Alinsky in Japan

New Orleans   My friend and colleague in Japan, Ken Yamazaki, is a researcher and scholar in addition to being an advocate for community organizing.   Before, during, and after visiting Tokyo and speaking there at his invitation last fall, he often asked me if I had any information or proof that Saul Alinsky visited Japan.  My only answer was always that I knew from many visits and conversations with organizers in the Philippines and Korea that he had visited those countries, but that I had never heard that he visited Japan, though it seemed possible that he might have done so.

Recently Ken sent me several links to various documents more than 30 years old which he felt established that Alinsky had visited his country.   Reading them though, I’m still left with the same conclusion that it’s possible, but Ken still doesn’t have the evidence he’s looking to find.  We can get to the heart of the matter though, and I’ve emailed Denis Murphy, the real evangelist of community organizing in Asia, to get a definitive answer, but my last email to Denis bounced back, so until we can settle this once and for all, I’ll share what Dr. Yamazaki has unearthed, which is interesting in its own right.

Ken had found a reference to Alinsky visiting Asian countries in an article published by “Cross and Circle” in 1982 that referenced the 10-year anniversary report of  the Asian Committee for Peoples’ Organizations (ACPO) founded in 1971.  ACPO had first been ACCO with the “CO” standing for Community Organization.  The Urban Industrial Mission officials had met with the Jesuit Provincial in Asia and he had dispatched one of his priests, Denis Murphy from New York City, a Jesuit at the time based in the Philippines, to visit various Asian cities to evaluate the work within their network and to determine the interest of Catholic groups in those locations in participating in a wider organizing network.  In a meeting in Kyoto, Denis delivered a report on his visit that reaffirmed the initial proposition based on his travels, and subsequently ACPO was founded to support such community organizing initiatives in Asia.

Ken focuses on these two parts of the report, first, that a Japanese priest was appointed as the initial chair of the effort:  “ACPO was formed in March 1971, we had four officers, Masao Takenaka (Chairman), Oh Jae Shik from EACC-UIM and Denis Murphy and Jose Blanco from CASCO (Catholic Asian Committee on Community Organisation).”  And, then secondly, that early in ACPO’s history they invited Saul Alinsky to visit Asia:   “In fact ACPO invited Saul Alinsky to Asia. In 1971, he visited some of the urban community networks in Asia.”  This is the visit often mentioned by organizers in Manila and Seoul where “peoples’ organizations” did evolve with the hard work of Murphy and many others and the initial spark of Alinsky and follow-up by Herb White.  Who is to quibble?  The evidence produced still doesn’t say Alinsky went to Japan, and I’ve never heard that he did, but it still is logical that if he visited Seoul and Manila for certain, that he would have passed through Tokyo as well.

More interesting to me from the “Cross and Circle” story were the summary conclusions of the organizers after a debriefing session with Alinsky.

(1) In Asia so many countries are experiencing the closed society under strong government control, sometimes even under the military rule. This makes it very difficult to apply straightaway the CO method which is relevant to the open society where free democratic discussion and action are maintained. We have to seek to find the Asian way to organise people.

(2) One of the key concerns of organising people is to understand and utilise the local culture of the people. For instance, use of humour is a very important factor. This means understanding of Asian sensitivity and local language. Religious and social practices of the people are very vital factors in organising work.

(3) We cannot talk about Asia as one unified entity. In reality Asia has so many diversities and differences. Therefore, we would like to have at least one solid training programme in each Asian country. We are still striving to reach this goal. After all, the most significant characteristic of Asians is found in the people who embody Asian sensitivity and Asian spirit.

The realization by all involved that marginal political freedom would alter the organizing models developed in the United States, that local cultures were critical to the success, and that each country would pose different challenges and adaptations, seems right on the mark and challenges frequent critiques of community organizations being able to apply a “cookie cutter” approach.

Ken Yamazaki, having reviewed the literature more deeply, believes he has the answer for why community organizing did not develop from these encouraging beginnings in Japan in the 1970’s as well, regardless of whether Alinsky visited or not.

…I also found other papers explain the reason why community organizing diminished in Japan. It says Japan had a different tradition to save poor people especially homeless or day laborers. That activity is advanced and more developed. But I don’t support the idea. I think real reason is [that the organizing was] too close to the religious institutions. If the origin of the organization in Japan was closer to labor related organizations, I think [it would have been more successful].

As we talk more about community organization’s future in Japan, all of these insights are invaluable.

Alinsky in Japan Audio Blog


Notes on Japan for My Father

Seoul  The economic news from Japan is grim.  Exports, the lifeblood of much of the country’s economy was down 10% in September to the lowest point in 30 years reflecting the continuing aftershock of the worldwide recession, aggravated by a currently unresolved land and trade dispute with China that led the downturn.  One person I visited recently commented sharply that the new government in power after decades of effective one-party rule, simply didn’t have the relationships in China and elsewhere to solve problems in the back channels with the finesse and face saving that is a mandatory requirement in this part of the world.  Regardless, you wouldn’t know there was even an economic hiccup in Tokyo or Sendai which were maintained so spotlessly that seeing a piece of litter almost provoked a double-take from me each morning if I beat the sweepers out.  Major construction in downtown Tokyo also seemed to be roaring forward.

My father, a WWII navy veteran was typical of that generation in being tight lipped about the war, partly because he spent much of it in the NROTC at Milsaps and Tulane preparing to be a lieutenant.  He shipped out finally for the far east after the war was effectively decided, hitting a number of ports after a Pacific crossing including Tokyo, though that’s as much as I really ever heard him say.  Nonetheless there’s little doubt that had he been with me, he would have been surprised, if not astounded, at this almost obsessively ultra-modern country and its third largest global economy.

Here are some random notes, he would have enjoyed, as you might as well:

  • Signage is ubiquitous and very, very detailed!

  • There are public facilities, but this isn’t India, and they are dignified and discrete.

  • This is vending machine heaven!  The popular bottles of green tea drunk by people everywhere turned out to have a Coca-Cola label on the top of the bottle.

  • New since my last visit was 40-inch hard barrier blocking the Metro tracks from the push of commuters, broken only by the automatically opening gates.  I was told, perhaps correctly, that the city had built these barriers in the six-years since my last visit because too many salarymen a little tipsy from some after work libations were falling fatally on the tracks.  Something had to be done, so they did it.

  • There’s a lot of smoking still, but best be careful where (even though many public restaurants still allow smoking surprisingly), even outside on the street, where there are constant warnings.

  • Remember when Japan was the gold standard for electronics?  They seem to feel that they still are, especially if you pause for a second and try to take the full measure of a parking meter.  Remember when they were simply metal stumps that swallowed coins?

  • Not everything is new wave, because in our work there’s still a bit of old school.  Both the police and a number of protestors sport plain plastic megaphones around their necks to give raised voices something of non-electronic boost.

  • The leaflets may be multi-colored with glossy paper and galloping graphics, but collating is still by hand just as it was more than 40 years ago when I first made flyers and shuffled them together with forms in welfare rights.

  • Anime “animals” of all shapes and sizes are pervasive and Hello Kitty is still out of control but that sort of playful or infantile imagery still gave me no response when I was asked about the full-bodied “frog” at the Anti-Poverty Campaign rally, I could only say, “Was that a frog?