Dance Dance Revolution

Efforts to suppress political expression in Japan are meeting an unlikely foe: the flash mob.

Flash mobs may not seem like events that need government oversight, but Japanese authorities see things differently. The mayor of Ebina — a city west of Tokyo — prohibited these gatherings in March, claiming that they violate local ordinances against public performance. Those charged with breaking the rule must pay five thousand yen — about fifty dollars.

The mayor’s decision came after Mothers’ Action for Peace and Democracy organized a flash mob in February. They were protesting the government’s controversial security legislation, which would give Japan permission to engage in foreign conflict and seems to be the first step toward revising the country’s pacifist constitution.

Dressed in black, denim, and sunglasses, members of Mannequin Flash Mob Kanagawa — a spinoff of Mothers’ Action — walked around Ebina Station’s raised walkways, carrying signs with messages critical of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. At set intervals, one or two would stop on the busy platform and pose like a mannequin. The rest joined the stationary group one by one. They stayed motionless for short periods before moving on and repeating the performance in another part of the station.

Their aim was to create an air of mystery and draw the attention of people passing, without violating Japan’s notoriously strict regulations on public assembly and political activity.

In June, the activists filed suit against the city’s ban on flash mobs. They argue that because of the small number of participants, the protest does not constitute a political gathering nor does it violate the laws against public assembly. Further, they point out that Japan’s Road Traffic Act allows any gathering as long as it does not significantly impede traffic. Judging from video of the action, they did not get in any pedestrian’s way.

While a ban on flash mobs in a Tokyo suburb would seem to be a minor development, it highlights the disquieting and growing threat to civil liberties in Japan.

Squeezing Politics

Freedom of speech and the right to demonstrate are protected by Japanese law, so the police or government cannot directly ban a group or individual from protesting. But protests are heavily controlled and codified, both physically and geographically, which diminishes their effect.

Any demonstration or march has to be registered in advance to avoid violating traffic laws or ordinances against unlawful assembly. Once approved, demonstrators receive a large police escort that sometimes outnumbers them. Left marches seem to draw the most attention from authorities, but hate groups are also policed strictly, in part to protect the participants from aggressive counterprotesters.

During a march, participants are typically corralled into one lane while traffic continues around them. They must stop for traffic lights — making larger marches appear small and easy to manage — and police may change the registered site to hide or minimize demonstrations. Further, pedestrian zones have restrictions against busking, performances, street stalls, and, of course, protests.

In certain cities, like Tokyo, the topography makes it hard to protest: open space is limited and prime areas, such as the Kasumigaseki government district, are not amenable to mass gatherings. The police make it even harder. For example, they often block off the road in front of the parliament building with large trucks, which restricts protesters to narrow sidewalks around the edge that are covered in trees, making it extremely uncomfortable to participate.

Physical restriction of protest is matched by behind-the-scenes police repression and unfavorable media coverage, which often presents radical groups as criminal and antisocial.

In 2015, there were mass demonstrations against the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) security bills. Media coverage painted the publicity-savvy student activists, known as Students’ Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs), in a largely positive light as well-dressed and politely spoken liberals rallying youth to Kasumigaseki to protest the security legislation. But as this was happening, the police were actually arresting and raiding more radical groups.

Similarly, ahead of the G7 summit in Japan this year, the mainstream media focused on the prestige of the event and President Obama’s landmark visit to Hiroshima. The police, though, applied pressure to veteran New Left groups, such as Kakurokyo (Revolutionary Workers) and Chukaku-ha (Central Core Faction). Several activists were nabbed on minor charges, apparently as a warning or to target the groups’ resources for mobilizing.

Dancing Around the Law

Mothers’ Action for Peace and Democracy was founded in 2015 as the Kanagawa chapter of Mothers Against War, just one of a flurry of civil bodies formed to protest the LDP’s security bills.

The spinoff actions of Mannequin Flash Mob Kanagawa started in November 2015 at stations around Kanagawa Prefecture. After Ebina City’s heavy-handed response, the flash mobs have unexpectedly ignited a debate on freedom of assembly in Japan.

In Japan, flash mobs are not a new phenomenon per se. They have previously been employed by brands as marketing stunts and have also appeared at arts festivals. There is even a current trend for people to make marriage proposals through flash mob events.

But what about political flash mobs? In 2012, a handful of protesters utilized the model to demonstrate against the sudden enforcement of a 1948 law restricting dancing in bars and clubs. It had been ignored for decades, but became a police priority again, resulting in a series of nightclub closures and police raids.

However, Mannequin Flash Mob Kanagawa probably marks the first time flash mobs have been used effectively in Japan for political purposes.

Flash mobs sidestep (or even defy) some of Japan’s restrictions on protesting, which is why the Ebina ban is so worrying. Their small size does not violate the traffic and assembly laws that otherwise block mass action. Also, the element of surprise — an essential aspect of the flash mob’s efficacy — means that protesters do not register the events with authorities.

Press Freedom

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has continued to curb civil liberties in Japan.

In 2013, it passed a much-contested state secrets law that makes it easier for the government to classify information as a state secret and carries heavy fines and prison sentences for violators — whether they are officials leaking information or journalists and activists soliciting information.

Critics argue the new legislation — which came into effect in 2014 — will further weaken Japan’s press and discourage whistleblowers from coming forward. Partly as a result of the law, Reporters Without Borders dropped Japan’s press freedom by eleven places in this spring. Japan now ranks 72 out of 180 countries. David Kaye, UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, visited Japan this spring to investigate media freedom and described his unease at the declining situation. “The independence of the press is facing serious threats,” he cautioned at a press conference.

For now, at least, the weekly tabloid magazines remain in good health and have hit back by publishing a slew of damning exposes of certain politicians and celebrities. These effectively ended the careers of one LDP lawmaker and a famous writer who had been set to enter the political arena.

Nor are the tabloids partisan: a sex scandal scoop was a key factor in the defeat of the joint opposition parties’ candidate for Tokyo governor in the recent gubernatorial election.

Policing Politics

In July, upper house elections were held, where the LDP hoped to win a two-thirds majority that would technically allow it to introduce constitutional reform. Liberals fear this will be the death blow to Japanese pacifism.

In the end, the election result was somewhat mixed. LDP did win an upper house majority without coalition partner support for the first time since 1989 — as predicted — but it did not get the numbers to push through its controversial changes to the constitution on its own. The government would need to secure support from other revisionist parties.

Also, the opposition parties, who joined together to challenge LDP candidates, achieved some symbolic victories in northeast Japan and Okinawa. For now, constitutional reform seems unlikely to happen immediately, and any revision would have to be presented to the public via a referendum.

Before the election, the LDP lowered the voting age from twenty to eighteen, lifting the 1969 law prohibiting high school students from engaging in political activities. Turnout for the newly enfranchised voters was better than some expected: just over half of eighteen-year-olds and nearly 40 percent of nineteen-year-olds voted.

But in spite of the government’s ostensible public commitment to youth enfranchisement, the police and state are trying to deter young people from developing a culture of protest. They may have the right to vote now, but high schoolers are being discouraged from joining or organizing demonstrations. Students are still not allowed to protest on school grounds, and must limit their political activities to after-school hours or during holidays.

Further, some local education boards have told students that they need to give a week’s notice before any planned political activities. Teachers are also legally banned from participating in political activities or expressing political views.

As recently as 2012, ethnographer David Slater was informed by one of his undergraduate students in Tokyo that “here in Japan it is against the law to demonstrate in the street.” The intense media coverage of SEALDs last year likely dispelled this myth at major colleges in Tokyo, but there are still many hurdles to surmount for young people who want to exercise their right to free assembly.

Energized by the authorities’ attempts to quash it, Mannequin Flash Mob Kanagawa is continuing to mobilize. Participants held another action the day before the upper house election, this time in central Tokyo and dressed in summer kimono and sunglasses. More flash mobs are planned for the near future. Meanwhile, court proceedings for the lawsuit have started.

In spite of the erosion of civil liberties in Japan, it seems that political activism is not going to die without a fight.