This was my entry into the World Nomads Scholarship and was originally published here.
Shinjuku is one of the twenty-three city wards of Tokyo with a population of over 300 000 and the busiest train station in the world. Hotels, offices, and businesses jostle for space in the densely populated second ‘centre’ of the city, alongside Japan’s biggest red light district. Visiting it in the daylight is shady – but after sunset, it explodes into shameless, attention-grabbing neon. Shinjuku also houses the country’s most out-there gay neighbourhood, in Ni-chome (2nd Block), where the perfectly groomed go out to let their hair down (then restyle).
Though attitudes towards homosexuality in Japan have changed over the last decade, queer society still resides on the margins: its taboo history flusters the conservative Japanese. So it’s no surprise you’ll find other dissidents using Ni-chome as headquarters. On the fringe of the ‘gaybourhood’ sits Cafe Lavanderia, an activist/artist-run space cum cafe cum bookshop. Inspired by South American revolutionaries, spouses Yumiko and Takahiro have created a hub to take on the Man.
I popped in one afternoon and found myself amid preparations to protest the corporate acquisition of a public square by Nike. Surrounded by flags of Basque Country and Australian Aborigines, I spoke to the couple about Japanese national identity while they prepared the protest banners. We talked about the shame of the past (the red sun insignia of the country is associated with a military history, explaining its absence in civic spaces, and abundance only at sporting events), and the future-looking capitalist mentality that they fear is deteriorating the socialist undercurrents of their society.
DIY culture has little traction in Japan, so when Yumiko found out I made zines back home, she enthusiastically gifted me two self-published books of her own. Delicate and handcrafted – they were as perfect and professional as only a Japanese punk could make. I sipped my homemade ginger ale while she introduced me to the resident kitten, Zapata, named by the musician, Manu Chao’s dad. Her husband was then compelled to show me his collection of Latin American pop records – his enthusiasm for the music was unbridled, as was his passion for counter-consumer culture. But I pondered how small an activist’s voice must be in this flat, business suit-grey ocean of skyscrapers.
I couldn’t attend the protest, so thanked them for their stories and joined the river of people outside, winding past brand names and yen signs into the train station.