Local media have been cautious in their coverage of the protest demonstrations that have materialized in recent years, but they appear to be intrigued by the college-age activists known as SEALDs (Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy).
Previously, they had pegged this demographic as being politically apathetic, and now some are taking to the streets and venting displeasure with government policy — specifically the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s move to allow the Self-Defense Forces to engage in collective security overseas. While the coverage has been mostly patronizing, it has nevertheless revealed to the larger public an articulate, passionate movement.
But it goes deeper, or, more precisely, younger. A recent Asahi Shimbun article pointed out that the government’s somewhat cynical scheme to fortify its base by lowering the voting age to 18 could backfire, since a significant number of high school students know they are being used. As one 16-year-old told the Asahi reporter, if teens don’t do anything to educate themselves on current affairs they won’t know whom to vote for and, thus, will go for the “big party,” which is what the LDP wants. The article profiles several high school-based organizations that have joined existing protest campaigns in front of the Diet building out of a feeling of resentment at being “underestimated and disrespected” by the legislative establishment.
The feeling is easy to understand. The government wants schools to teach morality and civics to make young people more responsible, but it also discourages political thought. Teachers who hold classroom debates on current events are censured by schools and threatened with punishment. The education ministry insists on “political neutrality” in lessons, an idea based on a 1969 directive issued in response to that era’s heated student activism, the upshot being that views expressed in school that don’t align with the government’s are considered “biased” and inappropriate.
But as one student told the Asahi, voting rights mean nothing without a political consciousness, and how can a young person develop a political consciousness without discussing political issues openly with peers? The lack of intellectual engagement the media derides is the natural condition of minds that are closed off from ideas. Kids are conditioned to approach their studies as merely a means toward material security — the path to a job and all the good things a job supposedly makes possible. The LDP has made these aims obvious by attempting to do away with liberal arts programs.
Many believe that young protesters are under the sway of radical left-wing elements — that they are not expressing beliefs they formulated on their own. It’s a classic reactionary position, and one that scholar Eiji Oguma cites as the guiding force behind much political rhetoric in Japan for the past several decades. The 1960s were such a traumatic period that conservatives — who won the ideological battle of that decade due to the media’s demonizing of progressive ideas by associating them with extremist groups like the Red Army — have effectively held on to power by exploiting the public’s fear of anything deemed politically left-of-center.
Oguma is a leading historian of that era due to his 2009 book “1968,” which runs more than 2,000 pages and interrogates the student movement to find out what made it so vehement. He was born in 1962, too young to have experienced the movement firsthand but old enough to have felt its effects on his own generation. As he and others point out, though the student movement was a kind of hangover from the massive protests against the U.S.-Japan security treaty of 1960, as well as a reaction to the Vietnam War, its main impetus was more personal: Students didn’t like the way their universities were being run. Media coverage did not do justice to the size and goals of the movement, focusing instead on the violence, the perceived narcissism and the doctrinaire pronouncements. Universities were self-governing, and in principle they still are, but once the government became involved in suppressing student unrest, secondary education became more restricted. As a result, the baby boomers acted according to plan by joining the “mass consumer culture.”
The current protest movement is larger than the one that scared parents in 1968, and involves more than just students. Very few records of what went on in the ’60s have survived, which is why the era is so misunderstood.
Oguma has collected a large amount of YouTube footage shot by participants in the antinuclear energy protests that have been taking place for the past several years in front of the prime minister’s residence and elsewhere. He has assembled that footage into a documentary called “Tell the Prime Minister” (“Sori Kantei no Mae De”). As he told the Internet channel OPTV, he was concerned that the media were ignoring these protests and afraid that future generations would only be presented with the negative side of what happened, because that’s what happened with the ’60s student movement. The viability of nuclear power is not the subject of the film, but rather disgust with the arrogance of authority.
What the participants recorded is startling in its immediacy and coherence, especially when compared to the official media version of the protests. Interspersed with scenes of protesters marching, confronting police and giving speeches are interviews with eight participants of various backgrounds, from a middle-aged housewife to a young store clerk to a professional activist — the kind that conservatives always warn against — who despairs near the end that he betrayed his anarchist principles when he met with politicians as a member of a committee to present the protesters’ demands. Overcome with emotion he explains to Oguma that his salaryman father, who belongs to the generation that came of age in the ’60s, told him he was proud of what he did. Some impulses never die.
“Tell the Prime Minister” opens Sept. 2 at Shibuya Uplink in Tokyo and will screen every other Wednesday thereafter. All screenings are in Japanese with English subtitles.