It was a victorious moment for Emmy Suzuki Harris when the Matsue Board of Education in Shimane Prefecture retracted its request to limit students’ access to the manga “Hadashi no Gen” (“Barefoot Gen”).
The retraction last summer was partly because the ban had gone viral and triggered a controversy after more than 20,000 signatures were collected online against the restriction via Change.org. Suzuki Harris had launched the Japanese edition of the global petition platform in August 2012.
“We had significant victories where people felt like they are part of something that happened,” said Suzuki Harris. “People see something in the news and think, ‘Actually I have an opinion about that,’ and join the petition to make their voices heard.”
Suzuki Harris has become a crusader for social change in Japan, where few people are used to wading into social or political activism. The 29-year-old advocate hopes Change.org will offer a place for Japanese to get involved in the democratic process by making their voices heard, as the world’s biggest online petition platform allows anybody to take matters into their own hands at any time without the worry of running up big bills.
Since its launch in Japan, more than 150,000 people have either started or participated in petitions. This fast growth rate came as a happy surprise to Suzuki Harris, as she was often told this kind of platform wouldn’t work in Japanese society, where most people shy away from being the first one to take action and are afraid of the ramifications it they raise a voice regarding social or political issues.
“You have to give people concrete and real examples of things that are working when you use online tools to impact the real world,” said Suzuki Harris.
Petitions at Change.org range from the highly political, such as a call to abolish the controversial state secrecy bill or to press Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima not to authorize a landfill operation to build a relocation facility for the U.S. Futenma military base, to very local issues, such as not to do away with a bicycle lane in a neighborhood park.
Several petitions have found success, such as a student drive for universities to reduce their fees when they take a leave of absence, while others have failed to produce positive results.
“If you talk to petition starters, even if they did not win, they say ‘I am really glad that I did that. It was a really good experience for me,’ ” said Suzuki Harris. “You feel like they have a little bit more confidence and they have a little bit more experience under their belt.”
Even though she is now a prominent activist in Japan, Suzuki Harris did not always have a strong bent toward social movements. Born into what she describes as a business-oriented family — an American father and Japanese mother here in Japan — she said she never really followed the news or took an interest in social issues. After graduating from Yale University, she worked for McKinsey & Co., an American-based global consulting company.
Her turning point came in 2008 when she heard Barack Obama giving a campaign speech at a warehouse in downtown Seattle when he was running for president. Suzuki Harris said it was the first time that she had listened to a politician speaking and it really felt like he was speaking to her personally, as an individual.
“That was the first time I’d ever taken an interest in politics and thought about the importance of the election or contributing to the society in a way more than to have a job and pay taxes,” said Suzuki Harris, who left McKinsey and moved to New York, where she joined Obama’s grass-roots campaign team.
While Obama influenced U.S. voters with his campaign slogan of “change” in 2008, which helped him sweep to victory, his philosophy of bringing social change via the power of the Internet inspired Suzuki Harris to get involved in social change campaigns and ultimately help launch Change.org in Japan.
This is why she is somewhat disappointed with the way the Japanese media and politicians treated the power of the Internet during the Upper House election in July, when online campaigning was partly deregulated.
Suzuki Harris felt that even tech-savvy politicians talked about the Internet in the context of Facebook or Twitter to solicit votes when in reality the Internet could be a powerful platform for constructive policy discussion.
Many politicians lost interest in online activities as soon as the election was over, she said, while in contrast Obama kept the communication channels open following his first victory in 2008.
“Obama was able to reactivate people, because during those four years he spent money, time and effort in maintaining those communities,” said Suzuki Harris. “I think we are not going to see payoffs of that kind of community organizing done online in Japan for a little bit longer because people need to build the community, maintain it and make it OK for the people to express political will online, but I don’t think the people were there yet this past summer.”
Suzuki Harris acknowledges that change takes time, as was demonstrated in the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s and recent victories by the LGBT community over same-sex marriage after many years of struggle.
But she said it is now time for the Japanese people to realize that the government can no longer provide what they want when resources are limited, and that the public should not let big government organizations or companies keep control of the decision-making process. She said petitions are the easiest way for people to start taking ownership in their local community.
“I think the marketplace for ideas here is limited to folks who already have a standing or who are quote-unquote not afraid of opinion,” she said.
“My goal is to help more people believe that their voice matters and that their opinion is worth something, because I think too many Japanese people think their opinion is worthless.”
Highlights for Emmy Suzuki Harris
1983 — Born in Tokyo.
2006 — Graduates from Yale University.
2006 — Joins McKinsey & Co. as a business analyst.
2008 — Leaves McKinsey and joins Obama for America as new media deputy.
2009 — Goes to work for the New York State Senate as an online communications manager.
2009 — Joins Purpose, a social movement startup, as a senior strategist.
2012 — Moves back to Japan and launches Change.org.
“Generational Change” is a new series of interviews that will appear on the first Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about change in society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to email@example.com .