“Tell Me What Democracy Looks Like?”: massive Japanese protest group SEALDs comes up with a book

WILLIAM ANDREWS | Throw Out Your Books

The revolution will not be televised, they say, but this one was — and publicised, a lot. And yet, for all the hundreds of thousands who gathered at the Diet and all around Japan over the summer, for all the placards in the streets and the cow-walking in the parliament in September — the security bills still passed.

There is, then, a danger in publishing a book that documents your movement in the very week the bills became law that it will immediately make your movement out of date and, thus, consign it to history. The first book by SEALDs (Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy-s) treads this fine line.

Yes, you can tell you are on a media roll when you can already publish a book mere months after launching your movement. Tell Me What Democracy Looks Like? (sic) is one of at least two SEALDs books out this autumn. However, for a group of student activists who have displayed such savvy in their presentation and relationship with the mass media, we shouldn’t be in the least surprised.

sealds-book-cover

Here are some rough thoughts on the book, a 200-page tome that is essentially just a transcript of two discussions between several core SEALDs members and the novelist Genichirō Takahashi, who teaches Aki Okuda, the main SEALDs spokesman.

It ostensibly explores the concept of democracy, from ancient Greece to modern parliamentary practice, and the history of SEALDs. The students are encouraged to articulate their own personal understanding and contemplations of “democracy”, and how they are, as they suggest, attempting to take what was formerly only theoretical and integrate it into their daily lives.

As books go, it’s a quickie. Aside from some photos and a few additions, it is essentially just the rough conversation between Takahashi and his younger cohorts, colloquial expressions and all. Much of it could have been edited down to the main points, though we presume the unpretentious, accessible nature of the text is deliberate. Moreover, the bulk of the discussion comes from Takahashi, who is credited as co-author, though surely most readers will be buying it to read what SEALDs think. On a side note, a western reader will also likely find some of the text grating: Takahashi, as university teachers in Japan are prone to do, addresses the student activists with diminutives like “-kun” and kimitachi, which, to me at least, always feel a little patronising. (Saying that, the youngsters address Takahashi by his first name, as opposed to his family name as is common in Japanese, so perhaps things aren’t as hierarchical as all that.)

The first half of the book lays out SEALDs’ history and the personal backgrounds of the key members, while the second half is more or less like a seminar, with Takahashi talking at length about the history and various implications of democracy, in a discussion that takes in Sorel, Socrates, and everyone in between.

Is Takahashi capitalising on the SEALDs media storm? Or are SEALDs latching onto the kudos of publishing a book with a member of the established intelligentsia? One does wonder what Takahashi is getting out of this. As far as I know, he hasn’t been a significant presence at SEALDs demos, or at least certainly not as visible as other established intellectuals. The photo on the cover, with Takahashi posing with three of the SEALDs youngsters in front of the Diet, is a little silly, primarily because they are all kind of assuming an informal yet very carefully posed “cool” look — especially Takahashi, who is wearing ripped jeans and baseball cap.

But caveats aside, many people have been buying the book (it’s currently an Amazon bestseller in its category and temporarily sold-out) and it offers a valuable summary of the movement as it stands now.

As has been much discussed, many of the leading members of SEALDs hail from elite private colleges (ICU, Sophia, Meiji Gakuin). Some are returnees with, presumably, wealthier backgrounds. At least one actually has American citizenship.

Okuda’s background is quite unusual. His father is a famous pastor who runs a shelter for the poor and homeless in Kyushu. For junior high and high school, he chose to go to a remote island. He also helped in disaster relief by volunteering for a non-profit. He has travelled as a backpacker and comes across as quite worldly. He references overseas movements, foreign history, John Dewey and other philosophers, though does not draw on examples of dogma per se. On the other hand, Yoshimasa Ushida, the rapper and the second main SEALDs contributor to the book, comes from a broken family. His father was a gambler whose addiction drove his parents to divorce. Ushida was brought up by his grandparents.

Before there was SEALDs, there was TAZ (The Temporary Autonomous Zone), started by Okuda to observe the Kantei anti-nuclear power protests in summer 2012. Over the autumn and winter, TAZ organised teach-in events at nightclubs. Okuada then organised “VOTE” t-shirts from July to November 2013, as people went to the polls for the the House of Councillors (Upper House) elections in July. The controversial state secrets bill passed through the Upper House in December. By then TAZ had morphed into SASPL (Students Against Secret Protection Law), formed out of key TAZ members, who protested the state secrets bill. There were around just 10 members.

At the first SASPL solo demonstration in February 2014, around 500 people attended the event in Shinjuku. There was an after-talk at a club. This was followed by a demo in May, attended by 400. SASPL continued to organise events over 2014, with their final protest attended by around 2,000 in Shibuya in October. The State Secrecy Law come into force on December 10th. Between December 9th-10th, SASPL mobilised some 1,000 and 1,700 demonstrators at the Kantei.

The recently passed state security bills, given Cabinet approval in late June 2014, inspired SASPL to evolve into SEALDs in May 2015, as the Diet debates for the bills approached.

How did they come up with the name? Okuda says they had already decided on “liberty” and “democracy”, though ironically this first led them to an unlikely idea: Liberal Democratic Party. Needless to say, they didn’t want to use the name of Abe’s party.

Membership of SEALDs is, as activist Mana Shibata describes in the book, “ambiguous”. If someone at the Friday night demos says they want to join, they are invited to join the LINE group. There is no membership card. Meetings are held about once a month with around 50 members, with the rest of the organising happening through LINE (p.87). There is no “leader”; everyone is a “sub-commander” of something. Typically, the erudite Okuda compares this to Subcomandante Marcos, the Zapatista ideologue (p.88).

This flexibility of structure has parallels with other protests movements in Japan, not least Beheiren, the decentralised anti-Vietnam War protest movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It had a spokesman, Makoto Oda, but the nature of its network of subgroups around Japan was loose and open. Takahashi, born in 1951, is part of the Zenkyōtō generation so his observations are tinged with this context. He draws an exact analogy between SEALDs and Beheiren (pp.126-128), even going so far as to call SEALDs the heir to Beheiren. He also notes how at the time many hard-core student activists criticised the Beheiren movement for being weak, just as Zengakuren has today been highly critical of SEALDs.

While there are hints of the past in SEALDs, there is much that is new. The heavy use of English is, as noted by many media outlets, unusual and often very natural. (“Tell me what democracy looks like?” is a great translation of minshushugi tte nanda, although the question mark at the end is strange.)

They started from scratch: they had to go online just to learn what actually happens at a protest, since they had no foundational knowledge of activism and, being digital natives, it was natural for them to use Google rather than consult Japan’s post-war history for models (p.60). They looked up foreign demos to understand what they should say at their events. They tried different translations of the calls.

As with freeter and anti-nuclear power protests in previous years, SEALDs are literally changing the sound and rhythm of protest in Japan. Influenced by foreign demos, a large emphasis is placed on rapping, musicality and language. Their speeches are delivered like poetry slams. Okuda notes how there are actually relatively few people who can make good speeches in Japanese; Takahashi observes that Japanese as a language is not really suitable for political speeches in the first place (p.46).

Aside from the use of English, their Japanese is also interesting. Their decision, for example, to use the slogan hontō ni yameru (“Stop it, really”), as opposed to the more nature zettai ni yameru (“Really stop!”), is effectively colloquial and catchy (pp.80-81). The use of call and response at protests has also been frequently cited. This contrasts with the use of Sprechchor by the New Left, where slogans are shouted out and then repeated back verbatim by the attendees.

SEALDs are digital natives: their tools are very contemporary. As noted already, LINE has been central to the way the activists communicate. Some 180 people are members of the SEALDs group on LINE (p.75). The activists also make their speeches on the sound car while reading notes off their iPhone devices, which surprises the older Takahashi. They write their speeches on their iPhones while on the train and the release of the iPhone 6, with its larger screen, apparently greatly facilitated their demagoguery. Again, Okuda says this “new style” of protest came from overseas models (p.45).

The equipment rental and other costs were initially financed by Okuda himself with wages from his part-time job and, later, with his credit card (p.71).

An example of promotional materials produced by SEALDs. Note the use of an English slogan, and the attention paid to type, design, branded clothing and choice of attractive — yet “ordinary” — male and female activists as models.
An example of promotional materials produced by SEALDs. Note the use of an English slogan, and the attention paid to type, design, branded clothing and choice of attractive — yet “ordinary” — male and female activists as models.

While some criticise SEALDs for perceived lack of ideology or concrete goals, they certainly make up for it with flair and visual sophistication. The name is simple and memorable. There is a smart, minimal logo. The flyers and placards are clean and streamlined. There are branded t-shirts and posters. The slogans, in English and Japanese, employ carefully selected fonts. Their graphic design team clearly know their stuff. Moreover, as many have noted, they produce placards that can be downloaded and printed at convenience stores nationwide so supporters and attendees can bring their own SEALDs materials. Since they had no political network, they used these systems and tools to overcome the barriers of their inexperience on the scene.

Like their web presence, SEALDs’ social media is active yet friendly; constant, but not aggressive. Their publicity and photography is well curated. Attractive members are chosen to front the movement’s marketing. In general, the members dress stylishly: there is an element of fashion modelling to their activity. This is a far cry from far-left activists, who, regardless of age, are likely to possess a shabby wardrobe.

An apt comparison can be made between the main SEALDs website and that of Bunka Renmei, the collective of activists associated with the long-running Zengakuren conflict at Hōsei University. The former is simple and accessible; the latter is slower to load and heavy, and requires effort to navigate and understand. Even the URLs are distinct: SEALDs purchased a dedicated domain name, while their far-left peers have a FC2 blog. The Bunka Renmei site also has automated ads (presumably because it is a free domain). (I am using the main Bunka Renmei blog; there is also another official website that is currently not updated.)

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The cleanly designed SEALDs website
The blog of Bunka Renmei, a student group involved in a sustained conflict with Hōsei University, presents activism in a very different style. The image in the middle is an automated advertisement.
The blog of Bunka Renmei, a student group involved in a sustained conflict with Hōsei University, presents activism in a very different style. The image in the middle is an automated advertisement.

Ushida also acknowledges about how they are different to other leftists (presuming we even use the label “left” for a group like SEALDs — in a British context, at least, their appropriation of the word “liberal” would place them in the centre). “The Left from long ago hated authority too much, or perhaps I should say they shunned authority too much.” (p.53) SEALDs do not dislike authority or the state; they are polite and respectful with police and, while they may single Abe out for attack in their chants, they have embraced mainstream political allies. (This is another major reason Zengakuren oppose SEALDs.)

If the polite, at times softly-softly approach of SEALDs, coupled with its emphasis on good design, all sounds rather feminine, this is literally the case for another element of their activities. While it was Okuda who got to enter the hallowed grounds of the Diet to address the politicos directly, SEALDs has deliberately positioned the more photogenic female activists at the fore of the movement and its publicity, which has been gratefully seized by the mass media (especially the foreign press). After all, what could be more compelling than a cute girl on a sound car? Cynicism aside, as Takahashi remarks, “the speeches by the girls are better” (p.7). This also contrasts with the generally male-dominated world of Japanese politics and also the historical sexism of New Left groups, where even in the 1960’s campus strikes women were relegated to more menial positions.

What do SEALDs really want? What do they stand for? This is a much larger question and worthy of longer analysis elsewhere — and one that is already attracting serious academic attention. One thing is for sure, SEALDs want to be present physically outside (and inside) the Diet, as part of their manifestation and reconfiguration of “democracy” in Japan. Tell me what democracy looks like, SEALDs ask. The answer is “this” — this is what democracy looks like. They are trying to regenerate a public discourse about an important constitutional shift, much of the process of which took place out of the public gaze. Aside from the theatrics in the Diet in September and July, an open debate was arguably missing and the whole security bills issue seemed to creep up on the nation unaware. Quite possibly many Japanese people only heard the curious legalese term “collective self-defence” when a man attempted self-immolation in Shinjuku on June 29th, 2014, to the shock of Sunday afternoon shoppers.

Take back democracy. Another of SEALDs’ slogans demands us to take action. But they aren’t seeking to change things per se. It’s a quest for restoring what, sadly, was never really there like it should have been: genuine democracy, with Japan’s parliamentary representatives answerable to citizens and voters.

As Okuda says in the book, democracy is not simply about leaving it all up to your elected representative and then just grumbling. It’s about taking an active role in the process. And by using everyday words, simple vocabulary that we all know and understand, in their literature (even the English slogans are largely comprehensible to Japanese attendees), SEALDs hope to “take back” democracy (p.155). “Perhaps the way SEALDs builds a space for talking with individuals is a form of democracy.” (p.156) “It feels like democracy is what is happening in front of the Diet,” says Okuda, “not inside.” (p.193)

Takahashi argues there have been “three great waves of post-war student activism”: first, 1960, followed by 1970. Now SEALDs represent a new, third wave (p.50). Well, Takahashi is obviously skipping a lot here in his historical narrative structured solely around the three Anpo bills, not least the recent movements in the Heisei Period, including the freeter and anti-nuclear power protests. Students were involved in this and activism didn’t just cease after the Rengō Sekigun (United Red Army) incident, as is frequently assumed. Of course, being the co-author of the book, he has a vested interest in giving more credit to SEALDs, though the jury is still out on the question of whether or not this is truly a movement, or a one-off group that has managed to galvinise people for a short time. That being said, for a group founded only in May 2015, the level of interest and hype has been truly astonishing. But the future of the “wave” is in flux and their book is actually already behind the times.

The book also repeats SEALDs’ claim that the key August 30th demonstration at the Diet mobilised 350,000 people. As far as I know, this number has not been touted by the actual organisers or anyone else. If true, it would make the rally the large single protest in Japanese history — but it is very likely an exaggeration. 350,000 across the whole country? Perhaps. The police’s heavy control of public space in Kasumigaseki and around the Diet means that such a number of people is probably physically impossible.

Alas, aggrandising and misinformation are the constant dogs of any protest movement.