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SEALDs to disband but founder says political activism just beginning

by Daisuke Kikuchi

Staff Writer

One of Japan’s leading liberal youth political groups is coming to an end after kick-starting what it hopes will become a new generation of leaders.

Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy — better known as SEALDs — will, as planned, disband Monday following the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s victory in the Upper House election in July, which gave it a supermajority in the Diet.

“We have to admit that we did lose,” Aki Okuda, 24, one of the group’s founding members, said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

Formed in May 2015, the group opposed a package of security bills backed by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that expanded the scope of the missions that the Self-Defense Forces can take on overseas.

It also vociferously protested moves by the LDP to change the Constitution, specifically war-renouncing Article 9.

Okuda said SEALDs’ top achievement was helping to unite the disjointed opposition parties for the July 10 election despite their often diametrically opposed policies.

While the ruling bloc won the bulk of the seats, allowing pro-revision forces to secure two-thirds majorities in both chambers and pave the way for Abe to propose constitutional amendments, Okuda remained upbeat.

“In the previous election in 2013, the opposition was able to take just two seats in Iwate and Okinawa prefectures. None were by the Democratic Party,” he said. “But this time, they were able to grab 11 seats.”

Polling websites had tabbed the opposition as winning only four seats, but “the result turned out to be a bit more positive,” he added.

Before his role in SEALDs, Okuda was involved in a different activist group called Students Against Secret Protection Law, which dissolved in December 2014 after a year in action.

“We formed SASPL when the state secrets law was passed” on Dec. 6, 2013, he recalled. “We went in front of the Diet that day and realized that we needed to start protesting.”

SEALDs formed on May 3, 2015, with the aim of protesting the conservative policies of the Abe administration. Established by former SASPL members, the group raised public awareness of what it termed the dangers of Abe’s ambitions by holding monthly demonstrations in front of the Diet.

At the protests, it was not unusual to see opposition politicians of different stripes onstage, criticizing the government.

Their signature slogan — “Tell me what democracy looks like” — was delivered in English in a hip-hop-style cadence that ignited the group’s popularity.

Japan’s disaffected youths, media reports gushed, had found a new, media-savvy vehicle for rallying against the political establishment.

Okuda said the group enjoyed jazzing up the catchy call-and-response rhythm with music to fire up their protests.

“Hip-hop used to be political, since it was a music genre created to fight racism,” Okuda said. “It became less political after going mainstream, but artist Yoshitomo Nara told me that SEALDs was able to once again use hip-hop as a tool to actually make changes in our lives.”

Okuda, however, drew fire last month when it was announced he was invited to participate in the Fuji Rock festival on July 23. Scores of social media users complained about his plans, sharing disgruntlement via a Twitter hashtag that translated as “Don’t politicize music.”

Okuda attended the festival’s Atomic Cafe talk event with musicians and other activists, speaking about nuclear power.

“One guy told me we should all rather boycott the voting,” he recalled. “But I believe that having more people go to the polls would be much easier and positive way to make changes in society.

“The election administration commission may change their attitude with as little as a 10 percent increase in voter turnout,” he added.

Known for wearing a shirt emblazoned with an expression reading “Don’t trash your vote” on its back, Okuda likened voting to separating one’s rubbish, urging voters to “be aware that almost anything can happen to our society.”

Despite the outcome of the Upper House poll, Okuda said one bright spot was turnout among new voters, which was higher than he expected.

According to internal affairs ministry data, 51.17 percent of 18-year-olds and 39.66 percent of 19-year-olds headed to polls in the historic election, their first since winning suffrage under the new voting age in June.

That compared with an overall turnout rate of 54.7 percent for electoral districts and 54.69 percent for proportional representation districts.

“Many 18- and 19-year-olds went to the polls probably because they still live together with their families,” Okuda said. “Once they start living by themselves, there’s no one to prod them to vote, especially if they’re single.

Young people have few chances to become interested or active in politics, and SEALDs may have helped fill that role, he said. But politicians and activists must work harder to get citizens engaged.

Okuda noted how SEALDs had inspired other students nationwide to form similar groups in Kansai, Tohoku, Tokai and Okinawa. He also pointed to the groups T-nsSOWL, made up of high school students, and MIDDLEs, consisting of middle-aged activists, which both cited SEALDs as their influence.

SEALDs, he said, was a driving force behind the growing youth interest in politics and current events — a marked difference from the apathetic generations of the past.

“Now, there are many books in stores for the young generation to learn about politics,” he said. “It wasn’t like this five or six years ago, when there were only books that said youths show no interest in politics.”

Even with SEALDs’ dissolution, Okuda said many former members will continue to be engaged in politics, a group that he said includes himself.

“For now, I’d like to concentrate on my studies,” he said of his graduate studies in political science at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.

He also hasn’t ruled out a bid for office.

“This is not the end,” Okuda said. “Since we are still young, we need more experiences in whatever we are doing, to prepare ourselves for when we take action once again.

“Maybe around two years from now,” he said.