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Reviewed by:
  • Youth Movements, Trauma and Alternative Space in Contemporary Japan by Carl Cassegärd
  • Simon Avenell (bio)
Youth Movements, Trauma and Alternative Space in Contemporary Japan. By Carl Cassegärd. Global Oriental, Leiden, 2014. xiv, 289 pages. €114.00.

What legacies do the social movements of one generation bequeath to those of the next? How do activists in the present respond to the cultural baggage of earlier movements? And, in trying to understand the emergence and dynamics of new cycles of protest and contention, what is the relative importance of earlier (often discredited) cultures of activism alongside more immediate factors such as the effect of changing political and economic conditions and institutions or systemic shocks brought about natural and manmade disasters? These are some of the issues Carl Cassegärd addresses with great dexterity in his engrossing study of youth movements in contemporary Japan.

This is an important book for at least three reasons. First, it brings the history of postwar social activism up to the present by boldly attempting to trace connections (and disconnections) between the student activism of the 1960s and 1970s, youth movements of the 1980s and 1990s, and the mass protest against nuclear power following the triple disaster of March 11, 2011. Second, the book shows that, in terms of grassroots activism among youth, [End Page 166] the so-called “lost decade” of the 1990s was not so much “lost” as it was a period of subterranean preparation and recalibration of activist identities and movement practices for what would emerge later. And third, although Cassegärd does not make this an explicit objective, by linking earlier protest to activism in the present, the book also adds another fascinating perspective to scholarly discussions about Japanese civil society that have unfolded over the last decade and a half. Indeed, Cassegärd’s book encourages us to carefully reconsider the role of grassroots forces in shaping Japanese civil society, especially the way Japanese youth have imagined alternatives and fostered practices of advocacy and self-help. This perspective offers an important corrective to analyses of Japanese civil society to date which have been dominated by strongly state-centric, institutional explanations.

Cassegärd is primarily interested in explaining what he sees as “the recovery of activism in Japan after the perceived failure of the radical student movement in the 1970s” (p. 215). As he explains, “Why, I asked myself, was there so little open protest in the 1990s and early 2000s, and why, when open protest did emerge, did it take a form that appeared to have so little in common with older traditions of protest in Japan?” (p. 3). Cassegärd’s argument hinges to a great extent on his assertion that the mass demonstrations against nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident evidence the recovery and relegitimization of mass protest in Japan. Social movement activism, he argues, is “no longer a stigmatised activity” (p. 235) and it “has made a remarkable recovery from the setback it suffered with the defeat of the radical protest movements in the 1970s” (p. 245). Antinuclear power protests after Fukushima signal for Cassegärd that “the shadow of the New Left has almost disappeared” and, more optimistically, that “a new chapter may have been opened in Japan’s social movement history and [that] protests among the young may well continue to be common and part of the regular political landscape in the future” (p. 235). This is an optimistic reading indeed and only time will tell if Cassegärd is correct. But, in context of this work, it provides an excellent vantage point from which to project backward and construct his historical explanation of trauma and transformation in Japanese social activism.

Specifically, Cassegärd’s proposal of a post-Fukushima recovery of mass protest allows him to tackle two fascinating questions: why was Japanese social movement activism in need of recovery and how did this transformation come about (i.e., who or what effected the change)? With regard to the question of recovery, Cassegärd places almost complete emphasis on the “traumatic scars” (p. 35) left by the radical student movement of the 1960s and early 1970s on...