Protest – an instrument of democracy that allows individuals to campaign for change and express their objections to socio-political policies. Party – a social gathering that brings individuals together in an atmosphere of amicability, typically punctuated with music, drinks and good times. Apparently lacking in cohesive definitions, are these two terms indeed incongruent or could they come together in a way that allows people to campaign for change in a positive and fun environment? In Japan, students are trying to prove the latter.
A month after the Japanese government passed a controversial security bill, shifting the Japanese military away from a constitution of internal self-defence and towards possible involvement in foreign conflict, members of the activist group Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs) took to the famous Shibuya Crossing, the Times Square of Tokyo, to protest. Dressed in fashionable streetwear, brandishing not only placards and flags with slogans of peace but also megaphones and turntables, the students danced to a local DJ and hip-hop band as their protest evolved into a melange of demonstration and street party. This protest style, which has caught the eye of the media and gained publicity with a wider audience, is indicative of a new approach to activism: mixing a discourse about serious political issues with style, media strategy and youth culture.
The group, active since early 2014, have been at the forefront of what is arguably the first movement of political opposition in Japan since the 1960s. This modern campaign, however, draws few parallels with that of the Japanese student campaigns opposing the Vietnam War for example, which saw student protests being met with police brutality and mass arrests. SEALDs, whilst still holding the same liberal ideals as earlier activist movements, aim to present a campaign that can remain both politically grounded and respectful, and also champion individuality and inclusivity in a country where political expression is still heavily stigmatized.
Some have argued that the “protest parties” are a case of style over substance, too frivolous and self-involved to bring about real change or have any influence in the political sphere. However, the rising numbers of student participation and media coverage about the protests suggests that SEALDs are being heard. The point that is being lost on those who see politics as exclusively austere and highbrow topic is that SEALDs is above all a demonstration of democracy and of the right to freedom of speech. If people wish to express opinions in different ways, democracy was implemented so that we may do so. Turning a demonstration of political expression into a fun and inclusive event can only be positive in that it presents politics as accessible and therefore, involves a wider community. It doesn’t demean serious objectives; it gives a voice to people who may never have considered themselves able to contribute to the discussion.