Practising urban commons amidst precarity: A genealogical analysis of the urban precariat movements in Tokyo and Seoul

Practising urban commons amidst precarity: A genealogical analysis of the urban precariat movements in Tokyo and Seoul
My research is about urban precariat movements (thereafter, UPMs) in Tokyo and Seoul and their practices of urban commons. As neoliberal tendencies such as the flexibilisation labour and financialisation of housing have increasingly destabilised people’s work and lives, researchers have emphasised the issue of precarity (Neilson & Rossiter, 2008, Lorey, 2015). Precarious individuals are pushed to become risk-taking investors in order to deal with anxieties and secure their future, and by doing so, paradoxically strengthening the ideology of self-reliance (Finlayson, 2009; Lazzarato, 2012). How can we escape from this self-destructive Moebius strip formed by the desire for security or survival, and from the further precarisation produced by that very desire? My research is an attempt to find an answer to this question.
Drawing on 17 months of ethnographic research, 70 in-depth interviews, and extensive archival data, my research comparatively investigates how precarity has been produced and governed differently according to distinct paths of urbanisation in Tokyo and Seoul. My research also explores how the precarious populations in these cities have produced commons throughout the history of both capitalist cities.
Firstly, it investigates how day labourers in Tokyo and housewives of shacktowns in Seoul were not only the source of the most precarious forms of labour-power in constructing these cities in the post-war period but also emerged as agents of UPMs contesting social norms around work and home. Secondly, it explores the value struggles of youths who decided to live as the “voluntary poor” when Japan and Korea began neoliberal restructuring. Desiring to escape wage-labour relations, the precariat in Tokyo and Seoul chose work and home as strategic terrains in value struggles to produce commons in these cities. Lastly, the thesis analyses contemporary UPMs in Tokyo and Seoul in a historical perspective. By tracing enduring traits of social movements in each city, it explores how the precariat has developed different strategies around autonomy and community to confront the ideology of self-reliance.
Theoretically, this research contributes to broader discussions about precarity and commons by adding a view from the Global East. This research also makes a methodological contribution by conducting co-research with local activists to transgress boundaries between different identities and form radical common notions beyond situated commons. Most importantly, my research contributes to collective endeavours to broaden urban utopian imaginations. This research demonstrates how people’s collective attempts to reorganise their livelihood (by producing commons) is something that has preceded any political ideology. It also shows how people do so in dissimilar ways in specific contexts, being affected not only by social, cultural, and geographical realities but also existing practices and legacies of commons. In other words, this research provides empirical analysis of the precariat’s situated value struggles to bring different “universes into being”, to borrow Graeber’s (2013) words, without romanticising or totalising such experiments and stories.


Didi Kyoung-ae Han

Defended in

1 Jan 2021 – 31 Dec 2021

PhD defended at

Department of Geography and Environment atLondon School of Economics and Political Science


Social Sciences


East Asia
South Korea


Urban / Rural