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Letter from Japan: Fight the Power
In search of 'Radical Joichi'
By PETER McKILLOP

December 3, 1999
Web posted at 3 a.m. Hong Kong time, 2 p.m. EDT


You've gotta love those zany protesters in Seattle. Demonstrating is the fun part of democracy. For many Americans, it is one of the first things we learn. My first protest was against a snowplow. I used to live at the bottom of a hill in Washington, D.C., where it does not snow much, so when it did, we relished the chance to sled down the icy hill. Of course, those hills were a nasty surprise for cars, so hours after the snow stopped, the mean snowplow would arrive. My first act of civil disobedience occurred when I was 9 and was much like what I saw in Seattle this week. With our sleds, we linked hands and made a human chain across the street, blocking the progress of the snowplow and shouting, "Hell no, we want snow!"

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In the 1970s, we protested everything from the illegal invasion of Cambodia to gas station lines to disco music. My favorite protester was "Radical George." He was a fellow student at my American college in Connecticut. Radical George owned a beat-up station wagon. Every weekend, he would fill it with protest signs and drive around New England in search of a good cause. On a typical weekend he might first be in New Hampshire trying to close down a nuclear power plant. He would then race down the highway to join a candlelight vigil against the Ku Klux Klan in Connecticut. He would then end the weekend at Yale University at a sit-in to protest endowment investments in apartheid South Africa.

I thought protesting had pretty much died with victory being declared against many of the cause célèbres of the '60s and '70s. Nelson Mandela went from prison to presidential palace in South Africa. How could one keep protesting the hunting of whales when most had been eaten? The U.S. limped out of Vietnam and the CIA stopped funding nun-murdering death squads in El Salvador.

So it was a pleasant surprise to see that this grand democratic tradition is hardly sleepless in Seattle. Now the target is the WTO, or the "World Takeover Organization." There are at least 500 groups who have a beef against the trade group, ranging from Costa Rican Indians to turtle lovers to Canadian librarians.

Frankly, I have never really cared about the root causes of any protest--I just love the democratic pageantry of a good street fight. I particularly enjoy the way scruffy protesters get under the skin of their outraged targets. It always amazes me just how easy it is to push the buttons of the rich and powerful. I mean do they really think that all their money, slick PR or authoritative intimidation tactics can squelch the incendiary zeal of youthful outrage? Get real.

The other great secret about street theater is that, contrary to what you read in the newspapers or watch on television, these demonstrations actually work. While the targets of the protests always claim they were not intimidated, the truth is they have a huge impact. Nixon secretly brooded in the White House for years watching the Vietnam War marches outside his window. President Reagan stopped his foolish talk about winning nuclear wars after 2 million nuclear-freeze advocates clogged the streets of New York in June 1982. And the entrenched regimes of kleptocrats in the Philippines and Indonesia collapsed almost overnight after dismissing massive "people power" demonstrations. I can guarantee you that from now on, the WTO will think twice about ignoring the plight of turtle eggs.

Corporations, particularly in the Internet age, ignore real grassroots protests at their own peril. You can bet Monsanto rues the day it decided to sneer at taunts of "Frankenfood." Shell Oil is now spending millions to explain its way out of an environmental and political quagmire in Nigeria.

So what does protesting in Seattle have to do with Japan, which is the reason for this column? Nothing. And that is the problem. Japan needs to unleash the joy of protest beyond those dorky sound trucks driven by rightwing zealots. Japanese youth need to look beyond their high-heeled platform shoes and glam-rock haircuts and wipe those sullen smirks off their apathetic faces. What Japan needs is a good riot. So all you bored teens, pocket the I-mode, grab a chunk of concrete and start getting in the face of authority. Don't know how? Just watch the fun in Seattle.

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