The Transformation of “Ordinary Citizens” Voices from JNPOC

Posted on October 01, 2015
by Natsuko Hagiwara

*This essay was originally written for the “Shiten-Ronten” (Our Perspective, Our Point) on the JNPOC Japanese website on September 20, 2012

One evening in late July, I was watching the news without paying particular attention, when the newscaster used the phrase, “ordinary citizens.” It was curiously arresting. I found myself repeating this phrase in my mind, as if by reflex: “Ordinary citizens!?” The broadcast said that since a few months ago, demonstrations against the use of nuclear energy and resuming the operation of nuclear power plants had been taking place every Friday in front of the Prime Minister’s official residence; that the number of participants was increasing every week; and that many of them were “ordinary citizens.” I understood that the phrase referred to those who seemed, up to that point, to have had no associations with demonstrations, such as business men and women on their way home from work, college students, mothers with babies, people with their families and friends, and some who appeared to be teenagers.

On July 26, the NHK news program, “Today’s Close-Up,” featured a report about the activities of “ordinary citizens” with the title, “Will Demonstrations Change Society?” One participant spoke about her experience: “Demonstrations no longer seem to have that sense of seriousness that they used to have in the past. Now it feels as though any ordinary person can casually go and join in.” The demonstrations “in the past” that she mentioned are probably best represented by those over the Japan-U.S. security treaty or the anti-pollution protests. Her comment suggests that these demonstrations were carried out by “unordinary citizens” – which could mean the National Federation of Students’ Self-Government Associations (Zengakuren), parties directly involved in the issue at hand, or some kind of “professional citizens” who took part in them. Because such demonstrations seemed grave and extreme, they remained inaccessible to “ordinary citizens.”

At this point, I would like to reflect on who “I” was in the early 1970s, as an “ordinary teenager” at the time. Politically, the world was experiencing a truly turbulent time. Having been affected by the protests that were taking place on college campuses, some middle school and high school students participated in demonstrations against the Japan-U.S. treaty, though this generation would later come to be mockingly referred to as upholding the “Three No Principle” (Sanmu-shugi) or the “Four No Principle” (Yonmu-shugi) – having no drive, no interest, no responsibility, and no emotion. Indeed, the most immediate strife that unfolded in middle schools and high schools across the nation was against the regulations that made school uniforms mandatory for all students and shaved heads for male students.

Even my small middle school in Yamanashi prefecture was no exception. The critical issue surrounding the student council elections was the review of school regulations. A school assembly was held, and there were heated debates not only among students but also between students and teachers: To begin with, who should decide students’ clothing or hairstyle? Neither should be coerced by the school. The freedom to choose lies with the students themselves. The key words were “freedom” and “liberation from oppression,” as in Yutaka Ozaki’s famous song, “The Night I was 15” (15 no yoru). The vague feeling that everyone had – “There is something wrong with the school regulation!” – took the form of a “problem” with something acting as a trigger. When all the students came to recognize this problem, they stopped being “ordinary.” They gained an awareness of being part of a “We” instead of an individual “I,” and started to take action to solve this problem. Having transformed into “unordinary students,” we succeeded in getting the school to abolish its regulations about shaved heads. As for the mandatory school uniforms, while my memory is uncertain, I believe they were changed to “standard dress code.” Looking back at this incident, it is as if each individual had gone through a transformation, in the way Clark Kent turns into Superman, or Bruce Wayne into Batman. Of course, none of us has superpowers like them. But if all the transformed individuals came together, we can generate a significant force. In the end, “I” returned to my ordinary human form, and forty plus years have passed since then.

In his book, How to Change Society, Eiji Koguma writes: “In any era, people harbor a vague sense of anxiety and frustration, but most of the time this sense does not have a clear form. When the indistinct and invisible feelings manifest themselves in this world in a visible and concrete form, that is when people realize, ‘This was the problem,’ or ‘If we change this, society can change,’ and stand up to take action” (p.441). Right now we are witnessing again the transformation of “ordinary citizens” working to change society.

Last year in Hakodate city, I encountered a group of people demonstrating against resuming the construction of Aomori’s Oma Nuclear Power Plant. Hearing the participants chant, “Oma Nuclear Power Plant is a big mistake! A big mistake, a big mistake!” I smiled, despite myself, and before I knew it, I was marching among the demonstrators.

 by Natsuko Hagiwara, Vice Chairperson