Jacobin interviewed Yuichi Ikegawa, a Communist member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, about why Japanese youth are increasingly rejecting militarism, gerontocracy, and the false promises of capitalism.

Thousands of people gather on May 3, 2022, in Tokyo, Japan, to protest against amending the pacifist Japanese constitution to allow for military action abroad. (David Mareuil / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Japan is suffering from ongoing and intertwined crises. The country’s demographic malaise has reached staggering proportions: 10 percent of its citizens are now over eighty years old, and the population is falling by roughly 800,000 people per year.

This is reflected in the nation’s politics. Japan is a gerontocracy. In 2021, multiple scandals in the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics laid bare the entrenched sexism of this political establishment. Last year, the assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe resulted in a wave of public anger directed not at his killer, but at Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party. Adding to this domestic turmoil, Japan’s alliance with the United States is dragging it closer to military confrontation with China.

The Japanese Communist Party (JCP), which last year celebrated its centenary, has been a consistent voice against this failing status quo. The JCP was repressed under the imperial system, then again during the “Red Purge” of the US occupation. It navigated an independent position during the Sino-Soviet split, and well and truly survived the fall of the Soviet Union. Today, the JCP has roughly 270,000 members, making it one of the largest nongoverning communist parties globally.

Yuichi Ikegawa is an elected member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly for the JCP. The sprawling megacity’s governing body has powers more akin to a parliament than a city council, and its debates often provoke nationwide discussion. The youthful Ikegawa shot to fame across Japan as the face of a triumphant student movement against the Tokyo Board of Education’s authoritarian and bizarre rules policing student haircuts. The issue became a symbol of Japan’s sometimes vicious treatment of its dwindling youth population.

Somewhat unusually in a rapidly aging Japan, Ikegawa’s successful election campaigns have centered around the rights of youth and students. His efforts were recently profiled in One Hundred Years and Hope, a documentary film about the JCP.

Jacobin spoke with Ikegawa about the grim situation facing Japanese youth against the backdrop of looming war.

Chris Dite

Results from a Nippon Foundation survey published this year showed that around 45 percent of Japanese people aged eighteen to twenty-nine have suicidal thoughts. This is incredibly high. Could you explain the difficulties facing young people under capitalism in Japan?

Yuichi Ikegawa

This is a very serious figure. Younger generations in Japan are suffering from terrible burdens. In education, excessive competition and micromanagement deeply harm young people. They are growing up in an environment where they have very little experience of creating something on their own. Their tuition fees are extremely high compared to other countries. They are forced to enter the workforce burdened with large student debt from “scholarship” loans.

Once there, they find that one out of every two people is precariously employed as a nonregular worker. People are increasingly unable to have hope for the future, or envision their lives tomorrow. Under these circumstances, bullying, truancy, violence against teachers, and suicide are on the rise. The problem is that children are treated as human resources to utilize rather than as subjects with rights. They are scattered and alienated, and this situation is often justified using deeply ingrained ideas of “personal responsibility.”

The problem is that children are treated as human resources to utilize rather than as subjects with rights.

Chris Dite

You led your young constituents in a very public battle against the Tokyo Board of Education’s authoritarian practices. Your campaign resulted in the Board abolishing some of its alarming policies around student clothing and appearance. Are students in Tokyo more confident now to stand up and demand their basic rights?

Yuichi Ikegawa

This was really a happy experience. It proves that if you raise your voice, you can change politics and society. Middle school and high school students, who aren’t even able to vote yet, took action and paved the way to eliminating these unreasonable school rules. Hopefully this trend spreads not only in Tokyo but throughout the whole of Japan.

It’s worth noting that schoolteachers themselves are also subject to extreme control and outrageous treatment. Many teachers expressed both their opposition to the cruel rules for schoolchildren and their happiness that we were able to win the changes we did. Hopefully this solidarity can lead to the creation of more collaborative schools.

But there are still many challenges to overcome if we are to stop the ongoing oppression of children and the violation of their rights. If the status quo is irrational, should we just adapt to it, or take action to change the situation? These young people have raised their voices, and we must stand in solidarity to amplify their voices and bring about change.

Chris Dite

Seibu-Sogo department store workers went out on strike last month in Tokyo. It was the first major department store strike in over sixty years. Is there a growing mood of defiance among workers in Japan?

Yuichi Ikegawa

A drastic wage increase is necessary to protect people’s livelihoods from soaring prices. Japanese companies are sitting on huge and increasing capital reserves, but real wages have been declining for sixteen consecutive months. When workers’ needs and demands are thwarted, striking is essential to improve our lives and working conditions. So, an increasing number of labor unions in Japan are going on strike, and these strikes will continue to spread. The Japanese constitution guarantees “the right of workers to organize, engage in collective bargaining, and engage in other collective action.” To strike is every worker’s right, and everyone should stand in solidarity and support the Seibu-Sogo strike.

Chris Dite

Kohei Saito’s book Capital in the Anthropocene has sold more than half a million copies in Japan. Why do you think the idea of “degrowth communism” has resonated so strongly?

Yuichi Ikegawa

I think it is clear that in the face of the climate crisis and the realities of poverty and inequality, people are beginning to question whether capitalism is working. There is definitely a growing sense of crisis, a sense that the survival of many people is being threatened. Things clearly cannot continue as they are. While this crisis is unfolding, people are still searching for and exploring potential paths out of this situation. Hopefully they conclude that capitalism won’t be concerned with our wellbeing, until society compels it to be.

In the face of the climate crisis and the realities of poverty and inequality, people are beginning to question whether capitalism is working.

Chris Dite

Governor Yuriko Koike heads the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly you serve in, and is expected to recontest her position in next year’s elections. She is also a member of the powerful and secretive far-right organization Nippon Kaigi. How did organizations like this come to wield such outsized influence, and what does this mean for politics in Tokyo?

Yuichi Ikegawa

The religious right in general and Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politics are deeply connected. In 1993, the Kono Statement was issued, acknowledging the involvement of the former Japanese military in the issue of “comfort women.” In 1995, Prime Minister [Tomiichi] Murayama expressed “apology and remorse” for Japanese aggression and colonial rule. Clearly these efforts do not go far enough. Nevertheless, they provoked a real sense of crisis among certain sections of the elite, which went on to establish Nippon Kaigi in 1997. The organization now has ties to many politicians. This connection exerts influence in all areas, including historical revisionism and attacks on gender equality.

Governor Koike is part of this. For example, in 1972 the Tokyo Metropolitan Government published Tokyo: 100 Years of History. It first described how during the Great Kanto Earthquake vigilante groups spread false rumors about, then brutally murdered many Koreans. It acknowledged this slaughter of Koreans as a historical fact. It recognized this event as a man-made disaster, distinct from the earthquake. And it acknowledged the killings as “an irreversible stain on Tokyo’s history.” In subsequent Tokyo metropolitan governments’ memorial ceremonies, previous governors wrote condolence letters for these Korean victims. Governor Koike has adopted a historical revisionist position and refused to do so.

But Governor Koike now faces many problems for her attacks on history. For example, UNESCO just issued a worldwide heritage alert against the governor’s profit-driven redevelopment of Jingu Gaien. The Tokyo government needs fundamental change. We are joining forces with Tokyo residents and other political parties to tackle issues like these from the ground up.

Chris Dite

Surveys suggest the public is divided almost exactly in half on the proposed revisions to Article 9, which forbids war forever. Despite this, the Kishida government is deepening military ties with the United States, and doubling Japan’s defense budget to become the third biggest military spender in the world. Has the LDP just decided to rescind Article 9 in practice, rather than risk losing a formal debate over its revision?

Yuichi Ikegawa

Prime Minister [Fumio] Kishida’s choice to respond to military expansion with military expansion is dangerous. Increasing military spending to 43 trillion yen over five years sets Japan on an extremely treacherous path. But no matter what it does, the government remains bound by Article 9. So constitutional reformers, including the Liberal Democratic Party, remain desperate to change Article 9, and there are still moves towards constitutional amendment within the Diet.

There is an urgent need to fundamentally change the current political system, which centers the Japan-US alliance as an absolute necessity.

Despite all this, there are strong voices of opposition to the Kishida administration’s policy of increasing military spending and promoting military expansion. There is an urgent need to fundamentally change the current political system, which centers the Japan-US alliance as an absolute necessity. That’s why we use slogans like “politics exists to prevent war” and “Japan must help build a community of peace in East Asia,” in an effort to spread dialogue and empathy.

Chris Dite

In a recent Mainichi Shimbun survey, 80 percent of high school students responded “yes” to the question, “Do you want to do something to contribute to peace?” Do you think there is potential to build a movement against militarization and war in today’s Japan?

Yuichi Ikegawa

As a high school student, I participated in the social movements opposing the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. People of the same generation rallied and demonstrated, discussing what peace means and how we could achieve it.

All people have a desire to improve their lives and the society they live in. In Japan today, this can be seen in the growing movement of young people demanding gender equality and greater measures to combat the climate crisis. Peace is another such demand.

The most important keyword permeating all these issues is human rights. War is the greatest violation of human rights. It is crucial to understand the reality of war. This is the last generation to be able to hear directly about Japan’s experiences of war, including its exposure to radiation during the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We must expand our actions for peace in a variety of ways.

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