Japanese youth have long been perceived as politically apathetic though not without tiny ripples of civic participation scattered across the recent decade. Since the coronavirus outbreak, however, political participation among youth in Japan has made another–perhaps sharper–turn. Students and young professionals have deepened their voices, amplified not with speakerphones clasped high in public protests, but through online petitions, social media posts, and other digital media.
Research conducted by SIGNING Ltd in their Covid-19 Social Impact Report reinforces our insights. The report shows how more and more young people in Japan are now turning to Social Networking Sites (SNS) to share their opinions about issues surrounding Covid-19. According to their survey, more than 40% of the youth population (ages 10 to 20) has been sharing their thoughts online.
The majority of these coronavirus-related campaigns circled challenges students faced and their opinions on decisions made by larger education systems.
What prompted thousands of youth to speak up? What specific issues concerning the coronavirus have the youth raised? And how are these young people organizing online?
“Do not cancel graduation ceremonies.”
Okamoto Saya, a graduating student from Waseda University, started her campaign immediately after receiving an email from the university announcing the cancellation of their batch’s graduation ceremony due to COVID-19.
“I started this movement after feeling hurt by the news that our batch’s graduation ceremony was about to be canceled. On the same day, after reading that email, I immediately created a change.org campaign and contacted my friends to share it on SNS,” Okamoto shares (translated from Japanese).
This campaign was Okamoto Saya’s first petition on change.org. In her petition update, she shares what encouraged her to challenge the university’s decision to cancel graduation rites and consequently see her campaign to victory (translated from Japanese):
“I did not initially expect my petition to reach more than 100 people, yet the number of signatures increased day by day. I was filled with so much gratitude as I realized that there were people who encouraged me to do what I wanted to do.”
Other university students started similar campaigns, with several achieving victory within a few weeks.
“Is studying more important than human life?”
Even High School students started questioning decisions made by authorities such as the Kyoto City Board of Education and the Kyoto Prefectural Board of Education. In early April, several students initiated petitions when certain regions announced that classes were to resume following their regular schedule (mid-April).
Almost immediately, students flocked to our platform to start petitions asking their schools to postpone educational activities’ resumption. Around 200 campaigns sprouted within days, with signatures reaching 110,000 in total.
“It seems that the Kyoto City Board of Education and the Kyoto Prefectural Board of Education do not correctly recognize the new coronavirus infection threat. This announcement threatens students and their families’ health, including myself,” a petition starter, Keisuke Sekito, shares on the petition page (translated from Japanese).
Students are escalating their campaigns using platforms they know best.
With Twitter serving as their virtual quadrangle, university students from different schools and campuses complained about the financial distress of settling tuition fees and so exchanged Tweets and comments about their struggles. Bound by shared opinions on the urgent need for monetary consideration, the students created a LINE group where they exchanged information about starting a campaign to ask each of their schools to reduce or refund tuition fees.
This organized effort resulted in petitions starting almost simultaneously, targeting more than 170 universities nationwide.
The growth in online youth civic participation paints a bright picture for Japan, perhaps more so now that more and more people, including members of the state, are transitioning toward a more digitalized way of living where a growing majority are becoming less hesitant to communicate in non-traditional ways (i.e., in-person). This virtual rendezvous between the young and the rest of the population is crucial for productive political dialogue, considering the elderly in Japan constitute 28.1% of the population.
Rather than rallying behind a particular party or ideology, the youth have raised awareness of common and relevant issues to their communities.
We believe that valuing the youth voice and being a platform for them to share their stories can shift the narrative of youth civic engagement in Japan. Change.org Japan will continue to do so and help encourage more people, the youth especially, to let their voice lead us toward a society where all views are welcome.