From Albury to Hiroshima, Port Kembla to Tokyo

In my last post I focused on the nitty gritty of adapting to life in a new country. This week, I want to reflect on some of the broader questions that are driving my current research and writing. In the academic world, the myth of objectivity remains potent, despite decades of criticism showing how impossible (and indeed undesirable) it is for us to fully step outside of our own experience. Given the context in which they were written, it is inevitable that my PhD thesis and the book that I based reproduced this culture. Yet at the heart of that project was an interrogation of my political experiences in Australia and Japan. In the process of writing my PhD, I tried to explore some of these connections in a prologue that never made the final cut. Lately I have been re-reading these notes as I try to think about what to do with this great gift of two years in Japan to read and write and think. When I wrote the notes for that never-published prologue, I was trying to grapple with the deep roots of my engagement with Japan. In order to do so I had to dig through my earliest memories of things ‘Japanese’. When I did so I found that these memories were of Hiroshima.

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes NBNR

It was Eleanor Coerr’s historical novel Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes that gave me my first insight into the bombing and its radioactive legacy. Sadako’s story is widely known among Australian schoolchildren of my generation. We heard the story, folded cranes and sent them to Hiroshima as part of a global movement for peace education that was inspired by the tragedy of nuclear war. The plot of the story can be summarised as follows. The main character Sadako Sasaki is two years old when the atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima. Ten years later, she develops a mysterious illness which turns out to be leukaemia caused by exposure to radiation from the bomb. As she lies dying in hospital, she finds hope in an ancient myth that anyone who folds one thousand paper cranes will be granted one wish; Sadako’s wish is to live. Desperately conserving every scrap of paper that finds its way to her hospital bed, she even folds cranes out of the silver wrapping paper used for medicines in the hospital. Tragically and inevitably, however, Sadako dies without completing her task. When I was a child, I had this story on cassette tape and thanks to the wonders of what was then the latest cutting-edge (and probably made-in-Japan technology), I could listen to the story through my headphones over and over again.

The second memory of Hiroshima from my early childhood is of my parents’ visit to Japan in 1989, when they made on their way to a medical conference in South Korea. They visited the Peace Memorial Park at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, where a statue of Sadako stands festooned with wreaths of paper cranes sent by children from all over the world. They brought back a souvenir booklet from the memorial which contained numerous photographs of artefacts preserved in the museum. Two of these, a picture of a piece of parchment-like burnt skin and another of a human shadow that was etched into a set of concrete steps by the power of the blast, were burned into my consciousness forever.

Perhaps these early memories and experiences help to explain why, after taking Japanese classes at Albury High School and later in Wollongong at Smith’s Hill, just like tens of thousands of Australian students of my generation, I have continued to study the language for more than twenty five years. I speak near-native Japanese now. When I speak with people in Japan in their native language I am often asked how and why I learned it. I never fail to be shocked by the assumption contained in the question – that it is somehow strange or unusual for someone not born in Japan to learn the language of one of the most populous nations on earth. It is a question that speaks reams about the politics of language in Japan and the dominance of English as a global language. My inquirers are usually shocked when I explain that there was in fact nothing remarkable about studying Japanese in Australia in the early 1990s as it was then national policy to promote Asian language education in schools. In 1997 at the age of 15 I decided to further my language studies by spending a year as an exchange student at a high school in Japan and during that year my mother visited from Australia and we went to Hiroshima; where I could see that burnt skin and etched concrete with my own eyes. Thus for me, the journey to Tokyo begins in a high school classroom in Albury and continues by way of Hiroshima to Wollongong and Tokyo.

Hiroshima Day, Wollongong, 2016
Hiroshima Day, Wollongong, 2016

I feel impelled to grapple in my writing with the ways in which my own life has been entangled in the cultural space between Australia and Japan. For many years I have been thinking about exploring the ways in which nuclear things traverse people, places and things to create links between Australia and Japan. My research so far suggests that little has been written on this topic and I have therefore started to turn my attention to this topic more and more over the past year. In a paper which is currently under review with an academic journal, I explore the ways in which anti-nuclear activism between Australia and Japan has developed since the Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 2011. Following on from this, I have started looking at earlier activist links between the two countries as well as trying to uncover the role of Japanese capital in the development of uranium mining in Australia. My research so far suggests that Japan’s quest for uranium had a significant impact on the industry’s early development in Australia, although I am still trying to gauge the size of that impact. Certainly it is true that up until the 2011 disaster, Japan sourced some 30 per cent of its yellowcake imports from Australia.

Banner against nuclear power created in Japan and sent to anti-uranium activists in Australia
Banner against nuclear power created in Japan and sent to anti-uranium activists. Photo taken in Australia during Peace Boat tour, 2013.

But the nuclear relationship between Australia and Japan extends beyond uranium mining and nuclear power. Hiroshima and Nagasaki have become a powerful international symbol of the terror of war in general and of nuclear weapons in particular. In Australia, successive waves of peace movement activism from the 1950s onward have looked to Hiroshima and Nagasaki as reference points and pilgrimages to ground zero in Hiroshima, like the one I made in 1997, remain an established part of peace culture in Australia. In a recent arts project involving Indigenous survivors of British nuclear testing in South Australia, for example, artists from the Yalata community created the Tree of Life: Gift of Peace sculpture representing their experience of nuclear harms for the peace park in Nagasaki.

Struggles for peace in Australia and Japan are also shaped by both countries’ relationship with their alliance ‘partner’: the hegemonic global power that is the United States of America and to our respective positions under its so-called ‘nuclear umbrella’. The US empire of bases, which extends across the Pacific, imbricates both Australia and Japan in that fading global superpower’s century-long reign of war and terror, from Korea to Vietnam and from Central Asia to Iraq.

Australia and Japan, like all nations, are essentially fictions created and policed by institutions and ideologies. By focusing on the transnationality of nuclear things, I hope to slip across the hard borders of Australia and Japan and see what role the nuclear plays in their construction as nations and in the bilateral relationships between them. One of my key reference points is the idea of ‘citizen diplomacy’. This is the promise that non-national entities can and do shape international relationships along different pathways and mould alternatives to the diplomacy of the racist militarists who dominate national governments, with their focus on enriching the already rich by fomenting hate and mistrust. We can see an example of this citizen diplomacy in the Indigenous arts project mentioned above, where South Australian victims of nuclear harms worked with local governments in Australia and Japan to create a transnational community of memory for peace and against nuclear weapons.

I will conclude today’s post by reflecting on the Dalfram dispute, one of the most important labour disputes in Wollongong’s history (for an overview see Mike Donaldson & Nick Southall, Against Fascism and War: Pig Iron Bob and the Dalfram Dispute, Port Kembla, 1938). This dispute centred on the issue of pig iron exports to Japan at a time when the Japanese empire was prosecuting a war of aggression on the Chinese mainland. In protest at Japanese atrocities in Nanjing and out of concern that war materiel exported to Japan might return to Australia as bombs and bullets, waterside workers in Port Kembla refused to load pig iron onto a ship that was bound for Kobe. The wharfies’ actions provoked a major industrial dispute that spread to the nearby steelworks. After a bitter struggle, during which the then Attorney General Robert Menzies earned the moniker ‘Pig Iron Bob’ for his determination to supply fascist Japan with BHP scrap, the government finally imposed a ban on the further export of scrap metal to Japan. A few years later the wharfies’ prescience was confirmed when Japan attacked Darwin, an attack from which my great-grandfather Hugh Maegraith was lucky to escape with his life.

In recent years there have been a series of memorial events for the Dalfram dispute to celebrate the Port Kembla waterside workers’ solidarity with the Chinese victims of Japanese aggression. Yet I have always wondered about Japan’s position in all of this. In the late 1930s, Japan was becoming ever more deeply engaged in its war in Asia. We are regularly told that there was little domestic resistance to the war-drive in Japan, yet the fact so many Communists and other dissenters were imprisoned and repressed for their opposition to militarism is testament to the fact that there was some resistance on the road to war. Perhaps one of my goals in exploring the nuclear relationship between Australia and Japan is to investigate the possibility of actions like those that the Port Kembla workers took might also help to rethink and reinvent the relationship between Australia and Japan.

Dalfram Dispute Memorial, Port Kembla
Dalfram Dispute Memorial, Port Kembla

Recent reports in the news media suggest that Japan is becoming the favoured tourist destination for Australians, even surpassing Bali. I would like to think that alongside this explosion in Japan-bound tourism we might also be able to foster a deeper engagement with one another; one that goes beyond touristic voyeurism towards real partnerships in the quest for peace, justice and environmental conservation. Perhaps by looking at the transnational resistance to radioactive harms we might find hints as to how communities that span two national spaces might work together to bring an end to the scourge of nuclear weapons and to the nuclear power plants and uranium mining that have affected us since the dawn of the nuclear age.

Settling In

Its been well over a month now since my last post and I am feeling the first pangs of self-doubt regarding my pledge to publish weekly! In my defence, however, it has been a busy month. I last posted on 19 December just over a week prior to the arrival of my family from Australia. At that time I was in the midst of preparations for making us a home. Now one month later, after a fairly rocky transition to family life in Japan, I am back in the saddle. The past month has been both busy and demanding on a personal level but also rich in material for my research. Having written a book on anti-nuclear protest in Japan that focuses on the politics of the everyday, I cannot look at any everyday rhythm or routine without thinking politically. As my family and I struggle to establish new routines for ourselves in a new, and for most of us unfamiliar, environment, potential research questions and topics have been presenting themselves to me wherever I turn. The first major step in this process began with the search for a family home. This meant jumping feet first into the the Tokyo property market. My first impression was one of organised chaos. Although property listings are largely centralised in online computer databases, not all agents can show all properties, though most seem to be able to show most. Inevitably, for an urban geographer the quest to find a home is an ethnographic experience and it raises just as many historical and theoretical questions as it does practical ones. I have had to think about the size of bathrooms and whether or not I can squeeze a refrigerator into the tiny kitchens but in the process I have learned much about housing and about the state of the rental market in Tokyo.

Kunitachi Fujimidai Danchi

After viewing a number of private manshon-style apartments with a couple of local real estate agents I was underwhelmed by the quality of the dwellings and their surrounds. When I finally discovered that UR has its own letting agency on the grounds of the Kunitachi Fujimidai Danchi I hastened there to be shown around a number of the apartments. The buildings are stark concrete monoliths. Row upon row of them stretch across each complex, producing a rather Soviet-era impression on my neoliberal Australian subjectivity.

Danchi playground
Concrete, steel and dirt. One of the playgrounds of the Kunitachi Fujimdai Danchi. December 2018.

Nevertheless, on viewing the flats I discovered that not only are they much more spacious than equivalent private manshon flats but they have beautiful views out over the well-tended grounds, large trees and carefully manicured shrubbery. The only view I saw from any of the manshon windows was of a car park. After viewing the danchi it was love at first site. I returned to the letting agency the following day to view some more apartments and settled on a third-floor unit in the No 2 complex bordering Kunitachi’s Daisan Park. We can see the local library from out our window and behind us is the Kunitachi town hall with its famous ‘gorilla park’, where gorilla statues provide my children with entertainment.

Child climbing in the danchi playground.
An explorer takes on the challenge of the danchi‘s old steel jungle gym. Gripping cold steel bars on a winter’s morning leads to cold hands and tears and a three-year-old who concedes that maybe gloves wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all.
Kunitachi Fujimidai Danchi, December 2018.

Located between Yaho and Yagawa stations on the JR Nanbu railway line sits the Kunitachi Fujimidai Danchi, a large housing project with three separate campuses, each of which consists of a number of large towers. In addition to the attached parklands and play equipment was the appeal of the low monthly rent. Having found these apartments listed on the major real estate index sites, however, I did not realise that they were public housing units managed by the Urban Renaissance Agency (UR都市機構). UR is one of the so-called dokuritsu gyōsei hōjin or Incorporated Administrative Agencies. These government agencies were created under the Basic Law on Reforming Government Ministries and are are permitted to operate autonomously from government ministries along the lines of private-sector corporations. UR manages a large number of public housing units that were built by the Japanese Housing Corporation (JHC) in the midst of the post-war housing crisis to house the new middle class.

One of the hot topics in conversations with my partner in in the lead-up to our family adventure in Japan has been about our desire to experiment with a different way of life than that provided by our spacious detached home in Port Kembla. The fact that we have spent many months preparing our home to be rented out on the private market has intensified a mutual feeling of frustration at the stereotypically suburban nature of our lifestyle. Every weekend without fail we have to spend at least some of our time maintaining our property – whether it be painting the walls, mowing the lawn or installing a new towel rack. I have begun to pine for a more urban way of life—in which apartment living might bring proximity to amenities and parks maintained through our taxes rather than through the solitary labours of myself and my family. It is one of the peculiar contradictions of our positionality as middle class communist home owners 🙂 that our living environment actually reinforces our middle class nuclear family status and seems to take us ever further from the alternative way of life we imagined for ourselves when we were younger. The danchi therefore seemed a perfect place to dabble with apartment living and to see whether ample local parks and the public library could compensate for a significant decrease in internal floor space.

Danchi as Social Movement

From the perspective of social movements and social movement research, my interest in the danchi was further piqued by two banners I saw flying on the grounds while walking past one Monday morning.

Campaign banner flying at Kunitachi Fujimidai Danchi
Kunitachi Fujimidai Danchi, December 2018

The first read 「公団住宅を公共住宅として守ろう。団地の売却・削減・統廃合に反対」 (Keep public housing public. No to the sale, reduction and consolidation of our danchi) and bore the imprimatur of the Fujimidai danchi’s self-governing committee (jichikai).

Campaign banner flying at Kunitachi Fujimidai Danchi
Kunitachi Fujimidai Danchi, December 2018

The second banner reads 「住まいは福祉・住まいは人権。誰もがすみ続けられる住宅政策を」(Housing is a social service. Housing is a human right. For a housing policy that allows anyone to remain in their home). This slogan seems to draw a link between the struggle against the privatisation of Tokyo’s public housing blocks and notions of social rights. It is worth noting that the right to housing is included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but like most of the social rights it has been largely ignored by so-called liberal states, who see civil and political rights (or at least those that suit them) as being vastly more important than social rights.

I noticed immediately that the banner is professionally printed but that the name of the local Fujimidai self-governing committee is written in ink in a blank space reserved for this purpose. This suggests a broader campaign encompassing several danchi of which the local organisation is but a part.

Campaign banner flying at Kunitachi Fujimidai Danchi
Kunitachi Fujimidai Danchi, December 2018

There are several similar flags flying from the three campuses of our Kunitachi Fujimidai danchi. I have not yet had time to investigate the background to these slogans and flags but the struggles over the future of these ageing public housing blocks seem pertinent to my current research on social movements and urban space and demand further study. I have taken one step towards this since moving in by joining the jichikai and attending my first jichikai event. This fureai kissa (a gathering for tea and cake) featured two speakers from the local municipal government waste department who came to help us figure out the complex system for dividing and classifying our waste. The need for the lecture has been amplified by introduction of the system of paying for waste disposal which has been introduced since I last lived in Kunitachi. Specially marked coloured plastic bags are sold at supermarkets and other local shops. The city will now only collect most categories of waste (other than so called shigen gomi or resource waste like paper, cardboard, glass and tins) if they are in the correct bag. The fureai kissa was, much as I anticipated, a very grey affair. I would guess the average age in the room was well above 70. When I mentioned I was interested in joining the jichikai to one of my neighbours, who is clearly very active in the life of the danchi, she provided me with a sheaf of reading materials including a recent report from the jichikai that includes the results of a survey they conducted on the residents. Reading the survey results confirmed my suspicions, something in the order of 85% of residents are aged over 65. Turning up with my eight-month-old daughter therefore proved to be a hit with the locals, many of whom were keen to hold and fawn over her. This simultaneously allowed me to overcome some of the initial awkwardness one might expect when an unlikely white newcomer arrives at such a gathering of old friends.

Settling in has thrown up a whole series of new questions that in turn feed back on my research: how do the danchi fit in to the overall picture of civic activism in Kunitachi? Could a focus on the aging danchi population prove fertile ground for exploring that space between social activism and everyday life that I am so keen to explore?


Last week I explained my motivation for returning to the municipality of Kunitachi for my two year stint as a JSPS International Research Fellow at Japan Women’s University. I have been in Japan for more than two weeks now and after having found a place for my family to live, I am slowly settling into a writing routine. This week found me beginning to exploring the geography and history of Kunitachi, which will be the main focus of my research project and of this blog. It is therefore worth explaining briefly the structure of local government in Japan so that the reader can gain a sense of what I mean by the municipality of Kunitachi. There are two levels of local government in Japan. The first is the prefectural-level administration for each of the forty-seven prefectures. Each of these prefectures is then divided into a number of local municipalities. This municipal level of government is the most intimate. It has responsibility for registering births, deaths and marriages under the household registration system and attends to the myriad facets of everyday life, from garbage disposal to childcare.

For most people who live in Japan their local municipal government presents itself as the most familiar face of government. For example, although I have been in Japan for a little over two weeks I have already visited my local government office to establish a record of residency in Kunitachi, join the national health insurance scheme and obtain information about local childcare options for my children. Next week when I move into our new apartment and my family arrives from Australia, we will all visit the municipal office building to register my change of address and add my family’s names to the local records.

Understanding this system of local administration is somewhat complicated by the fact that while most of the prefectural-level administrative units are referred to as prefectures (県 ken), there are some exceptional administrative units differentiated by the use of other suffixes. These include the single administrative unit that covers the island of Hokkaidō, which is the only ‘dō’ (道) as well as the three special urban prefectures Kyoto-fu, Osaka-fu and Tokyo-to. Tokyo, the site of the national capital and an exceptional urban region in many ways is designated with the suffix ‘to’ (都), a character that can mean imperial capital but today is generally translated as metropolis, as it is, for example, on the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s own website.

I have included this somewhat lengthy explanation of the structure of local government because I often struggle to explain that when I say I am living in Tokyo, I really mean the Tokyo Metropolis, far to the west of what most would consider to be Tokyo proper. Tokyo is made up of two broadly defined geographical areas: a ‘central’ area that extends west from the shores of Tokyo Bay to the westernmost wards of Nerima, Suginami and Setagaya; and the much larger Tama area, which stretches much further to the west (there are actually a number of remote islands stretching far to the southeast of Tokyo Bay that are also administratively part of the metropolis but I will not consider these here).

Tokyo Metropolis Map

Map of the Tokyo Metropolis, the purple areas on the right are the central twenty-three wards while the remainder of the coloured municipalities constitute the Tama area.

Administratively the Tokyo Metropolis, like all prefectural-level bodies, is further divided into a number of local municipalities. The ‘central’ area consists of twenty-three special administrative wards which are located in the eastern part of the metropolitan boundaries. This is where some nine million of Tokyo’s thirteen million residents make their home. According to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government website, population density in the twenty-three-ward area is 14,746 people per square kilometre. This area is ‘central’ in terms of its function and population density but geographically it occupies the eastern extremity of a metropolis that stretches ninety kilometres from Tokyo Bay in the east to the mountains of Okutama in the west. The Tama region is made up of the vast bulk of this land area lying outside of the twenty-three wards. Tama is much less densely populated than central Tokyo, with 4.22 million people making their home in an area of 1,160 square kilometres, giving a density of 3,640 per square kilometre. It is governed by 30 separate municipalities (26 cities, 3 towns and 1 village) and is home to approximately four million people. Many parts of Tama are still quite rural and the district hosts 60 per cent of Tokyo’s forests and 75 per cent of its agricultural land.

It is in this district, with its ample forests and fields, that property developers and administrators began in the early twentieth century look for land to house the metropolis’s growing population. The municipality which is now known as Kunitachi is the result of one such scheme, begun in the 1920s, to develop uncultivated land in the north of what was then Yaho village, with the vision of creating a new, orderly city of education. At the beginning of the Meiji period (1868), the village of Yaho consisted of just 400 households scattered along the old Tokugawaera Kōshūkaidō (甲州街道), one of the five major roads which connected Edo with the feudal domains. This route led to the domain then known as Kainokuni (甲斐国), which was known by the abbreviated name of Kōshū (甲州), and went on to connect with the Nakasendō (中山道), another one of the five great roads, at Shimosuwa-shuku (下諏訪宿). To the north of Yaho village lay a great undeveloped piece of uninhabited and thickly forested land where the villagers foraged for fertiliser and timber fuel. In 1899 the Kōbu Railway (today’s JR Chūō line) was extended from Shinjuku to Tachikawa through the northern extremity of this forest, but at that time it still had no impact on the life of the villagers.

‘Shimizu no tateba’, from Edo meijo zukai (Collection of famous places of Edo), 1836

A rest place on the Kōshū Kaido near the Yaho Tenmangu Shrine

It was not until after the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 that the Hakone Toichi Kaihatsu Corporation, which was already in the midst of a major development project in neighbouring Kodaira, put forward a plan to develop the forested northern part of Yaho village and build a university town (学園都市) based around the Tokyo University of Commerce. The university was formerly based in the Kanda-Hitotsubashi area in Chiyoda in central Tokyo but was destroyed during the earthquake. The developer began by purchasing 100 hectares of land in northern Yaho in 1925. The following year a railway station named Kunitachi was built on the existing Kōbu Railway line. The company went on to implement an ambitious town plan featuring a great rotunda constructed in front of the Kunitachi railway station from which a grand central avenue and two other main roads radiated out at forty-five degree angles. Over these three main radials was overlaid a grid of smaller roads and the land was divided into lots of 200 tsubo (approximately 662 metres), which were offered for sale as part of this new subdivision known as Kunitachi Daigaku-chō (Kunitachi university town).

Two images of early Kunitachi. The one of the left shows the original layout for the subdivision with few lots yet taken up (1924). The one on the right shows Kunitachi College of Music at the time of its establishment (1926).

The original vision of Kunitachi as a university town was realised when the  Conservatory of Music relocated to the area in 1926 (where it was renamed the Kunitachi College of Music) followed quickly by the Tokyo University of Commerce (now Hitotsubashi University) which was built between 1927 and 1930. In 1930 the Nanbu Railway (today’s JR Nanbu line) added a second railway station to the village when it established the Yaho railway station midway between the new university town and the old Kōshū Kaidō road.

Early photograph of Yaho Railway station displayed in a shop near the current station.

This historical pattern of development remains clearly visible in the layout of contemporary Kunitachi’s streets. In this picture, a photograph of a 1930 map I snapped in a shop near Yaho railway station, you can clearly see how the jumbled knot of laneways of the former villages of Yaho and Aoyagi that spread out along the Kōshū Kaidō and down through the fertile river flats to the Tama River (at the bottom of the picture) give way to the neatly planned grid of the new town.

Old Map of Yaho,

Despite its exotic town plan, supposedly inspired by the European city of Bern, the slump that followed the 1930 economic crisis meant that sales of lots in the new town were initially quite slow. The population of the area in 1920 was 2,611 but by 1940, more than ten years after completion of the new development, it had not yet doubled in size and stood at just 4,716. Only after the war did the municipality’s population increase significantly, reaching 32,609 by 1960. Today the population of Kunitachi has more than doubled again with some 75,723 living in an area of 8.15 square kilometres, giving the city a population density of 9,291.17 people per square kilometre. While still cramped by Australian standards, a comparison with Shinjuku ward in central Tokyo gives a sense of the comparative openness of Kunitachi. Shinjuku’s population of 342,297 lives in an area of 18.22 sqm, giving a population density of 18,786 per sqm, more than double that of Kunitachi.

Returning to the earlier discussion of local administration, the exact boundaries and functions of local government in Japan have changed throughout the modern period and the local administration of what is today Kunitachi has been affected by these changes as well as by the significant growth in its population following the end of the Asia-Pacific War. At the time of the Meiji restoration the land that is now Kunitachi stood within what was then the Tama gun (郡, roughly equivalent to an American county or an Australian shire). Following the Great Meiji Consolidation of 1888–1889, when the central government reduced the number of recognised municipalities by about one fifth from 71, 314 to 15,859, the village of Yaho was created out of the merger of two smaller villages and placed under the administration of Kitatama gun. Thanks to the establishment of the Kōbu Railway’s Kunitachi railway station, the district around the station became known as Kunitachi. The origins of this name, however, are disappointingly mundane. Having been established midway between the existing railway stations of Kokubunji (分寺) and Tachikawa (川), Kunitachi (国立) station was named simply by taking the first kanji character from each of the neighbouring stations. In 1943, Kunitachi was also recognised as the name for the district (大字, ōaza) within the village of Yaho which was located near the Kunitachi railway station. Then finally in 1951 the village of Yaho was itself renamed Kunitachi and its status was upgraded from that of a village to a town (町 chō). Its growing population saw Kunitachi’s upgraded once again to become a city in its own right in 1967 and has remained an independent municipal body ever since. The many chapters in Kunitachi’s story which follow on from its original development in the 1920s will form the basis of future posts.


  • Heibonsha Chihō Shiryō Sentā (ed), 2002, Nihon rekishi chimei taikei, vol. 13, Heibonsha, Tokyo.
  • ‘Kadokawa Nihon chimei daijiten’ henshū iinkai (ed), 1983, Kadokawa Nihon chimei dai jiten, vol. 13 ’Tōkyō’, Kadokawa shoten, Tokyo, pp. 1041–44.
  • ‘Kadokawa Nihon chimei daijiten’ henshū iinkai (ed), 2011, Kadokawa Nihon chimei dai jiten, CD-ROM, Kadokawa, Tokyo.
  • Tokyo Metropolitan Government, 2018, ‘Tokyo’s history, geography and population’,
  • Shichōson yōran henshūiinkai (ed), 2018, Zenokoku shichōson yōran, Daiichi hōki, Tokyo.


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.