A letter from Japan: Berkeley inspires peace movement

By Steve Freedkin Special to the Daily Planet
Tuesday March 19, 2002

OSAKA, Japan — Berkeley activists have no idea. Sure, we realize our efforts at building a more just, barrier-free, environmentally sound community have made a difference in the lives of people living in our town. We may even realize that some other U.S. communities have adopted a few of our better ideas. 

But here in Japan, halfway around the world in a country whose culture pre-dates ours by thousands of years, peace and justice activists have elevated our fair city to a virtual Valhallah, and have dedicated themselves to emulating our way of life. 

I am in Japan at the invitation and expense of Linking Peace and Life (LPL), a grassroots group that brings together activists focused on a range of progressive causes. I will be meeting with activists and public officials in Osaka, Sakai, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Kyoto, Kobe, and Hirakata through March 25. 


Afghanistan Resolution Attracts Attention 

Berkeley first came to LPL’s attention in late September, when our City Council passed (just barely) a resolution condemning the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and calling for an end to the bombing of Afghanistan as soon as possible. Since that time, LPL has sent a succession of delegations to Berkeley to express their thanks and to study our approaches to environmental protection, disability rights, homelessness, and ethnic harmony. (They love the multi-ethnic theme of our city logo.) Most particularly, they are fascinated by Berkeley’s extensive system of citizen advisory commissions. 

Their awe of our community can be discerned in the title of the peace conference at which I spoke Sunday: “Advance with Berkeley To Create Peaceful Communities.” Though our town may seem far from perfect to us, in the eyes of these Japanese justice advocates we are a powerful inspiration. Seeing the meeting rooms adorned with the Berkeley logo, hearing the speeches peppered with frequent references to “Buh-kuh-lee,” meeting public officials and community leaders who look to us for inspiration and guidance, one is overwhelmed by the impact our local efforts are having on this side of the international dateline. 


Young People Especially Inspired 

Among the activists I've met in my first two days in Osaka, I've been heartened by the young people who are particularly enamored of Berkeley and seek to learn from us how to organize for social change. 

Tetsu Okada, 18, feels he was born 40 years too late and on the wrong side of the Pacific. Inspired by reading Berkeley in the ‘60s and studying the hippie govement (which, he says, inspired his long hair), the philosophy graduate student hopes someday to live in a commune, but worries that flower-power ideals may have been found to be unrealistic. Speaking fluent English peppered with frequent exclamations of “that’s cool,” he plans to move to London and volunteer with homeless activists in the squatter’s movement. (Osaka has about 6,000 homeless, according to an LPL official.) He is seeking contacts with Berkeley co-housing communities and with Berkeleyans promoting alternative energy. 

Miha Kawashima, a personal aide to disabled people in Kyoto, is organizing the Earth Day parade in her city on April 21, and hopes to have an exchange of greetings between that event and Berkeley’s Earth Day festival. She is interested in promoting community self-governance, and in protecting the dugong, the manatee-like sea mammal whose habitat is threatened by U.S. plans for a new military base off the coast of Okinawa at Japan's southern end. 

According to Misao Inoue, the LPL leader who invited me and is coordinating my visit, the influx of young activists into the Japanese peace-and-justice community began after Sept. 11, as cynicism has given way to heightened desire to take action. To make the younger activists welcome, grassroots organizations have adjusted their meeting styles, abandoning the formal, highly structured speech-making format in favor of dialogue interspersed with protest songs, skits, and cultural performances. Public outreach activities have included setting up wireless Internet terminals in public places where passersby can stop and send messages to public officials. LPL has gathered thousands of petition signatures since Sept. 11 and held major demonstrations, including one that numbered in the thousands. 


City-Level Strategy Inspired by Berkeley 

Japanese peace activists, whose efforts in the past have been more symbolic and educational, are now working overtime to develop approaches that can change national and international policies. To LPL’s strategists, Berkeley’s actions are a guide. In Japan, citizen input at the national level is quite limited. Policies are set by the political parties, and elected officials rarely stray from them.  

Legislators seldom speak at public events or meet with citizens. Inspired by Berkeley, LPL has devised a strategy of pressuring local governments to take stands on national and global issues as a way to affect Japan’s national leadership. It may prove more effective here than in the U.S. 

The effort is already showing results. Hidetoshi Oguri, an LPL member from Tokyo, said the Tokyo city council adopted his group’s Afghanistan proposal unanimously. Considering the 5-4 vote in Berkeley, perhaps we're observing another instance of the old maxim, “the student soon surpasses the teacher.” 


Steve Freedkin, a member of Berkeley's Peace and Justice Commission and publisher of the activist Web site ProgressivePortal.org, is in Japan for 11 days of meetings with grassroots activists and public officials.