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Student perspective: Change is in our hands

on March 3, 2010

“No tuition hikes!” shouted about ten male Japanese students in wooden clogs and school caps at the main gate of Waseda University, in Tokyo, Japan. It was 1985, and the students were protesting a college tuition increase. The protesters seemed antiquated and out of place—although the clogs and caps are Waseda’s traditional symbol of students’ ethics and principles, no one wears them any more—especially compared with the female students in full make-up and fake extension nails walking by the protest as if it was invisible, brandishing $1,500 brand name bags—presumably gifts from their parents. Born in the neighborhood of Waseda University—considered the Japanese equivalent of Berkeley because of its liberal political views and activities—I grew up thinking this is what student protest is about.

Now I am an international student from Japan at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, covering local politics and economic issues for Oakland North. Last year’s student protest against the tuition hike at UC Berkeley was an eye-opening experience for me. It made me realize students in Japan have become less concerned about their society—they have given up the power to speak out to the government in order to make Japan a better place, as the hundreds of Berkeley students who gathered in front of Sproul Hall did last fall.

Japanese college campuses used to be ground zero for political activism . In the 1960s, Zengakuren, or the All-Japan Federation of Students’ Self-Governing Associations—a communist league of students in Japan strongly influenced by Japan’s Communist Party—mobilized students to protests against the revision of Japan-US Security Treaty. The treaty stipulates that Japan and the United States are obliged to assist each other in case of armed attack the territories under Japanese administration. Many students saw this treaty was outright violation of Article 9 of Japanese Constitution that says that Japan “renounces war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international dispute.”

Students saw revisions to the treaty as a stepping stone to militarize Japan again. At the time, Japanese people’s horrifying and bitter memory of World War II was still raw 15 years after it had ended. On June 1960, Michiko Kanba, a female protester from Tokyo University was killed in a clash with police in front of the National Diet.

Students also protested about campus matters: In 1966, my uncle, Toshio Yamanaka, participated in one of the massive protests against tuition hikes at Waseda, an elite private university, where 12,000 students gathered and more than 200 of them were arrested. My uncle explained to me that back then, more students had principles and ideals—if a student did not participate in a protest, he or she would have been pointed at and called a “wimp.”

“Japan has become such an affluent country that average parents can easily afford college education, and youngsters are so indifferent to what’s going on around them,” says my uncle.

But unlike for my uncle’s generation, it was not a cool thing to be hotheaded about politics when I was in college. My friends used to brush me off whenever I made comments about current political affairs, or ridiculed me saying, “Oh, you are too smart.”

I attended private school from kindergarten to college and my parents paid all the tuition. I did not even have to work, because my parents gave me allowance, saying that I should focus on my studies—although I barely attended classes because I was too busy socializing with other students. So were my friends. Lots of my male friends spent most of their time playing maa-jong in a smoke filled gambling house with their parents’ money. Most of my female friends, including myself, skipped class and used to go to Karaoke bars. Strangely enough, we could still graduate and most of us landed jobs at blue chip companies such as Toyota, Sony or Fujitsu. There were no protests at my college, Rikkyo University in Tokyo, as far as I can remember. The sense of decadent peace surrounded the campus and students.

Japanese colleges are famous for being like holiday camps. It is hard to get in, but once you are in, your graduation is almost guaranteed, so high school kids study very hard to get into college and they stop studying once they are there. In a way, students become very oblivious to life outside of the holiday camp, because they do not have to worry about how to pay tuition or how to pay the rent. Most of them are using their parents’ money to have a fun college life.

When I came to Berkeley, I was struck by a student from low-income family who told me that he is the first one to even finish high school in his family and he is fortunate enough to attend college while juggling four jobs. Unlike me or my Japanese friends whose families were wealthy enough to afford private school from kindergarten to college, Berkeley students see education as their basic right, not something that is entitled to them or naturally given to them. That is why I think students fight for their rights when they see their access to affordable education is being hindered—they are the stakeholders.

The situation in Japan, however, is changing now with the economic meltdown trickling down from US. Lots of parents are having hard time paying back their children’s college loans. A rising number of students cannot graduate because their parents failed to pay the tuition. College tuition in Japan has been increased fifteen times since 1970s. Yet, there are not massive protests like there are here.

“Japanese college students these days don’t have any dreams. They have become very indifferent. They avoid challenging things,” said Izumi Miyachi, a senior columnist for the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s leading newspaper, said in a private conversation with me two weeks ago. Miyachi said that the younger generation has very low expectations about Japanese society and they do not believe that they have power to change it.

I agree with her. The Japanese younger generation is too used to formulas in front of them and lacks creativity. So when they face something that is previously unknown or something that cannot be solved with their formulas, they cringe, rather than rise to the challenge. And because we are insular nation–even with globalization–younger people do not get inspiration from the movements outside of their comfortable territory or from things that they think are “fundamentally different.”

But if younger people are so hopeless about Japan’s future, who is going to change Japan for the better?

Yes, California is broke. Yes, there is a planned 32 percent tuition hike, and affordable education in California might become no longer available. But at least younger students in California are not afraid of speaking out and demanding changes. They may not achieve every change they hope for, but it would be much worse if they ever stopped speaking out — their issues would never be recognized.

I want younger Japanese people, including me, to realize that they have the power to speak out and make changes. My job as an international student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism is to hone my writing skills and inform other young Japanese people that it is up to us to change society.


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  2. Cheng on March 14, 2010 at 8:25 pm

    Great article! I absolutely concur about the indifference. I think it stems from the kids of the current generation seeing their parents generation being beaten back by the government during the student movement(gakusei undou) of the 60’s. The kids now have smartened up and gotten more street-wise when calculating to see whether the battle can be won(and decided otherwise) and have become less naive in believing that they can actually change something. The system has worked and is too entrenched in people’s mind now to make them challenge it. Japan only changes in times of great upheaval(Ishin維新, sengo戦後)and only then will all this pent up energy be unleashed in a tidal wave of change,usually for the better if history is any judge.

    They have also seen how their parents get a steady income from lifetime employment by following rules and not getting on the bad side of the boss which is similar throughout the world except that the stakes are higher here in Japan because during the previous generation where lifetime employment was the norm, job hopping was relatively rare. That means if you are fired, you can’t feed your family because the job market is illiquid.

    In that sense, the government has done an effective job of pushing it’s citizens down and as long as people’s voices are not heard (not that they are indifferent), they will be taken advantage of by the government.

    The Japanese bond story is a classic case. The most likely way the government is going to pay of all that national debt is most likely to increase taxes because 90% of the bonds are held by the Japanese people. And who will be footing the bill? You guessed, the public.

    There are 4 solutions to getting rid of the national debt burden but in 3 out of the 4 cases, the common man on the street is the patsy. You watch news on how the debt burden is bloating but the Finance Ministry carries on it’s pork barreling and the politicians go to Ryotei’s for Dango’s(談合) on OUR MONEY(I pay tax in Japan).

    Voting in the DPJ was a good first step but we will see what they can do.

    Anyway, great article for articulating what I too felt when I was an undergraduate student here as well. Brilliant job!

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