Alinsky in Japan

International Organizing

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