"White sugar is a drug! I hate white sugar! It is death!" shouts Pepe, one of the two men running the Nantoka bar this evening. "It's better for sushi and we always use it, just go get some," says his partner, a burly man with a thick black neck beard, who is thoroughly unmoved by Pepe's antics.
The drunkard sitting next to me declares "a sugar war" and a discussion breaks out amongst the fifteen or so patrons over what type Pepe should get for the rice. But most of us aren't all that concerned and just want him to hurry up so we can eat. The wild-eyed Pepe, his balding head now moist with sweat, quickly surveys the room and then disappears out the door and into the street. Five minutes later he returns with a crooked grin and a bag of Okinawa cane sugar.
When 60,000 protesters took to the streets of Tokyo to denounce nuclear power on September 19th, journalists covering the event were nearly unanimous in describing the large turnout as "unexpected." Whether or not this was a reasonable description depends on who you get your information from, and more precisely, what type of bars you hang out at. If on the night before the protest you were at the Park Hyatt, talking politics with businessmen and sipping overpriced martinis, then it's only natural that one's expectations would have been modest, if indeed there was any talk of protest to be had in such a setting.
But if you were guzzling beers alongside the chorus of misfits who frequent the Nantoka (anonymous) Bar, you would have been privy to far more reliable intelligence. Located on a barely lit sidestreet in Koenji, a neighbourhood in western Tokyo famed for its used clothing shops and music venues, the Nantoka has become something of an institution for Tokyo's anti-nuke activists and fringe protest groups.
Operated by an anarchist group known as "Shiroto No Ran" (Amateur Revolt), the Nantoka opened its doors a year ago, and now enjoys a mythical reputation amongst the handful of Tokyoites who know about it.
Inspired by Berlin squat culture, the bar is organized through a casually collective management system, wherein 25 or so different bartenders share the rent and split the profits. As each bartender has complete autonomy over the kitchen when he or she is running the show, the menu ranges from tasteful and refined tapas to the cheapest eats Tokyo has to offer. Last night the menu included "pay what you can" vegetables and rice, with free cartons of bargain bin saké being tossed about willy-nilly.
Tonight the Nantoka has become "Pepe's Gloomy Club," but it's anything but. The sushi is spectacular, the place is packed with a group of twentysomethings discussing the possibility of a "psychedelic revolution" and the atmosphere is smoky and raucous.
The flexible nature of this business model has a breathtaking effect on both those in front of and behind the bar. The drudgery and misanthropy so often present in a typical service-industry workplace is completely absent. The customers that come in and out are more like friends dropping by someone’s home and the conversations that take place reflect the prevailing good vibes.
In the course of a few hours I talk with a political science professor, a journalist turned activist, a teacher turned day-labourer, a farmer who can’t sell his onions due to radioactive rain and a stream of beaming drunks who eventually lay their heads upon the bar and fall asleep.
In October, the bar’s proprietor and founder of Shiroto No Ran, Hajime Matsumoto, travelled to New York to meet and talk with Occupy Wall Street organizers. While the encampments that enlivened Zuccotti Park throughout the fall have long been cleared away by police, the Nantoka isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon.
When the crowd begins to thin out at around 4am, I catch a phrase written on the t-shirt of one of the young psycholutionaries. It reads: