Wednesday, March 09, 2005

the union marches on

One of the main threads I keep on returning to in this blog is the tendency of foreigners (most specifically English teachers) to look at their time in Japan as some kind of extended vacation, albiet one with a salary and benefits. No matter that you spend two or three years here, Japanese society is something outside oneself, something that you interact with but do not enter in any significant sense. So imagine my excitement and surprise when I heard that there was a massive demostration for foreign workers' rights planned for last Sunday in Shibuya.

For those of you who have never been to Tokyo, Shibuya is the ground zero of Japanese youth culture; a gaudy and frenetic mix of fashion boutiques catering to high schoolers, bars and clubs for college students, and massive record stores. The largest Tower Records in the World is in Shibuya. It's also that massive pedestrian crossing from Lost in Translation where Scarlett Johansenn gazes at a massive CG brontosaurus sauntering across a 50 foot TV screen. There are invariably several TV camera crews threading through the crowds, getting man-on-the-street interviews with "average teenagers." Shibuya has also acquired a dangerous reputation as a center of high school prostitution; middle class girls who pick up Johns not out of any pressing economic necessity, but to get enough money to pay for Shibuya's hideously expensive clothes and cosmetics. It is Japanese consumerism at it's most ugly and gaudy.

So it was amid this Sunday afternoon chaos that a union of foreigners decided to hold a march to raise awareness of foreign labor issues in Japan. We marched in rows of four, carrying massive Japanese banners like "working in Japan for Japan" and "treat foreign workers the same as Japanese!" Since the organizers were an English teacher union, the bulk of the complaints were against specific English language schools and City Boards of Education that have terminated contracts without warning, don't pay overtime and even create fake health insurance policies. But I would say maybe 20% of the participants were non-white English teachers, and the issues included them as well. No more random stops by police asking for ID and work visas. No more hiring foreign workers without issuing proper visas. No more intimidation and harrasment in the workplace. No more differences in pay and hiring practices between foreign and Japanese workers. Fire the Nova Pink Rabbit! All of these are currently Japanese law, but many companies have simply ignored the law.

An amazing experience to see the differences in US and Japanese protests. We marched in orderly lines, our chants already carefully selected and read in order over a loudspeaker, everyone replying in unison. "We demand proper visas for all foreign workers!" "Proper visas!" "Africans, Asians, Europeans, South Americans, North Americans, unite!" "Unite!" "Japanese and foreign workers, unite!" "Unite!" "Workers of the world, unite!" "Unite!" At the front someone was carrying a sleek boombox about as thin as a notebook playing Brazilian drumming music. Towards the back there was a guy whacking on a birimbau.

Most people on the street were dumbfounded to see several hundred foreigners waving Japanese banners, and chanting in Japanese for equal rights. Some people came up to us directly chanting "Right on!" or "We're behind you!", most of the young fashion victims just stood back laughing nervously at these foreigners who were demanding equal treatment with Japanese. What, do they want to be Japanese or something? But not a single person looked at us with hostility or anger.

The march took a little over an hour, with people scattering out from the park as the sun began to set. I picked up some literature, chatted with a few of the old timers who had organized the thing, and asked about their next meeting. Had a plan to meet a Japanese photographer friend on the other side of Shibuya, and hurried out to meet him, scurrying through the Sunday crowds of Shibuya. When I came to Hachiko crossing that our march had passed through just an hour or so before, I noticed yet another political demonstration, a few dozen Japanese waving banners and half heartedly calling for "Japanese Self Defense Forces out of Iraq!" They were swallowed up by the weekend shoppers, their bodies swarmed by high heeled girls charging heedlessly for skirts and CD's, their ragged voices drowned out by the ceaseless roar of Japanese consumerism.

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