The other day I met up with Christian Dimmer. Christian is doing research at Tokyo University on contested public spaces. He recently wrote a piece for the Japan Times which tied together the building of the aquarium in our own Umekoji Park with the controversial privatisation of Miyashita Park in Shibuya, and plans to level parts of Shimokitazawa in Tokyo to construct yet more unnecessary roadworks. What each of these cases have in common is a classic top-down approach to decision making, where the future use of public space is decided by a few politicians in secretive deals with their business cronies. The controversy arises because the public are demanding more of a say in how their public spaces are disposed of. In an open address to the Prime Minister, Christian wrote: “Mr. Kan, the future of the collective resource of public space should be broadly discussed by all members of society and not decided from the top down by a few. Public space has become an endangered species and it needs your protection.”
Anyway, while talking to Christian, he told me about the open-air protest “Kubi Kubi” cafe at Kyoto University’s Yoshida campus – and we decided to go and take a look at it. For the last two years members of the oddly-named temporary workers union “Extasy” have been protesting against the university’s policy of not renewing contracts to temporary personnel who have worked for five years. In other words after five years of service it’s “kubi” or “the axe” for you and you get the sack. Union Extasy was founded by Masaya Inoue and Kyohei Ogawa, two former librarians who lost their own jobs when their contracts failed to be renewed. Union members have been holding a two-year sit in at the “Kubi Kubi Cafe” – a make-shift venue which until recently stood beneath the camphor tree in front of the university’s iconic clock tower. They have recently been forced by the advent of some rather meaningless repaving of the area to move the cafe to the southern gate. They remain singularly determined however, no matter how cold the weather.
This month their case will be decided. Labor law does actually state that a reason must be given for non renewal of contract after a working period of two years so maybe they have a chance of winning? If not, I’m afraid that 100 temporary staff members will lose their jobs this April…
After visiting the cafe, Christian and I paid a brief visit to the famously dilapidated Yoshida-ryo dormitory. This century-old wooden building is so run-down it’s sublime! A true piece of student heritage that the university is forever threatening to demolish… But you can read more about that in Roy Berman’s delightful photo-essay here.
And here’s some breaking news! I’ve just learned from facebook & twitter that the university made a serious attempt to shut down the cafe today and evict union members from their current posts at the university gates. They met, it seems, with strong resistance from the protestors and have since relented and given back the signs they had removed from the site. Here’s Roy Berman’s on-the-spot picture of Union members arguing with University staff. For the time being Kubi Kubi cafe still stands. If you happen to be in the area why not stop by for a chat and some fresh roasted coffee? One cup is only 150 yen.
There’s a very nice write-up (in English!) on the history of Kubi Kubi Cafe and what makes it so special here.
Many thanks to Christian Dimmer for introducing me to a bit of local protest culture!