Japan's youth find new ways to speak up

Eleven-year-old Fuka Haruna on how Twitter has given her a voice

"People often tell me to die or call me ugly and annoying on Twitter. There are days I wish I was dead," wrote 11-year-old Fuka Haruna.

"But I know that no matter how much I cry, or even kill myself, the bullies won't feel a thing."

Fuka wrote the comments for a special series on bullying by Japan's Asahi newspaper.

Thirty five high-profile people were asked to contribute to the series, but it was Fuka's column which received the most attention.

She started out as a child model. When she began receiving critical and cruel posts on Twitter she responded to them - and her mature reaction got people talking.

A boy holds a banner denouncing nuclear Young Japanese are not traditionally seen as activists but this is slowly changing, say analysts

"It's not someone's death which would stop the bullying because they'll just find another target," wrote Fuka, who is also an actress.

"It can only be stopped if you, the bully, have the ability to imagine that even people who you think are disgusting have parents who love them - just like my parents were over the moon on the day I was born."

Fuka is just one of a new generation of young Japanese who are making themselves heard in a traditionally consensus-based society.

"I think there aren't enough opportunities for young people to express their opinions in Japan," says 27-year-old sociologist Noritoshi Furuichi.

"But new tools like the internet and social networking sites allow them to be more vocal, and there have been many more active political discussions online."

'Sense of responsibility'
Generation Asia graphic

In Fuka's case, it was the suicide of a 13-year-old boy last October in Otsu, Shiga, that led to her putting pen to paper.

The case sparked public outcry because the boy was reportedly forced to practise committing suicide by his classmates.

After her article was published, Fuka received a lot of feedback on Twitter. Some comments were highly critical, questioning her authority to write the column - she replied to as many of her critics as possible.

She has been tweeting since she was nine and currently has 141,500 followers.

"My mother gave me a mobile phone when I was three so she could call me while she was at a driving school," she said. "Ever since then, it's become my life."

For Fuka, it was the new technology which gave her a voice. For thirty-one-year-old Naomichi Suzuki, however, it was concern for the future and a sense of obligation.

Start Quote

Yubari mayor Naomichi Suzuki

The debt issues might not be young peoples' fault, but we also took advantage of all the wealth that previous generations created for us”

End Quote Naomichi Suzuki Yubari City mayor

He became Japan's youngest mayor when he was elected last year in the city of Yubari, in the northern island of Hokkaido.

He was a 26-year-old public servant in Tokyo when he was asked to go and help the former mining city, declared bankrupt in 2007 in a high-profile case that highlighted Japan's rural ageing and depopulation woes.

Mr Suzuki extended his one-year term to two. Then due to his devotion to the city, he was asked by local residents to run in the mayoral elections.

"There were many risks when they asked me to run: I had just got married, bought an apartment near Tokyo and most importantly, I was running against some veteran politicians and I'd have been jobless if I lost," he said.

"But I still couldn't say no… because I think the issues that Yubari has are what Japan will face in the near future. I don't feel that I became a politician. I took the job to revive Yubari."

In the ageing city where 45% of residents are aged over 65, he is like a grandson to many.

"Children call me Naomichi and I've been telling them to at least call me Mr Suzuki," he laughed. But he faces a mammoth task sorting out the city's finances.

"The debt issues might not be young peoples' fault, but we also took advantage of all the wealth that previous generations created for us," he said.

"I think our generation lacks a sense of responsibility to take care of Japan - and someone has to sort out its problems too."

'Hesitant'

It was also concern for the future that prompted 27-year-old Taichi Hirano to start speaking out.

He decided to join the anti-nuclear protests which have been taking place every Friday outside Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's residence.

"Even before the March 2011 incident, I vaguely knew that nuclear energy could be dangerous," Mr Hirano said.

Taichi Hirano takes part in anti-nuclear protests every Friday

"But I was hesitant to attend demonstrations because I didn't know what to expect."

Now he is one of the main members of the Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes and leads the chant outside government buildings.

"When I watched the explosions at the nuclear power plants in Fukushima and how they've been affecting local communities, I decided I needed to speak up."

Many of his peers are older but increasingly, there are younger protesters including children who are participating with their parents.

It is unlikely that bullying will stop because of Fuka's article. Yubari's balance sheet remains in the red despite Mr Suzuki's best efforts.

The anti-nuclear protesters, however, managed to meet Mr Noda in late August - who continues to wrestle with energy policy for the future.

Their voices may not yet be loud. But in Japan the young - who are traditionally seen as apolitical - are finding new ways to speak up in testing times.

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