“Don’t give up the fight! Stand up for your right!”
“This is what democracy looks like!”
“Now it’s our turn to decide what to do!”
Anyone who happened to visit Tokyo’s Shibuya district this past Saturday may have been dumbstruck at the sight of a very un-Japanese ruckus: a horde of agitated pro-democracy students marching down the avenues to condemn the state secrecy law championed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The rally, organized by the youth group Students Against Secret Protection Law (SASPL), drew an impressive turnout of more than 2,000 students and older supporters opposed to the law, which they say will have a chilling effect on democracy and infringe on their essential right to information.
“In Japan, people will treat you like you’re crazy if you made some political statement. That’s very weird and so not right,” Aki Okuda, a 22-year-old political science major and core member of SASPL, told the feverish rally.
“But look at us today. There are actually so many of us who do want to state our opinions and join the protest!”
Okuda said now that the law’s enforcement is imminent, he hopes such protests will serve as a deterrent against its actual implementation.
“History shows there are certain laws that have never been applied because of strong public opposition. I hope protests like this will discourage the government from committing abuses.”
Saturday’s rally was one of numerous attempts by worried citizens to denounce the secrets protection law, which the Abe administration steamrollered into enactment last December despite overwhelming public opposition. In a Kyodo News poll at the time, more than 80 percent of the respondents wanted the law either amended or abolished altogether before it takes effect.
With its Dec. 10 enforcement drawing near, however, critics and activists lament that the law’s threats to their privacy and right to access critical information remain the same as when the legislation cleared the Diet.
Ostensibly an attempt to bolster national security, the law will give ministries and agencies, including the Defense Ministry and the Nuclear Regulation Authority, the power to classify information in areas such as diplomacy and counterterrorism as “state secrets.” The law subjects leakers to up to 10 years in prison and those who try to obtain secrets, including journalists, to five years behind bars.
Government guidelines to enforce the law, formulated earlier this month, did little to assuage such concerns.
Two oversight bodies will be established to prevent the improper classification of information, but they have no legally binding power to probe or correct malpractice.
Those who handle secrets, including not only public servants but employees at major nuclear- or military-related companies, will be subject to rigorous background checks by the state, including on any history of mental illness, alcohol habits and family composition.
Whistleblowers, it seems, are not sufficiently protected either.
“Depending on how we interpret the law, I believe it’s pretty much possible that we could be arrested or interrogated for merely ‘trying’ to access information designated as a state secret. If that’s the case, it would definitely quash our right to freedom of speech,” said Itaru Ono, another core member of SASPL.
SASPL members boast that their protests are “cool” and meant to be aesthetically appealing. In this, they are confident no adult-led protest organizations can ever match them.
Standing atop a moving truck, member students shout slogans punctuated with catchy English phrases, dancing and rapping to DJ-style background music. In response, the participants following the truck get into the rhythm, as if clubbing. The fliers they hand out are stylish as well, meticulously thought out down to the tiniest details, including the fonts.
“When I first joined an anti-nuclear rally, I remember feeling underwhelmed . . . even genuinely scared to hear a crowd of old people angrily shout out their slogans. That’s kind of ‘dasai’ (uncool),” said 22-year-old Yoshimasa Ushida, himself a rapper.
“I think there are certain sounds or rhythms that naturally strike a chord with young people. That’s what we’ve been most mindful about (to attract participants).”
Another key member, 20-year-old Wakako, who asked that only her first name to be publicized, agreed. Sporting a giant pair of pierced earrings, her face all spruced up, the club-lover said: “We’re very much thankful for all of our predecessors who have passed on the demo (demonstration) culture to us. But when it comes to visuals, let us handle them.”
Looking at the students taking the initiative in organizing the rally, a 66-year-old woman, who only wished to be identified as Keiko, said she felt encouraged. In a society where speaking out is often frowned upon, Keiko said she has found a silver lining in the recent advent of Twitter and Facebook, through which young people can casually express their thoughts and instantly connect with kindred spirits.
“Unlike our time, I feel like young people nowadays commonly share the understanding that publicly articulating their opinions is kind of lame,” said Keiko, who decades before would often participate in anti-Vietnam War protests.
“But they’re wrong. Being able to say what’s on your mind is very cool. I hope the folks who showed up today will inspire others and a movement like this will spread.”
Although Saturday’s rally was supposedly unaffiliated with any particular political party, students rapping atop the truck made no secret of their dissatisfaction with what they denounced as the “tyrannical” reign of Abe and their burning hopes for his downfall.
“Abe should quit!” they shouted.
Exploding with rage, the outspoken rapper Ushida slammed what he called Abe’s heavy-handedness.
“He rammed the bill through the Diet and now he wants to ‘seek (our) understanding?’ Give me a break. It’s like he’s saying he’s right about everything and we are only against the law because we’re too dumb to understand (what’s so good about it). That’s total bull.”
Another student said through a loudspeaker that the law was designed to make the citizenry ignorant, because it deprives them of critical information and puts them in jail for trying to access it. By wielding the law like a club, she said, top leaders of this nation are probably trying to mold the people into the kind of citizens they want them to be: docile and subordinate puppets.
“Are they smirking now at the prospect of us becoming like this soon? If so, let me just say this: You’re so, so dead wrong. We’re never going to be who you want us to be!”