Stretching across the Kantō Plain on Japan’s eastern seaboard lies its capital city, Tokyo. Together with the neighbouring prefectures of Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa, it forms one of the world’s largest conurbations. Tokyo’s enormous population is densely packed. One can ride the train for an hour or two in almost any direction through the city and stare out the window while an endless parade of tower blocks, two-storey homes and commercial and industrial districts unfold before the eye. This vast horizontal expanse is paralleled in vertical space, as soaring towers containing both commercial and residential premises stretch ever upwards, jostling with one another to dominate the sky. Full use is also made of the space beneath the streets for basement bars, live music venues and businesses of all description.
It is difficult to encapsulate the Tokyo that is the subject of this blog in a single post. Yet I have to start somewhere and so I shall start with my own Tokyo: the place I have got to know over three separate periods living in the city between 1997 and 2013. My relationship with Tokyo began in 1997, when I spent a year living in Suginami, one of the 23 special administrative wards that make up the heart of the Tokyo Metropolis. As a 15-year-old high school exchange student with Youth For Understanding, I attended Tokyo Metropolitan Kokusai High School in neighbouring Meguro ward for a full academic year and experienced first-hand the daily grind of commuting during the morning peak on the JR Yamanote and Marunouchi subway, two of the busiest commuter railway lines in the world. When school finished, I tried to avoid returning home for as long as possible and so wandered aimlessly through the vastness of Shibuya and Shinjuku, finding bookshops where I could hole up for hours and leaf through volumes I could only barely understand.
In that year I wandered mostly alone, though kind teachers and host family members, fellow students and fellow travellers reached out to me from time to time. Little did I realise, however, that in 1997 some high school students were already getting involved in a political movement that would help lay the groundwork for the explosion of the precarity movement some ten years later. Dame ren, a network of alienated misfits, depressed shut-ins and burgeoning political activists was already addressing many of the social issues that I struggled to put into words despite my acute experiences of alienation and displacement.
I only fully began to appreciate Tokyo as a political space when I returned more than ten years later to take up a position with a large English conversation school chain in Saitama, one of the prefectures that makes up the Greater Tokyo Area. From there I travelled weekly into the heart of the city, where I attended film screenings and discussions at places like Irregular Rhythm Asylum in Shinjuku and nestled inside the toasty kotatsu at Shirōto no Ran’s Shop No 12. While meeting activists, artists and miscreants from around Japan and across the world, I came to learn of the struggles that were going on over whose Tokyo this really was, such as during the battle to save the much-loved Miyashita Park in Shibuya from privatization and prevent the eviction of its homeless population. I began to see the streets as combat zones, where competing memories and competing futures were locked in struggle. Who would decide what kind of city Tokyo is and was and what it was to become?
On returning to the city once more in 2011, for an eighteen month stay as a research student at Hitotsubashi University, I began to assemble a lexicon to describe this battle for the city, this struggle for an autonomous Tokyo. There in the seminar rooms of Hitotsubashi, where I quite coincidentally landed in the urban sociology seminar of Professor Machimura Takashi, I came to understand that the sociology of the city could be a way of using Marx to read the streets. The explosion of protest then rippling across the world, from the Jasmine Revolution in North Africa to Occupy Wall Street and the anti-nuclear movement in Japan, enabled me to see what struggle for ‘the right to the city’ was all about. But it was in the streets of Tokyo and in its activist spaces, tucked away in obscure laneways and underneath cheap buildings, that I came to understand how important space was not only as a container for political activity but as the stuff from which autonomy is made. These investigations finally found form in my PhD and later in my book, Anti-nuclear protest in post-Fukushima Tokyo: power struggles (Routledge 2018).
During my time at Hitotsubashi I found myself living in a share house not far from the Tama River in the older part of the municipality of Kunitachi. The connections I formed in this period, swept up in the rhythms of the local music scene and in acts of protest and remembrance, have tied me irrevocably to this place. And hence it is to Kunitachi that I have now returned to once more take up the work of mapping and meandering, living and resisting in the autonomous city that lies inside, outside, against and beyond the mean streets of Tokyo. The Tokyo that I have come to know and love over the past 22 years is a vast and complex place. Often dingy and grey due to the particulate pollution that hangs in the humid air, its concrete skin conceals a colourful and intense urban flesh. Politically, the struggle for Tokyo that I have witnessed unfolding over the past decade is inspiring because of what it says about what humans living together in cities can aspire towards. In this blog, I will explore the continuing struggle for autonomy and dignity that is taking place in the midst of this wonderful example of the human love affair with the urban.