Looking Back : Wakako Fukuda on SEALDs and Later

By Trishit Banerjee | Translated by Ayşe Haruka Açıkbaş

Wakako Fukuda is back to her desk, books, and grades : the hallmarks of a student life. Since dropping out of college after the disbandment of SEALDs (Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy), she has decided to return to campus after 5 long years. At SEALDs, she was one of the founding members who were protesting against the 2015 military legislation enacted by the Abe-led government which allowed the Japanese self defence forces to participate in foreign conflicts.

“I wasn’t even trying to be an activist,” she remarks. “As a high school student, I prioritised my normal life but when the State Secrecy Law came around, I read it was a threat to our freedom of speech. That was when I felt like doing something and took to the streets,” she explains.

The State Secrecy Law was promulgated in 2013, and gave the bureaucrats enormous self-determining powers to deem a piece of information as secret without any oversight mechanism in place. It is also hostile towards any whistleblower or journalist seeking to disclose such an information even if it is in public interest. It was in response to this the ‘Students Against Secret Protection Law’ (SASPL) came into force. However, when the law was passed  with 80% of the Japanese public against it, SASPL took the form of SEALDs on May 03, 2015 but  it was dissolved by the end of August 2016.

Disbanding of SEALDs was a natural choice

By 2016, members of SEALDs did not have any energy left to continue the fight. They were emotionally exhausted. “Disbanding was planned from day one,” Fukuda says. After the Upper House elections for the National Diet, the last press conference was held. While some termed it as a success, others saw SEALDs as a failure, and Fukuda agrees to both. “The military legislation eventually passed, and no one continued the movement after we left. There were some branches such as ‘Public for Future’ etc., but none lasted. Some of us adopted other forms of activism, but some completely stepped back and even left the country,” Fukuda informs. 

Wakaki Fukuda at a protest
Wakako Fukuda at a protest

Moreover, many saw the movement as something that was missing in their youth life or as a way to create a memory for summer. “What happens then is that such movements then last only for a short time. So, even if we didn’t dissolve, it would have met its end,” she concludes. 

Surprisingly though, none of the SEALDs members have run for office upto now. “Maybe if we had lasted, we would have seen some members choosing the political path,” she says. For Fukuda, however, there is a deeper Japanese philosophy at play for SEALDs not turning into a political entity. To step back before one is asked to forms a subconscious force in this country. 

Life after SEALDs

Since then, Fukuda has been to Germany, took on feminism and human rights-centric activism, and is now back finishing  college majoring in sociology. “I get invited to virtual talks, events, etc. I am however more invested in writing,  and that is what I wanted to do since my time in SEALDs,” she says. “After I returned from Germany, some of the women from SEALDs and I organised a few feminist rallies. Even though my focus is on feminism, I am generally interested in human rights,” she adds.

Fukuda speaking at a panel
Fukuda speaking at a panel

It isn’t easy to be a feminist openly in Japan. Fukuda mentions that talking about feminism is probably more difficult than talking about security bills. Whenever she says that she is a feminist, she encounters comments such as “But you date guys, right?” or “You aren’t ugly. You don’t have to do that.” For many, feminism is a movement by women who don’t get picked and thus go on a tirade about hating men.

Time in Germany and returning to Japan

While in Germany for 2 years, Fukuda says she experienced physical liberation. “I didn’t weigh myself after every meal as I did in Japan. During my first winter there, I didn’t know what was trending in fashion. In Japan, you do know that to be validated and to be on the market. You have to like consuming things, decorating yourself and I got brainwashed into it,” she explains. For her, Germany also made her realise that capitalism is truly bad and at the same time allowed her to be more comfortable with solitude; something which she couldn’t do in Japan.

After returning to Japan, she realised how her past in SEALDs affected her job opportunities. “I am not ashamed of my past but it is for a fact that most companies do Google you. I got fired from a day job for that specific reason,” she says. These days, she is hesitant to say her full name and while she works at a music venue now, she has asked her boss to not reveal her real name. With the pandemic stepping in and many jobs being lost along the way, she started sharing information with others which she received from her contacts at different unions. “They asked me howI knew all of this, and that is when I had my ‘coming out’ moment as an activist,” she says. “They have known me as a friend first and not as an activist,” she adds.

Growing into activism

As a child though, Fukuda was shy and never raised her hand. Her father is a journalist and influenced her immensely in talking normally about politics. She read extensively which helped her empathise with real life people without interacting much. “I always had something to say but I never said it. I thought I would get bullied for speaking my mind, and I saw that happening to others,” she says.

For Fukuda, action came before knowledge. “Terayama Shuji’s book ‘Throw Away Your Books, Rally In The Streets’ was a bible for students during the 1960s movement. It was specifically titled because students those days read Marx and others extensively but did not take any action. I got inspired by that and I took to the streets. It was at SEALDs that I started meeting people from diverse fields and got to learn from them,” she explains.

With her entry into SEALDs, Fukuda got a platform to express. She even used social media but remarks that she isn’t a big fan of online activism. “On the first day of the protest, I saw someone holding a camera, and I went ahead and spoke my mind right in front of it and also revealed my identity. Many around me asked why I was doing that, and I wondered if it was dangerous. Years later, I would realise that,” she says hinting at the impact it had on her later life.

Styling a revolution

The 1960s student revolution ended in people torturing each other. For SEALDs, it was undoubtedly a conscious choice to be non-violent. “We were cautious not to get involved with any of the remnants of extreme left who carried the spirit from the 1960s.  We didn’t exactly exclude them but didn’t get involved either. The police didn’t care. They saw us as troublemakers. As a result, nobody in SASPL and SEALDs ever got arrested. We knew that if we were arrested, it won’t just be a personal loss but the whole movement would suffer a setback,” Fukuda informs.

To ensure this cautious distance, no one in SEALDs wore helmets or used flags, which are seen as symbols of the 1960s. Union flags were used at the very end when people became more comfortable with SEALDs. It was taken care, that members look like average students and thus even the pamphlets were designed with caution. Appearance was cared to such an extent that it was at times close to ableism and sexism. There was always a team of lawyers and voluntary bodyguards and adherence to police’s instructions on how to use the road to protest. “It wasn’t just about security bills. It was also about rebuilding a culture of protest in Japan,” Fukuda says. 

Fukuda posing for SEALDs
Fukuda posing for SEALDs

While Fukuda struggled with the balancing act of pushing the boundaries while maintaining status quo, she did know of her privilege. Not everybody could afford to protest in Tokyo every Friday. “It doesn’t matter how humble you are despite your privilege; you will always sound ignorant and arrogant,” she says. “Therefore, it doesn’t matter whether you are a housewife or a dancer or a scientist,” she adds. She further went on to dress in a certain manner where people wouldn’t assume her to have any political opinion. “Even if you aren’t school smart, if you have something to say, you should be able to say that,” she says.

Activism and a new generation

With the anti-nuclear movement post Fukushima in 2011, a new era for activism has begun in Japan. For Fukuda, the major source of all issues is the inability of many to understand that they have rights. “If they did, karoshi (death due to overwork) would not exist,” she notes. She adds that people don’t question the government or authority, and that is probably one reason why the government can make everyone wear masks in a pandemic – it isn’t the fear of disease but rather the fear of being blamed or outcast by  society.

Fukuda at a protest
Fukuda at a protest

While Fukuda doesn’t have any political ambitions as of now, she hopes the younger generation takes the charge. “A lot of younger groups have women faces, and I think it is a very 2020 thing,” she notes. Although, she finds the younger generation of activism refined, sophisticated, and resume-oriented which almost feels corporate. Words are spoken carefully which makes her wonder where exactly is the anger, the protest. However, being through it all, she understands the resentment.

Creating new media such as ‘Choose Life Project’ and sending in more women are natural courses of action for Fukuda. “It is not hard to speak in front of a thousand people. It is harder to speak to your neighbour or friend,” she says.

The SEALDs website opens with ‘The Emergency Action is over. But the unfinished project must go on.’ One can scroll down and notice a line which says, ‘This is what democracy looks like.’ Fukuda smiles, is fearless, is unapologetic, and is surrounded by books in her room. At one point she declares, “If people in power offer you something, even if you don’t know about it, first say no.” Despite differences in public opinion, one cannot deny the fact that SEALDs was an important experiment in Japan’s democracy, and it can only be improved by trying new experiments.