(originally sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, Friends, and UFJ February 18, 1999)

I moved to a small town in November 1997 after buying and building on a piece of land, and that alone was the subject of several essays on housebuilding (click here to see those). However, little did I know just what kind of a neighborhood I was moving into--one where demographics were threatening to unseat a corrupt mayor.

This essay will explore how social movements work in Japan, how Japanese political machines react to them, how the mass media is controlled and exploited, and how one person can make a surprising amount of difference.

This essay is organized thus:


WARNING: This essay has a lot of false summits. Think Stephen King's tome IT in tone. This is inevitable because when one portrays a series of interrelated events that must be given context, by definition there's going to be a theme of "one-damn-thing-after-another". To some readers, this post may be an interesting ethnography, to others thinking about assimilating into Japanese society, I hope this will be instructive on how you can make a niche in a society unsure what to do with you.


Nanporo-chou is a small town of 10,000 people (we get updates on numbers--births, deaths, and new entrants--every month from government mailings) which is located east (not south, despite the name) of Sapporo, on a 80 square-km parcel of land about ten km between (get out your maps) Ebetsu-shi, Kuriyama-chou, Kurisawa-chou, Naganuma-chou, and Shinrin Kouen Forest Preserve. Its main income is agriculture (kirara rice is everywhere, hence the Kirara Kaidou car artery connecting Nanporo with decent mall shopping), but it fell on hard times. Railroad connections dried up in the 1970's, when adverse economic conditions hit nearby coal mining towns like Yuubari.

To revitalize this burg, like Yuubari did with melons on government grant, leaders decided to recreate Nanporo as a Sapporo bed-town. It is an hour's car commute from Sapporo proper, moreover only 15 kms (only?--yes, this is Hokkaido) from an expressway or a train station. So Nanoro struck a deal with the government again for the equivalent of grants: cheap loans through Juutaku Kin'yuu Koukou for huge parcels of land (nearly twice the Sapporo average, minimum), developed with full amenities on former rice paddies.

This is where I came in--two years ago I bought the largest plot I could find (170 tsubo, or 561 square meters) for around 12,000,000 yen, put all our savings into building a smart house (see it at the above URL), and found myself in a neighborhood of thirty- and forty-somethings with kids, gardens, and urban attitudes. This has in fact been a boon; with refreshing openmindedness (plus general adversity to community work), my neighbors have already made me vice-chair (fuku kaichou) of our Neighborhood Organization (Chounai kai) and volunteered me for all sorts of annual gatherings and speaking engagements. Suits me fine, actually.

Then dropped the communal clanger. Nanporo's population, rising from the rural base of 4,500 to the 10,000 in only five years, levelled off. With Japan's economic malaise affecting Hokkaido more than average, Juutaku Kin'yuu Koukou formally announced last autumn that, seeing little opportunity here, it was pulling out. JKK left behind a town transformed, now 30% aging farmers, 30% aging town businessmen, and 40% procreating bed-towners.

The balance had shifted. And a groundswell for change appeared in 1999 with a hot issue: a proposed golf course.


Nanporo has three big (big?) tourist draws: Nanporo Kimchee, Nanporo Riverside Golf Course, and Nanporo Onsen Hot Springs. It's as you might expect: Nanporo Kimchee, compared to real kimchee, is like comparing a Japanese wine ("Yoichi", "Otaru" or "Hidaka" swill, anyone?) to a French wine; it simply isn't soup yet, and my wife refused to let me inflict it on our Korean guests last week.

Nanporo Riverside Golf Course is aptly named--alongside the winding-but-now- completely-paved Chitose River, where people can golf on the cheap on a long and narrow course, complete with a view of lovely snow-capped mountains obscured by huge power lines.

And Nanporo Onsen? Any local knows Naganuma Onsen is much better, but this is the town's biggest draw. Thus the onsen was targeted for further development by our mayor, Takeuchi Masakazu, to stem the impending capital flight.

Overnight a new company, using "dai-san sector" money (meaning funding from outside the government, but my grasp on how that works in Japan is still incomplete. Information anybody?) was founded to create the "Bansui Golf Resort", i.e. an addition to the Onsen annex for rich out-of-towners to putt on a course, then chuff in a pool. Fine.

But it turns out that this proposal, I found out from my neighbor who is building our bed, would cost an astounding amount of money: 23 oku 5000 man yen (think over $20 million US dollars, folks) for starters--not including Clubhouse, equipment, or another 20% of the land that is still projected to be bought. The bottom line was that there would be over 8000 man yen (or around US $800,000) payment per annum on interest alone, plus the projected 2000 man yen operational losses officially estimated for at least the next several years.

Would it eventually be a viable investment? Projected user fees for the Resort course are 8000 yen (knock off two zeros to get approximate US dollars) on weekdays and 12,800 yen on weekends--not including caddy. Whereas Riverside Golf has the same deal for 3700 yen and 6000 yen respectively. Nanporo would wind up competing with itself. Did a town this size really need two golf courses?

No, said rising voices. All told, my little town would be shelling out a million bucks a year for an investment that would not recoup. Our property taxes would rise, our town arrears would look like Cleveland in the 1970's or Washington DC until recently, and all manner of cutbacks in public services would happen. This according to the the opposition, and here is where they come in.


Although details of what exactly went on amongst the town councillors (chou giin) is incomplete (and this is part of the problem), this deal caused political resignations last year. People accused Mayor Takeuchi, a 74-year-old who has held the post for the past 24 years (!), of "one-man-manship" (wanman shugi), meaning essentially policy by fiat. Regardless of the controversy, work commenced several weeks ago on the site: trees were uprooted from the frozen earth, shovels dug three meters or so down to level out the land, and as of this morning trucks are still hauling dirt (even during white-out snowstorms) from the site from dawn to dusk, seven days a week.

One of the councillors who resigned, (Mr) Izawa Toshimi (60) decided to run for the mayoral position himself. Since he is forbidden by Japanese campaign laws to actually say "elect me" before the official campaign period, he started going around town and holding informal information meetings in sympathizers' houses, raising grass-roots awareness. And two weeks ago, I attended one of Izawa's Q&A sessions with a bunch of housewives over a dinnertable.

The Q&A session started off predictably quietly. Since nobody was in a hurry to talk, I broke the ice with a bunch of questions to confirm the data I had heard from my bed-builder. Izawa corroborated it to the exact figure, and made his opposition clear with a long spiel. An hour later, after all the housewifes expressed their concern over other issues (Nanporo puts up expensive buildings but makes it hard for residents to use them, Nanporo's junior-high and high schools are rated at the bottom of the heap in Hokkaido in terms of academic quality and student morale, and the shitty local hospital that nobody trusts especially in child emergencies), I decided to get something concrete on the table:

Me: "Izawa-san, I understand that you are a politician and things change once people get elected. But I need you to swear (chikau) that you will stop this golf course. You used the word 'review' (mi naosu), but that word is too vague. It could mean anything from a cursory look and work does not even stop, to a full stop forever. Do you mean work will 'stop for good' (yameru)? I know there are powerful business interests involved here, and once elected your attitude towards them might change. So do you *swear* you will stop this?"

Compliantly, Izawa-san swore that he would stop this course fully. He proposed using the land already excavated as a park or something for citizens to use, and would welcome ideas from people once elected.

It was a safe politician's answer: to every request that day he was accomodating and nonalienating. But he fortified that with an apparently sincere expression of gutsy disgust (which I respected) vis-a-vis the system as it stands. Paraphrasing: "Our town is changing with all of you here now [he was smart enough not to call us newbies or outsiders], and we must have a government that does things for the people here, not people outside. Takeuchi-san is too friendly to outside interests (soto zura ga ii). I have been in government for 40 years now, first as a bureaucrat, now a politician, and this time around I saw no hope for progress or opennness. That is why I resigned my post. I cannot stand by and watch our town get bankrupted. I want investments to be in our towners' interest."

To which I added (and to the Japanese-style feminine "right-on!"s of the attendees): "Thank you. I don't see why there's all this money and effort being put into a golf course when Nanporo still doesn't have a good mall-style supermarket. [We have one crappy Hokuren-run place that few use--everyone in our neighborhood drives 15 kms out just to get provisions.] We don't even have a real bank. Yet there are five different convenience stores. We have the space allocated, but this is the third year the "site of the new supermarket" sign has been painted over. Why don't we get Seikyou or somebody else to set up shop here?"

I'll break off here because what was said there was said better on another occasion--at a local town "Workshop". Here we bring in the second tier of the social movements, and it is Western-style enough for me to really get into.

The owner of the dinnertable, a Mr Suzuki, just happens to run the nacent "Nanporo Town-forming Network Association" (Nanporo Machizukuri Nettowaaku no Kai). He told me about his efforts to increase towners' participation in local events. There is no established system, or precedent for one, for "just-folks" in Nanporo to get together and air their grievances or have access to the issues. More on the causes of that later.

So, Suzuki put together an unprecedented "waakushoppu" (in katakana), with clear rules on: how long people may speak (three minutes maximum, with a yellow/red card system for wafflers), that everyone must speak, that everyone must get into roundtables of five and air ideas, that there must be a discussant leader, and also a recorder of ideas on little post-its to be put on public display later. I liked the idea and promised to come. Meanwhile, Suzuki had printed up 2000 copies of a five-page flyer, bearing his particulars and an announcement within, and delivered them to people's mailboxes by hand. Thus blossomed the grass roots.

Then again, grass roots don't blossom. It turns out the workshop was not well-attended at all. Aside from the four organizers, only three people (including myself) showed up. Regardless, we got into a group of seven and started jabbering. As I have experience with workshops like these (particularly on "cultural sensitivity"--click here to see), I asked to be made discussant leader and got the job. Then I was very strict on making sure everyone had a turn to speak, that topics were properly linked and dead spaces didn't kill the flow, and that the bored ojisan who showed up didn't go on a gabbing bender.

But anyway, back to that Nanporo supermarket problem, which was well-addressed here by the frosty ojisan. It speaks volumes on organizational problems in Japan:

I'm summarizing and crystallizing a lot of waffle, of course. But the point here is this:

One of the things I loathe about Hokkaido is how gormless the people can be. The government relies on handouts from Tokyo and the people demand nothing better--anyone with any talent or ambition goes down south to the economic and political centers. So they generally do nothing, waiting for the micromanaging government to fix things, even when they know they are sinking into a funk.

Which only spurs me to redouble my efforts to get involved. This brings us to the next topic:


I think any anthropologist would view me as the Antichrist. Anthopology takes a very "low-impact-camping" view of social studies, where folks like Napoleon Chagnon spend years with the Yanomamo ethnographing a society by participating without trying to bring in the outside world. It may be good science, but it's not my way. When I see unconstructive things happening, I can't help but at least try to do something.

So that's why I helped make sure our Workshop was productive. In fact, it went so well that we realized that just the seven of us could form a core action group. I was put in charge of publicity. Capital!

The first thing I suggested was that we open a communication channel to Nanporo as a whole. Suzuki had been really disappointed with the low impact of his advertisement, and to me the reason was clear: He had made his five-page flyer (with proceedings from the previous Workshop) too long, too much like a political-campaign flyer, and had injudiciously put the Workshop announcement at the very end. Given the short attention span Japan has for political issues, nobody would see it once they'd dismissed it as soapboxing. So I suggested we trim the data down to a bite-size poster (my forte--I almost went into graphic arts after high school), provide a phone number if people really wanted more details, and put it where everyone could see it--in the next edition of that population-announcing government newspaper, the "Nanpou" (altered name).

People shrugged and said that the Nanpou does not handle political announcements, nor individual requests for publicity. The bureaucracy of Japan only publishes things dealing with the bureaucracy of Japan, or dealing with citizen interactions with the bureaucracy of Japan.

But Suzuki and I were ready with arguments. "Actually, what we are doing is not a political activity. We are a group, unaffiliated with political parties, with the honorable goal of increased communication betweeen citizens for a better town. In other words, 'Ideas are the seeds of improvement' [my words: aidia wa kaizen no tane], so let's tell them that and see what happens."


"Like, two days from now. Monday morning. Suzuki-san, come with me so they don't just look at me and dismiss me as a stranger and a foreigner to boot. Let's just tell them what we want and see what happens."

"Is that really going to work?"

"Look, all they are going to say is 'Let us consider it' (kentou sasete itadakimasu) because that's all they can say without bouncing it off their superiors. I know this because I hit brick walls all the time with these people. But if we don't try, we don't get anywhere. And besides, look at Suzuki-san. He typed up that whole workshop ad, copied and delivered it at his own expense, and still didn't reach all that many people. One shot with the Nanpou and we reach everybody. And in a town with 7000 eligible voters, a mere 70 people attending is a full one percent. Let me handle the contents of the flyer and you and I can chat up the bureaucrats."

I was on one of my rolls, so people let me go on without yellow-carding me:

"Because look, people, we pay their taxes and for the costs of this magazine, yet they hog what is the only existing townwide communication network. One of the biggest problems we have around here is communication, and that is why this issue has blown up like this. Nobody has gotten Takeuchi and Izawa together to give a pro-and-con presentation on the merits of this case. Meanwhile, Takeuchi keeps digging as much dirt as he can before the election starts. Let's at least get our ad in now, and work on getting a column for 'Choumin no Koe' [Voices of Town Citizens] so that we can get a venue established in future."

People were fired up by this ideal, but were still reluctant to talk to the government. Fortunately, Suzuki was eager to avoid any more work distributing leaflets, so two days later he and I were in conference with the Nanpou editors.

"This is Debito-san. He lives in XXX-machi and is taking Japanese citizenship," introduced Suzuki very effectively. To my surprise, he let me take the reins and introduce our proposal to the three bureaucrats quizzical about what the hell I was doing there:

"Sorry to bother you during a busy work day, but I feel we have a large problem with communication networks in Nanporo. There is no way for our townspeople to talk to everyone in one forum. That is what we would like to establish with our 'Machi-zukuri Network no Kai', and we would like you to allow us to advertise it in the Nanpou."

The person in charge, a middle-aged gentleman who has lived in Nanporo all his life, interrupted with a "Kentou shimasu no de..." and continued with budgeting and space concerns. When he started expressing reservations about content and who the hell we were, I continued:

"We are not affiliated with any political party or religious group [which the regular noncommittal Japanese person absolutely abhors]. We are not 'Akahata' [the fiery newspaper of the Japan Communist Party] by any means! We are just a group of taxpaying citizens who want to make a better town by getting ideas out. But to do that, we need more people participating, and Nanpou is the only way we can tell everybody. We just need a page or half-page to put in an advertisement and that's all for now. You might consider attending our forum yourself to get a feel what citizens are thinking."

They laughed at the fact that I knew about Akahata and said, "I heard something about this forum before from Suzuki-san. Something like a 'workshop'. It's a katakana word so I don't know what it involves."

Sez I: "Most people don't really know, so we have since changed the name to 'Town Meeting' (Taun Miitingu). In America, up around New England, there is a long tradition of having small communities meet together frequently, where everyone has a chance to stand up to discuss the concerns of the day. Japanese may not be used to that, so we will have a workshop format: everyone is in small roundtables, has a chance to talk, and has their ideas recorded for everyone to see. Anyway, a title of 'Town Meeting' may get the point across without having a political image. We are planning this meeting for March 20, and would welcome your involvement if possible."

Things clicked. They said that an advertisement for this would definitely be in the interests of Nanporo and they would welcome a submission for the next issue within 48 hours (which meant that my push for this Monday morning meeting was most providential!). We said we would, and Suzuki and I walked out of the government building rather surprised at how much had been accomplished.

But the surprises weren't over yet:

"Debito, could you give me ten more minutes of your time?"

"Sure, Suzuki-san," as we sat down in my car waiting for it to warm up.

"Y'know, we're going to be sponsoring a meeting of candidates this weekend. We've invited them all, and will be asking TV crews and newspapers to attend as well. We've drawn up a list of questions to stimulate debate, and we've got a university prof being the chair panelist. We need these candidates to make their policies clear for the whole town to hear, so we've created this forum."

"Great. Can I come?"

"That's what I wanted to ask you about. Would you mind being the emcee to this meeting?"


"Me? Why me? I'm not even a citizen. I can't even vote."

"That's the point. Everyone else involved with this organization is a politician or a bureaucrat, and thus we do not want a political image to this meeting. You can. As a non-voter you look nonpartisan. Moreover, since we've never done anything like this before, you up there would make people relax more--people think America knows how to do people politics better."


"Besides, nobody else wants the job. Want it?"

Pinch me, somebody.


One thing you're probably wondering about is when exactly is this election? February 28, 1999, and it is a watershed for such a quiet little town. But as the political machines revved up in grand Japanese style, I realized we were in for a noisy two weeks. I heard the first screech of wheels when I got home from work that night.

"Debito," my wife said, "I got a strange letter. It's upstairs on the dinner table."

I ran up. Fortunately, it was not addressed to anyone in person. It read:


and it went on to claim, inter alia, that Izawa was a trickster making political hay out of this situation. Did he not actually support this proposal? It was passed by the town council. So was his resignation in fact not a means for him to unseat the mayor and destroy a plan that would carry our town into the 21st Century?

It was signed, with no name or telephone number reference, as the "Society to Protect Nanporo Citizens From The Circulation of Rumors" (Nanporo Choumin o Fuuhyou no Rufu o Mamoru Kai). Postmarked from Sapporo and thus virtually untracable.

I was furious. I called up the members of our network and they had all received it too by regular post. "This is terrorism, an act of character assassination! [my words: hyouban ansatsu, which they understood] How dare they not have the guts to stand by their words and tell us who they are!" They agreed with me and assured me that Izawa was aware of it. Then they added:

"But did you also see the Hoppou Journal?"

The what? I soon hung up and asked my wife for it. It was a glossy A4 size full color magazine, like any other you'd find on the racks. Said my wife poignantly: "We don't have a subscription to it yet it appeared gratis in our mailbox. One issue costs 880 yen! How much did this person spend to send this to us?"

I flipped it open. In classic Shuukanshi style, the scandal paper had a six-page spread damning Izawa as a turncoat and a disrespectful one at that--given Takeuchi's long tenure and all the good he had done for Nanporo. Lionizing and demonizing with no shades of grey. To top that off, there was a page-each interview with Takeuchi and Izawa on opposing sides, explaining their positions. Izawa looked a right pratt. No reporter's name was mentioned anywhere.

I called back Suzuki and asked him what this was all about. Sez he: "This interview with Izawa never happened. It's all a fabrication. Izawa is taking out libel charges. Whoever sent this out is trying to destroy his reputation with a slush-fund budget."

And I got the goods on the Hoppou Journal from a friend. It is known as one of the "goro shinbun", or a "racketeering newspapers". This journal, and a surprisingly high number of others, often notify public figures that they are going to do a story on them. And it is not at all favorable. So, according to one of the "tacit understandings" (anmoku no ryoukai) that pervade Japanese society, if one small contribution, euphemistically called "shuzai hi" (data-collecting costs) in the accounting books, is made to the newspaper, the story gets pulled or rewritten favorably. This form of blackmail apparently didn't work in this case, and Takeuchi got the good press.

I looked out the window. A car went by with people delivering leaflets. From a town council candidate this time. His leaflet, denouncing "empty-headed politics" (piiman seiji), made me realize that this could get real messy.


Yesterday morning I delivered our blurb about the Town Meeting to the Nanpou, which I wrote and Suzuki printed. Two bureaucrats had me sit down and get social, and what was only going to be a few minutes of repite turned into two cups of tea and two hours of chat. Amazing things I discovered from the point of view of Japan's government:


Anything that could be construed as a political activity is strictly forbidden Japanese public officials, they say. That includes chatting with candidates (or regular folks in public, for that matter) about politics, showing any sort of agreement with a particular side of an issue, even meeting people in private to discuss political issues. Violation of this standard means job dismissal.

I could understand this strictness, provided its actually enforced (and with all of the kan-min settai stuff in the press last year, it's pretty clear that it is followed most imperfectly by the Kasumigaseki elite)--for who indeed wants the bureaucracy, with its tight control of information, to be able to mete out favors like in, say, Indonesia, or to face political reshuffling every time there is an election turnover, like in Britain. Fine.

But the downside is that:


The bureaucracy is often, as the sole purveyor of public goods in a small polity, the monopoly power over public communications. My precious Nanpou is allowed to broadcast events that are in the public interest, such as government directives, or answer questions from the public about bureaucratic matters. What it is not allowed to do, alas, is publish details that do not strictly involve the civil service's mandate. Even if it is an election period, the Nanpou cannot, say, publish a letter each from Takeuchi and Izawa explaining their respective sides towards an issue. Nor can it, even if the facts are correct, print an expose on the corruption of a local company. Nor can it, at any time, publish personal opinions!

This I balked at, until one important caveat in Japanese law was exposed. If a US magazine publishes an article that is deemed damaging and it was written by one of its reporters, the magazine is held liable for libel--with extenuating circumstances if the injured party is a public official or a corporation; however, to the best of my knowledge (corrections welcome), if an individual has his opinion published and it is deemed damaging, the magazine can make a disclaimer along with the published piece that this opinion does not reflect the opinion of the publisher, and thus escape legal reprisal.

In Japan, however, the publisher in all circumstances is held liable. Hence publishing personal opinions is thought too easily abusable and scotched in the name of the public interest! That, coupled with the need to remain apolitical and aloof, emasculates the Japanese bureaucracy's ability to provide publlic fora.

And this brings us to the ill-effects of the "Hokkaido gormless factor":


If the people themselves don't pull their socks up and make their own media, at their own expense and with their own (often untrained or calumnious) editorial policies, there can be no taxpayer-sponsored communication network dealing exclusively with the private sector. Which is why the Nanpou people were willing to be helpful--finally somebody was standing up and saying that they were establishing a communication channel whose goals were phrased the right way. No political party, no religious aspect. Just good clean communication and change.

I was just fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time, jumping on a bandwagon that somebody had already started rolling, adding ballast and momentum as it hurtled towards city hall.

7) CONCLUSION (for now)

I have to draw it to a conclusion here because 1) this essay is too long already and 2) there's so much going on that if I don't get at least this much down on paper my brain begins to get clogged. With the election only ten days away, things shift shape too fast.

Perhaps some of you out there are wondering why I'm bothering to get involved at all? Political activities like this might actually affect my ability to get citizenship.

This is because this election is crucial to our town's future--I see this as a prime opportunity to avoid the mistakes of my hometown. I grew up in a podunkville in Upstate New York, about the same latitude as Nanporo and with a slightly bigger population. That population has been steadily shrinking due to the do-little government and the unmotivated populace. I've heard it's changed nowadays, but when I was living there I could write better songs than Springsteen.

Nanporo could wind up in the same straits. The last election here was four years ago, and as it was uncontested, no ballots were cast. The last contested election was 12 years ago, with a victory for the incumbency. But this time, with the influx of urbanites, there has been a sea change in attitudes and priorities. The last thing I want is for the bed-towners, which I am one of, to lose this election, give up the ghost, never participate in public affairs again, and start leaving town. The bottom line is: the government brought us all the way out here. Now it's time for it to listen to us.

That may in fact happen. There are two candidates running for the mayoral post, and for the town council there are nineteen candidates running for sixteen seats (with no party affiliations except two Communists and one Komeitou). Of those, there are nine opposing the golf course (seven incumbent), nine in favor (six incumbent), and one unclear.

This Sunday, at the public forum I will be emceeing, we will get a better idea where people stand. I will keep you posted.

Dave Aldwinckle

(to see what happened, click here)

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Copyright 1999-2003, Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle, Sapporo, Japan