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SEALDs student group reinvigorates Japan’s anti-war protest movement

by and


Wearing shorts and a baggy T-shirt and clutching a microphone, Aki Okuda stands before a crowd, the pyramid-shaped roof of the Diet building lit up against the night sky behind him.

“No War,” “Protect the Constitution,” “Abe — Quit!,” he chants in a hip-hop rhythm, echoed by the crowd.

Okuda, 23, is a founding member of a group of students that has become a fresh face of protest against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to enact a more robust defense policy — steps critics say violate the pacifist Constitution and could ensnare Japan in U.S.-led wars.

Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs) is also denting the image of Japanese students as either apolitical introverts, who left protests to their elders, or right-wing geeks.

Japan has not seen significant student protests since the 1960s, and civic demonstrations since then have been peopled primarily with graying left-wing activists.

That changed when SEALDs sprang to public notice by sponsoring weekly rallies near the Diet against unpopular security bills that Abe’s ruling bloc pushed through the Lower House last month.

The bills, based on a Cabinet resolution reinterpreting the Constitution, could let troops fight abroad for the first time since World War II.

“If one government can change things just with their interpretation, then the Constitution itself is altered and the government can do whatever it wants,” Okuda, wearing a T-shirt with the motto “Destroy Fascism,” said.

Unlike the Marxist students who took to Japan’s streets in the 1960s, SEALDs members shun violence. Their manifesto urges respect for the Constitution, a robust social safety net and peaceful security policies — concepts that opinion polls suggest resonate with many 70 years after Japan’s defeat in World War II.

Public angst over the security bills has eroded support for Abe, with polls showing those who oppose him outnumbering his supporters. But SEALDs is getting under the skin of right-wing nationalists, with blogs hinting that the group may harbor Chinese spies — an accusation for which there is no serious evidence.

Advocates of the security bills argue the changes are needed to help cope with the threat of an increasingly assertive China.

Formed in December 2013 by students shocked by passage of a controversial state secrets act, SEALDs now has nearly 400 members.

“A TV announcer said ‘Today, democracy has ended,’ ” Okada said, recalling the day the secrets act passed the Diet. “But we thought, if there is an end, there is also a beginning.”

The students were also motivated by the inability of huge protests after the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster to derail government plans to restart mothballed reactors.

SEALDs is cooperating with about a dozen civic activist groups in organizing a protest rally Sunday that sponsors hope will attract 100,000 people.

In a show of youthful exuberance, SEALDs is dreaming of an even bigger turnout — a 300,000-strong crowd equal to that which in 1960 forced Abe’s grandfather, then-Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, to quit over a U.S.-Japan security treaty.

“They are galvanizing other age groups,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. “SEALDs projects the image that you can be normal and fashionable and political at the same time.”

Kazuto Nakayama, 68, who took part in a protest last week, said it was time for “older folks” to pass the baton.

“I think we cannot change Japan without the power of youth,” he said.

Okuda admits that blocking the security bills will be tough since opposition parties are split and outnumbered.

Analysts say toppling Abe is also a long shot, but the public backlash against the security bills could well make his ruling Liberal Democratic Party wary of pushing even bolder changes, such as formally revising the Constitution.

The students are already eyeing a July 2016 Upper House election, when the voting age will be lowered to 18 from 20, as a chance to weaken the LDP’s grip on power.

“This is not a top-down movement, mobilized by the leaders of certain groups,” Okuda said. “No one can stop people who have begun to think and take action as individuals.”

  • Victor Laszlo

    Whenever I see protests like this, with hot babes holding placards or shouting into megaphones, I remember George Carlin’s speech right after 9.11 saying ‘let’s face it, you go to the protests to get laid’. Lol! How true it is!

    Yeah, no war, guys and gals. Real original. And how, may I ask, are you to guarantee that?

    With the USA protecting you with bases there as they have been since WWII? No, you don’t like that, you’ve been protesting that for years. So, what’s the alternative? A revised Article 9 allowing Japan to have a battle-ready military allowed to fight overseas, which is what PM Abe wants.

    Which is it, girls? You gotta choose. Let others protect you (like the US has been since WWII, allowing your economy to grow to incredible heights, not burdened by wars or defense budgets) or do you kick the US out and take on the role of defense yourself? Personally, I prefer the latter. Fight your own battles and stop criticizing the US on one hand, then ‘allowing’ them to protect you on the other. Time to get real, Hello Kitties. Instead of dumping all that money into the largest porn industry in the world, skim some off for defense. Cute is cool and all, but the enemy is at your gate waiting for the US to leave.

    Time to choose, protesters! Time to choose.

  • Paul Martin

    It’s good to know ALL Japanese are not robotically obedient these days.
    Students should take an active part in the country’s destiny…after all it is THEIR land too ! If they can vote in change for a more free and democratic Japan that can only be a good thing !

  • J.P. Bunny

    People protesting all over the country, but Abe just ignores them all. Maybe they could all get together and stage a giant sit-in protest at the new stadium site. Embarrassing Abe by further messing up the Olympic schedule just might force him to address their concerns. Could happen, or he will have them all arrested under his secrecy bill.

  • Toolonggone

    SEALD(Shield)s of Justice.

  • https://twitter.com/yo035 rutuko40

    Mr. Obama
    I am Japanese.
    Please do not force us war.
    There are many girls in Japan Self Defense army.
    I am so worried about them.
    Fire Joseph Nye and Richard Armitage.
    Do not force us the ultra right wing PM Abe.
    He is so obnoxious.
    Please stop forcing us nuclear power plants.
    Japan restarted Sendai nuclear plant, which is only 50 kilometers from a volcano Sakurajima, now erputing.
    Today, 20000 people joined a demo in Osaka.
    I was there, and we have hope.
    We love democracy, so fire Joseph Nye and Richard Armitage.