Monday, February 04, 2008

Nikkyōso Convention Canceled; Civil Society, Administrative Branch at Fault

The Japan Teachers Union (Nikkyōso) is regarded as one of the more leftist-pacifist labor unions in Japan. This, and the fact that its members are responsible in large measure for developing the hearts and the minds of children, have put it at loggerheads with the LDP and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. It has also been the target of attacks, verbal and worse, from right-wing organizations.

Nikkyōso’s annual national get-together, the National Conference on Educational Research, is no exception. In fact, the national exposure it receives makes it the Super Bowl of sorts for right-wing activists, who gather at the site of the conference plenary in the thousands, camouflage gear, darkly painted vehicles and all, to stage lengthy, noisome protests. Thus, it is not always easy to find a hotel or other suitable convention center willing to host the main event, and Nikkyōso has on occasion had to resort to law suits to force venues that wanted to back out of commitments. This year’s event, scheduled to be held on February 2 came down to the wire, as the Tokyo High Court upheld a temporary injunction declaring the contract with Grand Prince Hotel Takanawa valid.

But this year’s event had a new twist. For Grand Prince Hotel Takanawa chose to ignore the injunction altogether and go ahead with another event contracted after they had decided to break the contract. Nikkyōso had no choice but to cancel the main event, and is considering suing the Hotel for damages. The Japanese mainstream media are understandably upset at this turn of events, and Asahi, Mainichi, and Yomiuri (but not - yet - Sankei*) have come out with editorials condemning this turn of events.

The said editorials rightly see this as a threat to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. But they focus their criticism on the hotel for ignoring the injunction, and see it as a show of disrespect for the judiciary. Which I think is completely wrong.

Typical of the thinking behind the criticism is the following excerpt from Asahi:

Although the hotel is owned by a private company, by the very nature of its business, it essentially operates as a public facility.

This is very dangerous thinking. The hotel is owned and operated by a private-sector, for-profit corporation. As such, the corporate entity enjoys none of the privileges of a public-interest or non-profit entity, the quid pro for the restrictions under which the latter operates. Conversely, it is free to operate within, of course, the constraints imposed by the laws and customs of the land.

Remember, the hotel is not doing anything illegal. The court decision in question is a declaratory injunction. To be enforced requires another court decision. Did the hotel act cravenly? Perhaps. But it merely decided not to honor its contract, which is not that uncommon as business decisions go. A contract has been breached, but no contract law or civil procedures law is being called into question here.

What has happened is something more far-reaching than the media believes to be the case: a failure on the part of civil society. A fellow member is unable to exercise its rights and fulfill its obligations in order to conduct its business according to the land and customs of the land. Civil society has failed to protect its individual members. This is a communal failure and, as such, calls for a communal response. The media has spoken on behalf of civil society as a whole, but for only Nikkyōso, and somewhat misguidedly at that. In fact, the rights of the hotel, a private-sector business, to conduct its normal line of business is also being violated. It is the responsibility of hotelier associations and business federations (say, the chambers of industry and commerce) to act jointly to counter future infringements of their members’ rights.

Some members of civil society are more equal than others and carry an added responsibility. For example, Nippon Budokan, the preferred site for major professional sports events and pop concerts (think, Madison Square Garden meets Carnegie Hall), has in the past been sued, successfully, by Nikkyōso. It is important to realize that Nippon Budokan is a public-interest entity, which enjoy income-tax privileges and as such should be particularly careful about denying future requests to act as venue, lest it be accused of playing political favors in its revenue-earning activities.

In the government, the administrative branch, including in this case the Tokyo prefectural government, is also presumptively at fault for not providing civil society with an environment in which events undesirable to pressure groups can be held. Whatever their feelings for Nikkyōso may be, Fukuda administration and Governor Ishihara should be among the first to speak out on this matter.

This is of particular importance when the victims are those that you perceive as your opponents. For if you do not speak out in support of your enemies, then you surely cannot expect them to defend your rights**. And what greater denial of the communality that is the essence of civil society can there be than that?

Incidentally, a firm statement, carefully crafted, would go quite a long way in restoring confidence in a lackluster Fukuda administration without alienating anyone but the hardcore right-wing, which isn’t in Mr. Fukuda’s corner anyway. Doesn’t anyone around the Prime Minister have some imagination***?

* Don’t come down too hard on Sankei. The entire English-language media, including the wire services, have also passed on it so far.

** Yomiuri feels compelled to point out in its editorial that at other events, speeches have been canceled in the past due to pressure from the left as well.

*** In the LDP’s defense, I must mention that I can’t find anything about the matter on the DPJ website either. Or the Socialists'. Or the Communists'. Doesn’t anyone want to hug the teachers?


Tim Footman said...

I know little about the Japanese legal system, but is does breach of contract not incur sanctions under civil (not criminal) law? Should the union not be entitled to compensation (with a side order of punitive damages) against the hotel? This isn't a case of the hotel refusing to host the conference (the hotel's right as a private entity); it's about agreeing to do something, then getting cold feet. If you can't trust a mutually agreed contract, much of modern business practice falls to bits.

More importantly, can't someone do something about the socially retarded thugs in their black vans? I can't help thinking that if a real war broke out, as they seem to wish, they'd all be running back to mummy, pleading the equivalent of 4F.

Jun Okumura said...

Tim, the hotel can be sued, no doubt successfully, for damages. However, the story won't end there. The teachers union can force it (or any other venue) to enter into a contract, so the problem remains, year after year. That is why we need collective action, and a little push from the top.

Most people I've talked here to believe that there are fewer such vans on the streets. I believe that there are several reasons for this:

1) Economics: The "Lost Decade" has forced them to get some real work. Even teh yakuza have be relying on outsourcing and temps.

2) Demographics: There are fewer young people to recruit from.

3) IT: Video games, the Internet, and cell phones that can lap the i-Pod are taking too much of their leisure hours.

4) Regulation: Local laws have heped cut down on the noise.

Having said that, this is one case where less is always more.

MTC said...

Okumura-san -

Do you have any sense that the hotel management might have cancelled because they realized whatever fallout would be not be their problem but the problems of the main owners of the Seibu Group--which I believe is Cerberus?

Jun Okumura said...

I’m pretty sure that I don’t understand your question, MTC, but let's see if this makes sense to you:

1. Did coldly-calculated, bottom-line considerations prevail because the hotel was under Cerberus-approved management? Maybe, maybe not.

2. Did hotel management discuss the matter with Cerberus? Well, Cerberus appears to be represented on the board at the Seibu group holding company, so it might have been aware of the matter in any case.

3. Did hotel management say to themselves, let’s take the easy way out and cave, then let Cerberus, our main shareholder, take the heat; they’re gaijin, so they won’t know what’s going on? Unlikely. See 2.