The line between memorialising a movement or ossifying it as the past is a very fine one.
A new documentary film chronicling the student activist group SEALDs is set for release on May 14th at Uplink, an arthouse cinema in Shibuya, before rolling out to other venues around Japan. About My Liberty: SEALDs 2015 is directed, produced, edited and shot by Takashi Nishihara and has a whopping 165-minute running time.
Will it galvanise and disseminate, or will it merely fossilise and archive? The film comes out shortly after the much-contested state security bills officially passed into law, following their controversial ratification in the Diet last September. The legislation allow Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to participate in “collective self-defence” of allies, effectively meaning Japan can go to war overseas for the first time since 1945.
Media outlets noted protests in 35 cities nationwide, led by SEALDs but also citizen groups like Mothers Against War. More than 37,000 protesters were reported at the rally outside the Diet during the night of March 29th, including members of four opposition parties. Needless to say, this was all purely performative and the bills are now law. If the government deems the circumstances right, Japan could theoretically be fighting in a conflict tomorrow.
SEALDs were also represented by de facto leader Aki Okuda at last month’s launch event for the quirky new opposition party Minshintō, a kind of bastard child of the fracturing Democratic Party of Japan and the Japan Innovation Party (two parties ostensibly falling on either side of the centre of the political spectrum). Allied in their opposition to the security legislation, activists and opposition lawmakers are now looking ahead to the Upper House election in the summer. Five parties reached an agreement to co-operate on February 19th, such as by not fielding candidates against each other in an attempt to claw back seats from the ruling LDP.
Though the Japanese Communist Party has been nominally excluded from the Minshintō buddy fest, the fear of the opposition groups bandying together to keep the LDP out was surely why the prime minister recently felt the need to remind the public that the JCP is designated a “target group” under the Subversive Activities Prevention Law. Needless to say, while this may be factually accurate, the reality is ridiculous: in all but name, the JCP is Japan’s Labour Party. Instead of weapons (it is committed to pacifism) and violence, it has cute mascots and the Akahata Festival. Though still watched by the security police — as its dry inclusion in the annual white paper on security reveals — it was only designated under the 1952 Subversive Activities Prevention Law in the early post-war period during a time of heightened communist progress in Asia (the Korean War, China, the start of the Cold War, and so on). We should also remember that it was actually the American occupiers who freed the political prisoners, including imprisoned members of the JCP, and permitted people to unionise and form their own political factions freely for the first time. The JCP made worrying headway with labour unions and strike actions soon after, and events in 1952 like Bloody May Day and two other riots in Nagoya and Osaka that summer were the context for the law. The JCP had not yet abandoned its goal of achieving revolution by means of force and some elements within the party did attempt some abortive paramilitary tactics in the early 1950s. Ultimately the party did pledge itself to purely parliamentary means, though this also essentially led to the birth of the New Left in Japan which was far more violent than the JCP ever was.
As this documentary is about to be released, it is worthwhile revisiting the bold initiatives SEALDs have participated in during the months since the bills were passed in the Diet.
Sōgakari’s petition against the security law has apparently not made the waves it promised, though SEALDs are just one of many groups involved with it. The petition target was to collect 20 million signatures by April 25th but apathy seems to have defeated this ambition.
Likewise, the think tank SEALDs helped launch in December, ReDEMOS, has yet to make its mark felt in the public sphere. SEALDs was also one of five groups behind the launch in December of a civil society umbrella group called Shimin Rengō (Civil Alliance for Peace and Constitutionalism), but besides a nice website and one rally in February, its activities seem quiet, as it apparently occupies itself behind the scenes with opposition parties. Another symposium with prominent guest speakers is scheduled for later this month, though the effectiveness of such talks may be debatable.
Are the activists spreading themselves too thin? Do they have too many fingers in too many pies, from a new political party to a think tank, civil group, and campaigning under their own name? In short, whither SEALDs?
As the Upper House election approaches and the main students graduate, SEALDs are set to disband and hand the reins to new students like T-ns SOWL. As their involvement in the new Minshintō shows, SEALDs’ primary mission today is rallying the opposition parties to organise joint candidates and encourage strategic voting by the electorate so as to ensure the LDP will not cruise to victory in the Upper House poll. Commentators, however, have so far predicted not only a LDP victory, but such a majority that may mean it no longer needs its regular coalition partner, Kōmeitō. On the immediate horizon is the Hokkaidō by-election later this month, in which the opposition parties are backing just one candidate between them to avoid splitting the anti-LDP vote. SEALDs have been out on the streets campaigning in the province. (However, perhaps in a sign of how troubled the “alliance” is, the opposition parties are not working together for another by-election set to take place in Kyoto.)
SEALDs are still busy on social media, offering book recommendations so the newly enfranchised 18- and 19-year-olds will understand democracy better.
— SEALDs_eng (@SEALDs_Eng) 2016年3月31日
And some of its marketing to keep the election in the public eye are very smart. I loved this one.
— SEALDs_eng (@SEALDs_Eng) 2016年3月31日
SEALDs have already proved astute at not only publicising its own activities and brand, but also recording its ideas (which are not much, if you listen to the students’ critics) and history in two books that came out at the height of their exposure. This film continues the process of cementing the SEALDs legacy.
Documentary films are so much easier to make and distribute now that they are almost the default choice of medium for recording a movement to such an extent that these films probably need a subgenre label of their own. The sociologist Eiji Oguma demonstrated the capacity for film to preserve, order and elucidate on a mass movement with his documentary film about the anti-nuclear power protests in Tokyo during 2011-12.
Film, though, also deceives and glamorises, and SEALDs have always been very smart and careful about their image. I have yet to see the film but undoubtedly what we will see will be what they want us to see, and fair play to them for adopting this adroit attitude from an early stage as the best foil to their critics.
Because soon enough the fickle mediasphere will no longer be interested in them except for the girls and the group has to act fast to secure their place in history. As some recent examples show, the media continues to focus on the attractive female members of the group, treating them like music idols.
The February issue of Switch magazine that included a dialogue between SEALDs’ Wakako Fukuda and the photographer Shinya Fujiwara chose for its cover, not without significance, an image of the HKT48 idol Rino Sashihara.
The January 22nd issue of the weekly tabloid Shūkan Kinyōbi had a main feature about Shimin Rengō but inadvertently revealed its editorial leanings by spotlighting two female SEALDs activists on the cover. Politics matters, but sex sells.