With his goatee and buttoned-up, collarless shirt and jacket, Satoru Aiko blended in seamlessly with other young Japanese hanging out near JR Kamakura Station on Sunday evening. Except that Aiko stood perfectly still, ceremoniously erect.
Then he started to sing. Loudly and clearly he delivered “Amazing Grace” — slightly off key, perhaps — but with a solemnity that told everybody who glanced up from their cell phones and comic books that he had something serious to say.
Aiko, 28, held up a sign with the words “Zettai dame” (“Absolutely not”). A steady trickle of newcomers arrived and soon 50 people — most everyone gripping a candle — joined in as he carried on the melody. Two women walking by stopped in their tracks and giggled, wondering what was going on. As if in answer, someone unfurled a makeshift banner: “No war.”
With the United States and Britain now poised to strike Iraq, the protesters’ hopes for peace may be all but dashed. But in these past weeks, the beat of war drums has also sparked a wave of consciousness in a country long described as being complacent, many say worrisomely so, about events beyond its shores.
Although the Kamakura vigil, one of at least 50 held across Japan that night, was organized through a U.S. activist group as part of a global campaign for peace, those who attended were overwhelmingly Japanese.
The event followed weeks of protests that grew in scale as the days went by. Organizers said a combined 52,000 people marched at various spots across Japan on March 8 — one of Japan’s largest demonstrations since people took to the streets against nuclear armament in the 1980s, according to Mitsuo Okamoto, professor of law at Hiroshima Shudo University and an authority on Japan’s antiwar movement.
The trend stands out. The big protests of the 1980s — notably two 1982 antinuclear rallies of 400,000 in Tokyo and Osaka — consisted mainly of rank-and-file labor union members obliged to attend by their umbrella organizations.
The swell in political expression this time around has been driven by teenagers and other relatively young first-timers.
“It’s a completely different atmosphere,” said Ken Takada, an activist of 40 years who has taken a leading role in recent large-scale marches in Tokyo.
Besides the general aversion to violence common to protesters everywhere, the new breed of Japanese slogan-chanters may have gotten a sense that Japan — isolated by ocean but intricately linked to the world in so many other ways — cannot completely avoid the fallout of war.
For example, Japan imports 99.9 percent of its crude oil, with 87.1 percent shipped from the Middle East and 6.4 percent from Southeast and South Asia, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. This exposure could, in certain scenarios, adversely affect Japan, according to some experts.
Eisuke Naramoto, a professor of Middle East affairs at Hosei University in Tokyo, maintains that the United States’ true ambition in Iraq is to establish control of its oil production and exports.
“This means the world, including Japan, will become one big lackey of America,” Naramoto said. “This is an issue of whether you support such a world order. This is a choice of whether to become a slave.”
The gap between grassroots opinion and the actions of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who Tuesday voiced unflinching support for the U.S. action, is only likely to feed public discontent and, as a result, political activism, critics say.
Like the Kamakura vigil, the nouveau-activists may well have a ragtag feel and their actions may pale when held up to the larger demonstrations in the West.
Still, for Japan’s old-school pacifists, anything is an improvement.
“Those who feel the need to do something are coming out of their own will,” Takada said. “I feel a breeze of change in Japan’s peace movement.”
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