Upwards of 2,000 demonstrators clash with riot police. Sections of trains are set alight, the fire spreads into the station and trains don’t start running until late in the morning. In the middle of the night, some 450 people are arrested.

Another time, at least 5,000 young people gather at the city’s busiest plaza, where as many as 7,000 have massed before. This time, police use tear gas to disperse the crowd. Arrests follow.

Greece? Or, perhaps, Syria? No, these incidents took place in Japan and were once typical of an era. The first describes the so-called Shinjuku Riot (Shinjuku Sōran) in the capital on Oct. 21, 1968. The second was an incident the following June in an underground part of central Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station known as West Exit Folk Plaza (Nishiguchi Fōku Hiroba).

It is easy to conclude from the behavior of Japanese people today that their ingrained national spirit mitigates for docility and meek compliance with whatever government or other social institutions might impose on them. Certainly, this has been the case in the past two decades, ever since the asset bubble burst and Japan entered its ongoing state of economic and political stagnation.

The slogan that Yasuhiko Noda chose for his first address to the Diet as prime minister last month — seishin-seii, a slogan that he declared to be his administration’s very raison d’etre — makes it all too clear that the leaders of this country just don’t get it. They are steadfastly bogged down in the value abstractions of the past.

Seishin-seii denotes sincere devotion to something; it behooves its advocates to throw themselves heart and soul into something. It is a glorified version of that commonplace phrase — and often valueless Japanese cliche — isshokenmei (give it one’s all).

But devotion to what? Into what new “something” is the new prime minister throwing his heart and his soul as Japan faces a stunning range of problems?

It is obvious that politics in Japan throws up not only a new prime minister for (almost) a new year, but also a new cliche to egg him on.

Yet where is the protest against such vacuity — particularly in the media?

Is the seemingly meek and mild Japanese populace content to take it on the jaw every time, without once showing its teeth and reacting?

The country I came to in the summer of 1967 was, in many ways, a different Japan. Two buzzwords of that decade were jōnen (passions) and onnen (grudges). Perhaps the book that most influenced young people was the poet and essayist Takaaki Yoshimoto’s brilliant 1960 study of society, “Itan to Seikei” (“Heresy and Lineage”). Thanks to that book, the word itan (heretic) took on a positive meaning, and it was no shame to be one in 1960s Japan.

That was the country I had come to, one in which thousands of young people were gathering to sing antiwar folk songs; where politicians denounced them as “rioters” and sent in the police to “quell” them; where the majority of the public sympathized not with the enforcers but with the heretics. It was no less than a nascent Japanese Spring.

The era brought forth a remarkable generation of activists. In 1963, the artist Genpei Akasegawa challenged the system at its pecuniary heart by reproducing a ¥1,000 note (without the coloring) and sending it out as part of an invitation to an exhibition. The enforcers were not amused, though they were unsure which law Akasegawa had actually broken. Nonetheless, in 1970 a series of trials finally found him guilty of “manufacturing imitation banknotes” — but the message was not lost on young people: Art provokes; art impacts.

The New Left was in its heyday. It had drawn on dissidents from the Japan Communist Party and its student organization, but people of many other affiliations joined in. One of its chief goals was to protest the American war in Vietnam and Japan’s lucrative, if non-combative, participation in it.

Edwin O. Reischauer, the U.S. ambassador in Tokyo from 1961-66, had described his country and Japan as “the inevitable partners.” However, the activists who, in 1965, formed Beiheren, the Citizens’ League for Peace in Vietnam, had other ideas about how to effect this partnership.

They helped members of the U.S. military to desert, and — in order to be able to attend and disturb stockholders’ meetings — they became nominal shareholders in Mitsubishi Corp., which was making vast profits out of the war.

Strikes broke out on campuses and, in 1966, students at the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo stayed away for 155 days. Opposition parties supported the students, as did many members of the public.

Then, in 1968, strikes started at the nation’s leading seat of learning, the University of Tokyo. Beginning with the medical students there, they soon spread throughout the student body and to nearly 200 other universities. By October that year, both of the university’s campuses, at Hongo and Komaba, were virtually shut down, and entrance exams scheduled for early in 1969 were canceled.

Of course, student agitation in France, Britain, the then Czechoslovakia and the United States was having an influence on Japan. Protest was in the air around the world, and Japanese students had an international consciousness when it came to social issues.

In those days, theater, film, literature, art — and even the mass media — were permeated by the one thing that stimulates action both in democracies and in countries where people are longing for democracy; the one thing that is sorely lacking in today’s Japan: polemics.

When I arrived in this country I found a populace that did not shy away from confrontation, that did not hesitate to question the conventional wisdoms handed down to it in a clinging net of hackneyed and abstract phrases such as kinben (diligence), mottomo kinmitsuna kankei (the tightest partnership) and, yes, it was there then as now — seishin-seii (heart-and-soul commitment).

The question naturally arises: Where have all the countless flowers gone? Why don’t young people today gather and protest?

The crises now facing Japan are clearly more serious than those that confronted it nearly half a century ago. Then, there was air pollution in Tokyo and mercury pollution in Minamata in Kyushu. Today, there is radioactive pollution of the land, water and air of an entire region in northeast Japan, and were there to be a nuclear disaster or disasters elsewhere, most of the country could be exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.

In the 1960s, Japan boasted one of the best and most egalitarian education systems in the world. Late last month, the OECD announced that in 2008, the latest year for which figures are available, Japan devoted a measly 3.3 per cent of its GDP to education — the lowest percentage of any of the 31 developed countries in that grouping.

On June 22, 1969, the “United Nations Statistics Yearbook” disclosed that Japan’s industrial production in the period 1958-67 posted the highest growth in the world, at 245 percent. Today, Japanese industrial production is not only in a prolonged slump, but it has been overtaken by that in China, its primary rival of this century.

It need not be so.

Why are today’s young people so deliriously apathetic and passive? And for how long will they remain that way?

Those are the questions I will address in next week’s Counterpoint.

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