A 16-year-old high schooler has fashioned herself into a new breed of political activist to make change happen in a pacifist country where endemic voter apathy is feared to be letting Japan drift dangerously to the right.
Aine, who uses only her first name, formed the student protest group T-nsSOWL in June last year. The group’s name is said to stand for “teens stand up to oppose war law.”
The name is a reference to the new national security laws enacted last year. The laws, championed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, pave the way for the Self-Defense Forces to take on more dangerous missions overseas, an initiative seen by many as breaching war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution. The laws were enacted amid mass protests at the Diet in September.
Aine’s group organizes protest activities in the busy streets of Shibuya and Harajuku in Tokyo, which are haunts for high school students and other young people.
During the Christmas holidays, it staged a protest march in Harajuku. From a truck blaring music that was leading the procession, Ryuki, 18, another leader in the group who only goes by his first name, rapped out slogans such as “Protect the Constitution,” “Don’t kill anybody” and “Don’t look down on the people.”
Aine was in her school uniform as she led the march, which was joined by around a thousand people. Onlookers were using smartphones to take photos of the rare sight of high school students spearheading a political protest. To everyone present, Aine called out: “We are demonstrating against the national security laws. Let’s march together.”
Aine’s family background apparently had little influence in setting her on this course of activism. She lives with parents who work normal everyday jobs and do not bring up politics at the dinner table.
Something akin to political awareness grew within her after the 2011 Fukushima disaster erupted during her last year of elementary school. She began to sense a disconnect between what politicians were saying and what was actually happening.
Giant tsunami spawned by the Great East Japan Earthquake swamped the old and poorly protected Fukushima No. 1 power plant, tipping it into a triple core meltdown that spewed radioactive ash over much of the prefecture.
But the government continued to downplay the health risks while keeping areas around the doomed nuclear plant off-limits to residents, many of whom today still live in makeshift homes far away.
“That struck me as odd,” Aine said. “There were things that were too difficult to understand, but even children could see something was wrong.”
Over the following years, the nation’s political landscape changed. The Liberal Democratic Party, which had ruled the nation for most of the postwar period, took back power from the fledgling Democratic Party of Japan, and the Abe government brought with it a national security agenda that aroused suspicion he would move Japan away from its pacifist ways and closer to war.
For Aine, the defining moment came on a December day in 2014, just before the last general election. Having gone through the ordeal of a term-end examination, Aine went shopping in Shibuya with friends, before moving on to Nagatacho, the neighborhood where the Diet stands. The area had become the locus of anti-government protest around that time, and would later attract even larger droves of people outraged by Abe’s bid to steamroll the national security bills through the legislature despite strong public opposition.
On that day, nearby, more than a thousand protesters were rallying against the new secrecy law in front of the prime minister’s official residence under the leadership of a students’ group that would later evolve into SEALDs, a major anti-government protest movement. The new secrecy law toughens penalties for leakers of state secrets and threatens journalists with prison time.
Despite the massive protests, voter indifference remained a problem — voter turnout at the general election sank to a record low 52 percent.
Inspired by the demonstrations, Aine started to join protests where she got to know others who would later become T-nsSOWL collaborators.
Aine said she did not feel uneasy, as a typical Japanese would, about joining marches and rallies to express her frustrations. There is nothing special about ordinary people participating in such activities, she said, citing the popular movements of the past taken up in history textbooks.
The high schooler named a string of political events that sparked her participation. Among them were the landslide victory of Abe’s LDP in the 2014 general election, Abe’s visit to the United States to cement ties with Japan’s major military ally, and the hustle and bustle over the deliberation and enactment of the national security laws.
Her group now has around 70 members, including 35 in the Kanto region that includes Tokyo. For Aine, talking with the group’s members about politics, war and peace is a valuable experience that can’t be gained in the classroom.
She is also hoping the group’s activities will inject a breath of fresh air and a dose of energy into politics by shaking up the business-as-usual mindset of politicians and nudging voters to go to the polls.
“If high school students show interest in politics and go as far as to join demonstration activities, that will keep politicians on their toes and have an impact on ordinary people as well,” she said.
In the election for the House of Councilors, the upper chamber of the Diet, scheduled this summer, some students will be able to vote for the first time under the new minimum voting age of 18. Unfortunately, Aine will be one year shy.
But she is “not that disappointed,” saying what she cares about most is her fight against voter apathy.