Tokyo, August 30, 2015, 12 pm. My friends and I have just arrived at the Area of Hope*, close to the main gate of the Japanese Parliament. It’s the day of the big protest against the new security bill that the Japanese government is about to push through. A large turnout is expected, but it’s raining. Will enough people come?
The protest has yet to start, but from experience I know we must arrive early if we want to be close to the front-lines.
I look around me. How many people are here already? A few thousand perhaps? It’s hard to tell because as always the police are keeping people confined to the sidewalks and separated from each other as much as they can. Someone speaks through a microphone, asking us to spread into the park next to Parliament. Does he represent the protest organizers? Or is it the police?
A young person passes by handing out large protest signs mounted on wooden sticks. He asks for volunteers. I grab one. Give Peace a Chance, my sign reads. I wholeheartedly agree.
A group of students, high school kids perhaps, have assembled close to us and are singing songs. Young voices that sound sweet and innocent. God forbid they ever have to experience armed conflict.
I am reminded of a quote by Kya Kim, member of the Peace Mask Project:
“Today young people have an unprecedented understanding of the greater world. We are becoming increasingly aware of how we are interconnected and interdependent. We find beauty in other cultures. And by reflecting on our own, we are open to growth and to change. This is the reality of our future, and one that needs to be reflected in our societies. Conflict is no longer synonymous with war. It is, rather, an opportunity for growth, an opportunity for peace…”
Suddenly I notice the many professional looking photo and video cameras. Mass media has come! This is promising. Let’s not disappoint them.
By now it is very crowded where we stand. Impossible to move. An elderly lady tries to find a comfortable spot. We make space for her. I write my first Facebook update, and post photos of the crowd and my peace sign. The likes start pouring in immediately. Good, I think, people are paying attention.
13 pm sharp, the drummers start playing their drums. The protest has begun. I hold up my sign, proud to be here, adding my voice to that of thousands of others. Soon people start breaking through the police fences. There are too many of us, and the police have to let go of their control. We spread out, onto the big street in front of Parliament, until we have become one large mass of people. No violence, nobody rushing. Beautiful to watch and be part of. My friends and I decide to take the plunge. We squeeze our way through the crowd until we are at the very front where the protest organizers have their main stages and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto and other prominent people are giving speeches.
A man taps me on the shoulder and, in his best English, thanks me for being here. Of course I am here, I tell him. Japan is my country, and I am a global citizen. This is not just a domestic issue. The constitution’s Article 9, stipulating that Japan can only defend itself and not engage in acts of war overseas, is a symbol of peace. It belongs to the Japanese people, not the government, and should be world heritage, as far as I am concerned, and inspire other countries to adopt the same.
I am also here because I believe in the power of protest and solidarity. I am a regular at Japan’s many anti-nuclear demonstrations of past years including the weekly Friday protest that has been continuing for over three years now. I know first-hand how meaningful these protests are. Always peaceful, it is here that many Japanese people are finding their voice. In connecting with others on the street, they hone that voice and learn they can make a difference.
Japan is changing from the inside out. Regardless if the government succeeds or not with the proposed re-interpretation of Article 9, deemed unconstitutional by scholars, the Japanese people have already changed in a way that does not suit the government’s agenda. They no longer shy away from the political realm and speak openly about their feelings and opinions. They have learned how to protest and engage in discussion about topics that, not long ago, were considered taboo to talk about. Young people (students from late teens to early twenties), once believed to have no interest in politics and social issues, have formed a political platform: Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs). This group is leading other generations in the current peace protest, giving new meaning to the word democracy, demanding to be heard. Their manifesto is profound, their actions inspiring. Check their Japanese or English website to learn more. These students came out of the blue and have reinvigorated the movement against the Japanese government’s backwards intentions for the country.
Three hours into the protest, I am about to lose my voice. We have been shouting non-stop, repeating phrases such as “we must protect the constitution”, “we don’t need war” , “this is what democracy looks like” and “Abe, please resign”. For me, these phrases are like mantras, slowly transforming awareness, and I gladly keep shouting them for many more hours alongside my fellow protesters.
A day like this gives me hope.
Later I learn that 120,000 people joined the Tokyo protest and that 200 rallies took place simultaneously nationwide.
You can support the Japan peace protest in many ways. Show your solidarity by signing this petition for instance. Or come see what Japanese democracy looks like these days and join in person. For the past weeks SEALDs has been staging their protest every Friday, from 730pm, in front of Parliament, and will continue to do so for the weeks to come.
* so named by participants of the weekly Friday anti-nuclear protest