In Japan, Change.org’s team of experienced campaigners support thousands of petitions, helping ‘petition starters’ escalate their campaign toward impact. In the process, we get to know our starters on a deeper level, understanding their own stories and hopes for the future, and we get inspired by these stories and the reflections they share as they fight for the causes they care about.
Often, these stories and reflections don’t go beyond our chat boxes, calls, or one-on-one conversations. So I recently sat down with one of our long-time petition starters for a more in-depth conversation than usual. I arranged the video call with the simple goal of listening, asking questions, and now sharing with the rest of the world his thoughts as a petition starter in a society where being outspoken about issues is often met with pointed judgement and, in some cases, online hate — Japan.
Hidemi Saito is a teacher in his thirties currently teaching geography at a high school in Gifu prefecture. In August 2016, he raised his voice on Twitter about problems in the country’s educational system. Later on on the Change.org platform, launching campaigns on the special salary law, working hours system, and improving school rules. He’s since made several recommendations at press conferences and statements by parliamentary witnesses. He has also co-authored “Teacher’s Black Overtime” and “Stray Teacher’s Work Style Reform.”
His latest campaign asks the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology that the school loosen their policy on uniforms, and provide students with more freedom to decide for themselves what they choose to wear.
In our chat, Mr Saito talked about the reactions he got from people around him when he launched the campaign three times despite his position as an incumbent teacher, the underlying thoughts that pushed him back, and the changes in how he felt going through all that.
“No teacher has tried to do anything about it. Later on, I began to think that I could play that role as much as possible.”
Question: First of all, can you please tell us what made you feel uncomfortable with the current situation and start creating petitions?
Mr Saito: The first two petitions I started were about teacher labour issues. Now, I’m campaigning around the topic of “school rules” directly related to the students.
When I first entered the educational field, I immediately felt that the working environment was quite miserable. A teacher suddenly disappeared for about 3 days, a teacher who crouched while holding his head during working hours and could not move for 2 hours, a teacher who could not get up from bed and was asked to take a leave or had to retire as it is, etc. This reality is commonplace to me, but no teacher has tried to do anything about it. Later on, I began to think that I could play that role as much as possible.
Were you an activist before you started supporting and starting petitions on Change.org?
I wasn’t. Before I started my first campaign, I was simply someone who would take a round trip from home to school. I thought that the only people who could speak out were those with special talents and powers.
Why did you decide to start online signing?
When people started talking about the labour problem in schools, other people had already created a petition about teachers’ long work hours specifically caused by club activities after school. And when I saw it, I thought, “Wow, that’s cool, but I don’t think I can do the same “…But at that time, no one seemed to be willing to raise their voice about any legal issue around the teachers’ working environment, so I didn’t know what much I could do, but I thought I could do something anyway.
Do you remember how you felt at that time?
When I first saw how online campaigns attracted more people to sign, I thought that those who led those campaigns were people with special talents and powers.
Meanwhile, one day I had the opportunity to meet the organizer behind the petition and was surprised to see he was also an incumbent teacher. When I met him, I thought, “Oh, they’re more ordinary than I expected.” Those people whom I thought were ‘special’ and ‘super teachers’ turned out to be ordinary people like me. So I also opened a Twitter account and started online campaigns.
“Some students seriously told me, ‘I don’t think what you are doing is wrong’.”
In Japan, it is often said that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”, and I can imagine how that culture is seen more obviously in schools. How was the initial reaction around you, and what went through your mind while you were in the staff room?
When I started my first petition in 2018, I did not show my face. But I decided to do it openly since creating my 2nd petition in 2019. It is most important for me now to stand on the podium and interact with the students every day.
Through this activity, I thought that I should not receive retaliation from personnel or be unable to stand on the podium. I was anxious about my actions’ repercussions, including what the students’ parents might think when they learn about it. In fact, I thought, “If I show up, I’ll be bashed by the people around me.” Then, surprisingly, I was not hit by such an attack. Instead, surprisingly, they responded positively, saying, “It’s amazing.” Even our manager gave me words of encouragement and said, “You were on TV yesterday!” And “I’m supporting you.”
The reaction from the students was also very positive. I’m not a strict teacher, so basically, students don’t always listen to me. But when the students learned that I was campaigning, they started listening to me (laughs).
I might not have the authority in school, but when some students watched the news where I was invited by the National Diet of Japan as one of the panels, they said, “You’re really cool! “And some students seriously told me, “I don’t think what you are doing is wrong.”
“What kept me going was seeing how some students were deeply affected by the issue.”
In the latest campaign he started, Mr Saito wrote, “I used to work at a part-time high school, and I have come into contact with many students who have been absent from school due to excessive guidelines and policies around school uniforms.”
The first two campaigns I started were about the teachers’ labour issues, so I was confident that the teachers around me would sympathize without any negative feelings. However, this time around, it was a matter of school rules and students’ [well-being], so I needed courage. I also knew that this was a controversial issue among teachers.
Some teachers believed that school rules should be strict and that students will not grow unless teachers are strict, but also thought, “aren’t the current school rules too strict?” “Isn’t it okay to loosen them?”. What kept me going was seeing how some students were deeply affected by the issue.
At the part-time high school, my first school, I met such students. More than half of the students who decided not to go to a regular high school experienced school refusal [to adjust]. I have met many students whom I thought were hurt by the school and the teachers’ responses.
Through Twitter, I received a message from a student that said, “I don’t want to go to school because I’m told I must be in a uniform (skirt). If I could go in jerseys, I could go.. .” But also, some teachers have confessed how painful it is to have to instruct students that way.
I also feel that the faculty members have to reflect on their own situation.
“If no one speaks out, what is actually ‘wrong’ practice or behaviour will risk being the norm in society.”
Were there moments or voices that helped you when you only had a few supporters?
This is not limited to this campaign, but it did not start with the expectation that great support would be gathered from the beginning. In the first campaign, in its first month, the petition gathered just 100 or 200 signatures. It was pretty sluggish. Still, I had no regrets about speaking out for the teacher who was suffering from the current working environment.
And I dedicated those signatures to the children who were actually suffering. Being the voice of tens of thousands of people is important, but I also think that it is okay and meaningful to keep moving with the thought of just doing it “for one person”.
The fact that you spoke for their feelings was a big thing for the suffering students, isn’t it?
I think so. Children who are depressed because “no one understands their pain and cannot reach out” can be saved by just having one teacher who says it is wrong. It doesn’t matter if the number of petition supporters is 100, 1000, or 10000. If you yearn to touch the heart of just one person even by a little bit rather than make significant institutional change in society, I think it is critical to reach out, shed light on it, and convey the message, “I will do something.”
“The campaign was able to show the public that there were people who questioned the system. That alone made a big difference.”
Do you feel that it made sense to start a petition? If so, what impact do you think will it achieve?
I don’t know what will happen to this campaign. What I learned from the previous and last two campaigns I created is that even if I deliver the petition, the country will not change as much as I would hope. But I don’t think that that means the campaigns failed just because something “big” didn’t change at all.
[For example] The second campaign I worked on, which called for the withdrawal of the modified working hours system, was not granted to us. But if no one spoke up at that point, things would have continued with the understanding that the existing policy was a sound system that everyone accepted. Even when I was called to the Diet, the campaign was able to show the public that there were people who questioned the plan. That alone made a big difference.
I voiced out that something was wrong with it. Thirty years from now, there will be someone who will look back on what I started. And I am doing what I’m doing with the thought that someone [will raise their voice on the issue too] and might change it in their time.
Especially in Japanese society, I think many people feel that if they don’t give a perfect score, they will fail. I think the message of “just because a petition didn’t win doesn’t mean it’s a failure” is very powerful. [So] I think it always makes sense to just launch a campaign.
“Don’t respond to bashing with more bashing. We should rely on the fact that more people agree with you and support you.”
How did you find a companion who agrees and works with you?
I am thrilled that many people have joined me to launch this campaign, such as Hirotada Ototake, Nana Takamatsu, and Chizuru Azuma. Besides them, three people who served as the president of a very prestigious educational society in the academic world also jointly showed their support.
I never thought I would connect with such people, but I wrote a letter through a particular person. I felt that a faculty member would write a letter to the society president, but I wrote it in good faith, trying to do it anyway. Then he said, “It’s important, so I’ll cooperate.”
Mr Ototake also replied to my tweet, and when I DMed him, he even bothered to call me afterwards.
I learned that there are people who will accept your cause and support you if you can convey your message in good faith. I was able to connect with them in that way.
Please tell us how you felt when you saw an opposing opinion and how you overcame that?
I haven’t been told anything unpleasant in the staff room or face-to-face, but there was a lot of bashing on Twitter. When I first appealed for the special salary law amendment, I was directly bashed by another teacher I knew on Twitter, and I was also quite dragged and denied personally. It was from someone I knew, so I was worried about it for about a month and two months.
If negative emotions are thrown, and I react with negative emotions, the message I want to convey with my signature will be taken negatively. So, you don’t respond to bashing with more bashing. We should rely on the fact that more people agree with you and support you.
“Sometimes something is better than nothing. You can participate in social changes as much as possible by taking a little action.”
Please give a message to those who want to speak up as well.
Again, I would like to say that speaking out is more valuable than trying to change something immediately by launching a campaign.
I’m grateful that the students see what I’m doing with my real name, and I want them to learn a lot from that. Teachers tend to convey the message to students, “You guys are changing society,” but I don’t want to just say it; I want to show the attitude that I am actually doing something to change society.
And I want you to receive this message, so let’s move together.
You mentioned your view of society has changed since you started starting petitions. In what way?
Even if you don’t get the success you had in mind before you started signing, someone will always see you when you first make a move. It would be good to lead a society in 10 years, 20 years, and 30 years. The decision to take a step is wonderful in itself. Nothing will change if no action is done. You can participate in social change as much as possible by starting with a small effort.
When I first launched the signature, I thought the Ministry of Education was an enemy. The young bureaucrat whom we talked to when we brought the signature listened with a very serious look. Even if the Ministry of Education couldn’t do anything right away, I realized that “these people are also suffering and suffering. Everyone is suffering in front of the task.” So I gave up the attitude of being “against the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology”. Instead of submitting a petition to attack someone with an issue, everyone must first acknowledge the issue.
In that sense, my perspective on society has improved. I’m glad I did it myself. Well, I don’t want to do it next time every time (laughs), but if I do it, there will be discoveries and harvests that I have done.
This post first appeared in note.com/change_jp and was translated to English for this blog by Mary Imbong and Michiko Matsuzaki.