Rethinking the political in an age of disasters

Rethinking the political in an age of disasters

In disaster-prone Japan, ‘living politics’ has responded when government has failed. TESSA MORRIS-SUZUKI explains.

Politics is usually equated with the formal mechanisms of government: national constitutions, parliaments, cabinets, prime ministers or presidents, elections, party platforms. We also think of it as including local institutions like city councils, and international bodies like the United Nations. We consider the actions of lobby groups and sometimes of organised protest movements.

However, the formal institutions of politics, whether local, national or international, are not showing capacity to address life crises that people face or to assist them in making meaningful choices. In their place we are increasingly seeing a form of ‘living politics’, often an act of collected self-protection—even an act of desperation—in the face of the profound deficits of institutional politics.

Examples from modern Japanese history can give us a sense of the nature of living politics, past and present. The three cases sketched here are the Ashio disaster in the late 19th century, the response by the residents of Saku in the mountainous Nagano Prefecture to the health crises of the postwar era, and the 2011 Fukushima disaster.


Throughout the late 19th century, pollution from the Ashio copper mine in northeastern Japan denuded surrounding mountainsides and aggravated floods, which spread the poisons from the rivers across surrounding rice paddies and pastures. The result was massive damage to crops, livestock and human health.

Ashio copper mine (pictured circa 1895).

Protests by farmers, from 1902 onward, resulted in the government implementing an ambitious state plan to control pollution by reshaping the entire environment of the river system—diverting river courses, concreting banks and riverbeds and building a huge flood-control dam which displaced hundreds of villagers from their homes.

But one group of villagers, from the small community of Yanaka, refused to move. Even when police and demolition squads were sent in to tear down their houses, they clung on to their land, becoming a symbol of the Ashio disaster. The Yanaka villagers lived politics as they carried on their everyday farm tasks in defiance of orders to move and in the face of an entirely different state plan for the use of their land. They embarked on the task of recording and mapping the impact of pollution on their own everyday existence, publishing the results to challenge the information disseminated by the government and the mine.

The memory of their actions became deeply embedded in the ideas of a range of Japanese social thinkers, including prewar utopian anarchists and members of the influential humanist literary group known as the White Birch Group.

Saku Central Hospital

Similar autonomous responses to less visible but still profound social crises re-emerged in the postwar era, as suggested by the history of community medicine developed at Nagano Prefecture’s Saku Central Hospital. The hospital, founded during the Asia-Pacific War was part of Japan’s large cooperative sector, established as a branch of the local agricultural coop.
In the second half of the 1940s the hospital confronted a massive health crisis. Malnutrition and diseases like tuberculosis were rife. Thousands of displaced people were returning to the local area from Japan’s lost empire. Medicines and medical equipment were in desperately short supply. In these conditions, the Saku medical staff strongly resisted proposals to transfer their hospital to the control of government, and insisted that it should remain part of the cooperative system.

The hospital, whose slogan was (and still is) ‘Together with the farmers’, was literally sustained by the support of the local farm community, particularly after a fire destroyed much of the hospital compound in 1949. The funds for reconstruction were raised by local residents, and local farmers and the hospital together worked out a system whereby farmers contributed produce which hospital staff cooked into nutritious meals to be delivered to recuperating patients.

Very unusually for a Japanese hospital at that time, Saku Central encouraged patients’ relatives to be present during operations. The hospital also evolved into the focus of a series of patients’ self-help associations. Hospital staff, patients and local residents developed a view of social medicine which integrated hospital and community, transforming the conventional image of the role of a hospital as an island of technical expertise in a sea of potential patients.

Saku Hospital became the site of a monthly informal discussion group including medical staff, young farmers and others, and ranging over a wide spectrum of social and political issues. The hospital drama group toured villages presenting plays on problems of health, welfare and society.

When Saku Central, known to local conservatives as ‘the red hospital’, was threatened by the allied occupation’s purge of suspected ‘communists’, local residents rallied to its support, and some 45,000 of them signed a petition to defend their hospital. By the 1960s, Saku Central Hospital and the community in which it is embedded had become widely recognised as a creative model of social medicine, and its ideas were being taken up in other parts of Asia. To the present day, despite radical changes in the whole environment of medical treatment in Japan, the hospital remains part of a vibrant local network of ‘bottom-up’ development projects.

The Fukushima Daiichi power plant, pictured after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

In early 2015, four years after northeastern Japan was devastated by the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster, TEPCO, the operator of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi power plant (pictured after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami), is still struggling to plug the leaks of highly radioactive water flowing from the plant. Over 140,000 people remain displaced by the disaster. The challenges they face are vividly illustrated by the fate of Tomioka, a town close to Fukushima Daiichi, which had a population of 15,839 before the disaster, and at the start of 2015 had a population of one. Government recovery plans have divided the town into three sections: never to return, return for short periods and prepare to return. The long-term impact of the disaster on the health of residents is unknown.

In this disorienting world, the people of eastern Fukushima live politics in a multitude of ways. Like the people who farmed the fields downstream of Ashio in the 1890s, they work with others to map the impact of the disaster on their own lives, creating the locally grounded and credible knowledge that government and international agencies have failed to provide. They study nuclear science; they acquire the equipment and know-how to measure the radiation in their fields and in their own bodies; they experiment with ways to reduce the levels of radiation in the food they grow and eat; they publish their results; they work with grassroots groups as far away as Hokkaido and Kyushu to find safe environments where families can live or at least have temporary respite from irradiated environments. They learn their way around the maze of inadequate compensation systems. Sometimes they protest; sometimes they don’t have the energy. Some are bitterly angry; some find hope amongst the destruction in alternative visions of the future; some are just sad.

Claiming autonomy

The world of living politics—small-scale, grounded in everyday life, flexible and often ephemeral—provides scope for a wide diversity of experiments. It allows for the multiplicity of ideas and practices that is lacking from the mental monocultures of institutional politics. And, even more importantly perhaps, it allows room for failure without triggering catastrophe.

The history that starts from Yanaka in 1902, and politics emerging from Fukushima today, are not isolated phenomena produced by unrelated accidents. Neither are they part of a coherent and continuous ideological movement, but are loosely laced together by the elusive and evanescent undercurrents of thought and action.

Together, these histories constitute intersecting strands of the ‘politics of the governed’: that is, as Indian thinker and activist Ranabir Sammadar puts it, ‘the agenda of creating autonomous spaces defying the ”iron” laws of governmentality and claiming autonomies in life, in particular political life’. This is ‘not politics modelled and bounded by governmentality, but politics that, in the face of the seemingly overwhelming nature of governmental power, can claim autonomy for itself’.

Main photo:
The Fukushima Daiichi power plant ablaze after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami (Photo Wikimedia Commons).

Tessa Morris-Suzuki is Professor of Japanese History, at the Australian National University. This article is based on her presentation, ‘Rethinking the political in an age of disasters—a perspective from Japan’, to the ‘Survival politics in East Asia: socio-environmental crises and grassroots responses’ conference at the ANU on 6 March 2015.

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