Students vow to fight on after security bills pass

Japanese university students usually spend summer vacation in exotic foreign destinations or simply earning extra income through part-time jobs. Not so for Mana Shibata, now playing a key role in the growing student-led demonstrations against a controversial set of national security bills being pushed through the Diet or parliament by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

With the bills passed in the Upper House on Thursday, amid chaotic scenes inside the chamber, and protesters outside the building demanding the bills be withdrawn, students have vowed to continue their protests aiming at a bigger impact in the next elections, in the hope of overturning the bills.

Shibata belongs to the Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy, or SEALDs, formally launched in May this year to oppose the controversial bills which among other changes, would allow the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to take part in military operations outside the country for the first time since World War II.

For Shibata, a fourth year anthropology student at Sophia University, Tokyo, the decision by the Abe government to go ahead with the new laws clearly violates public will. “We are fighting for democracy in our country,” she told University World News.

Various opinion polls held in August confirmed that more than 70% of those surveyed do not support the changes, mainly because of a lack of public debate.

“By becoming a space for public voices to support democracy, we will ensure higher voter turnout against the bills in the next election,” said Nobukazu Honma, another SEALDs core member, who is studying education at Tsukuba University.

The students organised marches every Friday with hundreds of civilians supporting them. They may not have succeeded in derailing the bills this time, but their impact is expected to continue.

“We demand politics based on constitutionalism. Constitutionalism requires that all political decisions be made in accordance with the constitution and its protection of liberty and rights,” says a SEALDs statement, adding: “The current administration has made a series of political decisions which deny the tradition of constitutionalism in this country and the defining principles of the Constitution of Japan.”

Politically engaged

“Shibata has shattered the complacent and mobile game playing image of Japanese university students,” said Manabu Sato, a professor of pedagogy at Gakushuin University, Kyodo, and a leader in the Association of Scholars Opposed to the Security-related Bills, an organisation of academics.

“Japanese students are becoming more politically engaged. This change will usher in stronger relations between professors and students in Japanese universities,” he said.

SEALDs soared into the public limelight during a massive demonstration that gathered 100,000 people in front of the Japanese Diet on 30 August in opposition to the bills.

Protestors, including lawyers and politicians, have joined the students who loudly denounced Abe's bid to ram the bill through parliament. Experts argued against the move by the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, pointing out that the bills are unconstitutional because they go against the war-renouncing Article 9 of the constitution.

Shibata’s colleague, Aki Okuda, a vociferous spokesperson for the student movement, explained that SEALDs is a forum to encourage Japanese youth to express their opinion publicly and play a role in their country's politics.

“The culture in Japan is to stay silent and therefore protests are not encouraged. We want to change this and show that we can go on the streets to demand what we believe in when liberal democracy is threatened,” said Okuda, a fourth year student at Meiji University.

The rise of the student group with about 300 core members has garnered huge interest in the country because it is an unprecedented development. The last time the country witnessed student uprisings was in the turbulent 1970s when university-based activists demanded the abolition of the Japan-US Security Treaty that had enabled their country to become involved in the war in Vietnam.

Since then, higher education institutions had largely fallen silent except for sporadic protests against nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant accident, and in Okinawa which hosts US military bases.


“It is my first experience to take to the streets and I am certainly not taking the role of a student leader in this movement. We are determined to keep the spontaneity of our protests which is why I think young and old people have joined us. We are also determined to not resort to any violence as was noted and criticised in former student uprisings,” said Okuda.

The fledging student protests are also linked to growing dissatisfaction in Japan among youth over the rising economic income gap and unstable employment issues in the country – a key slogan carried by the students was “Is this what democracy means?” from the Occupy Wall Street movement in the West.

The students also said they were heavily influenced by internationally reported uprisings such as the Hong Kong umbrella protests in 2014 and the Arab Spring movement which started in 2010 for a more democratic Middle East.

“We watched videos and read about foreign student movements. Another important influence on us was our discussions with international students in our campuses who educated us about their countries’ issues,” said Honma.

“We have raised the culture of discussion in Japan. It means not only listening to our teachers. University education is not only about knowledge but thinking for yourself,” Okuda said.