On International Women’s Day this year, I was one of the hundreds who joined a protest march through Tokyo. Observing the participants gathered at the capital’s famous Shibuya scramble, I was struck by a difference in atmosphere compared to similar demonstrations in Europe. There was an air of wariness among the protesters; the organisers had warned us we’d be filmed and there was a significant police presence.
“Does being here make me an activist?” I heard someone ask with a nervous giggle. The word seemed to carry a weight that I would not normally attribute to its English equivalent. This was despite the presence of numerous well-established organisations and many veteran street protesters, far from hesitant to be associated with the feminist movement.
One week later, the same streets were populated by youth climate strikers. The week after that, I found a square populated by an anti-nuclear rally. I realised that I had never come across any of these groups in either international or Japanese media.
International news stories give the impression that Japanese democracy is riding a wave of consensus.
Following Emperor Naruhito’s ascension to the throne on 1 May, Japan is now over a month into its new Reiwa era, prompting an opportune moment to reevaluate how we conceptualize Japanese society. Most international news stories depicting Japan tend to use adjectives like “orderly”, “conformist”, or “homogenous”. They give the impression that Japanese democracy is riding a wave of consensus.
Part of this may be due to a grand Orientalist tradition of depicting Japan as inherently and exceptionally committed to hierarchy and obedience. More recently, Japan has been portrayed by the West as a reliable, liberal ally in a region of dangerous adversaries. A belief rooted in both Cold War triangulation and America’s interest in retaining influence over a constitution that they played no small part in implementing. Shinzo Abe’s incumbent government is likely happy with this depiction. The new era’s name, Reiwa, is officially translated as “beautiful harmony”, a key aspiration for Japanese society.
However, a veneer of harmony often conceals inner strife. According to a survey of 27 countries carried out last year, Japanese citizens have some of the lowest levels of optimism and faith in the future. This does not mean that all Japanese are resigned to the problems affecting their country. Many are organising around issues like socioeconomic inequality, increasing militarism, and misogyny. The past five years have marked a significant shift in the state of Japanese activism, often with young women leading the way on Tokyo’s streets.
However, engaging in activism does not come without risk in Japan. It is not rare for young activists to lose their jobs if their participation in social movements becomes known. Feminists, in particular, often face massive online and offline harassment campaigns. There is a fundamental tension between the Japanese state and the presence of activists trying to take up more public space.
Part of this is due to historical connotations. In Japan, 1968 holds as much significance as it does in Paris or Washington. Sparked in particular by the ratification of the US–Japan security treaty as well as the Vietnam war, radical student movements sprung up with full force in the 1960s. Large-scale anti-war mobilisations eventually resulted in the forced resignation of Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi (the grandfather of Shinzo Abe). However, the 1960s movements are today mainly remembered for images of helmet-clad and stick-wielding students clashing with police. These riots, violent enough to result in the death of student Michiko Kanba, were widely broadcast and were met with the imposition of draconian laws to suppress protest activity on campuses.
While the following decades became a quieter time for Japan as consumerism flourished in the wake of an economic boom, social movements were far from absent. Anti-war movements as well as groups fighting for the rights of ethnic minorities continued to struggle against a government that preferred to deny their existence. Over time, associating the word “activist” with the 1960s helmet-clad rioter, painted as dangerous extremists, became a convenient construction for the established powers of Japan.
The breaking point came in the form of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. It coincided with a period of economic stagnation that had increased the size of the precariat for whom the image of a prosperous Japan was a far cry from their everyday existence. The triple disaster made it impossible to keep this myth intact. With the nuclear issue as a focus point, the post-2011 protest groups often consisted of coalitions between labour organisers, peace activists, environmentalists, feminists, and others fed up with the hegemonic Liberal Democratic Party’s policies.
In the West, the media were too occupied with regurgitating stories of evacuees lining up politely to receive their emergency rations to cover the “Hydrangea Revolution” quite literally emerging from the rubble. If these movements were portrayed at all, it was mostly as single-issue anti-nuclear or environmental groups.
Nor did international media pay a great deal of attention when, in 2013, Abe’s State Secrecy Law, which allowed the Japanese government to designate certain areas of information as state secrets protected from public disclosure, triggered a shift in focus among these activists. In 2015, a group of student activists formed Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDS) to protest the security-related bills enacted that year which allowed the Japanese Self-Defense Force to be deployed overseas.
Keen to avoid negative associations cultivated over decades, participants at rallies were encouraged to wear their best outfits, and the group became known for its hip hop-style chants.
“It was meant to deliberately contrast against the helmets and wooden sticks of the 1960s,” former SEALDS member Wakako Fukuda explained at a Temple University panel. SEALDS also emphasised the need to place the Japanese struggle for democracy in a greater global context. At a SEALDS rally, you were as likely to hear “No pasaran!” as Japanese chants. The strategy was successful in amassing numbers. On August 30 2015, SEALDS lead a rally of over 50,000 protestors outside the National Diet Building, posing the greatest direct challenge to the Japanese government since the 1960s.
Despite the fact that SEALDS disbanded following the ruling LDPs victory in the Upper House election in July 2016, the group was particularly influential in opening up the space for social and political debate in Japan. They helped to highlight the critical state of Japanese democracy, particularly under the growing influence of the far right. Many young Japanese activists are now eager to link up with their equivalents abroad, especially as many now claim Twitter as their home base.
We are telling a single story about Japan that does nothing but help the interests of those with the most to lose from changing the status quo.
However, if the West still perceives Japan as an apolitical nation devoid of activist energy, these exchanges will remain difficult. We are telling a single story about Japan that does nothing but help the interests of those with the most to lose from changing the status quo.
Post-2011 protest groups have made it clear that while Japan cannot go back to the 1960s, the idea of political consensus in Japan has always been a myth. Western activists need to stop facilitating this myth-making in order to open up the space for democratic discussion and transnational links between Japanese and their natural allies abroad. In order to develop appropriate strategies for the threats facing democracy in Japan as well as elsewhere, we need to uplift the voices of Japanese citizens fighting for change.