As the number of novel coronavirus infections continues to grow, so do the stigmas and stereotypes associated with certain segments of Japan’s population, be they caregivers, entertainment-district workers, foreign residents, students or the unemployed and homeless.
Adrift in the torrent of issues that have come out of the pandemic, many people are finding it difficult to be heard and receive the support they need.
Out of this landscape emerged Docu Meme, an independent collective of documentary creators — Naoki Uchiyama, Itaru Matsui and Toru Kubota — who are on a mission to shed light on those who have been neglected or even rejected by society during the pandemic. Similar to viral images found on the internet, the group wants its documentary shorts to travel widely and convey as efficiently as possible the plight of voiceless people in Japan.
“In April, the government declared a state of emergency and requested that citizens refrain from going out,” said Uchiyama during a video chat with The Japan Times. “As people who make a living creating documentaries, it was unthinkable for us to just be cosy at home and wait.”
The filmmakers were gathering testimonials about the pandemic to start their short-videos project when they received an SOS. Responding to a Docu Meme tweet, the Anti-Poverty Campaign Network, an organization supporting incomeless people in Japan, contacted the trio about the issue of irregular workers who had previously been living in net cafes. Due to the government’s business closure request in late April, they had been ejected and forced to live on the streets.
Things moved very quickly from there. The collective met the organization, gathered photos, footage and testimonials and began making “Tokyo’s Internet Café ‘Refugees’ Cry for Help,” the first of many videos. Posted on YouTube in early May, the video ends with info such as contact details and websites. This call to action — shared for viewers who wanted to seek help or offer it — is Docu Meme’s signature.
As the trio’s works are self-financed, most of the shoots take place in Tokyo. At least for now. The trio is working on extending its activities outside the capital by collaborating with other media and NPOs/NGOs. For instance, “Tokyo Ritornello,” a 50-minute documentary made in collaboration with NHK, which was broadcast on Oct. 11, summarized the impact of the pandemic in Japan.
Uchiyama, Matsui and Kubota do not exclude the possibility of overseas joint projects. Recently, the trio added English subtitles to all their videos after the popular YouTube channel Nobita From Japan introduced the collective in a video, giving a boost to the number of subscribers from abroad.
Several videos highlight problems faced by the international community in Japan. A brief but gripping video uploaded last June titled “Never-ending Lockdown” follows the life of Ali, a Kurdish man born in Turkey who illegally fled to Japan to escape conscription. Currently living under “provisionally released” status, he is unable to leave Chiba Prefecture without special permission from the Immigration Services Agency. After 20 years in Japan, Ali is still seeing his applications for a refugee visa denied, despite having a Japanese spouse.
The documentary is poignant, prompting the viewer to reconsider what a temporary lockdown could be… if it were to remain in place forever. “Many people all over the world were deprived of freedom of movement under lockdowns,” explained Kubota. “So, we thought that telling the daily life stories of people living under a ‘lockdown’ every day would give some perspectives on the situation.”
Another strong point of the Docu Meme videos is their aesthetic. Each sequence and composition is well-considered, creating an intimate space between the viewer and the protagonists. In the documentary “Living in a Red-Light District 2020,” the camera focuses on a sex worker and her manager as they attempt to cope with the pandemic. Both explain how crucial their profession is for them, even if it means a higher risk of coronavirus infection or severe discrimination from the rest of society.
A long shower scene reveals the fragility of the sex worker’s body. Another scene shows the tenderness of the manager, who looks after his workers and accompanies them to their appointments. The message is clear: People in the sex industry are human and face similar problems to everybody else. “[These people are] just singled out as villains, and no one really listens to what they have to say,” Uchiyama said.
Videos unrelated to the current health crisis can also be seen on Docu Meme’s online showcase. The trio’s objective is to raise awareness about subjects often seen as irrelevant or too complicated. “So many problems already existed prior to the pandemic, right?” Uchiyama said, laughing. “After the coronavirus era, we want to continue this project and address them.”
Matsui insisted on the importance of supporting each other in hard times, over and above the government’s notion of jishuku (voluntary restraint from unnecessary outings), which isn’t a luxury many can afford due to health or financial complications. “With the current pandemic continuing, it’s important that we act and all stand together.”
More info on Docu Meme: YouTube, (click on CC button to view with English subtitles), Twitter, and Facebook
In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.