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Japan: Toyama Kouichi calls for revolution, bloggers reflect on freedom of speech

Toyama Kouichi (from スパイ日記)

“Registered voters! I am Toyama Kouichi. My countrymen! This country is an abomination!”

So began the five minute political speech of gubernatorial candidate and street musician Toyama Kouichi, aired live on Japan's public broadcaster NHK as part of a series of election broadcasts formally allotted to each contender in the Tokyo city elections earlier this month. In the now-famous speech, the 36-year-old “extreme left-wing activist”, formerly imprisoned for two years for “political crimes”, declares that he has not “a single constructive proposal” and that “there is no choice but to abandon this country”, calling on the “people of the minority” to rise up against the majority and “overthrow the government”. Within his anti-establishment tirade, Toyama also made a somewhat endearing request to “please give me a call”, an offer that some people actually took up.

Aside from causing a major stir in Japan and across the world wide web, the video sparked a serious debate on the Internet and in the Japanese blogosphere about freedom of speech and the limits of election campaign laws. While the political speech was not the first of its kind — in 1991, rock-and-roll singer and actor Uchida Yuuya told his rock and roll story in his gubernatorial campaign speech, and in 2004 Matayoshi Jesus ran for office as “the only God” — it was generally acknowledged to have been the most well-choreographed and skilfully executed.

Toyama Kouichi with supporters (from スパイ日記)

Toyama Kouichi and his supporters (from スパイ日記)

At the same time as the various versions of his political speech, posted at YouTube, were drawing hundreds of thousands of views, at his “base of operations” in Kouenji, Tokyo, the real Toyama Kouichi was also causing a stir. An article posted at iza (translated here) described the events on election night:


8pm on the 8th of April. A 5 minute ride on the JR Chuo commuter express line from Shinjuku station, at the South exit of Kouenji station — the “base of operations” for Toyama's gubernatorial election campaign — drinking parties have been held every day during the campaign. On this occasion, already close to 100 of his young supporters had gathered and started watching the TV as the election results came in.

At five minutes past 8pm, Toyama made his appearance riding in on a scooter. Calls for “OUR TOYAMA” echoed through the night sky of Kouenji.

Although Toyama predictably lost the elections (with a surprising 15,059 votes), this did not deter his supporters on election night:


At about 8.30pm, when Ishihara was called the winner, Toyama's supporters called out a cheer: “Ishihara Shintarou Mansei” [Mansei is Korean for “Banzai”], and the excitement reached a climax. By around 9pm, an audience of about 250 people had packed the south exit of Kouenji station, as passengers getting on and off at the station platforms watched and asked each other: “What on earth is going on?”

Now over two weeks later, bloggers have moved on from Toyama's political speech and his election campaign to different topics. Looking back, here's a handful of views expressed on the video and on Toyama himself.

Blogger mesmer describes his reaction upon watching the video:


This managed to get broadcast on NHK. That it was broadcast was an expression of free speech, this election broadcast. Right at the beginning, the announcer said: “An anti-administrative education activist, extreme Left Wing activist, recently imprisoned for 2 years for political crimes, etc….”

 You tube でたっぷり見たり、インタビューを聴いたのち、外山恒一さんを、ウィキペディアで検索すると相当詳しいプロフィールが。とにかくその動きぶりが相当精力的な活動家だ。本もだいぶ出版しているらしい。高等学校教育への強烈な反発がその原点になっているようだ。

After seeing plenty of this on You tube and listening to an interview, I searched for his name on Wikipedia and found a fairly detailed profile. Anyway he's actually a fairly energetic activist. He's also apparently published quite a few books. It seems that his intense revolt against the formal high-school education system was his starting point.

 次は熊本市議選に出るらしいが、当選は元々目的ではなく、また単なる売名行為でもなく、否定するために選挙に出ているという・・・一つには、ニヒリスト的行為ともいえるが、なんだか人が集まってお祭りのようになっているのは、ニヒリストっぽくない。 とらえどころのない人だが、不思議と、理路整然とした顔立ち、理路整然とした行動を感じる人なのだ。 カリスマ、がある。

After this, I hear that he is going to enter the Kumamoto City Council elections, but from the beginning, his aim in running is not to be voted into office, nor is it a publicity stunt; rather he is trying to denounce the elections… In part you could call this nihilistic behaviour, but you know, people gathering together and having a party, that doesn't seem very nihilist-like. He is a difficult person to pin down, in a strange way, I feel that he has the features of someone who is logical and well-reasoned, and his actions are also well-reasoned and coherent. He's got charisma.

Toyama Kouichi playing guitar

Another blogger reflected on the thinking behind the video:


In his performance for the election broadcast, Mr. Toyama declared: “This country will be overthrown”, “Give me one desperate vote”, and gave the finger.

As a result, the appearance [of Toyama] became a topic of conversation on the net, and a cat and mouse game unfolded in which the video was repeatedly uploaded to YouTube and then deleted. In addition, every night, several dozen young people came to Kouenji to have a drink and chat with Mr. Toyama.

Mainly from the Internet, his name recognition all at once shot up and many people came to know Mr. Toyama's name.

I got the feeling that the elections played right into his hands.


However, Mr. Toyama must have planned things well. If you look at videos on the net of Mr. Toyama on an ordinary day, in contrast to the election campaign broadcast, I got the impression that he is a very quiet and polite person.

Mr. Toyama himself says that he anticipated not only that he could take advantage of the fact that the election broadcast would not be altered, but also that it would be uploaded to YouTube and written about in blogs, and so he did that kind of performance. (Of course, since there is a Public Office Election Law, he was thinking about after the elections). Certainly, if you think about how that election broadcast attracted people's interest, it was amazing entertainment.

For him, the gubernatorial election was a space for free expression. His posters are the same. The freedom of written expression is ensured.

The gubernatorial election was about getting the attention of the media and citizens of Tokyo; it was about “freedom of speech” and “freedom of expression”. Nothing could have been better.

Many bloggers remarked on how they came to realize again that freedom of speech exists in Japan. Blogger escalope writes:


I watched the televised broadcast of the election speech of Toyama Kouichi, who is running in a gubernatorial election.
I sensed very strongly that in Japan there is freedom of speech.
Even when he is giving the finger, in Japan, they don't hide it.
Subversion, it's sure been a long time since I've heard that word.
On top of that, this is the gubernatorial election. Amazing. I laughed so hard. Japan banzai!

Toyama Kouichi poster

The truth, however, is that the view that “in Japan there is freedom of speech” runs completely contrary to Toyama's own thinking. At his official webpage, there is in fact an FAQ which sets out his position on the question of freedom of speech very clearly:


“In present-day Japan, there is already no freedom of speech — for example if you just hand out flyers or organize a demo, it's not uncommon that you get arrested. Especially in the past few years these types of events have been happening frequently, but despite this the mass media hardly covers it at all. On this point, when you enter the elections, at least in this short period of time, you are free to do what you want in terms of content, although formally there are various detailed restrictions. The election system is the last fortress of freedom of speech in modern-day Japan — if you really want to try to say something, then other than this there is no way to do it, this is the ridiculous reality. There are notes on the net that stand out, in which people have said that they came to realize again that Japan is a free country when they saw my election broadcast on the web. But this is really a foolish perception. Quite the contrary, the reality is that in this country, it is only within the restrictions of the elections that we enjoy any freedom of speech.”

Blogger Emily at [sub]cultural studies seemed to understand this message better many others when she wrote that:

Elections are terribly bland in this country, based on slanders and backwards promises. That such a candidate is so strongly spoken and, thanks to the internet, has received so much attention is quite a feat. More than anything else I think this shows the power of a vehicle like YouTube on the future of free speech should it be allowed. Extreme (and not so extreme) anti-status quo vehicles are treated notoriously by police and media outlets alike here. “free speech” indeed often has a very small zone, subject to arrest and censorship.

While much has been made of Toyama's video performance, those who dig deeper, or who have met him personally, are aware that the issue of free speech is extremely important to him. A Japanese university student recounts his experience actually meeting Toyama on campus:


On April 1st, I was attending my university entrance ceremony at Waseda University Toyama Campus. I left the ceremony when it finished and went outside, and then I noticed that some members of a student club were criticizing the university, and a scuffle had started with officials from the university who were trying to stop them.


It seemed interesting, so I went closer to look, and then suddenly Toyama appeared.

He took the club's side and said to the university officials: “Stop your supression of free speech!”

When he did this, the university officials were like: “Who are you?”

Toyama said: “I am a gubernatorial candidate!”, and showed them his banner issued by the Electoral Management Committee.


Then Toyama also joined in the dispute, and a police officer showed up.

When the university officials demanded that Toyama be removed, the officer said: “He is a gubernatorial candidate, so I cannot do that. According to the public office election law, he has an acknowledged right to campaign freely.” And then, instead of removing Toyama, the officer removed the university officials.

You can imagine how excited the protesting people and Toyama were.

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