Self-Immolation and Suicide as Protest in Japan

Many in Japan were shocked by the attempted suicide by self-immolation of a middle-aged protester in Shinjuku on June 29th.

On a weekend full of many liberal and leftist demonstrations against the imminent passing of the government’s controversial collective self-defence law revision, changes which opponents say are pulling Japan away from its constitutional pacifism and further down the path to militarism, at around 1pm the man climbed the girders above a pedestrian footbridge connecting the Shinjuku Station complex with its South Exit area.

Sitting alone on a black mat and holding a modest megaphone, he then began to call down to the crowds below, saying he was going to sit himself on fire in protest at Shinzo Abe’s policies. Fire services began to gather on the footbridge and below, trying to coach him down. When he saw a ladder being produced, he poured gasoline over himself and then set himself on fire.

Rescuers quickly worked to douse the man with water, pulling him off the girder and then extinguishing the flames while he lay on the footbridge. He was then taken to hospital with severe burns but apparently still conscious.

Although this extreme example of protest did not get the major news coverage it deserved — yet was picked up readily by many international media outlets — other local leftists instantly tried to claim the man as a martyr, giving out leaflets at the spot, laying flowers and then eventually even scrapping over what was appropriate political action and what was simply disrespectful. Police reportedly soon had the flowers removed and the scene was cleaned of evidence. That odd Sunday afternoon of shopping and suicide in Shinjuku was then closed off with a rain shower. It was as if nothing had happened.

The man, so-far anonymous, recalls several other suicide-protests. In fact, there is a skein of such actions in the canon of Japanese radical and civic movements, including self-immolation. Many were quick to compare the man with similar acts in the Arab Spring, Tibet, or the remarkable spectacles by Buddhist monks in Saigon in the early 1960′s.

self immolation shinjuku tokyo protest government collective self-defense

The self-immolation protest in Shinjuku on June 29th, 2014, in protest at the government’s collective self-defence policies.

However, for me, the man’s sacrificial act immediately recalled two other men.

On March 30th, 2002, Kõyū Himori burnt himself to death in Hibiya Park. Himori was a passionate campaigner for the Palestinian cause and had a remarkable career, being one of the first members of the proto-Japanese Red Army. Technically never part of the JRA, he was one of the first Japanese radicals in Lebanon, along with Tsuyoshi Okudaira. (The Japanese Red Army did not come into existence until late 1974, nor were all of the early activists were actually from the Sekigun-ha in Japan.)

He helped recruit some others like Kõzõ Okamoto and Osamu Maruoka. However, after the death of one of the activists in a swimming accident, Himori returned to Japan with the body in early 1972. He did not return to the Middle East and so lost out on the chance to join his comrades in their picaresque lives of hijackings, embassy-stormings and renditions. He was arrested and served time in prison, but later became a key member of the JRA’s supporters in Japan. Fusako Shigenobu, often cited as the leader of the JRA, dedicated a section of her last book to Himori. His final act that proved that despite having ended up with a far less dramatic role in the JRA chronicle, his protest was just as committed and sincere. He self-immolated in 2002 at the age of 54.

koyu himori japanese red army self immolation suicide

Kõyū Himori, who committed suicide by self-immolation in 2002 in a protest for the Palestinian cause.

On November 11th, 1967, Yui Chūnoshin killed himself by self-immolation. Like Himori, he was not a young man (he was 73) but he was not from the same far Left ilk at all. Chūnoshin was actually an Esperantoist and his act was more related to Thich Quang Duc’s — as well as the Shinjuku 2014 protestor’s — in that he chose to burn himself in front of the Prime Minister’s home as a demonstration against the Japanese government’s logistical support for the war in Vietnam. American bases in Japan were central to the conflict, as were Japanese commercial contributions: Japanese corporations made huge amounts of money by supplying arms, food and more to the ultimately fruitless efforts to stamp out communism in Southeast Asia.

Chūnoshin inspired one of the major performance art groups from the era, Zero Jigen (Zero Dimension), to take part in a parade wearing gas masks in Shinjuku. Under the label Kurohata (Black Flag), Zero Jigen and their peers even then also re-staged Chūnoshin’s self-immolation (with an effigy) at Shinjuku Station’s West Exit, a frequent “liberated zone” and protest site in Tokyo in the late 1960′s.

Shūji Funamoto, a veteran activist of many leftist causes and associated with members of one of the cells from the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front, also committed suicide by self-immolation in front of Kadena Air Base in Okinawa in 1975.

yukio mishima suicide seppuku

Suicides like those of Yukio Mishima seem to play into our notions of “Japanese” attitudes towards death.

It can sometimes seem that libraries have been written about Japan’s apparent penchant for suicide. Kamikaze pilots flying off to self-doom. Cherry blossom petals floating in the wind. Ethereal spring blooms. And so on. At the risk of adding to these myths — and suicide as a political protests is obviously very much not an exclusively “Japanese” concept — there are even more examples if we do not confine ourselves to self-immolation.

A twenty-one-year-old Chūkaku-ha activist called Kōhei Oku killed himself in 1965. He had been hurt in a clash with riot police over protests over the Japanese Foreign Minister’s visit to South Korea in 1965. At the time, there was a large protest movement against the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea, which normalized relations between the neighbours. Shortly after leaving hospital, Oku committed suicide.

These kinds of martyrs were very potent symbols in the pantheon of Japan’s protest movements in the 1960′s and 1970′s, joining the ranks of other young victims and models of sacrifice such as Michiko Kamba, the University of Tokyo student who died in the 1960 Anpo protests, and Hiroaki Yamazaki, the Chūkaku-ha protestor killed during violent skirmishes with riot police at Haneda Airport in 1967.

In 1968, following the violent land expropriations by the state to seize land from local farmers in the Sanrizuka area for the future Narita International Airport, a young protestor called Fumio Sannomiya hanged himself. Many others would die or suffer serious injuries during the next few years of the Sanrizuka campaign.

However, most people would likely initially assume that suicide as protest would be more the preserve of the Right in Japan. And so it often is. Ultranationalist Shūsuke Nomura shot himself in a meeting at the offices of the Asahi Shimbun in 1993 to protest the left-leaning newspaper’s mocking of him.

Otoya Yamaguchi, the teenaged assassin of the Japan Socialist Party’s Inejirõ Asanuma, hanged himself in prison in 1960 after he murdered the elderly liberal politician in public. (This kind of act swings both sides of the political spectrum. Tsuneo Mori, one-time leader of the United Red Army, hanged himself in prison around a year after he was arrested in early 1972.) Veteran right-wing figure Yoshio Kodama was bizarrely targetted by a nationalist minor actor called Mitsuyasu Maeno in the late 1970′s due to Kodama’s part in the Lockheed scandal, which saw even the Prime Minister at the time embroiled in bribery. Maeno flew a plane into Kodama’s residence in Setagaya, west Tokyo, in a suicide protest stunt-cum-assassination bid. He hit the house but Kodama miraculously emerged alive.

But the ultimate “Japanese” form of suicide is, of course, ritual disembowelment, or seppuku, and this was Yukio Mishima’s choice of death, as part of an elaborate coup attempt (or at least, coup-like stunt), at a Self-Defense Forces base in Ichigaya in central Tokyo in November 1970.

inejiro asanuma assassination public otoya yamaguchi

Otoya Yamaguchi assassinating Inejirõ Asanuma in 1960. Yamaguchi killed himself in prison soon afterwards.

Political radicalism can often escalate sectarian thinking and extreme attitudes that those of us in the more cynical post-Cold War age find hard to stomach. And when forced into a corner by the state and police, radical groups and activists often respond with increased aggression. The results tend to mean a lessening in regard for the value of individual life, not only in terms of suicide-protests but also in other general acts undertaken as part of an acceptable campaign.

Many cite the attack on Lod Airport (now Ben Gurion Airport) in May 1972 by three Japanese PFLP volunteers as “kamikaze” mission. This interpretation is actually disputed but it is clear that the three knew they were very unlikely to survive, even if death was not the fixed final goal. Who shot whom is also highly contested but the basic facts remain the same: after the guns stopped firing, there were 28 dead in the terminal, including two of the Japanese. To the Palestinians, they were martyrs. To Israelis and many others around the world, they were nihilists. When the stakes are high enough, humanity (their own and others’) inevitably finds itself laid to one side by protestors.


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Sukiya’s part-time fast food workers make a beef about labour conditions

Workers at the Japanese fast food restaurant chain Sukiya went on an unofficial strike in May in protest over poor working conditions. Sukiya has been on a push to cut costs by operating branches run only by a single worker, even if just a part-timer. The chain is one of the three main beef rice bowl restaurants, which is a highly competitive fast food sector in Japan with each of the main chains vying to outdo the others’ latest rock bottom prices. However, Yoshinoya and Matsuya, the leaders in the sector, always have at least two people working at a restaurant, one of whom is usually a full-timer.

sukiya workers strike protest campaign

The problems began in February when Sukiya introduced a new nabe (hot pot) dish to its menu which took longer to prepare that the usual fare. Overworked part-time staff began to quit in droves because the pressure to cook and serve the meals, as well as handle all the cleaning up was too much. This led to temporary closures of over 100 branches between February and April and the labour issues came to the fore. It then garnered the attention of activists.

As is common practice today in Japan, social media was a major factor in the campaign, especially on Twitter. This trend has been apparent since the post-3.11 anti-nuclear power movement began. Sukiya staff also went to 2channel, the famous Japanese online forum, to air their grievances about their workloads. Pictures like this, showing how overworked the staff were, became a talking point for netizens.

sukiya overworked staff labour shortage strike

Unwashed dishes piled up at Sukiya, apparently due to the staff being too overworked.

Workers at some branches went on strike on what they called “Meat Day” on May 29th (it’s a pun, since “29″ in Japan can be read to sound like the word for meat). A union in Chiba led the strike and, though Sukiya’s official part-time workers’ union condemned the action and said other workers around the country did not follow suit, the unionists claimed there was solidarity nationwide. The “Meat Day” concept took off online. Workers at branches adopted a tactic of sabotage, deliberately taking the day off, arriving late for a shift, calling in sick and so on. The result, as social media showed, was that several Sukiya outlets closed due to staffing shortages, usually indicated by hastily-written notices stuck onto the doors of branches. Photos of these then spread over Twitter.

sukiya branch close worker shortage strike may 29 2014

Notices put at a Sukiya branch saying the restaurant would be closed due to staff shortages on the day of an unofficial strike. Images like this spread over social media.

The strike followed growing attention on the growing conditions at Sukiya, as well as protests on May 15th where activists in Japan joined global peers protesting low wages at fast food restaurants. A demo was held in central Shibuya outside a branch of MacDonalds, the kind of place frequented by hordes by burger-munching teenagers every day of the week without a thought for the wages of the part-timers doing the deep-frying and serving.

Sukiya is run by Zenshon, a company that was already known to activists as a “black corporation”. These are the businesses that have made a name for themselves for putting profit over the wellbeing of their employees, to such an extent that it has even led to deaths through overwork, coining a new word, karōshi, in the process. “Black company” has now become another buzzword to label these corporations that force workers to do lots of overtime. They can be service industry or white collar, and they even have their own “awards” now, dispensed to the worst offenders. The izakaya restaurant chain Watami is probably the most infamous black company in Japan today.

Both Old Left (e.g., the Japanese Communist Party) and New Left (e.g., the Revolutionary Marxist League) have also raised awareness recently of how Toyota, the largest automotive corporation in the world and immensely profitable, pays no corporate tax in Japan. Whereas tax evasion and avoidance schemes by major companies have drawn much ire from citizens and campaigns in, say, the UK of late, leading to flash mob-style demos against the main culprits like Vodafone, ordinary Japanese have yet to act in any meaningful way. An obstacle to the kind of protests and stunts against non-tax-paying corporations in Japan is that demos have to be registered in advance. There is an ambiguous loop-hole where you should be safe if just standing with a sign outside a building or orating on the streets, but if many people gather to protest, you could be arrested for breaching bylaws on public demonstrations.

The Sukiya campaign has been championed by Karin Amamiya, a popular writer and activist who boasts a pretty unique trajectory. Originally a right-wing singer in a cosplay punk nationalist band, she was the subject of the documentary Atarashii kamisama (The New God), which followed her disillusion with the Right, emotional troubles, and growing affection for the director, whom she later married. Tenkō (literally, changing direction) is a leitmotif that haunts Japanese radicalism, though it is rare to see such an example of a major switch from ultra-Right to the mainstream liberal left-wing.

karin amamiya japanese activist precariat writer

The writer and activist Karin Amamiya

Today Amamiya is a key campaigner on issues of disparity and the precariat class, and writes a regular column for The Big Issue. She still maintains the same zest for cosplay and joie de vivre as before, usually dressed up in a maid costume at demos, though we should not discount her for her quirks. She serves as an apt example of the Heisei-era protest movements that are non-accusatory and playful. Called “freeter activism” (freeter is a type of precariat worker in Japan) by Carl Cassegard, their protests are characterized by music, costumes and a far more upbeat nature to the New Left movements that were at their height in the 1960′s and 1970′s.

It is also interesting to see how mutual issues mean that today the two movements are converging. I recently attended a demo in Fukushima which featured a healthy turnout of veteran leftist radicals parading very effectively with a float-wielding motley crew of nonsectarian activists of the new generation.

Some called it a workers’ revolt or even the nabe rebellion (after the new dish that caused the strife), but whatever label it will ultimately get, the Sukiya controversy and campaign have had positive results. Sukiya has increased hourly wages for staff in certain areas. While not up to the levels demanded by the Chiba union, it is a step in the right direction as far as the overall campaign is concerned, and a sign that unionized action could do even more.

Unions in Japan have been atomized since the collapse of the General Council of Trade Unions of Japan (Sōhyō) in the late 1980′s and due to the Japanese government’s pursuit of neoliberal policies of privatization, outsourcing and union-busting which saw the national railway and other major elements of labour power depleted. Perhaps there is no greater symbol of how things have changed and how the LDP has succeeded in both weakening and hijacking the traditional bastion of the Left by the bizarre invitation extended by Sōhyō’s successor, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengō), to PM Shinzō Abe to attend its May Day rally in late April.

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Carnivals, Creatures and Calendars: Historical Rabbles and Art in Japan

While helping a colleague research and write an article about egoyomi (Japanese picture calendars) earlier this year, we came across an example that I thought looked familiar. On closer observation I could see it was a depiction of the ee janai ka disturbances that gripped parts of Japan in the 1860′s.

As we wrote in the eventual article:

At the time in Japan people used a calendar where each month had either 29 or 30 days. The months with 29 days were called “small months” (Sho no tsuki); those with 30 days were “large months” (Dai no tsuki). Once every two or three years there was a thirteenth month called Uru-zuki.

The calendar was quite complicated compared to our streamlined version today, since every year the arrangement of “large” and “small” months would vary. Looking at the picture calendars was a pretty easy way to learn about the old way of keeping track of the twelve (or thirteen) months of the year.

During the Edo era there was quite a vogue for these visual calendars. Appearing at the time when ukiyo-e were also in their heyday, it comes as no surprise to see that the imagery is also as vibrant and pretty as woodblock prints.

Ee janai ka translates roughly as “How about it?” and refers to the carnivalesque fervour that started off as dancing during religious feasts, with crowds gathering to throw amulet plaques in the air. The thanksgiving celebrations then developed into quasi-flash mobs, with the frenzy spreading along the Tōkaidō coast and onto Shikoku. The name comes from a refrain in the song the participants would sing as they danced and made merry.

At the time, the Tokugawa feudal government was on the way out and, as is commonly the case in Japanese feudal history, at times of political instability, the masses would riot. These insurgencies were often classed as ikki or uchikowashi, but more profound incidents used the term yonoashi, world rectification. The 1860′s was a decade rampant with such riots.

ee janai ka edo japan dance sing riot

Here is the ee janai ka image as an egoyomi calendar. The men are the “large” months and the women are the “small” ones. A child represents the thirteenth “leap” month. The clothes the people wear are also all themed around the months.

ee janai ka egoyomi picture art calendar

Also spot how the people are throwing the amulets in the air and on the right you can see a mask for Okame, a “fool” character similar to the famous Japanese clown Hyottoko. (The Japanese court had no jesters that we know of but there are plenty of examples of clowns and fools in popular culture.)

The ee janai ka events were less political than Saturnalian in nature. The people would dress up as the opposite sex, drink, stop working and let themselves go. The authorities knew full well to tolerate festivals and rabbles at certain times of the year, even when they were essentially glorified orgies. (In the same way, medieval Europe also had set occasions for licensed foolery, such as Shrove Tuesday, All Fool’s Day, the Feast of the Fools, and so on; they were safety-valves for releasing social tensions.) While some of the ee janai ka mobs dispersed by themselves, the authorities clamped down on others and issued ordinances against them. The anarchy was short-lived, though the suppression still did not save the Tokugawa regime from its ultimate demise.

If all the dancing and singing worried the authorities, though, things could have been worse.

The Hyakki Yagyō (or Hyakki Yakō) is a march of pandemonium where yōkai monsters invade the streets. The belief was that a demo parade of beasts took over the public realm one night of the year and anyone who encountered the procession would die. The scene is a frequent motif of Japanese picture scolls and picture scrolls. The film 100 Monsters came out, significantly, in 1968, at a time when many young “monsters” were occupying the streets of Kanda and the university campuses around Japan.

hyakki yako yokai monster parade march japan

hyakki yako yokai monster parade march japan

Monsters also featured in the Kanda Matsuri. The festival still happens in east Tokyo today but originally it was a giant cosplay event, with the common townspeople allowed to parade through Edo Castle (normally off-limits) dressed up as warriors and dignitaries, and pulling floats representing mythical creatures. It has also been vividly preserved as a 50-metre scroll painting.

kanda matsuri edo scroll art painting picture parade festival

kanda matsuri edo scroll art painting picture parade festival

The scroll also includes an image of Namazu (Ōnamazu), a giant catfish who lives under the earth and who is said to cause earthquakes. A common image in Japanese prints (the genre is known as namazu-e), Namazu is more than just a fable to explain a natural phenomenon. Namazu is a trouble-maker, a saviour and an agent for yonaoshi. Namazu is partly a millennial figure, turning the world upside down in order to cure society of its ills. Earthquakes led to rebuilding, new jobs and potentially better social structures.

Soon after the 1855 Ansei Earthquake hundreds of cheap namazu-e prints appeared in Edo. Coming just after the visits of Commodore Perry to Japan, the earthquake ostensibly caused by Namazu was symptomatic of the dramatic social changes taking place. The popularity of the namazu-e showed how the masses were engaging in a discussion on the political situation that they were ordinarily excluded from, and that they were aware that big changes were afoot.

namazu-e catfish painting japan picture earthquake ansei social disorder

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The Yodogō Group’s “Revolution Village” Today: Where the surviving Sekigun-ha Yodogō hijackers are living in North Korea

Images taken by photographer Reinin Shiino showing the so-called Yodogō Group’s “Japanese Village” in North Korea have been published by the Mainichi Shimbun. Taken in late April, the photos document the current state of the complex where Japan’s first hijackers have apparently resided since they took over the Yodogō JAL flight on March 31st, 1970.

sekigun-ha red army yodogo hijacker north korea village living facilities

Photo: Reinin Shiino

The incident took the nation by total surprise. At the time there wasn’t even a law against hijacking. The police, having arrested the bulk of the Sekigun-ha (Red Army Faction) membership over the previous months, including the leader Takaya Shiomi, probably believed the radical group’s power was on the wane.

The hijackers’ original plan was actually to fly the JAL plane on to Cuba. However, once they arrived in North Korea in April the regime would not let them go. They were converted to the state’s unique branch of communist ideology, chuch’e, and given a place to reside together.

These new images offer a rare glimpse into how the Yodogō Group are living today. What do they reveal? There is said to be a telephone capable of making international calls. While there is no Internet connection, a computer is available that can send and receive emails. There are also satellite receivers in the grounds, which would surely not be permitted for ordinary North Koreans.

sekigun-ha red army yodogo hijacker north korea village living facilities

Photo: Reinin Shiino

sekigun-ha red army yodogo hijacker north korea village living facilities

Photo: Reinin Shiino

sekigun-ha red army yodogo hijacker north korea village living facilities

Photo: Reinin Shiino

sekigun-ha red army yodogo hijacker north korea village living facilities

Photo: Reinin Shiino

sekigun-ha red army yodogo hijacker north korea village living facilities

Photo: Reinin Shiino

sekigun-ha red army yodogo hijacker north korea village living facilities

Photo: Reinin Shiino

sekigun-ha red army yodogo hijacker north korea village living facilities

Photo: Reinin Shiino

sekigun-ha red army yodogo hijacker north korea village living facilities

Photo: Reinin Shiino

It is far from the first time that journalists and others have been to see the aging hijackers in North Korea. Over the years many have visited and interviewed the former revolutionaries at their complex, which was originally quite a luxury facility even by Japanese standards, fitted with staff and expensive cars. However, this was as much to keep the Japanese revolutionaries under lock and key as provide them with earthly comforts. At least one of the hijackers and his wife is suspected of dying in an escape attempt.

But the hijackers were also not resting on their laurels as was believed. Yasuhiro Shibata was found to be back in Japan in 1988, as was his (estranged) wife, who claimed that she and the Yodogō Group had been involved in kidnapping Japanese citizens in Europe. Yoshimi Tanaka was also arrested in Southeast Asia.

sekigun-ha red army yodogo hijacker north korea village living facilities

Photo: Reinin Shiino

sekigun-ha red army yodogo hijacker north korea village living facilities

Moriaki Wakabayashi using a computer. Photo: Reinin Shiino

sekigun-ha red army yodogo hijacker north korea village living facilities

Photo: Reinin Shiino

At its peak there were said to be 36 people living at the site, formerly known as “Revolution Village”. Today, the police believe there are a mere six remaining (probably Shirō Akagi, Moriaki Wakabayashi, Kimihiro Uomoto, Sakiko Wakabayashi and Junko Mori).

sekigun-ha red army yodogo hijacker north korea village living facilities

Photo: Reinin Shiino

sekigun-ha red army yodogo hijacker north korea village living facilities

Photo: Reinin Shiino

Many years ago the former hijackers announced that they wished to return to Japan. If they did so, they would face immediate arrest for the hijacking and possibly also their suspected part in the kidnapping of Japanese citizens. Through the negotiations and assistance of supporters in Japan, spouses and children returned to Japan in 2002, though for now the surviving Yodogõ Group remain in permanent limbo, albeit with email access and their own satellites.

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The Bandits Who Stole For the Revolution

We begin with two scenes and two sets of very different agents of the Left.

Three men armed with revolvers entered the Ōmori branch of Kawasaki Daihyaku bank on October 6th, 1932. The men were, of course, bank robbers and they got away with 32,000 yen, a considerable amount at the time. The heist was well-planned by a senior Japanese Communist Party member, Yūshō Ōtsuka, among others, though it was executed without the approval of the Central Committee. The men wore khaki coats and used JCP theorist Hajime Kawakami’s younger daughter Yoshiko as a cover, having her drive with them in the getaway car in case they were followed by police. The robbery created a media sensation.

The JCP was at the time in dire financial straits, having lost its revenue from Shanghai the previous year and was existing precariously on the donations of fellow travellers and members. For a time it had even operated a dance hall in Tokyo to raise money.

The Ōmori bank job was the first of a series of heists. Though the raids achieved their immediate objectives, they also contributed to the final decimation of the pre-war JCP. With the state at the time already cracking down on the JCP, the robberies were perfect propaganda and justification for arresting hundreds of members and hunting for its clandestine leadership. Though the Akahata (Red Flag, the JCP’s newspaper) professed innocence, the police could label the Communists as gangsters. And with the help of spies in the JCP ranks, they had arrested almost all the leadership within two months, often brutally so at times — several arrestees were tortured and murdered, including the novelist Takiji Kobayashi.

Now fast-forward to the 1970′s. The Japanese New Left has emerged and is at the height of its influence — and notoriety. In late 1969 yet another faction appeared that was to be the ultimate game-changer. The Sekigun-ha, or Red Army Faction, was led by a former philosophy student from Kyoto University and was openly advocating militant action to overthrow the state. Though many of its early behavior bordered on the amateurish, beneath all the inevitable rhetorical pomp the leaders of the small army were very serious about their cause. And their choice of tactics went way beyond the campus occupations and street battles of their peers. The Sekigun-ha launched a bombing campaign in Tokyo and Osaka against police facilities. The authorities began to clamp down, arresting a large number of the membership when they were training in Yamanashi for an attack on Tokyo. The commander-in-chief was nabbed by chance on the streets in early 1970 but then days later other key members of the clique pulled off the incredible Yodogō hijacking.

sekigun-ha red army sect japan

The Sekigun-ha still had relatively large numbers of troops it could mobilize for future campaigns. But it needed money. It had been funding much of its operations through contributions from academic patrons but it needed more as its ambitions continued to soar. Between February and July 1971 the Sekigun carried out over half a dozen robberies of banks and post offices. If nothing else, you have to give them credit for being brilliantly effective thieves.

One of the most famous is the July robbery of a bank in Yonago City in Tottori Prefecture, carried out by four armed members of the Sekigun-ha. One remained in their stolen getaway car with the engine running while the other three went inside clasping knives and a hunting rifle. “Quiet! Move and we shoot!” they shouted. They took ¥6 million in cash from the safe and then made good their escape. Unfortunately for the bandits the police were quickly alerted and the whole prefecture was locked down. One was picked up by a cop checking a train carriage, while a taxi firm’s tip led police to another of the criminals, armed at the time with a rifle, knife and homemade bomb. The final pair were caught the next day by Okayama Prefecture police at around three in the morning. The bank-robbing career of the Sekigun-ha was over.

The Left has an uneasy relationship with banditry and its practical role in revolutionary causes. While many have seen bandits as exemplar of dissent and rebellion — Bakunin and the Russian razboinik banditry, to name one — the line between criminal outlaw and political outlaw can be all too thin at times. Eric Hobsbawn is usually credited with starting the serious study of what he called social bandits, and what the JCP and Sekigun-ha did falls into his classification of “expropriation”: “the long-established and tactful name for robberies designed to supply revolutionaries with funds”.

Hobsbawn finds a convenient genesis for the phenomenon in the anarchist-terrorist milieu of Tsarist Russian in the 1860′s and 1870′s. However, the Bolsheviks were also “expropriators”, carrying out the infamous Tiflis (Tblilisi) hold-up in 1907 that gained the party 200,000 rubles in swag but also left forty people dead. In Bandits (1969) Hobsbawn goes on to give a portrait of the remarkable Spanish expropriator Francisco Sabate Llopart (1913-1960), a man who apparently only came into his own when he was in action with a gun. He had a long career of hold-ups, guerrilla raids, and daring escapes, but whose life eventually had an appropriately bellicose denouement.

The Symbionese Liberation Army (1973-74) were another example of leftist banditry. They sought the redistribution of wealth, though they differed from New Left groups in that they were not affiliated with a larger theory or movement, and also deviated from traditional bandits in that they had no links of community or kin. They were unattached individuals who came together in the East Bay. In this sense, they were pure counterculture, alienation extrapolated into action against the rich and powerful, in particular William Randolph Hearst.

Symbionese Liberation Army patty hearst

Just as bandits feed on the mythology they inspire, so too do activists and dissidents strive for the propaganda benefits that their illegal actions foment. A difference lies in how while it was oral culture and ballads that established the legacy of outlaws, the radicals who borrowed the tactics of bandits were defined — for better or worse — by the mass media. This can make their repute and celebrity briefer than the likes of Jesse James et al.

It takes skill to politicize bank robbery. The Sekigun-ha had a brilliant name for their heist campaign, in the process bundling it up with their other esoteric Blanquist theories of revolution. They called the robberies the M-sakusen, the “M tactics” — the “M” stands for “mafia”, which is certainly apt.

Banditry plays with fire. When the revolutionaries have alienated the public, their careers will not go far. Spin-offs from the Weather Underground like the United Freedom Front and May 19th Communist Organization committed multiple robberies in the late 1970′s and early 1980′s. However it was a botched heist in October 1981 in New York that lingers most in the popular imagination. The so-called Brink’s robbery, executed by former Weathermen activists and members of the Black Liberation Army, saw a security guard murdered, along with two police officers who had the misfortune to stop the getaway truck containing the $1.6 million in loot. The arrests of many of the participants led to the obliteration of a network of safe houses and contacts, and the armed struggle of the American New Left was brought to an end by the mid-1980′s.

The Rote Armee Fraktion, though, in its first full manifesto, Das Konzept Stadtguerilla (The Concept of the Urban Guerrilla), penned by Ulrike Meinhof, claimed “we shoot only when someone shoots at us; the pig who lets us go, we let him go as well”. While the tract has been criticized for how it steers around the use of violence to liberate the RAF members a year prior, the group did seem to practise what it preached during the bank robberies it carried out in autumn 1970, when it stole 220,000 marks without firing a shot at anyone. The casualties that did arise were from shoot-outs with police.

Groups like J2M also went to special efforts to win over the common man, even giving chocolates to frightened bank customers during their robberies to reassure them. If the Sekigun-ha had tried this, how differently things may have turned out.


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The Art of Revolution: Hi-Red Center in 1960′s Japan

“The man who throws a bomb is an artist,” says Lucian Gregory, one of the poets who reside in the suburb of Saffron Park in The Man Who Was Thursday by GK Chesterton. “I would destroy the world if I could.” In The Intellectuals and the Masses — a book guaranteed to traumatize any devotee of Modernist literature — the scholar John Carey highlights Chesterton’s novel as an example of early twentieth century English writers’ attitudes towards suburban living. Carey suggests that Chesterton’s sympathies lie with the other poet of the story, Gabriel Syme, and his innate respect for law, order and responsibility, and who believes the underground railway to be “the most poetic thing in the world”. Order vs. disorder: which is the more aesthetically beautiful? Which is the more important for art? The consensus today, from the Futurists to the Chapman brothers, would seem to be that art should tear down taboos, that it has an obligation to challenge or even shock.

But is our faith in art’s power merely an illusion and a dangerous one at that, concealing the real function of art in society? Herbert Marcus, doyen of the New Left in the West, offered a cautionary analysis of art’s role with his 1937 essay, “The Affirmative Character of Culture”. In it Marcus is decidedly pessimistic about culture’s capacity to revolutionize society. While it was not impossible for art to incite audiences to revolution, by its nature culture affirmed the existing social order. Far from being an instrument of dissent, it helped people to endure the status quo.

In the later “Art and Revolution” (1972), Marcuse describes the double bind of provocative and experimental art then in vogue that at once transforms audiences and also unites them as a mass attending a spectacle of hysteria. “It is, moreover, another case of catharsis: group therapy which, temporarily, removes inhibitions. Liberation remains a private affair.”

What can artists do? They have to engage directly. “Art can do nothing to prevent the ascent of barbarism,” says Marcuse. “It cannot by itself keep open its own domain in and against society. For its own preservation and development, art depends on the struggle for the abolition of the social system which generates barbarism as its own potential stage: potential form of its progress. The fate of art remains linked to that of the revolution. In this sense, it is indeed an internal exigency of art which drives the artist to the streets — to fight for the Commune, for the Bolshevist revolution, for the German revolution of 1918, for the Chinese and Cuban revolutions, for all revolutions which have the historical chance of liberation. But in doing so he leaves the universe of art and enters the larger universe of which art remains an antagonistic part: that of radical practice.”

There has been a recent surge in interest in Japan’s post-war art trends, some of it very belated indeed. Following on from domestic and international exhibitions devoted to Gutai and Mono-ha, as well as the big group shows such as “The 70s in Japan” (covering 1968-1982) at the Museum of Modern Art, Saitama, and of course the huge MoMA show, “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde”, “Hi-Red Center: The Documents of ‘Direct Action’” now comes to the Shōtō Museum of Art in Shibuya, a most appropriately Showa-feeling building. This exhibition was previously at the Nagoya City Art Museum in late 2013 and commemorates the formation of the eponymous experimental art unit fifty years ago.

hi red center direct action shoto museum exhibition

Hi-Red Center’s name derives from the English translations of the first characters of the three founding members’ surnames (Jirō TAKAmatsu, Genpei AKAsegawa, Natsuyuki NAKAnishi). Along with Zero Jigen, the unit was arguably the most impressive avant-garde Japanese group of its kind in the early 1960′s. Since Hi-Red Center’s output was dominated by stunts and happenings, many of the exhibits are reduced to being photographic records, though it is still quite something to seeing them all together to assess how fresh and bizarre they would have seemed at the time.

For example, in 1963 a pedestrian in Tokyo might have been shocked to see Natsuyuki Nakanishi, walking around central Tokyo with clothes pegs attached to his face, like a kind of mad domesticated version of Kōbō Abe’s The Box Man. More directly critical and caustic, though, was the group’s attempt to “clean” the streets of Ginza. Wearing lab coats and carrying brooms, the Hi-Red Center team set about “beautifying” the pavements of the fashionable district in protest at the government’s drive to clean up Tokyo ahead of the Olympic Games. This was the post-Anpo era, a time of healthy cynicism towards the government after it had failed to heed the protests against the renewal of the Japan-US security treaty. At its peak the protests saw half a million people on the streets and a young female demonstrator was killed in June 1960. It set the scene for both the anger of the New Left and student movements to come later in the 1960′s and also the anti-Establishment flavour of the arts throughout the counterculture period.

1963 also marked the final year of Yomiuri Indépendant, the annual exhibition which had become the unofficial pastureland for experimental artists to indulge in the whimsies of their work. Nakanashi showed an installation of his clothes pegs promenade. Jirō Takamatsu caused more of a stir when his work was literally unwound, stretching out of the Ueno venue and through the park and ending at the station. While so much of art in Japan is buttoned up in white cubes, Hi-Red Center were taking their experiments out on the Yamanote Line, throwing objects off the roof of an Ikebukuro department store, or “closing” a gallery for one exhibition. These were forms of “direct action” (chokusetsu kōdō). The Yamanote Line event had been a ritualized, shamanistic experiment in occupying the public commuting space, agitating the fellow passengers to be witnesses to the catharsis they were creating with strange objects and white face paint.

hi red center cleaning streets ginza

Shelter Plan, on the other hand, was conducted in more snug and deluxe environs. The artists took over a room in the Teikoku Hotel in Tokyo and invited a veritable Who’s-Who of folk from the bohemian and artist scene at the time. Guests were then measured for a tailor-built evacuation shelter that they had the option to purchase in a range of sizes. Absurd, yes. But then how else should one respond to the threat of nuclear apocalypse? As curator Doryun Chong has said: “Hi-Red Center’s work could be read as a brilliant, absurdist parody of the control exerted by the state on the citizenry in an increasingly controlled society.”

Nakanishi and Takamatsu already knew each from the Tokyo University of the Arts; Genpei Akasegawa came separately to the group. Akasegawa had previously worked alongside other leading experimental artists from the era in the Neo Dadaists. His legacy has proven stronger than Nakanishi and Takamatsu’s, though, partly thanks to his manga and illustration work, as well as later prolific non-fiction writing about art, but surely most of all due to the thousand-yen bill counterfeiting scandal. It arose after Akasegawa hired a printer to reproduce 1,000 yen bills. These obviously fake items were used as invitations for a show but the artist was still questioned by police, and eventually indicted in 1965 under a 1895 law against “imitation”. The subsequent court case dragged on until 1970 where it was as if art itself was on trial. Was it acceptable to create reproductions that challenged state authority and violate the law in the name of expression? Ever the iconoclast, Akasegawa used the case as material for more artworks with 1,000-yen note motifs. The discourse and prosecution were turned into further forms of expression. Ultimately what Akasegawa was engaging in here was more “direct action”.

In April 1970, the Supreme Court upheld Akasegawa’s guilty verdict and sentence, ensuring his notoriety and the Establishment’s bewilderment in the face of a changing artistic landscape. Some of Akasegawa’s later work was also recently included in “Roppongi Crossing 2013: Out of Doubt” show at the Mori Art Museum. This jarred not only for its temporal incongruity but also its spiritual disparity. In contrast to the contemporary work showcased in the exhibition, Akasegawa’s manga art included direct and mordant references to the political scene from the time, from Sanrizuka to the uchi-geba of the various New Left factions that veered from name-calling to horrific violence.

hi red center throw luggage ikebukuro department store

One of his pictures at the Mori show, an epic chart of the militants in the landscape of the early 1970′s called The Map of Democratic Empire of Great Japan in Year of 2632 of the Imperial Era, recalls George Cruikshank’s The Worship of Bacchus. Next to it was a startling image of an airplane, piloted by a riot police officer and with two passengers, one of whom is a horse. The main slogans in a speech balloon read “Worship at Sanrizuka!” and “Hijacked from Sanrizuka!” It was the cover for Sakuragahō, Akasegawa’s manga in the early 1970′s and here highlighting a major counterculture festival taking place at Sanrizuka during the height of the airport protests.

The curators were pointing to a “genealogy of nonsense” that went from the post-war through to the contemporary scene, though what stuck out the most was simply the difference in candor in the largely lackadaisical offerings of the younger artists. While the curators’ mission was worthy and valid enough, the unintended effect was also to show how far Japan has changed as a society. Now the artists would appear to be at best reflective and analytical, at worst childish and facile. Yoshinori Niwa’s contribution featured him interviewing members of the Japanese Communist Party and expressing his confusion about the party’s current stance of democratic parliamentarianism. It might well be a deliberate performance of ingénue on Niwa’s part, or else presumably he does not (or did not) understand the difference between Marx’s theories and revolutionary politics, let alone the basic post-war history of the JCP. Perhaps he is being quietly satirical and suggestive? If the most interesting exploration he can offer, though, is to film himself asking questions to JCP officials, presenting them with a picture of Marx, and walking around London in search of the man’s tomb, then things are not moving forward enough. An artist should be offering much more than this.

The members of Hi-Red Center were humorous and nonsensical, yes. But they were also committed, serious and formally inventive. To return to Marcuse and “Art and Revolution”: “…the radical effort to sustain and intensify the ‘power of the negative,’ the subversive potential of art, must sustain and intensify the alienating power of art: the aesthetic form, in which alone the radical force of art becomes communicable.” Without form, you have only onanism. A more successful example from “Roppongi Crossing 2013″ in terms of historical continuity and stylistic experimentation was Takashi Arai’s series of daguerreotypes. Henri Becquerel, whose name is lent to the Bq unit of measuring we have all become so familiar with since Fukushima, was able to observe spontaneous radioactivity through experiments with phosphorescent substances and Lumière photographic plates. Arai’s daguerreotypes highlight this unsettling relationship between history, radiation and photography through images of nuclear sites like Fukushima and Hiroshima. While it is frustrating to see yet more simplistic correlation between nuclears of war (Hiroshima) and energy (Fukushima), visually Arai’s images were effective. In particular, his series of daguerreotypes for Multiple Monument for Daigo Fukuryū Maru Lucky Dragon 5 (2013) stood out like memento mori in the darkened exhibition room. The title is a reference to the Daigo Fukuryū Maru, a Japanese tuna vessel caught in the fallout from a US nuclear bomb test in 1954.

“Hi-Red Center: The Documents of ‘Direct Action’” is a fairly modest show and is presented almost entirely without explanation or background, a curatorial choice likely to leave uninitiated visitors mystified. However, given the recent flurry of academic books, readers looking for more in English can sate their appetites with Money, Trains, and Guillotines: Art and Revolution in 1960s Japan by William Marotti (2013), Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde by Doryun Chong (2012), Experimental Arts in Postwar Japan: Moments of Encounter, Engagement, and Imagined Return by Miryam Sas (2011), or Radicals and Realists in the Japanese Nonverbal Arts: The Avant-Garde Rejection of Modernism by Thomas R H Havens (2006).

And having reviewed the work of past artists, the question now remains whether those of the present or the future will set about cleaning the streets when the 2020 Olympics come around. Participants in the “Roppongi Crossing” just closed and the next to come, please take note.

Hi-Red Center: The Documents of “Direct Action”
At the Shōtō Museum of Art
February 11th to March 23rd, 2014


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Nichidai Tōsō: The Nihon University Student Movement on Film

George Katsiaficas talks of the “world-historical” to describe the global student movement in the late 1960′s, a movement that went far beyond just the campuses of America and western Europe. Japan’s contribution is grossly overlooked, meriting no real mention in such popular accounts of the period as Mark Kurlansky’s 1968: The Year that Rocked the World.

The Nihon University student movement (Nichidai tōsō) of 1968-69 was one of the two main campus struggles in Japan. The Zenkyōtō (All Campus Joint Struggle Committee) formed at the college was all the more remarkable for its size — Nichidai was the largest university in Japan and the movement involved tens of thousands of students — but also because the movement was for the most part free of the bifurcation and sectarianism that exemplify so much of Japanese New Left movements in the 1960′s and beyond.

The campus struggles in Japan began in the mid-1960′s primarily over pragmatic issues of student fees and facilities, especially at private universities. At the time Nihon University was a middle-ranking college undistinguished for any real political identity. In a recent book on the New Left in Japan, Takemasa Andō characterizes the Nihon University struggle as being about self-liberation, while the concurrent University of Tokyo movement was more concerned with self-reflection. While the elite students at the latter sought a higher anti-imperialist, existentialist plain to define 1968-69 (although that movement also began over very specific issues with the medical student internship system), the Nihon University movement was incredibly clearcut. It was about money; vast amounts of university funds had “disappeared” and the tax authorities were investigating.

The students were understandably infuriated and some protested. When this was met with an indignant counterattack from the college, with the staff physically attacking the students and summoning both right-wing students and the police to disperse the demonstrators, the whole student body was united against the arrogance of their superiors. Barricades went up in multiple faculties in June. The movement came to a head with the students confronting their college chairman in a packed auditorium for several hours and getting him to agree that the university had been wrong to call in the riot police to combat the students when they were legitimately protesting at the malpractices.

It was a victory of sorts, although later the university went back on its promises and the government took over. Riot police stormed the barricades and the leaders of the movement were arrested. Even so, it is remembered by participants as a success.

One of the most important accounts of the movement was created at the time by students of the university’s film faculty. The resulting two-part film is valuable not least because the university itself has tried to forget what happened and expunge it from official records.

Nichidai tōsō was filmed mostly without proper sound. Audio was then pieced onto the film later from various sound recordings that are more of less simultaneous. This means the quality is quite variable (occasionally very out of kilter or even non-existent), though this also lends it a rather appropriate sense of cinéma vérité.

This is Part One, which covers the movement from the spring to the summer of 1968. The portrait of the middle-aged man the students carry on the streets in a mock funeral procession in the first few minutes is Jūjirō Furuta, the president of the university. There is some great footage of the students confronting a member of staff who they hold culpable and almost bullying him to admit responsibility for the abuse of money. It concludes with the mass-bargaining with Furuta, where he ostensibly agreed to the Zenkyōtō’s terms.

And here is Part Two. It follows straight on with the next months of the movement when the students are struggling to keep off attacks on the barricades from right-wing students. There is also footage of the University of Tokyo Zenkyōtō movement and the Nihon University students participating in the final battle on January 18th, 1969.

One of the best thing about the films is that between the fighting and speeches there are scenes of the everyday life that went on behind the barricades. Sometimes this is very revealing. Amidst all the earnest debating you can witness “revolution” at work with the female students doing the cooking while their male peers watch and wait. Look out for the pet cat too.

Issues continued at Nihon University in later years. Violence from security guards towards students led to lawsuits and a male student self-immolated in 1978 in protest at oppression from the college. An uneasy situation now persists where the institution has yet to deal with its history of student resistance satisfactorily.

This makes Nichidai tōsō all the more valuable as a resource. However, the link between film and political movements is always complex, forever running the risk of unduly glamorizing, especially if its a fictionalized account.

Other documentaries at the time of Nichidai tōsō such as Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s The Pre-History of the Partisans (1969) (about the Kyoto University campus movement) were, both intentionally and not so, potent propaganda pieces.

Documentary filmmaker Shinsuke Ogawa was occupied with both student protests such as the struggles at Takasaki City University of Economics — the alma mater of Fumiaki Hoshino — and also the protests at Sanrizuka over the construction of Narita International Airport on farmers’ land in Chiba. This culminated in Narita — Heta Village (1973), made when the protests were at their height.

Before he became an international star, Nagisa Ōshima’s camera was also focussed on political movements, such as Night and Fog in Japan (1960), about the 1960 Anpo protests. And, of course, Kōji Wakamatsu and Masao Adachi made their fair share of leftist fiction films that were barely disguised polemics. They were also the leaders of a innovative genre of pinku eiga (softcore pornos) that mixed sex with politics. The results included Female Student Guerrillas (1969), Season of Terror (1969) and Ecstasy of the Angels (1972).

This then culminated in their full-blown propaganda work, Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War (1971), which served as a recruitment call for the Sekigun. Aware of his part in what ended so tragically in the United Red Army purge shortly afterwards, much later with the part-fiction, part-documentary United Red Army (2008) Wakamatsu simultaneously made one of the definitive cinematic treatments of the era and also inventively addressed the issue of how to portray radicalism on celluloid without either condemning or glamorizing.


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