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Varieties of anti-surveillance activism in Japan

August 10, 2009

Although some progressive activists would like it to be otherwise, anti-surveillance feeling is not confined to the left, indeed in many countries, like the USA, libertarian individualist right-wing anti-surveillance activism is perhaps more common. And it seems that such a position is not unusual in Japan either.

Having returned from a weekend of hot springs, fine sake-tasting and eating way too much, today we met with the Mayor of the Suginami ward of Tokyo, Hiroshi Yamada, a prominent figure in the anti-juki-net campaign, and a also one of the leaders of a group of right-wing figures trying to promote a new nationalist grouping at that end of the Japanese political spectrum. But this new right is not at all a simple matter of ‘back to the 1930s’ that some commentators would have you believe. Yes, this group – which also includes the Mayors of major cities including Yokohama and Nagoya as well as popular journalists like Yoshiko Sakurai – has very conservative, revisionist views, on Japanese history, but in many ways they have far more in common with the new US libertarian right in their rejection of large state and high taxes, and in other areas too, for example Sakurai has rather unscientific views on climate change!

Part of the this libertarian outlook is the rejection of state intrusion into the private lives of individuals. Mayor Yamada saw the juki-net system as part of unwelcome movement towards a more top-down society, concentrating power at the centre. He was very clear that the state’s ability to collect information on the individual should be based on what the individual wanted to give up, not on what the state thought it needed (this is very much the opposite of what the Prime Minister’s IT Strategic HQ said to us last week). He was also most concerned about the risks posed by large databases, both as an attractive target to external hackers and to corrupt use from inside operators. Yamada is not opposed to what he calls IT shakai (IT society), but the use of IT should be based on what is useful to individuals, and of course what is actually he needed, he argued, would often be less expensive than the massive computerisation schemes favoured by the current administration as part of their i-Japan strategy. In this sense, he said he would oppose any move to unnecessary centralised databases and certainly to any possible national ID register or card.

In most respects, what Mayor Yamada said could probably have been said by any left-wing civil liberties activist in the UK, or by conservative right opponents of intrusive state like Conservative ex-Shadow Cabinet Minister, David Davis. Perhaps many aspects of what is felt to be wrong with surveillance society do not correlate neatly with old left-right divisions. This view was shared by Toshimaru Ogura, a Toyama University professor and major figure in left-wing anti-surveillance activism whom we met with just afterwards, along with campaigning journalist, Midori Ogasawara again. Just as the Convention on Modern Liberty event earlier in the year showed for the UK, there are many different varieties of anti-surveillance feeling in Japan, and whilst opponents may disagree with each other, and may even find other aspects of the politics of their erstwhile collaborators utterly distasteful, they do collaborate, even if it is only for short periods.

Professor Ogura’s analysis, as that of Ogasawara and indeed of Kanshi-no! whom we met the other day, is much more focused on the way in which surveillance excludes and discriminates – against union members, activists, gaikokujin (foreigners) and so on – and also the ways in which it favours the interests not just of the state but capital. We’ll be talking to groups who deal with the concerns of these excluded people in the last week we are here. Privacy is important, but Ogura’s analysis is concerned with the disproportionate effects of surveillance. It is not just that privacy is affected but that particular groups’ and individuals’ rights are damaged more than others, and those people are not generally the ‘ordinary taxpayers’ to whom Yamada and the libertarian right are trying to appeal.

Like me, Professor Ogura is also particularly interested in the way in which particular corporations and business coalitions pushing technological ‘solutions’ to social and organisational problems can have a profound influence the way government makes decisions. Such coalitions would still be there however large government was, and in some ways, without a government large enough to stand up to the private sector, a different kind of more purely market-driven surveillance society would emerge. In that sense, it is what government does, and to whom it responds, that is more important that more arbitrary questions of ‘size’.

There’s a lot more to consider here too, in particular the extent to which any of the things we consider under the umbrella of ‘surveillance’ are actually and actively part of some coordinated state (or other) plan. I’m starting to develop a sense of this here, but I will leave those thoughts to another post.

(Thank-you to Mayor Hirioshi Yamada, Professor Ogura Toshimaru and again, to Midori Ogasawara for being so generous with their valuable time).

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