Since the early 1990s, when I first came to Japan, I have seen Americans from different walks of life take active public stands on a wide range of issues. Energy has ebbed and flowed over the decades, but 2017 was a particularly strong year.
Heading into 2018, I want to be optimistic — more than my morning news reading allows — perhaps because I see so many opportunities for people to become engaged, beyond complaining on social media. Getting off the sofa, pulling the screens away from our faces and talking with others who care about various issues can be the entry point to civic engagement.
Decades of American action
Civil society as an avenue for democratic, individual participation is a significant facet of U.S. society, and also part of the American experience in Japan. Over the past 20-something years, I have experienced three streams of activism — through political party systems, issue-based work and community-based action.
Through Democrats Abroad Japan (DAJ) — and, to a lesser degree, Republicans Abroad Japan and the Green Party USA affiliate here — action around U.S. politics, policy, voter registration and elections has come in waves, usually in four-year cycles. From 2008 to 2016 we saw increased interest in a range of issues, including health care, police brutality and military policy.
Those involved in issue-based work outside the U.S. political party system have included pacifists, environmentalists, progressives and leftists concerned with war (Iraq and Afghanistan), U.S. militarism in the region (Status of Forces Agreement policy), international agreements (the Hague Convention on parental child abduction) and the anti-nuclear movement.
A number of long-term residents have formed organizations to meet local needs, such as to offer opportunities for neglected youth (Mirai no Mori), food security (Second Harvest Japan), mental health support (TELL), breast cancer awareness (Run for the Cure) and, particularly after the huge earthquakes of 1995 and 2011, disaster relief, recovery and redevelopment.
Like many others, as my life circumstances have changed, there have been years when I have been very engaged in political work, such as in the 2004 (George W. Bush re-election) and 2008 (Barack Obama) elections, and others when I was an observer, such as in 2000 when I moved back to Japan.
The 2016 presidential campaign felt much like 2004. The lack of personal connection with the candidates, disconnect between the interests of candidates and voters, absence of strategic leadership and focus on the negative rather than the positive way forward gave me an overwhelming feeling of doom when talking to potential voters. The energy in 2004 and 2016 was against candidates, not for any particular strategic future.
A new wave of resistance?
After Donald Trump was elected president, anxiety permeated the communities I work with. I am involved with NGOs, do leadership training for the Japan International Cooperation Agency and teach about development, and within all these groups we regularly talk about issues and politics. In my personal networks, with so many issues and proposed policy changes coming at us each day, some people felt they had to act — to have their voices heard.
After talking with friends from the U.K. concerned about the impact of Brexit, we started the Facebook group Sisterhood Protest with the aim of organizing a demonstration on Human Rights Day in December. The date moved to January after we learned of the Women’s March on Washington, and the group was renamed Women of the World March in Tokyo (WoW Tokyo). DAJ was organizing an event to show appreciation for departing President Barack Obama on Jan. 20, showcasing progress that had been made during his term in office and what needed to be protected in the future. Bringing together many people who had never worked with each other before, the events were merged into one day of action that included a candlelight vigil and march.
WoW Tokyo attracted 648 people, not counting latecomers and children, making it the most visible example of largely American activism in years. By way of comparison, the annual Women’s Day demonstration on March 8 attracts between 200 and 300 people. Participants included those from beyond the WoW Tokyo and DAJ networks. People who previously had not politically vocal or active joined to be part of something bigger than themselves, to speak out against a president who represented many values they were both opposed to and repelled by. The global march’s visibility and organizing support from the U.S. enhanced the reach and connection to diverse networks.
The next catalyst for activism in 2017 was Trump’s proposed “Muslim ban” at the end of January, which spawned fresh actions and new networks. A flash protest at the U.S. Embassy attracted 30 people — and almost as many media outlets. This event initiated the Tokyo Advocacy Exchange, another Facebook-based network for sharing information about how to get involved.
The ban issue also led to the creation of the Alliance for an Inclusive America, a loosely knit group of concerned people from the legal, business, nonprofit and interfaith communities. About 250 attendees from diverse backgrounds took part in a march on Feb. 12 that garnered a lot of media coverage. Like the WoW march, the messaging was positive and this buttressed the theme of tolerance, acceptance and the important roles diversity and inclusion play in the U.S. experience.
The danger of ‘demo fatigue’
Perhaps due to “demo fatigue” or just feeling fed up with U.S. politics, both the public and the media did not show much interest in many of the actions that followed. Spring and summer events such as the April 15 Tax Day march for transparency and accountability faced challenges in gathering numbers and media attention. While this was also part of a global day of action, perhaps tax issues are just not sexy enough?
Climate marches held in Tokyo, Tsukuba and Kyoto attracted more people than the tax rally but failed to provide the momentum to move things forward toward the end of the year. Initial involvement in smaller activities such as citizen lobbying through calling and letter-writing, as well as issue-based events around climate change, voting, immigration and tax policy, brought together a core group of dedicated individuals, but it has proven hard to keep bringing in new people, even with the ongoing onslaught of policy challenges. Not until the Trump visit to Japan in November was there another surge in both public and media interest.
In the build-up to 2018, I have found myself thinking a lot about the need to engage with the community of Trump supporters here. While we may disagree on policy, I understand the need for both sides to get out of our bubbles for debate and discussion.
Over the past year, I have devoted myself to developing skills in conflict mediation, where the focus is on all individuals feeling heard and being included. While many are concerned with how to use the skills in a corporate setting, my purpose is more foundational — getting people to the table, sitting face to face, talking, sharing, listening intently to one another and developing mutual understanding through dialogue. Going back to basics.
Like others, as I look to 2018, I struggle, feeling fed up with the state of U.S. politics. However, I keep my eyes up, focused on the horizon ahead. I know society is dynamic, everything changes and each person’s role is important.
So I will continue pushing others to exert their own power — as consumers, voters and citizens — on the issues they care about. That is what is keeping me going. My advice to anyone unhappy with the state of affairs in 2017 is to join those working for change in 2018.
Sarajean Rossitto is a nonprofit NGO consultant. Women of the World March Tokyo Facebook group: www.facebook.com/groups/197623700694595. WoW Tokyo is planning an event for mid-January, one year after the original march. To get involved, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. For information on a range of programs and events, visit Tokyo Community News (www.tokyo-community-news.blogspot.jp).
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