Sitting upright across from the Diet building, the protesters say they know their fight against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is going to take a heavy toll on them. But they say they have to do it nonetheless.
Determined to foil an attempt to bulldoze key security legislation through the Diet, four university students began a hunger strike on Thursday afternoon. They say they are determined to “risk their lives” to succeed.
“We’re aware that going on a hunger strike in the summer heat risks putting our lives in danger. But we’re doing this nonetheless — that’s how determined we are,” said Daisuke Motoki, a 22-year-old law student at Senshu University in Tokyo.
Their protest comes on the heels of growing youth dissatisfaction with the security bills that, among other things, would enable Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to fight alongside the United States under the name of “collective self-defense” — or defending an ally under attack even though Japan is not.
Abe has argued the bills are essential to keep Japan safe in the face of an increasingly assertive China and other global threats.
Often led by a pro-democracy student group called Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs), many university students now rally in front of the Diet and march down the streets of Shibuya — a mecca of youth fashion and pop culture — to show their opposition to the bills, which they say are unconstitutional and “pro-war.”
The four hunger-strikers say they don’t want to criticize the street protests. But they say they want to take things up a notch to drive home to the government how desperate they are to thwart the legislation’s passage.
“By hurting ourselves and putting our lives in danger, we wanted the government and society to know how angry we are with the bills and how desperate we are to stop them,” said 23-year-old Kenji Shimane, another law student at Senshu University.
Starting Thursday afternoon, the participants will continue to sit outside the Diet building and will go without liquid or solid food, for an “indefinite period of time.” They will, however, drink water. Their hunger strike mostly takes the form of a silent sit-in, but the students make occasional speeches each day to drum up support for their cause.
As a precaution, the four have arranged for professionals to check their medical conditions at the end of each day, while a team of supporters will take turns patrolling the strikers’ surroundings every night to watch out for possible assailants.
Unless the security bills are scrapped as they demand, the round-the-clock hunger strike will only end when the participants are declared by the doctors as no longer capable of going without food, or in the event of some other life-threatening problem such as being attacked by right-wingers, they said.
Aside from protesting the security bills, the hunger strike is also meant to be a dig at Japan’s post-World War II prosperity, which the participants say has been based on its contribution to U.S.-led conflicts such as the Korean and Vietnam wars.
The roles Japan played in manufacturing and exporting military materials or assisting U.S. troops logistically in these wars, the students said, catapulted the country into economic growth at the expense of “lives of other peoples worldwide.”
The strikers’ act of self-denial is their way of “questioning the idea of wealth Japan has enjoyed since the end of the war,” said 19-year-old Sophia University student Kei Ida, a Russian language major.
Since announcing their plan, the four say they have found themselves the target of online threats and smears.
Some right-wingers emailed them a torrent of heinous messages threatening to attack them, while others said the students’ decision to continue drinking water and to rely on doctors runs counter to their supposed commitment to “risking their lives” in the hunger strike.
Although the four are ready to embrace the potentially life-threatening consequences of their actions, such as brain damage, they say that doesn’t mean they are throwing away their lives.
“We’re not trying to die here,” said Shotaro Kimoto, a 19-year-old literature major in Waseda University. “A hunger strike is not an act of abandoning your life, but it’s a political statement.”
That means, Kimoto said, the strikers need to act strategically to maximize the political impact of their action. Water intake, he said, is vital in that sense, as it allows them to maintain their protest as long as possible.