SEALDs: Assessing Student-led Anti-War Protests in Contemporary Japan

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on SEALDS.

By Shatrunjay Mall.

SEALDs (Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy) was a student organization founded in May 2015 as part of the protest movement against Shinzō Abe and his government’s legislations to reinterpret the Japanese Constitution to allow Japan to engage in collective self-defense on behalf of its allies, e.g., the United States. Japan was rocked by its largest anti-war demonstrations in over fifty years in the summer and fall of 2015, and SEALDs quickly grew in significance to become the most visible face of this movement. Although SEALDs drew on pre-existing protest movements such as the anti-nuclear movement that had arisen after the nuclear meltdown following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeast Japan, it expanded the range of its objections beyond nuclear issues and thus gained a wider appeal.[1] Widespread popular protest had been discredited in Japan following the violence and excesses of student radicalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Further, young Japanese people, and especially college students, were seen as apolitical and generally apathetic to social and political issues. SEALDs defied both these trends in contemporary Japanese society by mobilizing tens of thousands of young people to protest Abe’s security legislation.[2]

Image of a group of protestors. In the right of the foreground, there is a Japanese woman in her 20s holding a microphone. Other protestors are holding signs
SEALDs founding member protester Wakako Fukuda (right) with fellow protesters in Tokyo, August 2015.[3]

SEALDs was able to defy pre-existing negative notions about protest because of its moderate political message.[4] The radical student protestors of the 1960s were ideologically motivated by Marx, Lenin, and others in their protests against the enactment of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. However, SEALDs was not as ideologically explicit.[5] It was much more pragmatic in its political messaging, as it tapped into widespread anti-war sentiment in the Japanese population and attempted to create a wide political tent to engage many different constituencies. While their primary sloganeering was anti-war, and their focus was on the Abe government’s security legislation, they also directed their ire against the limits of Japan’s liberal democracy and its failures in meeting the needs of the people. SEALDs protesters addressed various tangible social and political issues including income inequality, social welfare, and the consumption tax.[6] Further, they were not opposed in principle to amending the Japanese constitution, but rather they were opposed to the kinds of changes that Abe and his allies would call for.[7] The approach of SEALDs in the anti-security legislation protests won its supporters from across the Japanese political spectrum, including from mainstream opposition parties like the Social Democratic Party, the Japanese Communist Party , and the former Democratic Party of Japan.[8] To the surprise of many observers, some supporters of the Kōmeitō, the junior partner in Japan’s ruling coalition, also participated in the anti-security legislation and anti-war protests in 2015.[9] Members of the Nichiren Buddhist lay organization Sōka Gakkai form the core electoral constituency of Kōmeitō, and they have a longstanding pacifist and anti-war tradition.[10] Scholars and commentators have debated the extent to which the traditionally pacifist Kōmeitō acted as a brake and as a moderating influence on the most belligerent tendencies of Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), with some arguing that they were indeed successful, while others question the party’s pacifist convictions.[11]

A group of protesters holding signs in the dark
SEALDs protesters outside the National Diet Building, Tokyo, March 2016. Photo: Oren Rozen

SEALDs was also successful in using social media to mobilize young people. They were able to overcome notions that politics and protests were boring and unappealing.[12] The well-dressed student protesters presented themselves as “cool” and fashionable, with their extensive use of music and catchy slogans in their demonstrations.[13] As such, the protests and protesters were relatable to young Japanese people. Some older protesters were critical of what they perceived as the superficiality of SEALDs protests. They were also unimpressed by the singular focus on Abe, since they felt that the issues were much wider and more deep-rooted in Japanese society and could not be reduced to a single politician.[14] However, despite these criticisms, that the SEALDs got apathetic Japanese youth to engage with social and political issues is in and of itself impressive.

Ultimately, SEALDs was unsuccessful in its immediate political goals. The security legislation was passed by the Japanese Diet and came into effect in March 2016. SEALDs threw its support behind the opposition parties in the 2016 House of Councilors election for the country’s upper house, but the ruling coalition maintained its majority. In the aftermath of this loss, SEALDs disbanded in August 2016.[15] However, by setting an example of non-violent protest, and by mobilizing thousands of young people, we can perhaps argue that SEALDs blew new life into Japan’s anti-war movement and into mass movements to maintain Japan’s peace constitution in the current form. Although the conservative LDP continues to pursue constitutional revision as its long-term goal, it has been unable to amend the constitution thus far, although the future is unclear.[16] Future protests and anti-war movements in Japan will draw inspiration from SEALDs as they craft their own mass movements for pacifism and against Japan’s more robust security posturing.

[1] David Slater, Robin O’Day, Satsuki Uno, Love Kindstrand and Chiharu Takano, “SEALDs (Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy): Research Note on Contemporary Youth Politics in Japan,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 13, no. 1 (September 14, 2015).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Linda Seig and Teppei Kasai, “SEALDs student group reinvigorates Japan’s anti-war protest movement,” The Japan Times, August 29, 2015.

[4] David Slater, et al. “SEALDs,” The Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Levi McLaughlin, “Komeito’s Soka Gakkai Protesters and Supporters: Religious Motivations for Political Activism in Contemporary Japan,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 13, no. 1 (October 12, 2015).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Anne Mette Fisker-Nielsen, “Has Komeito Abandoned its Principles? Public Perception of the Party’s Role in Japan’s Security Legislation Debate,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 14, no. 3 (November 1, 2016).

[12] David Slater, et al. “SEALDs,” The Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid

[15] After creating new waves in Japan’s civil movement, SEALDs dissolved,” The Mainichi, August 15, 2016.

[16] Koichi Nakano, “Shinzo Abe Failed to Rearm Japan. Let’s Keep It That Way,” The New York Times, July 20, 2022.