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positions: east asia cultures critique 10.1 (2002) 79-110

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Competing Publics:
Citizens' Groups, Mass Media, and the State in the 1960s

Wesley Sasaki-Uemura

Prelude on a Phone Booth

A virtual museum on the internet about public telephones in Japan carries a striking photograph taken in 1945 showing someone who has occupied a public phone booth and set up a bookshop.1 Some 250 of these phone booths remained standing in Tokyo after the war, but only 29 were fully operational. With the postwar housing shortage, some people even took up residence in the booths, although occasionally the structures would burn down when fires that the occupants had lit to keep warm got out of control. The photograph is presented in the context of a narrative about how far Japan has progressed economically from the severe poverty of the immediate postwar period. However, the image also suggests that, free from the grip of the state's wartime control, ordinary people could begin to explore new terrain in the conception of public space and enact alternative formulations of the public sphere. Japan's defeat in the war provided the opportunity for [End Page 79] competing ideas of the public sphere to play themselves out in a number of political controversies and social protests in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The picture of the phone booth occupant prompts several questions regarding how people thought about public space and social life in postwar Japan. In what way were facilities such as parks, public bathrooms, and pay phones open to the public? Did these spaces and utilities continue to be seen as gifts bestowed by the authorities on the masses for common use but not possessed by the public? Or might the occupation of the phone booths indicate a rising sense that public facilities were literally common wealth, the distribution of which could be determined at the local level? Did different sectors of Japanese society see themselves as competing publics acting within multiple public spheres?

I would claim that at the beginning of the 1960s, citizens' groups increasingly sought alternative formulations of the public sphere in ways that often challenged the operative ideas of conservative government authorities, elite public intellectuals, and members of the mass media. The question of who best represented the public was intimately bound up in how circumscribed or open the public sphere was perceived to be. My contention in this essay is that citizens' groups struggled to legitimate various local publics and their interests in order to broaden the notion of the public sphere held by those with political power and social status. It is worth quoting at length here Nancy Fraser's critique of Jürgen Habermas's formulation of the bourgeois public sphere.

In fact, the historiography of Ryan and others demonstrates that the bourgeois public was never the public. On the contrary, virtually contemporaneous with the bourgeois public there arose a host of competing counterpublics, including nationalist publics, popular peasant publics, elite women's publics, and working class publics. Thus there were competing publics from the start, not just in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as Habermas implies. Moreover, not only was there always a plurality of competing publics, but the relations between bourgeois publics and other publics were always conflictual. Virtually from the beginning, counterpublics contested the exclusionary norms of the bourgeois public, [End Page 80] elaborating alternative styles of political behavior and alternative norms of public speech.2

Something analogous to Fraser's “plurality of competing publics” was taking place in postwar Japan. The positions held by citizens' groups, government officials, elite intellectuals, and the mass media were dynamic, and their articulations of what constituted the public good constantly shifted. By the 1970s state agencies were pushing private industrial projects by claiming widespread public benefits, while residents' movements opposed those projects by asserting the primacy of the local area as the key to determining public interests. I would argue that citizen protest movements that cluster around 1960 form a crucial starting point for comprehending these...


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