market fits into the broad sweep of Northern Territory history, its imbrication with Asia and the white man’s ongoing search for a quick buck at the expense of Aboriginal land rights. A local activist took me out to Kakadu where I was privileged to meet briefly with Yvonne Margarula, Senior Traditional Owner of the Mirrar people. I then spent two hours talking with staff at the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, the body established by the Mirrar to manage their royalties from the Ranger uranium mine and maintain ‘a balance between sustainable development, traditional practice and living culture on their land’. Here I learned about the centrality of the Japanese uranium market to the Ranger uranium mine and to the Mirrar’s own understanding of their struggle. We finished the day with a drive past the Ranger mine, where I peered into the deep hole created by the now defunct mine. The hole is now being filled with tailings from the storage dam as part of the clean-up effort. Thanks to the long Indigenous-led struggle, signs are good that Ranger will be cleaned up to a high standard.
I concluded my trip by attending the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN) conference in Darwin. This organisation is made up of a patchwork of groups who are working to maintain and rebuild the struggle for peace across Australia and the region. The network was established in response to the US pivot to Asia and Australia’s role in this, such as via the establishment of a permanent ‘rotation’ of US marines in Darwin. The diverse currents of the peace movement represented at the conference included everything from Christian groups to former diplomats and academics to the Maritime Union of Australia, a Greens senator, local Indigenous elders and many others, all infused with an anti-racist and internationalist outlook.
Amidst all of this diversity it might seem difficult to find the common, but at our protest action outside the Darwin military base where 2500 US troops are now permanently ‘rotated’ I was reminded that praxis can often provide a way to resolve contradictions between people with differing perspectives.
A series of fortuitous timings structured my trip, giving me a lesson in the importance of chance, synchronicity and goodwill when conducting fieldwork in unfamiliar terrain. I had a basic plan and some contacts in each port of call, but I still had concerns about whether I would find the story I wanted to tell. As I followed the yellowcake road, however, I uncovered a rich tapestry of people, places and things which weave Australia and Japan together in the atomic age and gained just the inspiration I needed to tell the story of the way uranium mining and the quest for energy resources have connected our two island nations in the nuclear age.
The worst thing in 1954 was the Bikini
See the girl on TV dressed in a Bikini
She doesn’t think so but she’s dressed for the H-bomb‘I Found That Essence Rare’, Gang of Four
This month marked eight years since the Great East Japan Earthquake triggered a tsunami and a major nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Anniversaries such as this one provoke considerable reflection. Coverage of the anniversary in the Japan Times focused on the Abe government’s problematic promotion of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as the ‘Recovery Games’ while most residents in the Tōhoku region of northeast Japan, where most of the damage was done, feel a palpable lack of progress on recovery. A few days earlier the newspaper reported on the ongoing crisis of waste water management at the ruined plant. Every day tonnes of groundwater water flow into the site where it mixes with the water that is used for cooling the damaged reactor cores and becomes contaminated . After filtration, this contaminated water is stored in large tanks on site but with no end in sight the issue of what is to be done with this waste water remains unresolved. The leading idea for how to deal with it once storage runs out: flush it into the sea.
Of course, huge quantities of radioactive water have already been released into the Pacific Ocean since the disaster. It is worth remembering in this context the other important anniversary that took place in the Pacific on 1 March 65 years ago when the United States began conducting a major round of nuclear bomb tests, codenamed Operation Castle, over Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The Bikini tests were intended to demonstrate the United States’ nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union. However, the Japanese tuna fishing trawler Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon No 5) was caught in the fallout from the tests despite being outside the designated fallout zone.
Upon returning to its home port of Yaizu, the trawler’s crew were hospitalised with symptoms of acute radiation poisoning. The radio operator subsequently died and fears of radioactive tuna spread throughout Japan. In September a nation-wide petition drive against atomic and hydrogen bombs was initiated by the fishmongers of Suginami in central Tokyo. By August the following year the petition had garnered more than 20 million signatures and is often credited with laying the ground for subsequent citizen movements against the renewal of the US-Japan Security Treat (Anpo) in 1960.
This year memorial events for the Bikini incident were held in the port of Yaizu and in Tokyo, where the fishing trawler is preserved at the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall. Activists from the museum organised a special screening programme of films related to the incident. The headliner for these screenings was Day of the Western Sunrise, a new film by Daliborka Films that features interviews with three of the survivors from the ship.
I attended another related event on Wednesday 27 February at the Tokyo headquarters of Peace Boat, a Japan-based Non-Profit Organisation (NPO) which is active in contemporary movements against nuclear weapons and nuclear power and for peace and social justice. Last year the organisation’s flagship cruise liner conducted the Making Waves tour, which visited five ports around Australia with a group of nuclear survivors from Japan and Australia. Nuclear survivors are known in Japanese as hibakuasha. At each port the group gave public talks and took part in protest actions in support of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
On Wednesday night in Tokyo, a weekly study group meeting heard from Okamura Keisuke, a photographer and activist with the Pacific Nuclear Disaster Assistance Center (太平洋核被災支援センター) in Kōchi prefecture in the south-western island of Kyushu. Okamura has recently published a photo book which highlights a little-known aspect of the Bikini nuclear tests.
While the irradiation of the Lucky Dragon during the Bikini tests is quite widely known in Japan and around the world, Okamura revealed that there were actually more than 1,000 Japanese fishing trawlers in the Bikini area during the bomb tests. A large numbers of fishermen on these boats were subject to irradiation. The book, No Nukes: Never Forget the Bikini Atoll Nuclear Tests features photographs of some of the survivors, rural fisherfolk who remained silent about their experiences until the 1980s.
Local high school students in Kōchi discovered this large hidden hibakusha community when they interviewed local older people for a school project in 1985. As awareness about the existence of this group of hibakusha grew, more people became involved including radiation health scientists who were able to calculate accurately the radiation doses received by the fishermen through studying their teeth. These investigations revealed that some of these fishermen experience dose-rates comparable to those experienced by people in Hiroshima who were located 1.5 km from the epicentre of the explosion.
When initial reports of the Kōchi hibakusha surfaced, the Japanese government denied any knowledge of the incident. However, subsequent research and legal action led to the discovery of extensive records of the incident and of a government cover-up that occurred at the time in collusion with the United States. Now older and no longer cowed by the poverty and fear that kept them silent in the early 1950s, the survivors have launched legal action to bring their experiences to light. In July 2018 the Kōchi District Court rejected the former fishermen’s claim for damages arising from the Japanese state’s complicity in hiding key records of the Bikini tests. Nevertheless, the judgement did acknowledge that the fishermen had been exposed to radiation from the Bikini tests – the first official acknowledgement that vessels other than the Lucky Dragon No 5 were involved. Okamura highlighted the role of a group of scientists in the cover-up who were former members of the infamous Imperial Japanese Army Unit 731 who conducted biological and chemical warfare experiments on human beings in Japanese-occupied Manchuria and were later rehabilitated, with the complicity of the American Occupation authorities, after the war.
As Okamura brought his talk to a close, he discussed the wider implications of the Bikini incident and subsequent cover-up for the establishment of Japan’s nuclear power programme in the 1950s. In general, anti-nuclear activists recognise a strong connection between the military and civilian uses of nuclear power. The civilian technology is military in origin and critics often point to the fact that nuclear power generation produces plutonium, increasing the risk of nuclear proliferation. Okamura outlined the way the US and Japanese government complicity in the cover-up of Bikini led directly to the subsequent attempt to reframe civilian nuclear technology as a kind of ‘swords into ploughshares’. He described the way propaganda efforts in favour of nuclear power were ramped up significantly in the wake of the Bikini incident through the newspaper and television empire of rehabilitated war criminal and CIA collaborator Shōriki Mastutarō as well as the 1956 Atoms for Peace exhibitions held to promote nuclear technology’s peaceful use in a war-weary Japan. These exhibitions were attended by thousands of people at a time when mass consumer culture was just starting to take off as Japan’s economy recovered from the devastation of war.
Japan and Australia have both refused to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons advocated for by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning advocacy group the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).
In justifying their opposition to the treaty, both governments cite their defence relationship with the United States, the only country to have dropped a nuclear bomb on another during wartime. Okamura’s talk not only highlighted the struggle of an ageing group of rural hibakusha to have the truth of their irradiation recognised publicly but connected their struggle with the alliances forged between government and military figures in Japan and the United States in the aftermath of the Asia-Pacific war in order to maintain US hegemony in Asia. The failure of US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to negotiate an end to the ongoing state of war on the Korean peninsula only highlights the way the Cold War structures of militarism in East Asia stand in the way of the peace and reconciliation that might enable the Asia-Pacific war to truly come to a close. In the meantime, grassroots activists like Okamura and the hibakusha survivors of nuclear harms will continue to be the real diplomats, patiently doing the work of peace and bringing to light the hidden harms of the US-Japan relationship.
Melanie and I are excited to announce the launch of the very first episode of the Love From Tokyo podcast, aptly titled ‘Class Power is Built from Love’. Like the blog, this podcast focuses on politics and activism in Tokyo and the wider region. It’s a project that Melanie and I have been dreaming up since we first started talking about coming to Tokyo and is inspired by some of the new wave of radical podcasts we have been listening to over the past couple of years such as Living the Dream, Novara Media and Floodcast. You can listen to the podcast here or via iTunes and Stitcher.
For this first episode we took the opportunity to interview our dear friend Nick Southall who was in Tokyo last month for the Love as Politics seminar at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. This symposium was the capstone for a four-year JSPS-funded research project on ‘The Lived Experience of Anarchist Culture: The Making of Autonomous Space and Subsistence [生きられたアナーキズムの文化実践：自律空間の創出とサブシステンス]’ (Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (C), Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, 15K03872) that involved members of an Autonomism reading group formed in Kunitachi in 2012. In his talk at the symposium, Nick addressed the importance of care in social movements and argued that love is increasingly being recognised as key to building alternatives to capitalist power. In the podcast, we asked him to expand on his use of the term love. We then talk extensively about love, and its lack, on the political left and how love can serve as the basis for building class power.
The project is the work of a fairly informal network of researchers and activists that first started to come together around the G8 summit in Hokkaido in 2008. We held our first conference in Wollongong in 2010 under the title From Empire to Commonwealth: Communist Theory and Contemporary Praxis. When I was in Japan between 2011 and 2013 a group of participants in that conference and other local activists and researchers started a reading group on Sylvia Federici’s book Caliban and the Witch (Autonomedia, 2004), an alternative history of capitalist modernity that emphasises the role of the witch hunts in the destruction of pre-modern forms of autonomous community and women’s power both in Europe and the colonies. These discussions coalesced around a second conference, Crisis and Commons: Prefigurative Politics After Fukushima where we considered autonomist perspectives on the Fukushima nuclear disaster and other struggles in a world of deepening crisis. One of the reading group members, Odawara Rin, subsequently translated Federici’s book into Japanese.
My talk at the symposium was an attempt to summarise and theorise the experience of a series of events I have been involved in organising in Wollongong that we call Love: Art, Ideas, Music, Politics (my talk is available here and in Japanese translation here). Some readers of this blog will have attended one of these events at Minto Bush Camp in 2014 or at Kum Ba Yah Girl Guide Camp in 2017. These events, which we refer to more casually as ‘love festivals’ were themselves the outgrowth of an earlier reading group on love that started in 2013 in direct response to the above mentioned 2012 symposium at TUFS. Stay tuned for the Love: Art, Ideas, Music, Politics book, which we hope to publish in 2020.
The full text of Nick’s talk is available here ( and in Japanese translation here). You can also read more of his work on his blog, Revolts Now. In 2016 I interviewed Nick about his experience growing up in the Communist Party of Australia. The interview is available at The Word From Struggle Street(part 1, part 2, part 3).
Here you can listen to a talk I gave at the symposium on Love as Politics at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies on Saturday 16 February, 2019. The text follows and is also available in Japanese translation here.
I would like to begin by thanking my fellow organisers of today’s event and everybody who has joined us for coming along. Nearly ten years have passed since this loose network of activists and researchers, who share an interest in the theory and practice of autonomy, gathered for our first conference at the University of Wollongong in November 2010. Our network, which is centred on Japan and Australia, has expanded to include comrades based in Europe, Indonesia and China. It has incorporated the cosmopolitan life journeys many of us have taken during this time as we stayed in one another’s homes and shared meals and misery, protest and joy.
I mention our little network and our practices of mutual aid and care because the love festival, which is the topic of today’s talk, is a political project that was conceived on the understanding that while contemporary forms of social life are precarious, they are also structured and supported by loose, overlapping networks of social solidarity. Nick referred to the notion of solidarity teams, a notion that he defined as: ‘groups of people who care for each other and acknowledge the value of each other’s efforts to make positive impacts on society’. These groups might be based on family or friendship links or on common interests, experiences and political commitments. I would suggest that the little research network that we have formed can be thought of as an example of such a solidarity team. In my own life it has certainly proved to be so – facilitating both significant personal growth as well as involvement in social and political realms that have taken me out of and beyond myself.
Background to the Love Festival
The story of the love festival begins, in some ways, in this room when our research group gathered for a previous conference titled Crisis and Commons in December 2012. This symposium was a proud moment for me personally and one that I feel demonstrated the strength of our transnational solidarity team. The impact of that event, while difficult to measure, has reverberated over the years through our network. For two of the Australian participants, for example, it played some role in their decision to move to China for nearly two years where they made contact with local activists and took part in a project to translate autonomist texts into Chinese. For me personally it influenced my decision to return to Japan with my family late last year; a move facilitated by the support of members of this research group. The conference was also, however, an exhausting experience and one where I felt the formal trappings of academia inhibited the provision of care for self and others. More than one of us barely slept during the weekend of the event itself as we struggled to prepare academic performances that would be worthy of the event. Theory dominated much of our discussions and I was once again reminded of the significant barriers that exist to participation in academic spaces such as this.
Following the 2012 symposium I discussed with Nick the possibility of collaborating on a different kind of venture where we could jettison the trappings of academia in favour of a fun, festive environment. I hoped that this event would encapsulate much of the politics and practice I had observed at work in the anti-nuclear movement and in the broader social movement scene in Tokyo. One of the highlights of the 2012 conference, for example, was the delicious meals we enjoyed thanks to a young Swiss activist who was at that time living with me and Taku. The conversations we shared over his food and the kindness he put into it helped inspire the central role food would play at the Wollongong love festivals. The original call-out for the event summarises this background as follows:
Inspired in part by two conferences held in 2010 and 2012 but seeking to break out of academic strictures and create an intersection wherein a variety of cultural practices of love might find common ground. The festival is also inspired by the recent upsurge of the global feminist movement, the global campaign for equal love and the Reading Love reading group taking place at Wollongong University.
Love: Art, Ideas, Music, Politics
The first step in the process of organising the love festival was to think more about the politics of love. Nick and I therefore adopted a tried and true method: we convened a reading group. The reading group seems to be a perfect format for the development of solidarity teams. In my political and intellectual life, reading groups have often played a key role in enabling me to experiment with new ideas and develop new relationships. The first major political grouping in which I was involved, a small activist collective in Wollongong called Revolutionary Action, started with a reading group with Nick and our friend Dave, who presented here in 2012. The research group behind today’s seminar, too, is the product of reading groups in both Australia and Japan.
When we started the love reading group in 2013 we straight away noticed that something was different. First, the gendered composition of the group was more balanced. After having been involved in many highly theoretical reading groups over the years that were overwhelmingly male dominated, this was very welcome. I felt this pointed to something about the gendered politics of academic theory and how easily even radical theory tends to privilege the perspectives of highly educated men. Second, the group was better able to attract people who were not academics or students. Third, the discussions in the group blended the personal and the political in important ways. The love reading group was largely made up of people I already knew but it helped create a new collective, a sense of common purpose that eventually coalesced into a plan to organise the love festival, where the ideas that we were discussing in the reading group could be put into practice. We aimed at a fully embodied exploration of love in action, proposing in the original call-out for the event that:
The festival might be thought of as a temporary ‘commune’ based on a love ethic in which everybody is encouraged to look out for one another, pitch in with food preparation, childcare, cleaning and helping ensure everything runs smoothly.
Putting this idea into practice took nearly a year of planning before the first festival took place in April 2014. It was held at Minto Bush Camp, a property in western Sydney that once served as a retreat centre for the Communist Party of Australia. Ultimately we decided to call the event Love: Art, Ideas, Music, Politics. The event attracted approximately 70 people over two days, many of whom stayed on-site in cabins and tents. The positive feedback we received about the event motivated the organising collective to reconvene once more in 2016 to begin preparations for a second love festival. The second event was similar to the first but this time we held it closer to home at the Kum-Ba-Yah Camp, a Girl Guides camp nestled in the foothills Mt Keira in Wollongong. We also decided to organise a more ambitious three-day schedule and to hold a lantern parade for which we prepared with separate public workshops in the lead-up to the festival. Our increased experience and grander ambitions for the second festival were repaid when more than 100 people took part over the course of the event.
The formal event programme was based mainly on workshops in which we asked facilitators to maximise the participation of all of the attendees. The subjects of these workshops were diverse. We encouraged both discussion-based workshops and workshops that engaged people in creative practices. At the 2017 love festival, for example, creative workshops included explorations of love through singing, creative writing and dance. Discussion-based workshops looked at topics such as compassion, protecting oneself from abuse, love sex and democracy, death, the politics of love, men in love, permaculture and love of the earth and the question ‘What is love?’. We issued an open-call for workshop presenters through our networks but we also invited many individuals whom we thought might connect the festival with their solidarity teams and communities and thereby facilitate wider participation. Another important part of the formal programme was the provision for all-in sessions at the beginning and end of the event so that potential strangers could get to know one another better to further facilitate participation in the workshops and informal social interaction.
We organised a food team to keep bellies full and tried to create a programme that balanced workshops and formal content with ample time and space for people to do the informal work of love. This included night time concerts at both events as well as film screenings of a selection of films that related to different struggles around love. We were pleasantly surprised by how successfully our ‘temporary commune’ functioned. There was no shortage of volunteers to help with the food preparation, childcare and cleaning mentioned above. In the final all-in sessions at both festivals, participants talked about their experiences. For many, the festivals helped them to rethink and reintegrate experiences of activist burnout and reconnect their political ideals with their desires for love, fun and community.
Organising Solidarity Teams
At a time when many people around the world are embracing exclusionary forms of love based on racial and national solidarity in the face of global uncertainty, many of us are struggling to articulate alternative conceptions of community with which we can identify. Revolutions in the concept of identity over the past few decades have shown how problematic identity can be as the basis of organising solidarity. Many now turn to notions of subjectivity to explain the many overlapping, unstable and complex identities and practices of identification through which we constitute ourselves as individuals within broader communities. While some contemporary understandings of love see it as an exclusive union between two individuals or as locked within other unified and unifying relationships of identity and sameness, the concept of love we have been exploring is inclusive and open-ended. Rather than settling for a fixed definition of love we have sought to explore multiple meanings and practices of love. The two festivals we organised have enabled this by embracing an open approach with multiple workshops hosted by volunteers with an interest and passion in exploring particular aspects of love.
One of the important bases in my thinking about the love festival was the understanding of the structure of the contemporary proletariat as a multitude. Wollongong has a long history of labour and communist movements but these movements were in serious decline by the time I came of age in the late 1990s. Out of the crisis of these older movements, however, a wide variety of social movements have arisen which lack a central organisational structure but do overlap in numerous ways to produce a collective culture of rebellion. This is a pattern that I have seen mirrored here in Tokyo and which others have reported from around the globe. How, then, to organise politically in this context?
Looking around Wollongong on my return to Australia in 2013 I observed a huge amount of organising and a huge amount of social solidarity. However, much of this activity appeared fractured and the sense of alienation and loneliness felt by many within these separate movements was palpable. The optimistic vision of love that Nick presented today is challenging for most of us given widespread experiences of isolation, loneliness and despair. Part of the vision of the love festival was to remind ourselves that we are not alone and that there are other people like us who are struggling for social change and more democratic and equal social relations in a multitude of ways. The festival was conceived as a project of commoning – of drawing together the various individuated experiences of social solidarity and create a temporary space in which they could find one another. Its aim was to recognise and to celebrate the existing forms of love in these overlapping networks and solidarity teams and to facilitate the further inter-weaving of these networks as an act of love expanding love.
Conclusions: A place to talk about love
It is not every day that one hears the term ‘love festival’, particularly in an academic venue such as this. In my experience and that of my fellow love festival organisers, the most common reaction to mention of our project is one of uncomfortable smirks and sniggers, presumably prompted by the idea that the love festival must be some form of orgy. This image seems to be tied to our stereotypical understandings of the counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s, when sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll were said to form the basis of student and peace movements. However, the discomfort people experience when talking about the love festival also seems to have a deeper meaning and to be symptomatic of a more general discomfort we all feel when talking about love. In modernity, love has been largely privatised and confined within the romantic couple and the family. We called our love festival ‘Love: Art, Ideas, Music, Politics’ because we wanted to make explicit the link between love and all of these diverse social practices. We wanted to re-inject politics with love and love with politics by creating a space where people could come together to talk about love in a serious way.
Over the course of organising two Love festivals in 2014 and 2017 we have assembled a group of committed organisers, a broader network of participants and supporters and a body of knowledge and experience concerning love and its practice. We drew on our existing networks and solidarity teams and invited them to join in loving conversations with one another. By doing so, we helped to strengthen the bonds between the multitude of smaller loving communities that makes up Wollongong. Today we are continuing to nurture this network of solidarity teams by working on a book about the festival and the ideas behind it. The love festivals have been important events in all of our lives and our ongoing work on this project continues to give our lives meaning as we integrated the knowledge, experience and relationships generated at the festivals into our lives and struggles.