National | View from Osaka

Has Black Lives Matter’s Osaka march inspired new generation of rights activists in Japan?

by Eric Johnston

Staff writer

On June 7, the Black Lives Matter Kansai chapter showed why Osaka — and the Kansai region — is still a vital place when it comes to standing up for what you believe in. Local media reported that a march the group sponsored drew at least 1,000 people. Others say it was more. But the final figure is less important than the diverse group of Japanese and non-Japanese who participated.

For many years, public marches in Japan for human rights issues and minority issues have been notable for the average age of those who gather to hold signs and shout slogans. Which is to say a large proportion of participants appear to be at, or beyond, sometimes well beyond, retirement age. They marched as young students in the 1960s for all sorts of liberal and progressive causes. Now, grandfathers and grandmothers, they feel an obligation to keep marching even as they gripe about young kids today having no interest at all in anything other than smartphones, video games and making money.

Which is what made the June 7 march unique. While there were a few members of the traditional senior set one usually sees, the vast majority appeared to be under 40 — and a lot of them looked to be in their teens and 20s. Nor were they just local foreign residents. A lot of the younger Japanese also were obviously concerned and disturbed by the violence against African Americans they saw on the nightly news.

Japanese and non-Japanese participants alike understood that, despite certain media commentators trying to frame the problem as an exclusively American one, violence against ethnic minorities was of universal concern. How, they wondered, could Japan declare it needed more foreign labor to offset its aging, declining workforce, which will naturally increase the number of minority groups in Japan, and yet ignore or play down the issues ethnic minorities elsewhere now face?

Minority communities in the Kansai region have long had a tradition of never being afraid to assert their rights. The region’s Korean community has fought for decades for their rights, and plays a key role in the development of human rights education in Japan. Other groups, from Okinawans to descendants of the buraku, the feudal outcasts, also have a strong history of activism in Osaka.

For those not only in Kansai, but also the rest of Japan, who are concerned about the struggles of ethnic minorities, the question is what comes next? BLM’s Osaka march appears to have inspired Japanese and foreign residents in other cities like Fukuoka and Kyoto, where a march is scheduled to take place on Sunday, to organize. Is what we are seeing in Japan now the awakening of a new, younger generation of human rights activists who will (finally) replace the old guard of the 1960s and 1970s?

Or, will the marches peter out, as people return to their daily lives in Kansai and elsewhere to deal with more immediate concerns, such as the coronavirus.

Much will depend on how the conversation in Japan about racial injustice proceeds and whether people, especially younger generations, are encouraged to stand up and think for themselves about the issue and make their voices heard. For that reason, the Osaka march provided any number of teachable moments to others in Japan about how to continue the conversation.

These lessons include the importance of having diversity and inclusiveness, a clear message focused on one topic, a flexible, nonbureaucratic — even nonlinear — mode of organization (cue gasps of disbelief from the silver-haired marchers used to following a top-down structure), clear explanations of the ground rules, and a system for making quick decisions.

Let’s hope the rest of the class (and the country) was paying attention.

View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.

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