On the 29 June 1981 Tetsuro Tanaka, an engineer, was sacked by his employer, a large electronics company in Tokyo. The reasons are both simple and complex. The simple story is that the company ordered Tanaka-san to transfer to another factory far away from the home where he lived with his wife and family. Tanaka-san refused the order and was sacked. However, in a time when Japanese workers might expect a job for life, a complex history preceded this cataclysmic event.
Two years earlier Tanaka-san, the president of the company’s mandolin club, had supported 1350 workers who were made redundant. He’d also refused to take part in the group callisthenics that the company introduced after the mass dismissals. According to Tanaka-san, employees turned up early and performed the exercises before work in unpaid time. He refused to participate believing that the group callisthenics were a humiliating and demeaning loyalty test to the company. But in order to show his criticism to his workmates and to the company he would turn up, sit and watch.
After he refused to do callisthenics, Tanaka’s wages were cut and he was gradually ostracised by his fellow workers. Even the members of his mandolin club drifted away and new employees were too intimidated to join. Undaunted, he continued to make his criticisms of the company’s labour policies and stood against company-endorsed candidates in elections for the workplace union.
Finally, the company gave him a compulsory transfer order to a factory hundreds of kilometres away. He refused to sign it and was dismissed.
The day after he was sacked Tanaka turned up at the company gate and began a picket that has probably become the longest one-man protest in Japan’s history – he’s outlasted at least fourteen Japanese Prime Ministers and three company presidents.
Decades after Tanaka began his epic protest, Australian filmmaker Maree Delofski and her partner, folklorist Mark Gregory, fall into Tanaka-san’s world through a hole in the internet. Intrigued by his tenacity and the longevity of his campaign, they travel to Japan to meet him in time for the 25th anniversary of his campaign.
As the filmmakers try to understand the nature of Tanaka’s protest and indeed Japan, they meet his faithful supporters including Nezu Kimiko a domestic science teacher and Ueda Yoshihiro, a retiree. They learn about Kimiko-san’s protest against kimigayo the hymn to the Japanese emperor sung by Japanese soldiers in World War 2 that has controversially recently become the Japanese national anthem. Kimiko’s refusal to stand and sing the anthem at school may cost her her teaching position – she has already been suspended for three months. But like Tanaka, she turns up every day, alone, to protest. She says, ‘No freedom of choice means no democracy, it is what you would expect in a dictatorship.’
Resisting bullying is a major theme of the film. The filmmakers also meet Tomayo a young boy who is too afraid to go to school. Tanaka teaches music for a living together with lessons on human rights and self-defence and they watch as he tries to teach anti-bullying strategies and meditation to Tomayo in the hope that it will make him stronger and more able to defend himself.
By a very strange coincidence, the 25th anniversary of Tanaka’s sacking coincides with the date of the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting. Tanaka, a Buddhist, believes that God has intervened to make the meeting ‘more dramatic’. We join him and his supporters in a Tokyo hotel the night before as they prepare, role-playing a mock meeting with cries of ‘Evict him!’. Tanaka has taken his protest to the shareholders meeting every year for the last decade will he be ejected as he has been in previous years?
Tanaka-san Will Not Do Callisthenics offers a very different view of Japanese life, one far removed from both geisha-like cliches and economic success stories. The film’s humour, poignancy and optimism create a complex portrait of an idiosyncratic Japanese nonconformist.
Its resonances reverberate beyond Japan into our increasingly globalised world.