Japan’s awakening protest movement

Japan’s awakening protest movement

Five years after 3.11, Japan is being swept by a new wave of social activism

The triple disaster of the Great East Japan Earthquake, its related tsunami and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident on 11 March 2011 was a turning point in the history of social movements in post-Second World War Japan. The disaster drastically altered everyday life and caused the Japanese people to reflect upon their lives and lifestyles.

Widely referred to as 3.11, this event generated nationwide protests against nuclear power, which awakened the nation’s slumbering activist culture from decades of sleep. Since then, activists have been engaged in a series of demonstrations against nuclear power on the steps of the national Diet (Japanese parliament), powerfully shouting ‘Saikado hantai!’ (No nuclear power).

The anti-nuclear movement has been mobilised by a diverse collection of people, encompassing women and men of all ages from all different social classes and across cultural barriers. No particular type of individual or group has controlled this social movement. The demonstrations are going on every Friday evening.

Japan has a long history of social activism and movements. For example, shortly after the Second World War, Japanese university students in the 1960s stood at the forefront of social movements that particularly promoted anti-war sentiments such as the anti US–Japan security treaty movement (known as the Anpo movement) and the anti-Vietnam War movement Beheiren (Peace for Vietnam! Citizens Committee).

Shift of focus

In the 1970s and 1980s, social movements received less national attention because the people shifted focus to their personal lives during that period’s economic prosperity. However, the anti-nuclear weapons movement following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the efforts towards achieving human rights for zainichi Koreans (ethnic Korean residents in Japan), and the anti-US military base in Okinawa movement were major movements during the postwar period that had longstanding agendas.

It is now five years since the triple disaster. Large-scale activism on numerous issues demonstrates that post-3.11 social activism is not anomalous, but the incitement of a wider and persistent trend. The most distinctive phenomenon observed about the current Japanese social movements is the participation of young adults in social activism. These youths are coming to the forefront of society, energising social change in contemporary Japan. There also is a new popular culture, with new ideologies and new strategies among the protest organisers.

The ongoing anti-nuclear demonstrations began on 20 March 2011 as a direct action by Ryota Sono, a 30-year-old man who identified himself as freeter, which is a Japanese term meaning underemployed. It probably is similar to ‘precariat’, a word for similar young people in a global context. Sono shouted, ‘No more nuclear power plants. TEPCO should take full responsibility for ending the ongoing nuclear crisis.’ TEPCO refers to the Tokyo Electric Power Company that owns the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

The Secret Protection Law passed on 6 December 2013 triggered the history of Japanese social movements. In fact, this event caused many activists to make a major shift of attention towards protesting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s politics. Abe is the most vocal and influential advocate of security policy, and his initiative in this regard was recently dubbed the ‘Abe Doctrine’. Along with the right of collective self-defence (which was justified by a creative interpretation of the Japanese Constitution), the Secret Protection Law is part of Abe’s significant efforts to create a solid framework that protects intelligence-sharing with Japan’s military allies.

On the evening of the day the Secret Protection Law passed in the Diet, I observed a group of young adults demonstrating outside the Diet building. It was a windy evening in wintry Tokyo. They were standing together, close to the building, chanting ‘Tokutei himitsu hogo hō hantai!’ (Objection to the Secret Protection Law) to a hip-hop beat which was echoed by the crowd that had gathered.

This group, originally self-named the Students Against Secret Protection Law (SASPL), was organised by university students in the Tokyo metropolitan area. These conscientious young adults have begun to demonstrate in public against the Abe government. Their political activism positioned them in the frontlines of Japanese politics during the summer of 2015. On 3 May 2015, in light of the Secret Protection Law that took effect through the Abe administration, and based on their SASPL experiences, these students organised a pro-democracy/pro-peace group named Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs).

Who are these activists? The members include students from universities, such as Meiji Gakuin, Jochi, Hosei, Tsukuba, to name a few. There are also four branches, in Kansai, Tohoku, Okinawa, and Nagoya. These students are not from the upper social classes, which is unlike the earlier Anpo movements led by Tokyo University students influenced by Marxism. The present movement comprises students at a time when universities are not filling their enrolments. Furthermore, a SEALDs member recently denied any relationship with radical student activists.


A fundamental aspect of the movement is its total commitment to non-violence. I also noticed that all of the speeches made at the demonstration site were attributed to individuals, not groups, because the speakers began by stating ‘I’ instead of ‘We’, or ‘SEALDs’. All of the speakers introduced themselves with their full names and college ranks. The lower case letter ‘s’ in SEALDs symbolises this idea. The unit of participation is the individual.

A major impetus impelling the members of SEALDs to protest and demonstrate is their sense of national crisis, specifically, their sense that Japanese constitutionalism is in crisis. The students are not simply against war. In fact, it is my understanding that SEALDs members do not necessarily disagree with revisions to the Constitution. What they want is a politics based on rikken shugi (constitutionalism), which is a key fundamental idea of modern democracy propounded by philosophers such as John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government. The idea is that governmental powers can and should be legally limited, and governmental authority or legitimacy depends upon observing the established limits.

There is widespread anger on the streets towards the Abe administration, destroying something that the Japanese people have held dear and defended for more than 70 years

One appeal being made by SEALDs challenges Abe’s tyrannical attitude, with which he attaches little importance to the democratic decision-making process of the national Diet. Another appeal argues that the Secret Protection Law is unconstitutional. Many constitutional scholars have pointed out that the exercise of collective self-defence contradicts the war-renouncing language and spirit of Article 9 of the Constitution.

I heard Mr Okuda, the student leader of SEALDs, shout:

The three pillars of this country are kihonteki jinken [basic human rights], kokumin shuken [sovereignty of the people], and heiwa shugi [pacifism]. Those represent the history of our country. We cannot just end it now because those are our own history. We will stop these Abe-led policies … [Then, he shouted in tears] Kenpō Mamore! Abe wa yamero! Sensō suruna!

Protest demonstrations can ignite and vitalise a democracy, and, from my observations, the SEALDs members have been impacting the history of Japanese social movements in that way. Japan’s peace activism has gained fresh momentum, led by young adults. In the twenty-first century, and particularly post-3.11, Japanese democracy has been entering a new stage.

There is widespread anger on the streets towards the Abe administration, destroying something that the Japanese people have held dear and defended for more than 70 years, which is their stance of radical pacifism of no just war. This is indeed a new wave for Japanese politics, which cannot be stopped. Mr Okuda recently tweeted: ‘Let’s start a new postwar period. Each of us will make it. Why? Because each of us is [a] sovereign of this country.’

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Featured image
SEALDS protest outside the national Diet, 18 July 2015, to protest new secret protection law. Photo: nesnad

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