Despite the impression widely held outside Japan that the country has a society based firmly on consensus and harmony, modern protest has a rich history.
Some of the reason for this may lie with the Allied Occupation which sought to instill individualism and individual right among the population while strengthening organizations which could resist authoritarian institutions and the government. The union movement quickly expanded to many times the size of the prewar movement and left-wing parties employed mass demonstrations effectively. The 1940s in particular saw a crescendo of protest, often violent and always loud, in support of democratization and peace as well as more leftist goals.
There was another outbreak of unrest in 1959-60 when the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty was negotiated. Protesters criticized the apparent alliance which was being struck on the grounds that it put Japan in danger of being drawn into a war between the super-powers. Their cause was reinforced when the USSR shot down an American spy plane. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators forced President Dwight D. Eisenhower to cancel his planned visit to Japan to sign the treaty, which went into effect despite the protest. The vehemence of the clashes led to one death and caused the ruling party to turn away from politically sensitive topics to economic ones; the next government pledged itself to double the economy instead.
There was another surge of protest in the late 1960s when student unrest swept the high schools and universities. Many were eventually closed for up to a year. The causes were echoed throughout the world: inadequate educational facilities, uncaring teachers, the generation clash, and a strong counter culture, to name a few.
Out of this popular surge of protest grew a narrower fringe of extreme violence. Terrorist attacks were carried out both in Japan and outside, several factions developed genuine revolutionary intentions, but they slowly drifted into a pattern of murdering each other. One of the best examples occurred at Karuizawa on the Nakasendo. It was discovered that one faction had attempted to instill ideological purity by killing its dissidents. Eventually, police laid siege to the mountain lodge where the faction had holed up and a shoot-out continued for days with the whole episode being broadcast on national television.
Before 1945 and the influence and change brought by the Allied Occupation, the models for modern protest were well founded. It emerged from traditional, peasant revolts, but slowly moved into cities and changed.
In the years after the Meiji Restoration, many small to medium scale protests took place. Most of them were among the peasants and were a continuation of traditional styles of protest against hardship or threats to prosperity. Other protests developed in the samurai class, however, because they were seriously affected by the reforms of the new, national government. The entire legal basis for the samurai as a class was eliminated in the 1870s, contributing to a massive uprising of former samurai, the Satsuma Rebellion (Seinan Rebellion) which forced the government to mobilize all its military might, including uniformed police, to quell the rebellion.
Industrial protests occurred from time to time in the nineteenth century but were hindered by legislation which made it impossible to form labor unions. Earlier this century after the laws were changed, unions were gradually formed and staged some memorable strikes, but the union movement never achieved a large size nor did it have the impact it had in the post-1945 period. Still, the union movement, the tenants’ movement and various other movements against governments did achieve some of their goals and did create a familiar foundation for protest after the war.
Since 1945, authorities have learned to respond to protest more rapidly. In the 1960s and after, there arose a vast number of local protest movements which sought to address local problems. Sometimes the problems were major like the mercury poisoning at Minamata in Kyushu and sometimes they were as minor as the installation of a new crosswalk. In many cases, the political parties and the different levels of government learned that the protest movements, called ‘resident’s movement’ (jumin undo), proved capable of mobilizing voters to use their votes in their self-interest. This was most effective at the local level and local government learned to respond. Slowly at the national level, such movements are beginning to make an impact too.