The sticky, humid night did not stop thousands of infuriated Japanese from gathering outside the Diet on July 15. Many held eye-catching placards that displayed messages such as, “Give peace a chance” and “Our future, our choice” to protest the approval of two security bills at the special committee of the Lower House.

One pro-democracy youth group, Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs), is credited with organizing the heated protest. Many of the roughly 175 members of the group are college students. Their fashionable and trend-conscious placards stood out in the crowd.

The catchiness of their designs may be one factor that has helped SEALDs attract an increasing number of people to its weekly Friday protests at the Diet. They also use Twitter to inform people that placards can be printed out at 7-Eleven stores.

SEALDs member Touri Ise, 19, who heads the group’s 26-person design team, said that she wanted to make “normal things,” meaning she wanted their designs to meet the standard of other designs seen in the community.

“If we want to make political involvement a standard, we need to bring design in politics to a higher level, to a standard level,” she said. “It’s a shame if people don’t glance at fliers when the design is dasai, or uncool. I’m that way, too.”

The group’s design team is divided into branches, each in charge of media such as fliers, pamphlets, placards, photographs and videos. Ise communicates to each branch her overall expectations, including the colors and arrangements, and members of the team critique each other’s work to narrow down their selection.

Although Ise is enrolled in Musashino Art University, she said she had little experience in design, adding many of the other SEALDs designers come from similar backgrounds.

As for how they manage with limited experience, both Ise and another key member, Yoshimasa Ushida, put it down to sheer willpower. “When you begin because you have to, you slowly but gradually begin to learn things like tricks in using illustrator programs,” Ise explained.

SEALDs designers incorporate techniques they see and like from their surroundings into their products. Ushida noted street culture, such as hip-hop and skateboarding, has a strong influence. Some of their designs are inspired by artists and brands such as skateboarding brand Supreme’s box logos, which are based on conceptual artist Barbara Kruger’s works. The slogans they print are taken from catchy phrases that SEALDs members have actually used in their speeches and protests, including “Fight for liberty!” and “No one wants war.”

Ushida, 22, who studies sociology and philosophy at Meiji Gakuin University and aspires to become a researcher in the field, pointed to French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte as a example of why design is important.

He said when Napoleon contributed to the Louvre Museum collection in Paris in the early 19th century, he succeeded in connecting unrelated individuals through the shared experience of seeing the same painting of the emperor.

“Right now, in the city, individual people seem separate and disconnected from each other, but when they see things like advertisements on the train, they are brought together through this shared experience,” he said. “In this way, cool designs become power.”

In times when youth in Japan are criticized for having little interest in politics, SEALDs’ activities are proving the exception. However, online critics have said the group’s catchiness draws people who give little thought to the complexity of the issues they are protesting against.

Ushida said he understands the criticism, saying, “I used to be critical, too, and complained that people shouldn’t be shouting when they haven’t even thought much.”

He thinks differently now. “Everyone is studying much harder than I thought,” he said. “Some housewives are studying really hard about nuclear power plants and radiation. A good amount of people who participate in protests study a lot.”

He added that even if people are drawn by the catchy designs, “it would be nice if it (the protests) became an opportunity for participants to study more.”

“They can just come to observe, even. And if that influences them to start following politics more attentively, that would be great.

“Until now, there was a climate in Japan that asserted that we shouldn’t open our mouths if we haven’t thought much. But if we do that, everyone will stop saying anything. I want to fight against that.”

As design becomes utilized as a form of expression, politics may become more approachable for a once apathetic population.

Clarification: This story was updated on July 22 to make clear the fact the number of people who showed up at the July 15 rally at the Diet was an estimate provided by the student protest group.

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