Online petitions gaining popularity

by Madoka Muramatsu Khan

JIJI

Nadeshiko Japan, the female national soccer team, flew economy class to last year’s London Olympics, whereas their male counterparts traveled in business class.

In August 2012, the ¥100 million Guarnerius of world-renowned violinist Yuzuko Horigome was seized by German customs at Frankfurt airport as she was on her way from Tokyo to Brussels, on the grounds that she lacked the necessary documentation.

Unexpectedly, both Nadeshiko Japan and Horigome were aided by online petitions organized by the Japanese arm of global petition platform change.org. demanding their grievances be addressed.

In the case of Nadeshiko Japan, two Japanese women living in Britain used the website to start a campaign calling on the Japan Football Association to cease its unfair treatment of Nadeshiko Japan, which, by winning the summer 2011 women’s World Cup, boosted the morale of the disaster-stricken nation.

The petition was signed by more than 20,000 supporters and attracted global media attention. In the end, Nadeshiko Japan members got upgraded to business class for the return flight from the London Games, where they won the silver medal.

As for Horigome, an irate friend in Japan launched a petition on change.org to urge the German customs authorities to return the prize violin without imposing import tariffs or penalties. After more than 5,400 people signed the petition, the instrument was returned to Horigome the following month.

Online petitions in Japan have a short history, but they have spread swifter than expected, according to Emmy Suzuki Harris, campaigns director of the Japanese unit of change.org.

“I’m amazed that we are at 100,000 (registrations) already,” less than a year after the website’s debut in Japan, Harris, 29, said.

Harris launched the Japanese site last August, making it one of the 18 websites in different languages linked to the U.S.-based petition platform.

Born in Tokyo to an American father and a Japanese mother, Harris graduated from Yale University and started her career at a major consulting firm in the United States. At the time, she had little interest in politics.

The turning point came in 2008, while she was recovering from severe back pain. At the invitation of an acquaintance, Harris started carrying out volunteer work for then-Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and eventually became a full-time volunteer.

“I really enjoyed myself there,” she said of the campaign.

After spending several years working for a U.S. social enterprise, Harris decided to return to Japan in 2012 to launch a local change.org website.

The original site was started in 2007 in the United States by current Chief Executive Ben Rattray. The platform now boasts more than 40 million users in 196 countries and territories, according to its website.

Users can take part in signature-gathering campaigns and other activities on the platform via Facebook and other social-networking services. They express their support for a petition on the platform simply by clicking the “sign” button.

In the first year, a number of campaigns have been launched on the Japanese site. Some, notably those for Nadeshiko Japan and Horigome, have been successful. Yet just like any other new type of social movement, the online petition platform is not problem-free.

Harris believes some of the main challenges are rooted in Japanese culture. For instance, the country’s Internet world is “sort of particular” and exhibits a “very strong anonymous culture,” she said.

In Japan, “the Internet was separate from your real life” for a long time, Harris explained. But for platforms such as change.org, she said, “the Internet is an extension of who you are in your real life, and that means also doing political participation using your real name.”

She described the spread of social networks such as Facebook, where users join under their real names, as “a huge step forward.”

According to Harris, another barrier is probably related to Japanese culture in general, which she said is “very polite, very indirect, very much caring about the other person.” Since a petition is very direct by saying that “I want this person to do this, and here’s why,” many Japanese can find it extremely abrupt, she said.

But Harris also believes this is something they will get used to over time. She thinks more and more people in the country will make the switch as online petitions become a more regular part of general culture.

Additional momentum may have come from the 2011 quake and tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 complex, Harris suggested.

She said many people have told her that change.org would not have worked in Japan before younger generations had faced a catastrophe of that magnitude. As an example, Harris pointed to the series of mass anti-nuclear demonstrations that were held weekly in front of the prime minister’s office after the Fukushima meltdowns.

“There’s a huge hunger and need for people to express what they want in society . . . and to rethink what’s important in life,” Harris said. “I think we’re in a real transition phase right now, and that’s really exciting.”