Their appearances belied the seriousness of their gathering on a hot Friday night last month in Tokyo.
The seven urban-casual-hip young men and women met at a community center near JR Iidabashi Station not to talk fashion or mull entertainment options, but instead were strategizing on ways to reach out to listeners of a community FM radio station on Aug. 17 to launch a new peace movement.
Their two-hour discussion covered the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, Okinawa and the war in Iraq.
“When people hear us promote peace, they tend to think of us as weirdos who wear tacky clothes and thick glasses,” said Taichi Ueno, 24, of the 10-member-strong group P-Souls. “We think of ourselves as ordinary youth, who just want to make a difference.”
Although people like those in P-Souls may still be a minority among their generation, which is generally perceived as being indifferent to peace movements, Ueno said his group wants to pitch peace in a fun way and link it with music to widen the appeal of their message to more young people.
The group was formed in May 2001 by high school graduates seeking to carry on the memory of the Great Tokyo Air Raid of March 10, 1945. The U.S. air raid turned the densely populated capital into an inferno that killed more than 100,000 people.
Each member of the group had an individual motive for joining and came from different walks of life, including child-care specialist and patissier.
One member grew up hearing about the air raid from his grandparents. Another said her grandfather — who served in the Imperial Japanese Army and executed a prisoner in China during the war — recounted his tales of the horrors of war at Japan’s hands.
In March, P-Souls members served as volunteer guides at an exhibition in Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills commercial complex to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the air raid, trying to shed light on the real nature of war and promote peace.
Hiroshi Hoshino, 74, secretary general of an association of relatives of people killed in the air raid and an organizer of the March event, said he wanted young people to pass down the memory of the attack through the exhibition, adding that members of his group believe Japan is in a state of deep political crisis.
With memories of war fading as the wartime generation disappears, right-leaning political figures are emerging and increasingly fanning new flames of patriotism.
This comes at a time when Ground Self-Defense Force troops are deployed to Iraq on a humanitarian mission, and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is moving to revise the pacifist Constitution to officially designate the Self-Defense Forces as what they are — Japan’s military — and allow the SDF to expand its activities overseas.
Young people find it hard to stand up and oppose moves that increasingly appear to have a nationalistic bent because politicians tend to ram through policies as “established facts,” like the GSDF deployment, argues Toshio Yamagata, 56, a company employee and member of the activist group Katsushika Peace Wave.
Yamagata said his group is trying to attract more young people but is facing difficulty — a sharp contrast with his generation, which was embroiled in the student movements of the 1960s, “burning with an inner sense of mission.”
Although the student movement subsided following the arrest of hundreds who holed up in the University of Tokyo’s Yasuda Auditorium in 1969, Yamagata said his generation saw some victories, including the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam.
“Younger generations have no such experience or the feeling that they could change the world,” he said. “That may give many of them a sense of helplessness.”
Jin Igarashi, a professor of political science at Hosei University, said the oil crises of the 1970s changed the attitudes of Japanese society, including young people.
People who experienced the rapid economic growth of the postwar period gradually became conservative as they grew better off, and the oil crises deepened their desire to hold on to what they had, he said.
At the same time, both the LDP and the government tightened controls over schools and tried to keep teachers, especially those with the left-leaning Japan Teachers Union, from bringing their ideology into the classroom, the professor said.
This led many young people to become increasingly less interested in politics and social issues and more conservative and selfish, something that was exacerbated with Japan’s rise as an economic powerhouse in the 1980s, Igarashi said.
Recent opinion polls bear this out.
According to a Cabinet Office survey conducted in October, 37.6 percent of 2,067 respondents said they feel an affinity for China, the lowest figure since the survey began in 1978, with more respondents in their 20s feeling a lesser sense of closeness to Japan’s Asian rival — officially perceived as a security threat — than any other age bracket.
An April survey of eligible voters by the Tokyo Shimbun meanwhile found that people in their 20s were the least interested in debates on revising the Constitution. While 63 percent of all respondents said they were interested in the issue, the figure dropped to 50 percent among those in their 20s.
But Igarashi said internationalization and the Internet are gradually changing this, particularly since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S. and the war in Iraq.
“The Iraq war appears to have prompted many Japanese youth, albeit to a lesser extent than those in many Western countries, to gain a better awareness of the world around them,” he said.
Noriko Hirose, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit organization Japan International Volunteer Center, said more young people have become interested in her group’s activities amid the Iraq war.
“Those people are not in a fighting mood” like those in past student movements, Hirose said.
“But they have a more positive attitude and try to make the issues become more familiar to their everyday life,” she said, adding that many young people attended a recent seminar by her group on the relationship between oil and conflicts.
“More and more young people are traveling abroad, so they appear to be able to feel the issues involving other countries (as if they are) their own.”
On Thursday, Ueno and other P-Souls members will travel to Hiroshima to take part in an international youth rally and other activities to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of the city.
Some 1,900 like-minded youth from around the country and 100 others from abroad, including France, the United States, South Korea, the Philippines and Sweden, will take part. A similar rally will be held in Nagasaki on Monday.
As survivors of the atomic bombings disappear, there is a desperate need for a generational change in organizations that include labor unions, which were actively engaged in postwar peace movements, according to Shiro Maekawa of the Japan Council against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs (Gensuikyo), one of the youth rally’s organizers.
“Awareness (toward peace movements) is on the rise,” the 26-year-old said. “It hasn’t become mainstream yet, but the signs are getting brighter.”
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