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As Japan's Gen Z shy away from rallies, unions ponder how to boost May Day events

The 93rd May Day central rally is held at Yoyogi Park in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward on April 29, 2022. (Mainichi/Haruna Okuyama)

TOKYO -- The Japanese Trade Union Confederation is pondering how to attract young people to May Day rallies that are held annually by labor unions to seek improvement of workers' status and working environments, after a survey revealed that many young people don't want to take part in such events.

    The confederation, commonly known as Rengo, conducted an online survey in December 2021 covering 1,500 people aged between 15 and 29 -- corresponding to Japan's Generation Z. Nearly half of the respondents cited demonstrations, rallies and parades as the social movements they least wanted to participate in.

    This year, Rengo held its central May Day rally in person on April 29, after moving it online in 2020 and 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

    When it asked young people in its survey what social movements they didn't want to take part in, 46.8% answered "rallies, demonstrations, marches and parades" -- a far larger portion than the 20.7% who answered "talking about social issues on social media" and the 19.5% who cited "crowdfunding, donations and other forms of funding."

    Rengo's deputy secretary-general Haruhisa Yamaneki, who was involved in the questionnaire, commented, "Social movements are essentially aimed at spreading sympathy among a large number of citizens, but it seems those movements are not necessarily receiving understanding."

    It's not that Generation Z is less interested in social activism. According to the poll, 87% of respondents said there are social issues that they are concerned about. Those issues ranged from "bullying," cited by 20.7%, to "long work hours (work-life balance)" at 18.7%, "suicide issues" at 16.7%, "gender-based discrimination" at 16.3% and "health care and social security" at 15.1%.

    Among the pollees, 36.8% said they had taken part in social activism. Of these, 25.4% said they had attended seminars to deepen their knowledge, and 23.2% had shared information or their views through social media. Meanwhile, only 14.7% said they had participated in rallies, demonstrations, marches or parades.

    Of those who never took part in demonstrations, rallies or parades, 22.2% said they felt uncomfortable about their faces and names being made public, followed by 21.6% who said they didn't have enough knowledge to join such activities and 18% who said they were too busy to do so.

    "While people in this generation have a high level of interest in social challenges, they are also aware of the risks of being personally identified and coming under fire on the internet," said Naoya Okamoto, a manager at Rengo's event planning bureau. To help younger generations participate at ease without showing their faces or using their own names, Rengo streams video sessions themed on common labor issues once a month, such as labor-management agreements on overtime.

    While May Day rallies are traditionally held on May 1, Rengo moved up the date this year to April 29 in light of complaints that holding events on May 1 would ruin the Golden Week holiday, which runs from late April to early May. While the number of participants at this year's rally in Tokyo's Yoyogi Park was limited to prevent coronavirus infections, it was livestreamed online to appeal to a broader range of generations including Gen Z.

    Another labor lobby, Zenroren, or the National Confederation of Trade Unions, is planning to hold its May Day rally on May 1 at Yoyogi Park and broadcast it online. Zenroren Deputy Secretary-General Masamichi Watanabe commented, "Amid the coronavirus pandemic, venues to host union activities have been limited, and we've reached an age where we need to go online to solicit new hires to join unions. It's difficult, but there are merits, such as it being easier for workers to take part, and we'd like to take advantage of those."

    Kohei Fujimoto of major ad agency ADK pointed out, "For the young set, what counts is the quality and content of an event. Labor unions should let them know specifically what benefits they will be able to gain and what changes they can make by joining May Day rallies." He continued, "It's not bad to lower the hurdle for young people to join by holding rallies online, but it's necessary to attract them within the context of their interests, so that these movements will be chosen by the generations that sift through diverse information in their lives."

    (Japanese original by Haruna Okuyama, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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