Children of the Revolution?

The party is over, and society — but most especially, the media — waits to see what is left when all the drink bottles have been cleared.

As I previously discussed elsewhere, the prominent student activists group SEALDs is currently attempting to segue into a second chapter, which sees it take up the banner of the Henoko Bay US base relocation controversy and the 2016 election, as well as collect signatories for a nationwide petition protesting the passing of the security bills that were their original raisons d’être.

At a press conference on December 14th, SEALDs members including Aki Okuda switched their usual snazzy wear for formal suits to announce the establishment of a new “people’s think tank” called ReDEMOS. Okuda has been joined by the Sophia University scholar Kōichi Nakano, a leading academic champion of SEALDs, to create the incorporated association that will serve as the legal body for the think tank.

sealds think tank redemos

Logo for the new think tank ReDEMOS, established by members of SEALDs and Kōichi Nakano

Whatever your political affiliation, it cannot be denied that SEALDs is attempting to galvanise direct politics and liberalism for younger voters, deftly harnessing attractive publicity and clear, positive messages. With the upcoming election next year and the voting age dropping to 18 for the first time, these activities can never be a bad thing.

At a risk of presenting too much out of a “backlash”, though, it is a fact that, for all its many advocates and supporters, SEALDs has not been without detractors, from the intellectual elite to the netto uyoku and even far-left activists.

sealds japan protest security

A SEALDs protest earlier this year against the government’s security bills, since passed into law.
Photo: Getty

After all, while SEALDs has recently been campaigning against the Henoko Bay relocation, its core tenets are hardly the stuff that revolutions are made of: protecting the Constitution and bolstering parliamentary practice to make it more democratic. We might even call this the alternative face of Japanese conservatism: private college-educated youngsters concerned about sudden change.

But it is also an indication of how far Japan has shifted to the right, how maladroit and divided is the political opposition to the ruling LDP, and how detached Japan’s phlegmatic democracy has become that young activists spouting these slogans appear exciting and new, even as they go to great efforts to show they are just “regular” kids.

In the January issue of right-leaning monthly magazine Sapio currently only sale, the non-fiction writer Shinichi Sano, despite being a veteran of the 1960s student movement in Japan and presenting working on a book about former Zengakuren Chair Kentarō Karouji, explains why he’s not interested in writing about SEALDs.

Sano went to Waseda University, which was rife with student activism and also its byproduct: inter-factional conflict, known as uchi-geba. Growing disillusioned with left-wing politics and the violence, he bid the student movement farewell.

kentaro karouji 1960 anpo protest zengakuren

Zengakuren Chair, Kentarō Karouji, arrested at Haneda Airport in January 1960 during the Anpo campaign

Sano looks back on the activism of the time as a “rite of passage”, an “initiation into adulthood”. But in this sense, it means you cannot simply disregard it as mere youthful zeal. “Both Kentarō Karouji, who fought against the 1960 U.S-Japan Security Treaty (Anpo) renewal, and the youth of SELADs, who oppose Prime Minister Abe’s security laws, are probably pretty much the same.”

Sano identities two main differences between SEALDs and the 1960s generation of activists: fashion and music. At the time most student activists dressed very plainly, reflecting their budgets but also the less varied wardrobes of the day. In terms of music, rap has been essential to SEALDs and its rallies, as it has to other sound demo-centric protest movements that have developed since the Heisei era. However, music was much less accessible to activists in the 1960s, when instruments were luxuries and your collection of tracks not readily at your fingertips as it is today. Rallies featured plenty of singing, for sure, though the songs were mostly political anthems or folk numbers.

Another contrast between the two sets of protest demographics, Sano says, is that the contours of Japan’s militarist and wartime history are more sharply carved into the generation who came of age when Karouji and his cohorts were campaigning. The then Prime Minster Nobusuke Kishi — Abe’s grandfather — was imprisoned (though not convicted) as a war criminal after Japan’s defeat in 1945. His swift rehabilitation was part of the cynical American-orchestrated project to shape Japan into the ally they wanted in Asia, which led to the birth of the LDP, the Self-Defense Forces, the original security treaty — and then the controversial renewals in 1960 and 1970.

While Sano wants to write about Karouji and his legacy, he doesn’t feel the same inspiration for today’s generation of young ‘uns, namely SEALDs. “I want to avoid making a snap judgement but intuitively I don’t think SEALDs would make a good book. It’s not so much because they don’t have their own appeal as much as because the world that surrounds them doesn’t have these historical contours. It’s flat. There’s no story to it.”

Of course, it is nature for older observers who remember the peak of Japanese student activism to have mixed feelings about the contemporary counterparts — and for them to worry that it is all a bit too tame or curated. That being said, SEALDs and its various chapters around the country are very much still active. A recent demo in Ginza on December 6th featured at least one famous actor speaking at the rally, plus other celebrities sent in messages of support. It may have attracted as many as 4,500 participants, which isn’t too shabby for a chilly winter day marching in the name of a cause most now assumed lost.

SEALDs was also very much back in the media spotlight when it was selected as part of the shortlist of the top ten buzzwords of the year (in fact, the security legislation itself did not make the cut, though the popular slogan Abe seiji o yurusanai, “We will not tolerate Abe’s politics”, did). Quite whether being chosen as a 2015 buzzword has a good effect on SEALDs’ longterm prospects remains to be seen — it may actually have a negative impact, consigning the group to a brief window of history in which it was “trendy” — but it certainly demonstrates the extent of the activists’ achievements in the public eye this year. And what other single political group in Japan can claim that? The challenge now is to capitalise on what SEALDs has accrued.

WILLIAM ANDREWS

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