Transnational Teach-in: Tokyo’s Criminalization of Houselessness

By Cerianne Robertson

“The communities unhoused residents have built over a long time are being destroyed for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.” This was the main message of Misako Ichimura, an unhoused community organizer in Tokyo and member of the anti-Olympic group, Hangorin no Kai, as she spoke to a Zoom audience of around 60 on Saturday. 

The occasion: the first in a series of transnational teach-ins organized by NOlympics LA. The topic: the criminalization of houselessness in Tokyo ahead of the 2020(/2021) Olympics. 

On a day of global protests against the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, the themes of police brutality and discrimination carried a sense of pain and urgency that was palpable throughout the event. 

The conversation was facilitated by Theo Henderson, a black, unhoused organizer from Los Angeles and the host of the We The Unhoused podcast. The protests, he said, “are very personal for me because I’m black and because I’m unhoused. I’ve had a lot of negative experiences with police officers.” He spoke of the stigma and harassment facing unhoused people in the United States, and how it intersects with a legacy of anti-black racism.

Ichimura paused before responding. She described a recent incident in which three kids came to the park where she lives and threw branches and stones at her tent village. “They’re just kids,” she said, “but they already have a strong sense of discrimination. And we didn’t get really hurt, but it really pained our hearts.” When members of her community spoke to the police, the police said it was their own fault they were attacked because they sleep in the park. “I believe it is important to have a space where people in a similar situation can share their experiences, so our hearts do not get destroyed. We can share experiences so we don’t get isolated.” 

This, in a nutshell, is a key purpose of NOlympics LA’s teach-in series: to create a space for communities threatened by the Olympic Games to connect across borders and share their struggles — their realities, their pain, but also their knowledge, tactics, and visions for a better world. 

In Tokyo, Ichimura said, there are three main ways the Olympics have threatened the unhoused community: forced removals, installations that prevent people from sleeping in public spaces, and the creation of an overall “atmosphere that makes poor people feel like they’re not welcome.” 

Ichimura was joined by two fellow members of Hangorin no Kai, Kumiko Sudo and Ayako Yoshida. All three knew early on that the Olympics would bring trouble. “I had a precarious job, living paycheck to paycheck,” Yoshida recalled of the time when Tokyo was bidding to host the 2020 Games. “And I also became homeless myself. And at that time, I knew that if the Olympics were to come to our city, I had heard from people in other cities, that it would be very violent against people. So that’s why I joined this movement” against the Olympics. 

Drawing connections between cities, Henderson reflected on the dominant narratives of pride and success that surround Los Angeles’ 1984 Games, and asked whether the same nostalgia exists in Japan for Tokyo’s 1964 Games. Sudo admitted that she herself used to think positively of the 1964 Olympics, but digging into its history revealed stories of evictions from public housing and dedicated PR efforts to cover up opposition. Yoshida shared that the public school curriculum mandates at least 35 hours per year of Olympics content, which she described as “brainwashing propaganda.” 

Although racism may look different compared to the United States, the panelists pointed to the way that the 2020 Games have fueled nationalism and xenophobia in Japan. “The ruling class talks about the Olympics as if there’s only Japanese people in Japan,” Ichimura reflected. She added that Indigenous people, minorities, and immigrants are relegated either to precarious labor forces (including for construction on Olympic venues) or to objectification in superficial cultural shows. As Sudo described how police violence “often takes the form of stopping people and asking them questions” and arrests without charge, Henderson nodded along, recognizing the clear parallels. Fortunately, panelists shared another parallel: recent protests against police brutality. Participants in a demonstration last week in Shibuya denounced both local police violence against a Kurdish immigrant and anti-black police violence in the United States.

Pointing out that most anti-Olympics campaigns come to an end when the five-ring circus leaves town, London-based anti-Olympics organizer Julian Cheyne asked whether Hangorin no Kai had drawn lessons from previous campaigns and whether they would continue their struggle after the Tokyo Games wrapped up. Sudo replied: “By knowing the situation of what happened in past Olympics, we’re able to understand and be prepared to fight the Olympics. So connections to the previous sites are really helpful. We’re hoping that at least up until the Los Angeles Olympics we will keep fighting in support.” Yoshida piped up to add that they hoped to stop the Olympics entirely before the 2028 LA Games.

An anti-Olympics organizer from Seoul, Morae River, asked about public opinion regarding the Tokyo Games given covid-19. Ichimura said that postponement, rather than cancellation, was a “worst-case scenario” from Hangorin no Kai’s perspective, drawing out the damage inflicted on their city and country. That said, she acknowledged, the public clamor for cancelling the Games has never been greater in Japan. 

Perhaps, she added, there was another silver lining to the pandemic. “Today it’s amazing how we are connected worldwide” for the transnational teach-in. “Maybe this is an upside of the pandemic.” 

The transnational teach-in series continues this Saturday, June 13, 6pm (PST), with a discussion on environmental destruction for the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics, led by the Anti Pyeongchang Olympics Alliance. Email to RSVP.