Long quiet, Japanese youths find their voice in protesting defense reforms

Young people are defying stereotypes of being either apathetic or nationalistic as they take to the streets to argue against government legislation that would loosen constraints on Japan's military.

Michael Holtz/The Christian Science Monitor
Students protested legislation that would ease restrictions on Japan's Self-Defense Forces earlier this month in Tokyo.

Daiki Jou isn’t old enough to remember World War II or its immediate aftermath. But as a 16-year-old high school student, he says he knows enough to be alarmed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hawkish rhetoric and nationalist policies.

His main concern is a controversial set of bills that would give Japan’s military limited powers to fight in overseas conflicts for the first time since the war.

“My biggest fear is that Japan will go back to what it was 70 years ago,” Daiki says, adding that he’s not alone. “These days more young people are paying attention to politics.”

As Japan commemorates the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II on Saturday, an increasing number of young people are calling on the country to uphold the deep-rooted pacifism that has defined its postwar years.

Thousands of students have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest the package of 11 security-related bills, their newfound voice bolstering a modest choir of opponents who want lawmakers to vote down Mr. Abe’s legislation in the upper house of parliament. 

The small but growing ranks of young demonstrators have provided one of the strongest counterpoints in decades to the stereotype of Japanese youths as politically disengaged and insular. And they're defying another common narrative: that young people are more nationalistic than older generations because they didn’t experience the atrocities or hardships of the 1930s and '40s.

“We are so proud that Japan is a pacifist country,” says Saya Kameyama, a 19-year-old university student, as she handed out flyers at a recent demonstration. “If the legislation passes, Japan might get dragged into someone else’s war.”

Youth in revolt

Daiki comes across as a typical Japanese teenager – soft-spoken and polite. But with a microphone in hand at a protest march earlier this month, he displays the sort of impassioned anger at Japan’s political establishment that young people have tended to avoid.

"Protect children from Shinzo Abe," he chants, to booming electronic dance music from high atop a truck. "Protect our future from Shinzo Abe. Protect Japan from Shinzo Abe."

The march, in Tokyo’s trendy Shibuya district, was organized by a group of high school students called Teens Stand Up to Oppose the War Law. Daiki is one of the group’s co-founders.

The group's efforts paid off, with more than 3,000 people of all ages braving the scorching heat to participate. They chanted antiwar slogans and carried signs that called for Abe’s resignation. Dozens of teenagers wore their school uniforms, ensuring that there was no confusion about their age. The march was a first for many of them, but probably not their last.

“The claim that young people are apolitical is getting old,” says Kaoru Nakajima, a 24-year-old university student. “More and more are joining demonstrations like this.”

Yet there are plenty of young people who fall on the opposite end of the political spectrum, those who feel that a war that ended seven decades ago has nothing to do with them. In rejecting the narrative of ongoing guilt over Japan’s wartime aggression, they embrace Abe’s nationalist agenda.

“They are confused why they should be made to feel responsible for something that happened many decades before they were born," Nick Kapur, a professor of Japanese history at Rutgers University, says in an e-mail. “As much as the left has been able to use social media to organize and find alternative narratives, the right in Japan has been able to do so just as much.”

Michael Holtz/TCSM
Daiki Jou, a high-schooler, leads a chant at a Tokyo youth protest in early August over proposed Japanese defense reforms.

‘A sleeping dog’

Abe, the first Japanese leader to be born after the war, has devoted much of his political career to reasserting Japan’s position on the global stage. Loosening constraints on the country’s military would mark the culmination of his push to transform Japan into a “normal country.”

The security bills aim to ease constitutional limits imposed by the Allies after World War II to restrict Japanese forces to a self-defense role. Through a contested reinterpretation of the Constitution, the military would be allowed to defend allies in limited circumstances and to cooperate more closely with US forces. Abe has framed the policy as a crucial response to new regional threats, especially China.

Yet the public remains unconvinced. The legislation’s passage through the lower house of parliament last month dragged Abe’s approval rating down to 32 percent, his lowest since he returned to office in December 2012.

The upper house is scheduled to debate the legislation for another month, raising the possibility of more protests. But with control over both chambers, Abe’s coalition is poised to pass it despite the growing opposition.

Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, says Abe’s heavy-handed approach – one that did little to build public consensus – has come at a cost.

“Even if they are enacted, the security bills are going to remain contested by the people,” he says. “Abe ended up waking a sleeping dog.”

So far the demonstrations have been relatively small compared to those of the 1960s, when hundreds of thousands of students protested against the renewal of the US-Japan security treaty. But Prof. Kapur of Rutgers says they are a telling surprise.

“This amount of political activity by young people should be seen as an indictment of the Abe administration's total inability to build support for its policies among younger generations,” he says.

From the streets to the polls

In addition to denting Abe’s approval rating, the student-led protests could reverberate at the ballot box. The Diet lowered the voting age to 18 from 20 in June, boosting the ranks of the voting age population of 104 million by another 2.4 million.

“Initially the government thought it was safe to lower the voting age. They thought the youth were apathetic,” Prof. Nakano says. “I think now they are getting seriously concerned.”

The new voting law – aimed originally at engaging youths in a rapidly aging society – will take effect in time for next year’s upper house election. But getting young people to the polls is likely to remain an uphill battle. Less than 33 percent of 20-somethings voted in last year’s general election, compared with 68 percent of voters in their 50s and 60 percent of those in their 70s.

Meanwhile, the number of Japanese students who study abroad has declined 30 percentage points over the past decade, a statistic that many have interpreted as a sign of youth apathy toward the outside world. Young Japanese have developed a reputation as being inward-looking and uninterested in events outside their immediate lives.

Benjamin Uchiyama, a professor of Japanese history at the University of Kansas, says that could finally change if Abe continues to ignore the issues raised by young people.

“This could be a turning point,” he says. “Young people are finally getting fed up with an unresponsive government that seems not very concerned with public opinion. They seem to be against a majority of what the Abe government is trying to.”

The pressure is mounting. On Friday, the eve of the day 70 years ago when Japan surrendered, the latest student-led protest is scheduled to take place in front of the Diet.

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