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SEALDs members keep delicate balance with political parties in election run-up

From left, Social Democratic Party leader Tadatomo Yoshida, Democratic Party Secretary-General Yukio Edano, and Japanese Communist Party Vice-Chairman Yoshiki Yamashita stand together as a united front at the National Diet Building during a demonstration attended by SEALDs members on June 5, 2016. (Mainichi)

"I've been watching you on television, and it's so moving to actually be here sitting next to you," said a Tokyo metropolitan assembly member -- in a voice cracking with emotion.

The scene was a rally of former House of Councillors Democratic Party legislators, held in Tokyo on June 4. Seeking a comeback in the upper house through proportional-representation seats, the campaign had invited as guest speaker none other than Aki Okuda, 23, a celebrity-of-sorts from the organization known as SEALDs -- Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy-s. The group has become well-known for vocally opposing the government's security-related legislation, which recently came into force, during demonstrations held in front of the National Diet Building.

While the assembly member's introduction revealed a sense of expectation, Okuda maintained a sense of cool composure.

SEALDs, which was founded in May last year, has begun launching initiatives related to the upper house election, including working to defeat the re-election of lawmakers who supported the security legislation, as well as supporting the withdrawal of candidates from the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) in a total of 32 single-member electoral districts that have seats up for grabs.

With 18- and 19-year-olds now able to vote in the forthcoming upper house election for the first time, all political parties are attempting to make inroads with young voters. Meanwhile, these student-led activists are starting to be seen as an emerging force.

An individual associated with the ruling coalition noted with caution, "If things begin heating up (among young politicized voters) like during the summer last year, they are going to present a real threat."

SEALDs ran into formidable obstacles during the Hokkaido No. 5 single-seat constituency lower house by-election that took place in April during the run-up to the upper house election. Around 20 members of the organization, including Okuda, traveled to Hokkaido to support Maki Ikeda, who was running as an independent candidate jointly backed by opposition parties.

Although SEALDs managed to boost support for Ikeda's candidacy through such measures as planning events and distributing videos, she ended up being defeated by Liberal Democratic Party candidate Yoshiaki Wada by a total of some 12,000 votes.

"When we held demonstrations against the security legislation, we didn't know what citizens were thinking," notes SEALDs member Nobukazu Honma, 21, by way of reflection on the experience. "That information became known during the election, however, in the form of numerical figures."

He added, "This made me feel like we can't sit around and just do nothing."

According to a joint exit poll conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun and Hokkaido Broadcasting Co., 19 percent of voters said that they placed a high emphasis on the security legislation when placing their votes -- an issue lagging far behind that of enhanced medical and social services, which came in at 40 percent.

The SEALDs members were bewildered, moreover, by the fact that they made the front page of the local newspaper. Honma noted, "Unless local individuals' actions are at the forefront, there is no meaning."

SEALDs subsequently put together an election-related training manual, which it distributed to political party chapters and universities around the country. And while giving speeches on the street, members began expanding their repertoire of topics to include things like employment-related issues and the chain of poverty, in addition to simply stating their opposition to security legislation.

Okuda declared during the June 4 upper house rally, "I didn't come here because I support the Democratic Party."

While SEALDs supports opposition-party candidates in single-member electoral districts, individual members are free to support whichever party they choose with respect to proportional-representation seats -- in part because the structure of opposition-party joint candidate lists is at an impasse. In other words, the organization is not adhering to support of one specific political party.

SEALDs has also announced its plans to dissolve following the upper house election. Member Takeshi Suwahara, 23, notes jokingly, "Our popularity is over."

Another member notes, "SEALDs is an organization comprised of individuals -- and becoming too popular actually hurts us. This is because those who praise us actually just put all of the responsibility on our shoulders, while taking none of it for themselves."

For SEALDs, then, keeping the appropriate distance from political parties has reached something of an art form.

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