The flashing neon lights of Shinjuku illuminate a district famed for its station’s perennial throng, glass and steel high rises occupied by the countries business elite, mammoth department stores and the distinctive brand of sleaze that wafts out of Kabukicho. All this, however, belies Shinjuku’s former life as the nucleus of the city’s nascent counterculture.
In the 1960s, Shinjuku was a hive of radicals, artists and intellectuals of myriad persuasion, a place where like-minded individuals could express themselves in opposition to the “economic miracle” that was swiftly transforming the foundations of Japan. It was the home of the angura (underground) scene, where hippies sang, beatniks postured, avant-gardists performed and leftists protested. In 1968, the streets of Shinjuku also became a battlefield, as anti-war demonstrations erupted in violence.
Sadly, little evidence of this past-life survived the wrecking balls and bulldozers of regeneration. That is, barring the Irregular Rhythm Asylum (IRA). Located on the third floor of an unassuming apartment block in eastern Shinjuku just a short walk from Shinjuku Gyoen, IRA is one of Tokyo’s most important countercultural spaces.
Kei, the owner, describes his place as an “infoshop”—that is, a place for local and international artists, activists and the merely curious to meet up and share ideas, show their work and hang out. Whoever you are, you’ll be welcomed with open arms at the small shop where Kei can always be found behind the counter. Fluent in English and utterly convivial, Kei is always happy to have a chat and show people around. As well as functioning as a meeting place, IRA also sells a variety of books (including a good number of English titles), zines, CDs (lots of punk) and handmade items such as t-shirts, tote bags and badges.
IRA began life in 2004 when Kei took over the space from a group of designer friends. He believes places like IRA are important for nurturing DIY artists and musicians, as well as for promoting non-hierarchical activism and shining a light on important issues that can all too easily be passed over in the mainstream. Anti-racism and anti-nuclear (particularly in the wake of the Fukushima disaster) are at the core of this, though more recently resistance to some of the more destructive elements of the coming 2020 Tokyo Olympics is also hot on the agenda. If you want to learn more about these issues, about activism in Japan more generally or want to get involved yourself, be sure to drop by.
IRA is also host to regular events and workshops that always welcome new participants. On Thursday evenings (kicking off at 7 pm), a group named A3BC gathers for a woodcutting workshop, where politically-themed woodcut prints are created as a collective. Even those with no experience are encouraged to join and will be taught everything they need to know. Likewise, on Tuesdays, a sewing circle gathers and all the necessary equipment is provided free of charge.
On top of these regular events, there is also periodic lectures, workshops, film screenings and parties. Two particularly notable events to put in the calendar include a lecture on political art in Japan over the past 100 years which will take place on May 27th, plus a special party on June 30th organised by zine collective Perzine Blues Syndrome and featuring zine artists from around the world. Last year, IRA organised No Limit, a week-long festival of events held at locations across Tokyo. Bringing together artists and activists from all across Asia, the event was designed to forge solidarity and showcase radical art. Fingers crossed, the event will be repeated in 2017. To find out about this and everything else happening at IRA, be sure to check out the Facebook page.
Tokyo isn’t lacking in stores to pick up English books, but none have a stock list quite like IRA’s. Of course, titles from anarchist luminaries such as Emma Goldman, Bakunin and Chomsky are present and correct, but there’s also an excellent range of books from lesser known authors and independent publishers to be browsed. When asked for a recommendation, Kei is quick to pick up My Escapes from Japan by Osugi Sakae, an account of a Japanese anarchists exploits in 1920s Shanghai and Paris. Away from the books, the handmade zines, trinkets, t-shirts and other items are all great and you certainly won’t find them anywhere else in the city.
While Shinjuku may have shed its radical reputation, this multi-purpose, multi-disciplinary hub of art, politics and DIY culture is certainly doing a good job of keeping the countercultural flag flying. IRA is a breath of fresh air and well worth a visit.
There are certain times in the year that can make your visit to Tokyo less than idea.