Haunting questions of youth activism in Japan

Dr. Koichi Nakano

Not since the 1960 ANPO demonstrations have so many students demonstrated. Sixty thousand SEALDs (‘Students Emergency Action for a Liberal Democracy’) did so outside the Diet last August as part of wider protests that have taken place in Tokyo and Okinawa in recent years.

The SEALDs are enraged with the Prime Minister for riding roughshod over constitutional procedure as Abe seeks to bolster national security and defense. Will the voice of student activists grow to influence policymaker decisions or will they be silenced by haunting questions? Beacon Reports spoke to two university professors involved with the SEALDs to find out.

As background, Abe says he wants to revise pacifist Article 9 of the constitution so Japan can protect itself against the ‘China Threat’ through greater contribution to the US-led Alliance. To achieve that he needs a supermajority vote in both the Upper and Lower House of the Diet and more problematically – approval of the Japanese people. Opinion polls suggest the Japanese public are happy with their constitution ‘as is’.

While Abe works towards solidifying his power in the Diet and pushes for formal constitutional change, he has meantime ‘reinterpreted’ Article 9 to allow for collective self-defense. He also marked defense information as ‘special secrets’ through added legislation. Broad in scope and woolly in detail, the new State Secrets Law promotes self-censorship by failing to define what a state secret is, the rules for deciding one and the punishment for its violation.

Student activists argue that Abe’s revisions are unconstitutional and chop off at the knees the possibility to have true democracy in Japan. “If you throw away liberal democratic principles to protect Japan from the so-called ‘China Threat’, what are you protecting?” asks Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University who works closely with the SEALDs. Nakano is also a board trustee of a newly created think tank set up by SEALDs core members.

If you throw away liberal democratic principles to protect Japan from the so-called ‘China Threat’, what are you protecting? – Koichi Nakano

The movement has its roots in the antinuclear demonstrations which followed the 3/11 triple disaster. Then, many Japanese youth rose in protest over the government’s nuclear policies. After the demonstrations subsided, another group called SASPL (Students Against Secret Protection Law) formed to rally against Abe’s State Secrets Law. When the legislation passed anyway, many SASPL members regrouped to form SEALDs in May 2015.

SEALDs also worry that Abe’s policies further embed Japan as an American client state. “Many young people wonder if they must fight a war to protect American geopolitical interests,” notes David Slater, a professor of anthropology who shares an office on the same university corridors at Sophia as Nakano.

ANPO demonstrationsSimilar concerns over a one-sided Japan-US Security Treaty led hundreds of thousands of often violent ANPO protesters in 1960 to march.

While there is little extremism in Japan today, the SEALDs can conjure up in some people’s minds images of the ‘ghosts of ANPO’. “They are not anarchists,” corrects Nakano. SEALDs want to uphold liberal democracy and constitutionalism.

Nakano believes it is instead Abe who is destroying key values which have served the Japanese people well during the postwar period. “The government is ironically more radical and revolutionary than youth,” he argues.

If not anarchists, perhaps the SEALDs are naïve peaceniks who are oblivious to the nuclear-tipped multipolar world in which we live? However Nakano assures, “They are not a bunch of John Lennon Rose Garden pacifists.” Some are open to changing the constitution if the basic principles of constitutionalism are upheld. “If there is an urgent need to strengthen security legislation and to reinforce the alliance with the US,” says Nakano, “there are designated roads for doing that through constitutional amendment.”

The government is ironically more radical and revolutionary than youth – Koichi Nakano

The SEALDs in fact have varying agendas as it is not a formal organization which members can join. There are no dues to pay. It has only 20 core members. The rest are individuals who come together ad hoc to take part in this, that or another event. Some are pacifists, but they are in the minority.

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Slater believes the movement provides a space where different kinds of people can oppose government in a way that is neither extreme nor antisocial. Under the SEALDs banner, high school students, middle-aged ‘MIDDLEs’ and older people ‘OLDs’ demonstrate. Another subgroup calls itself ‘Moms Against War’. “Young people are trying to create a space where they can talk about politics and figure out what role they can play in society beyond that planned for them by government,” says Slater.

SEALDs most enthusiastic supporters come from a narrow band of second-tier universities, including Sophia and Meiji Gakuin that are taking a lead on the issue. Absent are students from first-tier schools, Todai, Kyodai and Waseda. Also absent are students from third-tier and lesser-ranking institutions.

Slater thinks that students who are still hoping to secure a full-time job and those who have given up that possibility – the majority of students – are the ones not demonstrating. Many students reflect the wider population of Japanese youth who commentators portray as having become increasingly self-absorbed, apathetic and inward-looking over the past few decades.

The Establishment is mostly ignoring the SEALDs, possibly believing that student activism will attenuate as protesters enter the workforce. None of the core SEALDs members reportedly wishes to become a career politician. The group also plans to disband after the Upper House elections scheduled later this summer. Should future activists lack strong leadership, a clear point of dispute (currently hatred for Abe and his policies) and a formal organization, student activism in Japan may fizzle.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to increased political engagement is the pressure to live as one big happy family in Japan’s famously homogeneous culture. One person who came from a town near Fukushima reportedly went to extreme lengths to cloak her participation at Tokyo antinuclear demonstrations. She did not want people from her town to think that by demonstrating she was prioritizing her own child’s health over the recovery of her community.

Another person, a student who was thinking of protesting said, “Professor Slater, it might be different in America, but here in Japan it’s against the law to demonstrate.” The professor replied, “It’s not against the law yet, but if we never demonstrate it will be someday.” Doubting him, she checked with her dad who begrudgingly admitted it wasn’t illegal, it was “almost illegal” (i.e. it was not a good idea to attend), recounts Slater. In the end she went to the demonstrations to see for herself what was going on.

It’s not against the law yet, but if we never demonstrate it will be someday – David Slater

Such concerns raise the uncomfortable question if the true ghosts haunting youth are thoughts of possible future repercussions from once having voiced their opinions in public.

Meanwhile, the focus of attention is turning to the Upper House elections scheduled to take place this summer in which the ‘unstoppable’ Abe is likely to further consolidate his control over the Diet. Constitutional reform sits squarely on the campaign agenda. Expect more anti-Abe demonstrations to unfold as elections approach.

Dr. David Slater

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