SEALDs protest in Tokyo. Photo: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

William Andrews outlines the character of the new protest movements in Japan, as the government attempts to adopt new security legislation

This summer and early autumn Japan witnessed almost continual rallies and marches. Hundreds of thousands demonstrated against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s proposed state security bills, which enable Japan to engage in “collective self-defence” overseas. This legalese cloaks what is essentially a constitutional revision, since Japan is officially forbidden to participate in war, but Abe’s new law would, with some conditions, allow Japan to assist its allies in foreign conflicts. An overwhelming majority of scholars and experts came out to say that such a law would be against the Constitution, and most voters agreed.

Despite the gross unpopularity of the bills, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party used its majority to pass them first in the lower house in July and then in the upper house in the early hours of 19 September. The bills were met in the chambers by filibustering and obstructionism from the opposition parties, and even a fistfight. On the streets, thousands gathered almost daily at the Japanese parliament, the Diet, to protest. The largest single demonstration was on 30 August. Organised by a federation of groups, it mobilised 120,000 people, plus tens of thousands more around the country. Thirteen people were arrested on 16 September alone during scuffles with an increasingly heavy police presence at the Diet.

The media made much out of the protest movement, in particular the young activists involved in the demonstrations. The most prominent group at the Diet was SEALDs (Student Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy-s). Founded in May out of an earlier state secrets bill protest group, SEALDs swiftly became the “face” of the movement. There are something like 300-400 members, though SEALDs has little formal hierarchy. The group is led by polite, well-groomed university students mostly attending high-ranking private colleges like Meiji Gakuin and Sophia University. Photogenic female members are positioned at the forefront of demos and events. SEALDs rallies are also acoustically exciting events, with students rapping and engaging with participants through call-and-response chants. All this makes for just the right ingredients to generate plenty of hype, and as such SEALDs was profiled by the BBC, the Guardian, and many other media outlets around the world.

The novelist and scholar Genichiro Takahashi, who is closely connected to SEALDs, has praised the recent surge in student activism as the birth of a new, non-violent protest movement where the young are “taking ownership” of ideas and the future of their country. “People have begun to realise that democracy is not just a political system,” Takahashi suggested in a recent article for the left-leaning Asahi Shimbun newspaper, “and that one aspect of democracy is a cultural movement that changes people’s inner world and sense of value.”

With the law passed and as the movement stands at a crucial crossroads, now is the time to consider whether we are really witnessing a renaissance of political dissent, as the media and Takahashi would have us believe.

The protest movements that have gained traction in Japan since 2011 – first the anti-nuclear power movement, which peaked in 2012, followed by the protests against the state secrets law in late 2013, and then against collective self-defence, which resulted in two self-immolations (one abortive) in 2014 – represent several new departures in terms of organisation and character. (For the sake of convenience, I am ignoring the ongoing demonstrations and civil disobedience in Okinawa in protest at the controversial relocation of a U.S. Marine Corps base to Henoko Bay, since these fit into a much longer lineage of local anti-base protests.)

The movements, while supported by Japan’s leading liberal and left-wing political parties, have been notable for their general lack of structures or leaders. The largest rallies and protests were organised by newly formed grassroots federations. No single figure stood out as spokesperson – perhaps with the exception of actor-turned-politician Taro Yamamoto – and the rhetoric was devoid of the dogma of Japan’s far-left movements that mounted the most aggressive, sometimes militant, campaigns against the state in the 1960s and 1970s.

Lessons need to be learnt from what happened to the post-Fukushima anti-nuclear movement. Though still continuing, the campaign lost momentum after 2012, allowing the government to shift towards switching the reactors back into operation. In some ways, it was the movement’s original accessibility and loose structure that was its undoing. Initially something positive, the informality of the movement also meant participation dropped off easily. Will this new “renaissance” go the same way?

Like the Fukushima and state secrets law protests, the movement against the state security bills is generally couched as a single-issue campaign. Only more politically experienced groups readily locate the cause as part of a broader struggle against a capitalist and imperialist state. In fact, the movement was so reductionist it at times risked sabotaging itself: the protests were disproportionately directed at Prime Minister Abe himself, with placards depicting his face or even images comparing him with Adolf Hitler, a common sight at rallies. Abe is a lot of things, but he’s not Hitler.

The arrests at the Diet in mid-September initiated a police crackdown and there were raids on a range of sites associated with far-left groups. Activists for Zengakuren, a long-established radical student group, were subsequently arrested on arguably trumped-up “confinement” charges, before being released without charge. The main spokesperson for SEALDs, Aki Okuda, also received a death threat and other members of SEALDs have been subjected to constant online abuse.

Under such pressure from police and opponents, how can the movement against Japan’s alleged re-militarisation evolve and survive?

Let’s start with the much-discussed SEALDs. What does SEALDs actually want? According to its official materials, it has a number of straightforward demands: freedom and democracy; respect for constitutionalism; social security for all through sustainable and just growth as well as fair distribution; peaceful diplomatic and national security policy based on dialogue and cooperation; and unity amongst all Japanese liberals.

While SEALDs rarely professes concrete goals or ideology, the group does connect the movement against the state security bills to a broader campaign for greater constitutionalism, representation, and social security for Japan’s ageing, ever more disparate population.

SEALDs believes that mobilising people to gather outside the Diet in large numbers is showing “what democracy looks like” (a slogan inspired by a Occupy Wall Street refrain). “We as the young generation have to be the ones to think about these issues and present a realistic vision. We ask all the liberals across the conventional political spectrum to form a united front to protect Japan’s tradition of liberal democracy.” The appropriation of the word “liberal” muddies the message – after all, the arch-conservative government in Japan is the Liberal Democratic Party – but SEALDs is fundamentally hoping that the opposition parties can come together with supporters to defeat the government inside the parliament, rather than on the streets.

In a sense, SEALDs is a conservative group because it affirms above all the need to protect the Constitution. In contrast to Zengakuren today or in past generations, SEALDs doesn’t appear to want to fundamentally challenge the status quo but to preserve it. “We uphold the tradition of freedom and democracy in Japan that has been built for the past 70 years after the World War II. Our principal aim is to protect the Constitution of Japan, which is fundamental to this tradition.”

However, the fact of the matter is that the Constitution is flawed. For example, Japan’s LGBT activists would be the first to point out that it does not guarantee equal marriage rights to same-sex couples. Moreover, praising Japan’s “tradition of freedom and democracy” in the seven decades since 1945 will only invite scoffs from activists further to the left, many of whom have been the victims of intense police surveillance and oppression for years.

Before we write off SEALDs, however, it is worth remembering that the passage of the state secrets bill in December 2013 did not kill off the nascent version of the group. Rather it transformed and expanded. Likewise, despite the security bills becoming law in September, SEALDs still continues to campaign. It organised a demo in October in the heart of Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s prime shopping districts, and a symposium with academic cachet attended by 1,300 people. It has also recently published two books.

Its focus is now on the upper house elections next summer, and encouraging young people to vote tactically against the LDP. At a press conference held at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on 28 October, members of SEALDs announced that the group expects to disband after next year’s election. Until then it wants to campaign for greater polling booth numbers in more convenient locations in order to increase voter turnout. (Japan has extremely low voter turnout for people in their twenties and in the next election those aged 18 and 19 will be able to vote for the first time.) “It is time for the opposition parties to take a hard look at what the people of Japan actually want and to co-operate in order to realise goals,” said spokesperson Takeshi Suwahara. While SEALDs will not support a specific party, it plans to give certain candidates the benefits of the group’s platforms to engage voters.

These noble sentiments may be defeated by the realities of party politics. Currently the top two opposition parties are saddled by internal strife and unlikely to seek out cross-party alliances. Only the Japanese Communist Party, the third largest opposition party, has so far expressed real enthusiasm for such a coalition.

SEALDs is also one of 29 groups that launched a petition against the state security law on 3 November, aiming to collect 20 million signatures by May. Campaigners hope that mass popular and political pressure can force the law to be repealed.

Critics of SEALDs denounce its slick attention to marketing. In similar fashion to another recent group, CRAC, which is on the one hand a counter-racism group fighting hate speech marches, but also an online shop selling branded t-shirts and other apparel, SEALDs has proven very savvy at producing t-shirts and placards, and maintaining a clean, sophisticated digital identity. In this way, SEALDs and its protest activities form a consumable product for young people, as much a part of the system as the neoliberalism and corporatisation of universities in Japan today. Indeed, rather than attempting to challenge the status quo through agitation or direct action, SEALDs plays by the rules of the game, for which its members are embraced by the Japanese Communist Party and Democratic Party of Japan. The ostensible leader of SEALDs, Aki Okuda, was even invited to address lawmakers at an upper house committee while the bills were being debated. Cynics retort that the activists’ futures as well-paid media commentators or JCP/DPJ staffers is all but assured.

Other groups have adopted alternative tactics. In August a small set of university students launched a hunger strike on the streets of the Diet to protest the security bills. While they inevitably drew some online scorn, the activists were praised for their sincerity and attracted widespread media attention.

Zenshin, the weekly organ for the far-left Chukaku-ha faction of the Revolutionary Communist League, has declared the necessity to “go beyond” SEALDs through strikes and more strident confrontations with the state. (No love is lost between Chukaku-ha and SEALDs. There were even scuffles between Chukaku-ha’s student wing, Zengakuren, and SEALDs supporters on at least one occasion at a crowded rally at the Diet.)

The SEALDs demo on 18 October in Shibuya attracted hundreds, plus a slew of media coverage. By contrast, a demonstration organised by Zengakuren, on 21 October (International Anti-War Day, and a date with an established record for large protests in Japanese post-war history) featured around 250 student marchers, according to the organisers, but was essentially ignored by the mainstream press.

On 27 October Zengakuren organised a strike at Kyoto University. From 6am for several hours, part of the campus was barricaded and morning classes were disrupted. This strike was the first such action in years. There have been only intermittent strikes and campus actions since the 1990s, as universities in Japan have dismantled the once powerful autonomous student councils and forcibly removed the bases of far-left factions.

Kyoto University is one of the top three public colleges in Japan, though it has a long political pedigree (ironically, the people running the university today likely hail from the same generation that staged turbulent campus strikes in Japan in the late 1960s). A year ago an undercover security police officer was exposed trying to infiltrate the grounds of the university (with the exception of the 1960s, police generally refrain from intruding on public colleges), which then led to a retaliatory police raid on a dorm – resulting in bad publicity and anger from the student body.

The strike was a small action but Zengakuren wants to build on this as part of their campaign to construct a strong network of student councils again. Zengakuren has an open attitude towards its campaigning. Through its Kyoto University branch, it is trying to create a debate within the student body on the merits of holding such a strike against the security law and on neoliberalism’s encroachment into academia. Ikuma Saito, the president of Zengakuren, estimates that, while only a small number of students were willing to participate in a strike at this stage, in the aftermath it was supported by around 70% of the student body. The 20-30 activists directly involved ended the strike deliberately at lunchtime so there would be lots of students outside on campus who would hear their speeches. Saito says that a handful of possibly far-right students then started smashing the barricade, receiving only a smattering of applause.

Zengakuren hopes to hold similar strike actions in the near future at other universities where they have a strong presence, such as Tohoku University, Hiroshima University and Okinawa University. Saito says that they are moving forward cautiously. “The colleges will be on alert now.”