Thu, Jul 02, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Japanese youth get a new taste for old activism

Japan is a society in which conformity muzzles organized dissent, but the global economic crisis may be changing all that

By Hiroko Tabuchi  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , TOKYO

A group of young people recently gathered in a darkened park in Tokyo. Holding placards and megaphones, they chanted slogans condemning the Japanese government and a lack of jobs and opportunity.

The scene, which is repeated often in the gritty Tokyo neighborhood of Koenji, is nothing close to the protests that have recently shaken Iran. Indeed, the protests would hardly raise an eyebrow in most parts of the world, but in this country, which values conformity, they represent a stark departure from the norm. Since the 1960s, when youth protests turned violent, even the mildest form of protests by young people has been viewed as taboo.

But the pain of recession is changing that, giving rise to a new activism among Japan’s youth, who have long been considered apathetic.

“I’m here because I want to change society,” one leader, Yoshihiro Sato, 28, recently shouted to a crowd of about 50. “Will you join me?”

Unlike the 1960s generation, which agitated to change the bourgeois basis of Japanese society, Sato and other young people are today fighting to join it. They are demanding greater professional opportunities, more job security and a stronger social safety net.

After so many decades without a grass-roots movement, protests are so rare here that many who wish to take part require basic training.

The Tokyo-based Pacific Asia Research Center, an institute that typically runs seminars on social issues like poverty, organized the recent march. After a surge of interest from young people who said they wanted to get more involved in social issues but did not know how, the center started offering what it says is Japan’s first activist training program. The sessions include poster-making and campaigning on the Web.

“Once we’re done, we’ll overrun Japan with demonstrations,” Seiko Uchida, the head of a research center, told a cheering crowd.

That may be hyperbole, but the deteriorating economy has unarguably affected young people more than any other demographic. Unemployment was 9.6 percent in April for Japanese aged 15 to 24, compared with 5 percent unemployment overall.

But unemployment and welfare benefits are sparse in Japan. And government spending is skewed toward pensions and health care for older voters rather than programs that might train young workers or help them support their families.

In the first quarter of the year, Japan’s economy shrank a devastating 14.2 percent on an annual basis as exports slumped because of the global economic slowdown. Many of those who lost their jobs were younger people in precarious “temporary” positions that were the product of a decade-long deregulation.

The disparity has fueled generational friction, particularly between those who reaped the fruits of Japan’s rapid postwar growth and younger Japanese who came of age in Japan’s “lost decade” of the 1990s, when the country’s economic growth stagnated, and during its anemic recovery.

When companies like Canon and Toyota Motor started to fire temporary factory workers late last year, a handful of the workers lashed out publicly, confronting managers at factory gates, often in front of TV cameras. Others brought a flurry of lawsuits against former employers.

Over the New Year’s holidays, about 500 laid-off temporary workers who had lost their homes congregated at a park in the center of Tokyo, building an impromptu tent city next to the offices of the Labor Ministry. The scene led to a media frenzy and national soul-searching on the plight of young Japanese.

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