Nation’s youth are attempting to establish a new political norm

The rise of young activist groups such as SEALDs over the past 
six months is changing the domestic political landscape


Special To The Japan Times

“Tell me what democracy looks like!”

“This is what democracy looks like.”

“Tell me what democracy looks like!”

This is what democracy looks like.”

Clamorous call-and-response chants such as this have resonated around the Diet in recent months, with thousands coming together to protest the proposed “reinterpretation” of Article 9 of the Constitution and changes to the country’s national security policies. On Sept. 17, the Upper House ultimately forced through the bills, amidst palpable anger both inside and outside of Parliament, much of which protesters have targeted singularly at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his procedural process, widely perceived as both undemocratic and unconstitutional.

But what exactly does democracy look like? Gone are the helmets and crude, xeroxed flyers that have long endured as a legacy of the radical protests in the 1960s. In their place? Brand-name snapbacks and sleek signs that can be printed out at convenience stores nationwide simply by entering a designated numerical code. The megaphone is still there, but now it’s a symbol that has been re-purposed into an iconic logo plastered across T-shirts and tote bags.

Spearheading the movement is the much-publicized Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs), a group that I have had the opportunity to research since early this year as part of the Voices of Protest Japan (www.voicesofprotestjapan.org) ethnographic project, based out of Sophia University and headed up by professors David Slater and Robin O’Day.

And SEALDs isn’t alone. SEALDs’ own regional sub-groups — Tohoku, Kansai and Ryukyu — are evidence of solidarity stretching across the country, while the proliferation of acronymic spinoffs such as Teens Stand Up To Oppose War Law (T-ns SOWL), MIDDLEs and even OLDs points to a galvanization of political interest amongst all age groups.

However, it’s the youth segment that is really capturing the imagination of the public with their attention to style, slick visual productions and media savviness.

It hasn’t always been like this. Even until relatively recently, the notion that young people could turn out in such numbers to political protests would have been greeted with skepticism.

There is widespread perception that Japanese youth are politically apathetic, something that is often traced back to several key causes: the failures of the student movement in the 1960s and a so-called collective trauma that has haunted the radical left ever since, the anesthetizing effects of the bubble-era affluence of the late 1980s and a job-hunting system that has historically done little to reward outspoken beliefs, least of all political.

Such a cursory take is guilty of either ignoring or downplaying the importance of numerous groups who have, over the decades, continued to run with the baton of youth activism, dispelling the myth that radicalism completely fizzled out in the early 1970s.

In his 2013 book “Youth Movements, Trauma and Alternative Space in Contemporary Japan,” social theorist Carl Cassegard chronicles the emergence of “freeter activism” in the late 1980s and the cultural movements that followed: the anti-establishment, anti-Emperor system “guerrilla group” Aki No Arashi (1987); the fun-loving Dame-ren “good-for-nothings,” who rejected hegemonic lifestyles and consumerist trappings (1992); the General Freeter Union (2004) and other precarity movements that protested against the lack of regular work available at the turn of the millennium; and pranksters Shiroto No Ran (2005), who revelled in bringing chaos to the streets of Tokyo’s Koenji neighborhood and beyond.

A new era of activism was created in 2011, with the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant catalyzing a resurgence in protest culture that was spurred on by the vitality of concurrent international movements such as the Arab Spring demonstrations and Occupy Wall Street.

Politics professor Koichi Nakano, who has been a guest speaker at several SEALDs’ demonstrations and workshops, sees the global context as a key factor in the current climate.

“One thing that SEALDs is trying to do is to locate their struggle within the worldwide and historical fight against what is sometimes called rising fascism or, in any case, some kind of oligarchic tendency,” Nakano says. “Chants like ‘No Pasaran!’ (‘They shall not pass’) or ‘Tell me what democracy looks like!’ — some of the old-school left-wingers frown upon that, asking why they’re using English or languages that people who aren’t educated don’t understand. However, they’re missing the point. The point is to express themselves naturally but also to locate themselves within the wider worldwide context and to give meaning to their struggle in that way. These are fairly novel approaches for Japan.”

It’s an approach that has also had a side-effect of generating significant coverage among international media, something that political scientist Ikuo Gonoi likens to a “boomerang effect.”

“I often remind young people that our country is not democratic, our country is authoritarian,” Gonoi says. “So we have to utilize this ‘boomerang effect’ because the Japanese media, including the likes of NHK and the Asahi Shimbun, shirk under the influence of the government, which is why they don’t report on these protests directly. After an article (on youth activism) is published internationally, the ‘boomerang effect’ brings it back to the attention of media in Japan.”

SEALDs might be co-opting many tried-and-tested tactics from older protest movements into its repertoire but it does so with such a stylistic flourish that it’s unsurprising the media flock to them.

The students pair demonstrations in front of the Diet with marches through the hyperconsumerist hot spots of Shibuya and Omotesando. They address audiences not only on the streets, but also via live-streaming websites such as Dommune, whose late-night broadcasts are otherwise reserved for techno DJs.

They run a semi-regular workshop/study session, dubbed “Salon,” in hipster hangouts in which the attendees are just as likely to be able to tell the difference between German sociologists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer as they are a pair of Roshe Runs and Roshe Ones.

They’ve even gone from self-designing their own SEALDs T-shirts, spoofing New York skate brand Supreme’s iconic white-on-red logo, to having a Sonic Youth-referencing, sold-out collaboration with Tokyo men’s store 12XU.

It’s not so much champagne socialism as it is apparel activism, or, as SEALDs founding member Aki Okuda, a student at Meiji Gakuin University, quipped on Dommune in August: “Hiru wa apareru, yoru wa abareru” (“Apparel at lunchtime, a quarrel at night”).

Balancing style and substance is always likely to be a tightrope walk given the uncompromising stance of many leftists, but Nakano believes that the normalization of politics is a necessary tactic.

“It’s a tough battle they’re fighting, in a country that is not just apolitical but one that really stigmatizes political activism or any expression of political opinion in everyday life,” Nakano says. “They’re trying to establish a new sense of normality in which part of your life can be political and that doesn’t need to be an extraordinary thing. If anything, that’s something that’s highly commendable — and necessary — in a liberal democracy.”

Not only is it commendable, it appears to be working. Before going on to found T-ns SOWL, high school student Aine Suzuki was originally drawn to the ease with which it was possible to participate in SEALDs’ demonstrations.

“It was fun and, particularly with the music and everything else, it also felt cool,” Suzuki says. “When I first started going I was particularly impressed by the speeches. I felt like I was learning things that filled a gap in my education. We’d dress for the protests wearing the same as if we were going into Shibuya with friends. It’s just the same as going out to have fun — it really feels as if it’s something connected to our everyday life.”

Suzuki is now inspiring an even younger generation, with middle school students as young as 13 or 14 joining T-ns SOWL demonstrations in their school uniforms.

One group expressing concern over SEALDs’ tactics is the Zengakuren communist league of students, an association with a storied history that dates back to 1948.

Whereas SEALDs champions a vehemently nonviolent, pacifist approach, making sure to cooperate with police at demonstrations (something Gonoi, in his writings, has positively termed the “feminization” of social movements, referring to an increased emphasis on characteristics such as aesthetics and good-humored behavior, and a shift away from macho masculinity), Zengakuren has found itself pitched in battle with the very same institutions in recent years.

When Hosei University in Tokyo started removing fliers and other political signage from campus notice boards in 2006, the ensuing protests resulted in the detainment of 29 students by private security guards, sparking a conflict that has, if anything, re-energized the university’s radical left demographic.

Zengakuren President Ikuma Saito, 27, and member Shiori Uchida, 29, both advocate a traditional Marxist-Leninist agenda rooted in campus protests and labor strikes.

“SEALDs members are really afraid of being arrested,” Saito says. “SEALDs’ leader, Aki Okuda, goes to the protests in front of the Diet as if he’s going to the beach or karaoke or Disneyland — he just wants to protect his everyday lifestyle and not risk anything.”

“In the 1960s, the police killed (student leader Michiko) Kamba from Tokyo University,” Uchida says. “There’s no reason why we should be on friendly terms with the police or even seek to exploit them. If we start thinking like that then how can we react if we’re arrested? We’d just have to say, ‘Oh, it’s no big deal, the police are really good people on the inside.'”

SEALDs members might not be overtly risking arrest, but their activities do not protect them from other dangers. They often receive personal insults online through their social media accounts and even the occasional death threat; in person, they’re contending with a society that still stigmatizes activism.

“Whereas the Zengakuren type of activism is essentially revolutionary in nature — the idea of the vanguard party, educating the populace and persevering until you realize the dictatorship of the proletariat — SEALDs is more pragmatic, more gradualist, more to do with making concrete gains within the system,” Nakano says. “It’s also about not putting off enjoyment of life until the final victory. They want to combine ‘normal’ life with political engagement. They’re perfectly happy to combine days off and dates at Tokyo Disneyland with the Friday protests. It’s very refreshing, but it’s also easy for people to be critical that it’s not dedicated or pure enough. Then again, SEALDs will probably say that it can be more successful that way.”

Indeed, SEALDs is able to point to numerous markers that represent tangible success. At one of their demonstrations held at Shibuya’s Hachiko Square in June, the group united opposition leaders that included former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, Japanese Communist Party chief Kazuo Shii and the conservative Japan Restoration Party’s Akihiro Hatsushika in an unprecedented handshake.

Meanwhile, SEALDs’ own leader, Aki Okuda, was recently invited to speak to a House of Councillors special committee on security legislation, pointedly donning a suit for the occasion before rejoining the demonstrations afterward.

Amid such moments, SEALDs is inspiring people to show up, rain or shine, in front of the Diet every Friday evening (and, increasingly, on other days). Organizers of the Aug. 30 protest estimated attendance at 120,000, making it the biggest turnout since the anti-nuclear demonstrations of 2012.

With the Upper House now having passed the security bills, it appears that even the most ardent activism is little match for a government with numerical majority that is determined to have its way, but SEALDs has already proven in the past that its future is not dependent on single-issue developments, and there is plenty to suggest that there is plenty of fight left in the youth movement.

“Young activists have a second goal — which is probably more attainable — to get rid of Abe, and I think there’s a reasonable chance for that,” Nakano says. “He might still be able to pass the bills, but then he becomes very unpopular, and the laws become practically unusable for years to come because they’re so highly contested. Abe could be forced to resign in the way that (his grandfather Nobusuke) Kishi was forced to — it’s entirely within the realm of the conceivable. Then there’s the longer term goal of changing political culture and, of course, you’ll need time for that to happen.”

It’s a long-term goal that will also have to withstand graduation, employment, and subsequent responsibilities that could act as potential roadblocks for the movement’s current members as they attempt to forge a society in which the personal can coexist with the political. Many, in the coming years, will find out first-hand whether they’ve succeeded.

  • Richard Solomon

    Thanks for a thorough summary of SEALDs and related issues. As with any ‘movement,’ it will be interesting and significant to see how it evolves in the months/years to come. Will it have lasting appeal, let alone any impact.

    Besides checking out the website noted in this article, interested readers might also go to Japan Focus where more info is available.

    • JSS00

      I think that they do actually have a good chance, and most of it can probably be accounted to good timing. This is after when there has been a major shift in the political regime for the first time in 2009, and of course the nuclear meltdown in 2011 that shook the nation and made the majority of the people start questioning their own government and the kind of country that they live in.

      The movement seems to be getting bigger and bigger, and there’s no stopping. I’m not exactly sure what happened, but political activism is entering the mainstream in Japan. It probably has to do with people starting to realize how far-right extremist the Abe administration really is, and they’re actually starting to fear that if things are left to the hands of Abe, then the freedoms of their country would be severely restricted.

      This is probably going to be the biggest shift in Japanese culture since the Meiji Restoration.

  • Paul Martin

    Good ! If they muster the umbers they just might get the votes. Then they should go after all those war criminals and the FAT CATS who have always run Japan with an iron fist suppressing dissent especially from the young !

    • Promethean Allegory

      Indeed, it is good to see some young people “question authority.” Unfortunately, it appears that a lot of the smoke (and mirrors) is the usual contrived rebellion that inevitably skews left. If a real revolution in thinking was in the midst, I’d hope to see at least a resonable percent of libertarian-minded types who understood that centralized state authority is a bad thing no matter who might be running the show.

      Japan is “not a democracy.” But, it can hardly be called a “capitalist” system either.

      Big corporations, big unions, big government, and meddling bureaucrats have made Japanese citizens slaves of themsleves. To make the matter worse, most are convinced that the rigidness and atrophy imposed upon them is somehow simply an atribute of “Japanese culture” — as if the tea ceremony was akin to the shaken one pays on their car.

      I’ll be more impressed with the progress of rebellion in Japan when the rivers are no lunger lined with ugly concrete and I can buy trash bags of my choice at competitive prices.

      ‘Good to have rebels among us but real rebels don’t love Big Brother.

      • Promethean Allegory

        Sorry, that was meant as a general comment, not a response to your post.

  • Liars N. Fools

    Too many political leaders are in the “family business” which is to say that they are descendants of former political leaders. Abe Shinzo and Aso Taro are clear examples, but they exist in the DPJ, too.

    How to erode this “family business” model is not impossible but also not easy, and this has to do with a political culture that is not friendly to major change. In fact, it is highly resistant, with the power of local political groupings at the forefront. Good luck.

  • tomado

    …never seen students politically organized on any campus in 10 years but…sure go for it. Maybe some day!

  • Kazuki Jossef Condor

    someone can explian me this in reduced form about this topic pls.? my english is not very good ,,,,,,