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.
Today, workers are rushing to unionize, and the Japanese Communist Party says it is getting about 1,000 new members a month, many of them disgruntled young people.
Masahiro Mukasa, a struggling techno musician, started a union for freelance artists and musicians in December. The Indy Union intends to help members negotiate with particularly abusive employers.
“People think musicians just have a good time. But we need to make a living, too,” Mukasa said. “I want to show that our livelihoods are at stake in this bad economy.”
Still, in a society that values conformity and order, most Japanese remain deeply averse to confrontation and protest, and there is nothing approaching what could be called a mass movement.
“Japanese feel it’s shameful to get involved in protests,” said Makoto Yuasa, a longtime activist. “Many still look at us suspiciously, like we might be making bombs.”
Still, “this is the most significant rise in activism I’ve seen in years,” said Yoshitaka Mouri, a professor at the Tokyo University of the Arts, who has been following the rising protest culture. “A movement is brewing among young Japanese.”
Hajime Matsumoto, an activist who operates from a thrift shop in Koenji, has amassed a large following at his protests and rallies. Some like-minded Japanese have opened their own stores alongside Matsumoto’s, huddling after hours to help hatch protest plans, turning Koenji into a center of activism.
“The poor man’s revolt has finally begun!” Matsumoto shouted at a recent demonstration, banging on a full set of drums perched atop a piece of plywood on wheels. His message: Even poor people deserve a good life. “If we all get together, we can bring about change!”
Some experts question how much political influence demonstrators will wield. Few expect them to be a big force at the ballot box later this year when Japan holds parliamentary elections.
Young people are outnumbered by older voters, and are concentrated in cities, where ballots carry less weight proportionally than in the sparsely populated countryside.
Still, the nascent focus on worker and generational rights is a break from the years under former nationalist prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Junichiro Koizumi. At the time, stoked by nationalist rhetoric from politicians and government officials, youth seemed to swerve to the right.
To quell the rising anger, the government has increased spending on programs for younger people. In his latest economic stimulus package, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso pledged ¥1.9 trillion (US$19 billion) in programs to raise youth employment. He is also prodding companies to elevate temporary workers to full-time status. Such actions have done little to change the economic issues.
For now, the public has some sympathy with the protesters, and the rallies are getting heavy coverage in local media.
“I support these young people,” said Masaaki Saito, 60, an owner of a small electronics store in Koenji who took part in student protests in his youth.
“It’s been a long time,” he said, “but Japan’s youth are getting their voice back.”
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