Student protesters want a revitalized democracy

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

The large and loud crowds that regularly gather outside the Diet on Friday evenings are the result of student activists trying to do something constructive to block Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s security legislation.

The core activists in Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs) say they want to protect Japan’s liberal democratic values and promote constitutionalism. As pointed out in last week’s column, SEALDs is wooing a public that shuns radicalism and extremist actions — meaning no leftist jargon, Molotov cocktails or hunger strikes.

“It is the first movement that has no connection with left parties or political organizations. They are spontaneous, and their words are fresh,” says Hosei University’s Jiro Yamaguchi. “Their amateurism has inspired ordinary citizens, and made them feel they should do whatever they can do to prevent the Abe administration from imposing the new security legislation. It is a big surprise for me that the Japanese people still have such a strong attachment to the pacifist Constitution.”

Akihiro Ogawa, the chair of Japanese studies at the University of Melbourne, has been studying protest movements in Japan. He says he has noticed something different about SEALDs’ protest demonstrations.

“I often hear three major calls: ‘Kenpō mamore!’ (‘Follow the Constitution!’), ‘Abe wa yamero!’ (‘Abe, quit!’), ‘Sensō suruna!’ (‘Don’t wage war!’),” he says.

In Ogawa’s view, SEALDs drew inspiration from the political ferment of the past five years sparked by the Fukushima meltdowns, and Abe’s reactionary agenda and “tyrannical attitude.” He says their agenda overlaps with some anti-nuclear protesters and other young activist groups, such as Tokyo Democracy Crew. That group’s leader, Wakagi Takahashi, is in his mid-30s.

The core members of SEALDs used to belong to the Students Against Secret Protection Law (SASPL), which protested Abe’s state secrets bill between February and December of 2014. That legislation passed, but a new raison d’etre was born of the Abe Cabinet’s decision on July 1, 2014, to unilaterally reinterpret Article 9 of the Constitution to allow Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense. Promoting such a radical shift in Japan’s security policy without following procedures laid out in the Constitution for revising the document spurred the students into action.

Thus on May 3, Constitution Day, SEALDs was established in Tokyo and has blossomed into a nationwide network with branches in Ryukyu (Okinawa), and the Kansai, Tohoku and, soon, Tokai regions. It’s still early days, but SEALDs seems to be a success in terms of mainstreaming political activism, making it less threatening to the public while giving a voice to the majority who are incensed by Abe’s steamrollering of his security agenda through the Diet.

“Members of SEALDs do not necessarily disagree with any revision of the Constitution; what they want is politics based on ‘constitutionalism’ or rikken shugi,” Ogawa says.

Tom Gill, a professor of social anthropology at Meiji Gakuin University, adds that “the other half of the story is the marked shift to the right by the Liberal Democratic Party under Abe, which has prompted the revival of a long-dormant tradition of student radicalism.” SEALDs, he reminds us, “is campaigning for freedom and democracy, not communism or anarchism. They feel more left-wing because the establishment has become more right-wing.”

SEALDs cooperates with the media by holding press conferences, offering interviews and orchestrating events that attract eyeballs. They appear polite, thoughtful and articulate, cultivating a reassuring image that makes their rightist detractors appear more unhinged than usual. They have also wooed the international press, knowing that fame abroad translates into legitimacy and coverage at home. It almost seems professional, but strong self-presentation and multimedia skills come naturally to young people in the 21st century.

Robin O’Day, a researcher at the University of Tsukuba, says that the key core members from Meiji Gakuin, International Christian University, Sophia and Hosei universities all attended the same high school. All but one of these elite private institutions is Christian. Ritsumeikan University’s Akihiko Kimijima adds that a Meiji Gakuin graduate who enrolled in Kwansei Gakuin University’s theology program established the Kansai branch.

Even so, Gill cautions against reading too much into this Christian connection. He points out that his university has an active Peace Studies Institute and “a liberal-left tradition. Partly it stems from being a Protestant mission school. Christianity tends to be associated with conservatism in countries where it dominates, but with progressivism where it is a minority faith. Few of the faculty and very few of the students are actually Christians, but a little bit of the crusading spirit of Toyohiko Kagawa, a pioneering social activist and famous Meiji Gakuin graduate, has somehow lingered on.”

Former LDP lawmaker Takaya Muto arrogantly disparaged SEALDs for being selfish and pacifist, but Kimijima disagrees. In his view, young Japanese volunteers working at NGOs all over the world have made significant contributions to building peace in war-torn countries, a far more effective example of proactive pacifism than the prime minister’s militarized version. These young people and the SEALDs activists, he argues, draw on the pacifist inspiration of Japan’s peace Constitution and are dedicated to promoting “peace by peaceful means,” an approach that resonates powerfully worldwide and within Japan.

So what comes next for SEALDs? Abe’s Japan is a target-rich environment for liberals eager to defend democracy and constitutionalism. On its website, SEALDs also draws attention to the social safety net, alluding to the growing precariat of nonregular workers in Japan, who are now make up 38 percent of the workforce, and disproportionately young and female.

According to O’Day, however, precarity and kakusa shakai (inequality), issues that helped catapult the Democratic Party of Japan into power in 2009, are secondary concerns for SEALDs.

“They talk about controlling (abusive) ‘black companies,’ strengthening the social safety net and bolstering legislation that protects workers from abuses,” he says. “They are not directly aligning themselves with established political ideologies about precarity that already exist among other social movements in Japan.”

A key SEALDs priority is the 2016 Upper House elections and efforts to help unify the fractured opposition. The LDP won only about 25 percent of the total potential vote in the December 2014 Lower House elections, benefitting from a record low turnout. SEALDs hopes that backing strong opposition candidates regardless of party affiliation and getting out the vote is the best way to revive democracy and unseat the LDP. No easy task, but a worthy goal.

More worrisome is that many of SEALDs core members will graduate in the next year or two, raising questions of whether theirs can be a sustainable movement.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.