Why do Japanese youth stand out from social activism?

Recently, countries whose standard of living and lifestyles are not that different from Japan, including Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, have seen protests by young people who have made headlines that have had political impact. But Japanese youth are quite indifferent to such activism. The author examines the causes of the political escape of Japanese youth.

Low awareness of social change

In recent years, youth-centered protest movements have made headlines around the world, including the global climate strike movement ‘Fridays For Future’ launched by Greta Thunberg and the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement which has started in the United States to protest systemic racism.

Japan is no exception: The Global Climate March drew high school and high school students, and high school students converged on the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology to protest the the National Center for University Admissions test. The Japanese have also protested against the prosecution law and participated in online activism, including the #MeToo movement for women’s rights, and the Japanese #KuToo movement against workplaces that force women to wear shoes. high heels – named on a pun. kutsu, meaning shoes, and kutsūor pain.

Despite this, surveys all show that youth political participation, i.e. interest or motivation in social movements, is lower in Japan than in other countries.

For example, only 20% of young Japanese think they can change country or society, the lowest among countries studied in the Nippon Foundation’s 18-year-old awareness survey, conducted in nine countries, including Japan, China, South Korea, South Korea. United States and Great Britain. According to sociologist Hamada Kunisuke, the 2015 Comprehensive Survey of Social Inequalities in Contemporary Japan ranked young Japanese people lowest among the seven advanced countries studied in terms of the belief that their participation could influence social phenomena.

This perception is not limited to teens or twenties. A survey by the public broadcaster NHK showed that the belief that public action can influence national policy was highest among those born from 1949 to 1953, the level decreasing as the age of respondents decreased. Essentially, Japan’s disenchantment with politics and social movements is not confined to young people.

This tendency among young people is not the result of their nature or their moral fiber. On the contrary, there are structural and cultural factors that impact their consciousness, causing young people to distance themselves from politics. Based on various survey data, this essay examines young people’s perceptions of social movements and the reasons why young people avoid or are unfriendly towards activism.

Negativity towards protests is stronger among young people

How do the younger generations specifically distance themselves from politics and abandon social movements? In 2019, I was part of a team conducting a survey through Synodos Lab, a group that studies international social trends. The sociological survey questioned people aged 20 to 69 about their attitudes towards social movements.

The survey gave six positions in favor of activism, using the protests as an example. The graph below reflects the level of agreement or disagreement with each question for the different age groups. The first three questions asked about respondents’ level of approval for protests, while the last three asked about negative attitudes.

Responses varied considerably between age groups, but a key trend was the negative impression of protest among the younger generations. In contrast, the older generations expressed a relatively positive impression of protest.

Economic factors inhibiting political development

Why do young people think the protests are a nuisance, are socially biased or are extreme? One factor is the reduced visibility of social movements in Japan since the 1970s. Unions are seeing declining membership rates, and political scientist Kinoshita Chigaya notes that in universities, student groups, including boards and clubs, are also in decline. Japan has also seen a decline in the number of demonstrations organized in cities since the 1970s, and labor and civil movements are therefore less and less visible to ordinary people. In such circumstances, it is difficult for young people to perceive the means to criticize or oppose society. They might understand them better if they witnessed the transformation brought about by social activism, but if these groups are not visible, it is difficult to engage with them. In today’s society, it’s very understandable that they find it hard to believe that their actions could change anything.

Socio-economic conditions have also radically changed. University fees, for example, have risen sharply since the 1970s. Although not all young people attend university, even university students, a relatively affluent stratum, face more severe time and monetary poverty than generations. previous ones. A 2016 survey by the Japan Student Services Organization found that the use of student loans among day university students has more than doubled in recent decades, from 22% in 1992 to 49% in 2016. Students face heavier charges in the form of fees and loans. , which puts more pressure on them in the job search. Therefore, it is not easy to defend a political position or take a stand against those in power.

Increasingly fluid employment and social status

In Minna no wagamama nyūmon (Introduction to Everyone’s Selfishness), I describe how, in addition to changes in social circumstances, increased individualism and fluidization (increase in non-regular employment) also keep young people away from politics . In his book Nihon shakai no shikumi (The Structure of Japanese Society), the historical sociologist Oguma Eiji argues that although Japan was not entirely homogeneous in the 1970s or 1980s, there were clear “paths” of life, according to distinct attributes or categories, such as than young people, women, and workers. In contemporary society, however, he believes that it is seldom possible to identify a homogeneous category of “youth”, either in the classroom or in the workplace. This creates uncertainty: it becomes difficult to raise your voice to defend your interests when you don’t know how many others share those interests.

Meanwhile, the illusion that “we are all the same” grows in schools, workplaces and other settings. As a result, people fear that expressing their opinions openly will lead to unwanted consequences, causing others to view them as embarrassing or have prejudices and spill over into their coworkers.

The fluidization of employment and social status also has an impact. Casual workers now represent nearly 40% of the workforce, and work styles are diversifying, limiting people to participating in sustained action, whether related to work or social issues. Even if activism is successful, it is difficult to know how long it could be enjoyed. Such transient circumstances cause young people and others in fluid positions to psychologically distance themselves from efforts to change society.

The decline in youth political engagement is not just a problem for young people – it concerns us all. Adults must take the initiative, speak out in protest against unacceptable policies and systems, to help reduce the distance between young people and politics. It is important to demonstrate that it is respectable to express an objection to governments and that we can change society through our own actions. We must not forget that even with diverse values, with increased individualism and fluidity, we can help many other people if we are willing to support ourselves.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: A demonstration on February 21, 201.6 in Shibuya, Tokyo, coordinated by the T-nsSOWL high school student group against national security legislation. © Jiji.)

About Elaine Morales

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