Japanese youth in the face of elite indifference

By Philippe Mesmer and Philippe Pons

Posted today at 6:00 p.m.

The heavy buildings of the Kyoto University Faculty of Medicine impose their austerity in the evening falling on the ancient Japanese capital. Opposite, behind a row of trees, wooden panels covered with calls in Japanese and Russian to demonstrate or to break one’s chains, reminiscent of the dazibaos of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, frame the entrance to the Yoshida dormitory.

Built in 1913, this dark wood building sits at the end of an overgrown alley. Inside reigns a mess of books, boxes, tired armchairs. The walls are covered with posters, some from the 1970s against the Vietnam War. Windows are broken.

The Yoshida dormitory is threatened with destruction by the prestigious university, owner of the site, which sees it only as an island of insalubrity. A trial is underway but its 150 occupants, supported by teachers and former students, are doing everything to preserve Japan’s last self-managed university dormitory, apolitical and proud of its ideal of total freedom, promoted since the 1960s.

“Here, we can say everything and write everything”, appreciates Sho Sasaki, a sociology student who, from high school, wanted to come, while others, like Ryosuke Hanzawa, an agricultural engineering student, discovered it by reading Yojohan Shinwa Taikei (The mythical Chronicles on four and a half tatami mats, Kadokawa, 2004) novel by Tomihiko Morimi adapted into an animated series. In this book, the author, formerly of the university, makes the dormitory a mythical place. “He convinced me to move there. “

Yoshida Dormitory at Kyoto University, July 11, 2021. Left, detali from the common room window;  on the right, Sho Sasaki, Ryosuke Hanzawa and their friends in front of the main entrance to the dormitory.

Such a movement remains rare in Japan. According to sociologist Kyoko Tominaga of Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, the motivation of young Japanese to protest is now the lowest among democracies around the world. The muffled clamor of the violent clashes between students and riot police in the 1960s and 1970s is seen as radical and ineffective: barely 10% of the younger generation have a positive image of this period, she estimates.

“The feeling of being neglected”

The new generation grew up in a country in deflation following the bursting in 1991 of the “speculative bubble”. After the consumerist frenzy of an era of all excess: from sushi with a gold glitter to nightclubs where thousands of girls look bodycon (contraction of body conscious, ultra-tight and ultrashort dress) danced entire nights with their hair unfurled, the Archipelago brutalized by globalization has never again experienced the outbreaks of elder protests or their extravagance. On the other hand, Japan is seeing the generational gap widening. “For politicians, priority goes to the elderly”, laments Yuma Kato, a student at Taisho University, who criticizes his elders “Clinging to power”.

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