August 30th, 1974: The Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Headquarters Bombing

Today is the fortieth anniversary of a shocking but remarkably little-known incident and the most fatal of its kind until the Aum sarin subway attack in 1995. On August 30th, 1974, the headquarters of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries were devastated by a pair of homemade bombs left at the entrance to the building by members of the “wolf” (Ōkami) cell of the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front (Higashi Ajia Hannichi Tõsõ Sensen).

The bombs ripped through the lobby of the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Headquarters. Eight people were killed and nearly 400 wounded in the blast that went off during lunchtime, with much of the carnage caused by glass from blown-out windows in the surrounding office buildings falling down on pedestrians. This massacre was not the intended effect. The bombing was an amateur’s affair, using far too much explosives hastily recycled from a failed bid to bomb the Emperor’s train earlier in the month. A cell member rang Mitsubishi to give them a warning but did not allow enough time. As was argued at their subsequent trials, the leaders had not wanted to murder innocent people indiscriminately. Collateral damage was to be expected but the attack was aimed squarely at the corporation itself, not the public.

mitsubishi heavy industries headquarters bombing east asia anti japan armed front wolf okami cell

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries was then located in Ōtemachi-Marunouchi. The area is largely owned by Mitsubishi, having been bought up by the original family just after the collapse of the feudal system, when it was an abandoned former barracks. It was a joke at the time that Mitsubishi had wasted its money on such a nugatory investment. However, over the decades the district around the attractive brick Tokyo Station has developed into the economic engine of Japan. The revenue from the dozens of listed corporations based in the district equates to over twenty per cent of Japan’s GDP. Until the 1950’s the government also housed many of its offices there, before re-locating to nearby Kasumigaseki. Today Mitsubishi Heavy Industries resides in Shinagawa and the attack on the heart of the Japanese economy in 1974 is largely relegated to historical trivial.

The “wolf” cell was soon joined by two others and the three teams engaged in a bombing campaign for several months on the facilities of other major Japanese corporations. However, these bombings were smaller and better organised. No one was killed and injuries were minimal. But the police were closing in. Officers eventually arrested most of the cell members on the same day in May 1975 and the leaders were sentenced to death, though the executions are as of writing yet to be carried out.

mitsubishi heavy industries headquarters bombing east asia anti japan armed front wolf okami cell

The East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front is usually classified as part of the Japanese New Left but its ideology and methodology was very different to other radical leftist groups, not least how its target was solely the Japanese state, which it viewed as inherently imperialist and militant, encroaching on weaker neighbours either through actual invasion or trade and commerce. Like the self-hating Jew, the members of the Armed Front believed that Japan was rotten to its core, that its personality is fundamentally belligerent and violent towards others. This is demonstrated by Japan’s past treatment of Ainu and other ethnic groups, as well as its empire building in Asia. During the 1970’s Mitsubishi was also responsible for making parts of armaments used in Vietnam, just as now its products are being used by Israel in Gaza. (Officially, exporting arms is not allowed.) The East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front wanted to destroy the apparatus of Japanese aggression, which would ultimately end with the destruction of Japan itself.

This almost nihilistic and anarchistic radicalism is quite at odds with the more constructive ideologies of Marxist groups, and the members themselves led double lives as lone urban guerrillas, working ordinary jobs during the day and building bombs at night. Although the front inspired some later copycat bombings and campaigns by independent radicals and two members were even freed extralegally by the actions of the Japanese Red Army, its ideas and exploits have consigned it to a very isolated place in the canon, abhorrent to the average citizen and rejected by other left-wing peers.

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Updates on the Free Fumiaki Hoshino Campaign

There have been some updates on the campaign to free Fumiaki Hoshino from his decades behind bars.

Hoshino was a Chūkaku-ha activist who is currently serving a full life sentence for his alleged part in the death of a riot police officer in a protest in Shibuya in November 1971. No concrete evidence links Hoshino to the death except for five others’ confession testimony, extracted, his supporters assert, by coercion, and all of which was subsequently denied by the supposed witnesses. Instead, his campaigners say, there is evidence that contradicts the testimony and they have been fighting to have new pieces of evidence entered as part of their application for a retrial.

A large rally was held on June 29th in Ueno. The organisers of his legal support, led by his wife Akiko, announced the launch of a campaign to collect 1 million signatures calling for Hoshino’s freedom. In the wake of the release of Iwao Hakamada and several other high-profile cases of false imprisonment, his supporters hope Hoshino likewise be freed before he turns 70. Hoshino has been behind bars for nearly 40 years on arguably politically-motivated charges, since he was a veteran New Left activist known to police and they were probably determined to finger him for something.

fumiaki hoshino

The petition calling for all the prosecution’s evidence to be disclosed and for a retrial has attracted over 53,000 signatures so far.

They have had past success with petition campaigns. The prosecution originally wanted a death sentence for Hoshino but a 120,000-strong petition was a success, of sorts, in that the first trial ended with Hoshino being given a sentence of 20 years. The prosecution appealed and Hoshino was re-sentenced to life behind bars.

The rally, attended by 670, also saw the debut of three songs his supporters have penned to raise supporters’ spirits and awareness about the issue in a positive way. New Left movements in Japan are often seen as denunciatory and dogmatic, and the three upbeat songs demonstrate how this needn’t always be the case.

After months of delay tactics from the police, 33 negatives of photographs from the scene of the incident in 1971 have been scanned by the Tokyo prosecutors’ office and the data disclosed. One of the negatives is for a photograph which shows that the white paper wrapped around Hoshino’s stave on the day is undamaged, thus making it highly improbable that he had just helped beat a police officer to death, as the testimony claims. This photograph was first disclosed in 2010 but was then rejected the Tokyo High Court in 2012, along with the campaign’s second application for a retrial. (They have lodged an objection to this, which is pending.)

The high-resolution scanning data of the negative then marks a distinct step towards having tangible evidence negating the police narrative of Hoshino as the leader of the gang that attacked the police officer on the outskirts of Shibuya. The High Court said that, while it is certainly not clear, there nonetheless “appears” to be some markings on the paper around the stave. A high-resolution scanning of the original negative might then be a game-changer for this detail of the case.

However, the prosecutors rejected the campaigners’ application to have 11 witnesses’ testimonies made public. These were ordinary people at the site on the day of the incident, as opposed to young activists the police subsequently arrested. The prosecutors claim that the people only witnessed the proceedings for a few seconds and so their testimony given to police cannot be disclosed as evidence.

The Hoshino campaign has also been involved with two civil suits.

One pertains to the censoring of nine letters between Hoshino and his wife, and restrictions placed on his visiting rights. For a brief time starting in 2006 Hoshino was able to meet visitors in prison in Tokushima other than his immediate family or lawyers. In all, 96 friends visited him in this way, though from May 2010 these visitors began to be turned away. His supporters sued the state over what they viewed as repressive tactics deliberately designed to punish. His wife was even once turned away from the prison when she went to visit Hoshino in 2010 on their twenty-fourth wedding anniversary. This was on the grounds that Hoshino’s allocated visits have been used up for that month by a lawyer’s visit, even though this theoretically would not have been counted the same way.

After a two-year case, the courts ruled in July in their favour in relation to his wife’s rebuffed visit in 2010, though the compensation rewarded is always nominal. It is a very mixed victory, since the ruling also rejected the demand for visiting rights for seven friends and supporters, and only recognised the illegality of the censorship for two of the nine letters.

A ruling is due in September for the other civil suit against the judiciary and the Tokyo bureau of the security police regarding the “loss” of a video recording of TV news footage of the Hoshino and his group of demonstrators in November 1971. The Tokyo security police announced that it had been lost despite the fact that Hoshino’s trial was still ongoing.

You can learn more about the Fumiaki Hoshino case in a previous article on this website or in this The Japan Times article I wrote in late 2013.

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Katsudōka Cosplay at Comiket 86

While browsing images of the cosplay at the biannual Comiket event in Tokyo last weekend, I came across something rather curious. Among the usual suspects of scantily-clad girls and iconic characters from the worlds of anime and manga, a solitary and rather formidable figure stood out.

The man had dressed up as a student activist, complete with a mask over the face and sunglasses to hide his identity from the snapping lenses of the security police, and of course, the prerequisite helmet and gebabō stave.

The helmet is blue. You can’t quite see from the photo but given the colour the helmet should be for the Shaseido Kakaihō-ha’s student group, Hantei Gakuhyō (Anti-Imperialist Student Council). (You can just make out the character for “gaku” on the helmet.)

comiket 86 2014 student activist japanese katsudoka cosplay

Obviously this gentleman is unlikely to be a real “student activist”. If you walked around like that on the streets of Tokyo the security police would soon be on to you. This is a playful recreation of a once routine sight.

He wears a sash with the slogan of his “campaign”: Sayama tōsō danko kantetsu (literally, “The Sayama Struggle, Decisive Achievement”). This is a reference to the Sayama campaign against the police discrimination against a member of the former Buraku caste in a murder case. It was a popular cause for certain New Left and Old Left groups in the 1970’s, including Kaihō-ha, Kakumaru-ha, and the Japanese Communist Party.

The Sayama campaign actually still continues to this day and Kaiho-ha remains a strong part of it. While it may be that this kind of cosplay is a perennial occurrence at Comiket, given the bad association many non-political youngsters have with such getup, I suspect not. And that is what makes this an intriguing image. Even if the cosplayer is just that, costume playing, he is inadvertently furthering the campaign in Odaiba and more importantly, his choice of garb points to a shift in the perception of the post-war katsudōka (activist).

The katsudōka, goes the common narrative, was heavily discredited in the fallout from such traumas as the United Red Army Purge in 1971-72 and the escalating internal New Left factional conflicts during the 1970’s and 1980’s. This is a rather simplistic reading of the milieu but it certainly has some truth. Katsudōka were portrayed by the police as extremists and even the word had bad implications. It denoted not so much activism as being part of a fanatic kagekiha, an extremist militant faction. Sometimes you could recently find a more neutral, contemporary-sounding word like akuteibisuto (activist) being used instead.

However, the situation seems to be changing. With the revival of the student movement in Japan, we are seeing the emergence of a new generation of katsudōka. The Hōsei University movement developing over the past eight years has struggled against the private college’s efforts to stamp out the student groups. Initially the slogans were anti-war or anti-state, though increasingly the student movement at Hōsei has become a powerful, quasi-cannibalistic force. It is a solipsist, existing to fight its own parent institution, Hōsei itself, which has has come to be a symbol of academia’s role in the Neoliberalism which has encroached on Japan since the 1980’s. And the students openly label themselves as katsudōka.

Alongside this there have been modest revivals of student movements in regions like Kansai and Okinawa. The latter, of course, will always been fervently anti-war and politicized due to the ongoing presence of the US military bases in the prefecture.

The post-Fukushima anti-nuclear movement was also very young and featured many countercultural participants, not least Shirōto no Ran (Amateurs’ Revolt) in Kōenji. Students, though, have actually been playing a more overt role in the more recent anti-government demonstrations that have been raging since the end of 2013, focussed on Prime Minister Abe and his efforts to introduce two major controversial bills (on state secrets and collective self-defence). We have also seen student anti-race hate demos in Waseda and elsewhere, in response to the new wave of ultra-nationalism which has reared an ugly head in the past few years.

These various prongs are combining to usher in a rebirth of student activism. After the height of the student movement in the late 1960’s, the Japanese government and universities worked to dismantle the apparatus that was underpinning the Zengakuren factions. That is why today you cannot find the old jichikai student councils which formed the bread and butter of student activist group membership in past decades. Such groups now tend to exist on campus only unofficially.

While this has until now been a major hamper, it ironically serves the new student movement well, as they have to start fresh from scratch. Unlike before, there are no guarantees of membership numbers and fees due to the arbitrary affiliation of certain clubs and councils. It means the movements have to attract students to the causes on their own merits. It will be more incremental but it may ultimately turn out less factional.

And that the image of the katsudōka has now made it even to Comiket’s bonanza of cosplay might indicate that things have indeed moved on.

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August 15th, Yasukuni Shrine

You know it’s August 15th when as soon as you pass through the ticket barriers at Kudanshita Station on the Tokyo Metro — while still underground inside the station — you see a member of the riot police on duty.

Today is, of course, the day that marks Japan’s defeat to the Allies in the Second World War, often known locally as the anodyne Memorial Day for the End of the War. And the only place to be on this day is Yasukuni Shrine.

Above ground, the visitor to Japan’s controversial shrine to the war dead in central Tokyo was greeted by a motley collection of leafleters giving out literature on a range of issues. Some were plain anti-Chinese — the Nanking Massacre is a fabrication etc. — while others were campaigning for Falun Gong and other victims of Chinese government oppression. There were some people handing out leaflets about North Korean kidnappings and others raising awareness of how Taiwan is listed as a “Chinese territory” in school textbooks. On the same subject (if you will excuse the pun), several stalls were canvassing signatories for a petition to have the Kono Statement reversed.

yasukuni shrine august 15 end of war day riot police

Photo: William Andrews

The whole Kudanshita area had been locked down, with large sections of pavements blocked off and many side streets barricaded by police. All routes leading to the shrine had checkpoints, manned by riot police officers in full gear or regular policemen, watching who was coming in.

yasukuni shrine august 15 end of war day riot police

Photo: William Andrews

yasukuni shrine august 15 end of war day riot police

Photo: William Andrews

As you entered the shrine itself there were bilingual signs informing visitors that certain acts like handing out leaflets and raising flags were prohibited in the grounds. That being said, several flags were being openly paraded.

yasukuni shrine august 15 end of war day riot police nationalism japan

Photo: William Andrews

Uniformed police were almost always visible somewhere, along with plain-clothes security police, immediately obvious by their own “uniform” of white shirt and black slacks.

yasukuni shrine august 15 end of war day riot police

Photo: William Andrews

In the morning politicians had already come to “pay their respects”. This is controversial because the shrine is dedicated to the spirits of the war dead, including convicted war criminals. The more innocuous (and nationally-run) Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery is ironically within walking distance and is free from the religious taint of Yasukuni. Yasukuni Shrine is actually a private corporation and also houses the revisionist Yūshūkan War Museum.

yasukuni shrine august 15 end of war day riot police

Photo: William Andrews

Inside, a long line of visitors quietly waited to pray at the main part of the shrine. Elsewhere old men — surely too young to have fought in the war — had dressed in uniforms and went through mock military marching drills. It was pure cosplay; I saw one older gentlemen dolled up in a German army uniform. A young guy sang old songs from a tiny tome, alone. Music could usually be hear coming from somewhere. If not for all the police and barricades, it might have been just a peculiar carnival.

yasukuni shrine august 15 end of war day old men military uniform soldier cosplay

Photo: William Andrews

yasukuni shrine august 15 end of war day old men military uniform soldier cosplay

Photo: William Andrews

yasukuni shrine august 15 end of war day old men military uniform soldier cosplay

Photo: William Andrews

The queue of people waiting in the humid August afternoon were cooled down by a large fan. Even in this most sensitive and sacred of places, the Japanese ability to pay attention to the details of hospitality manifested itself.

yasukuni shrine august 15 end of war day riot police nationalism japan

Photo: William Andrews

Towering over the shrine is part of the Hōsei University campus, a private college historically with a strong New Left student movement but which has been in recent years cracking down on protest activities. (See my article in The Japan Times for more background.)

yasukuni shrine august 15 end of war day riot police nationalism japan

Photo: William Andrews

Everywhere in the shrine and walking around the Iidabashi/Kudanshita area you could hear the sound and fury of the nationalists’ black sound trucks. Belonging to various different groups from around Japan, they formed mini motorcades as they toured the area, music blaring out of the speakers or male voices screeching slogans or epithets at the police. The stone-faced riot cops manned the roads around the shrine, carefully steering the vans away in certain directions so they could vent their noisy pageant but not cause trouble.

yasukuni shrine august 15 end of war day riot police

Photo: William Andrews

yasukuni shrine august 15 end of war day right-wing ultra-nationalist black vans riot police

Photo: William Andrews

yasukuni shrine august 15 end of war day right-wing ultra-nationalist black vans riot police

Photo: William Andrews

yasukuni shrine august 15 end of war day right-wing ultra-nationalist black vans riot police

Photo: William Andrews

Yasukuni is a queer montage of colliding images. Rising Sun flags carried by men and women, old and young. An elderly ultra-nationalist in his jump suit taking a break from chatting to his peers to pick up a grandchild with glee. A foreign tourist couple posing for a photo in front of the shrine while holding ice creams.

A strange place. A strange day.

yasukuni shrine august 15 end of war day riot police nationalism japan

Photo: William Andrews

For more (and much better!) images of August 15th on past years, see photographer Damon Coulter’s archive.

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A Short History of Kakukyõdõ (Japan Revolutionary Communist League) and its Schisms

Any attempt to learn about the New Left or student movement in Japan immediately runs into trouble unless you can get your head around the complex skein of factions and their various genealogical branches. One major “family” in the pantheon of the Japanese New Left stems from Kakukyõdõ.

While the Kyõsandõ (Communist League) — popularly known as the Bund — was formed in 1958 by radical members breaking away from the ossified Japanese Communist Party, Kakukyōdō had already been established separately in 1957 as a wholly alternative organisation to the JCP. Together, the creation of the two leagues is generally seen as the birth of the New Left in Japan.

Originally known as the Japanese Trotskyist League, it would in time shift from Trotskyism to a more back-to-basics Marxist-Leninist ideology summed up by its key slogan of a “proletarian world revolution, against imperialism and Stalinism”. The name change happened almost straightaway. After being founded in January 1957 by a small group including Kanichi Kuroda, Ryū Ōta and Osamu Saikyõ, in December of the same year it was rechristened the Kakumeiteki Kyõsanshugisha Dõmei (Revolutionary Communist League). Taking the first characters from the three parts of its name, it is usually called Kakukyõdõ, often pronounced Kakkyõdõ.

kakukyodo japan revolutionary communist league chukakuha

However, leftist factions are prone to split and mutate, and this was the case with Kakukyõdõ from the start.

First Split

An internal schism took place in July 1958 over ideological issues of Trotskyism and criticism of the Soviet Union. Ryū Ōta left Kakukyõdõ to form a separate Trotskyist group and work closer with the Socialist Party.

Second Split

A more serious fracture occurred in 1959, when Kuroda was denounced as a JCP and police spy. Kuroda was leading the push for the group’s ideological stance to be more anti-Stalinist. Kuroda was thrown out in August and he left with his own faction, including Nobuyoshi Honda, to form a new Kakukyōdō. This is formally known as the Kakumeiteki Kyõsanshugisha Dõmei Zenkoku Iinkai (Revolutionary Communist League – National Committee), though like almost all the various versions and incarnations it is also popularly called Kakukyõdõ.

Third Split

Kuroda and Honda’s Kakukyōdō emerged as a dominant player in the New Left scene in Japan during the 1960 Anpo campaign and, as the Bund’s Zengakuren (student council) group collapsed, assumed the main Zengakuren mantle through its student arm, Marugakudō. However, then came a definitive and extremely painful rift in 1962 during the Third National Committee meeting. Deciding on concrete strategies for moving forward with the revolutionary struggle, division appeared in Kakukyōdō over issues to do with the formation of regional committees for a militant labour movement.

The end result was that in 1963 Kuroda broke away with a large contingent. This new Kakukyōdō was the Nihon Kakumeiteki Kyõsanshugisha Dõmei Kakumeiteki Marukusushugi-ha (Japan Revolutionary Communist League Revolutionary Marxist Faction), though it is almost always referred to by its nickname, Kakumaru-ha. It has a new organ paper, Kaihõ (Liberation), and based itself in the Waseda area of Tokyo, near to its stronghold of Waseda University. Its student activists would wear white helmets with a red line around the bottom and a large black “Z”.

Marugakudō was also split when its parent divorced. Kakumaru would initially be dominant in the student movement, since Kuroda has a strong following among the young.

What was left of the Kakukyōdō National Committee became known as the Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction). This was more precisely the colloquial name for its student wing. However, not least because during the 1960’s Kakukyōdō was essentially seen fundamentally as a student activists’ group, “Chūkaku” became accepted effectively as a name for the whole league, in particular in opposition to the other -ha, Kakumaru. Today members themselves tend to use the name Kakukyōdō, though.

The Chūkaku organ continued to be Zenshin (Forward March), the Kakukyōdō newspaper since 1959, and it was initially based near Ikebukuro, though later moved to its current home in Edogawa. Chūkaku-ha’s stronghold in Tokyo was Hōsei University. The Chūkaku-ha helmet was white with the two characters for “Chūkaku” written in black.

The Kakumaru-ha and Chūkaku-ha split was made more chronic during the campus strikes in Japan, especially the famous occupation of Yasuda Hall by students at the end of the University of Tokyo Zenkyōtō student movement (1968-69). The Kakumaru-ha contingent left their posts just prior to the final stand against the riot police in January 1969, since they believed the struggle to be futile (accurately enough, as it turned out). This pragmatism lies in Kakumaru’s general emphasis on the survival of the overall party above the goals of an individual campaign. Chūkaku-ha saw the Yasuda withdrawal as a betrayal and it sparked off a violent war between the two factions (with others also involved), with scores murdered over the next decade. Chūkaku-ha’s leader Nobuyoshi Honda himself would be the most high-profile victim, killed in his apartment in 1975.

As both sides have moved away from their focus on the student movement to become primarily labour groups, the privatization of the National Railways in Japan also created bitter ammunition for the rivals, with Chūkaku accusing Kakumaru-affiliated railway unionists of “colluding” with the breakup and formation of JR in the 1980’s.

Fourth International Japan

In 1965, those like Osamu Saikyõ who had remained in the original Kakukyõdõ (often called the “West Faction” or “Kansai Faction”) in 1959 now joined up with Ryū Ōta’s International Communist Party to form Fourth International Japan (Daiyon Intānashonaru Nihon Shibu), and given formal recognition by the Fourth International headquarters in France. Like its peers, it also called itself Nihon Kakumeiteki Kyõsanshugisha Dõmei (Japan Revolutionary Communist League), and was known colloquially as Daiyon Intā or sometimes (more abusively) Yontoro.

Critical of the leftist infighting (uchi-geba) so consuming other factions, Fourth International Japan would be an instrumental participant in the New Left crusades in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, especially the campaign at Sanrizuka against the construction of Narita International Airport. Its organ was Sekai Kakumei (World Revolution) and activists wore red helmets with hammer and sickle insignia. Its student base was strongest at several regional universities and at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Fourth International Japan Split

Fourth International Japan had run into trouble almost as soon as it was founded in 1965 when Ōta left (he would change trajectory several times in his long career, including as Ainu separatist, environmentalist and conspiracy theorist). It then began to split in the late 1980’s, with some breakaway groups leaving the fold after a rape scandal. It reformed and renamed in 1991 as (and here’s a familiar name) Nihon Kakumeiteki Kyõsanshugisha Dõmei, the Japan Revolutionary Communist League (JRCL), with a weekly organ, Kakehashi (Bridge, Intermediary). Since then it has offered public self-criticism of sexual discrimination, a once chronic issue in the New Left in Japan. Though it maintains links with the Fourth International movement, it is no longer the “Japan branch”.

Chūkaku-ha Kansai Split (Fourth Split)

Rumblings of trouble in Kansai began in 2006. The so-called Party Revolution took place in 2006, with two factions in Kansai ultimately expelled or leaving. The Yoda-ha faction had long opposed the May Theses of 1991, which marked an ideological shift in Chūkaku-ha from fighting Kakumaru and the Japanese imperial state to an emphasis on the organising of labour in the workplace. The faction was pushed out in March 2006 and then in autumn 2007, the Shiokawa-ha (Shiokawa Faction) in Kansai also left following oppostion to the July Theses announced that year.

Shiokawa’s group had similar misgivings as Yoda’s but the new split also emerged out of conflict over attitudes towards ethnic minorities. (Kansai has the largest proportion of Korean Japanese in the country, as well as a high population of Bunraku former lower caste.) In the past Chūkaku-ha has had a problematic relationship with immigrant and minority rights activists and while it has worked hard to form alliances more recently, issues between the groups still crop up periodically. The Shiokawa-ha were criticized as denunciatory ascribers to a “blood debt” (in Chūkaku-ha terminology this is called kessaishugi).

The “revolution” marked a complete transformation into a workers’ party, though it meant the league lost around ten per cent of its members. The remainders of Chūkaku-ha are now sometimes known as the Chūõ-ha (Central Faction) or Zenshin-ha. A positive is that it led to Chūkaku-ha finally formulatting its ideology into a draft program, surprisingly for the first time (Kakumaru has always been much more adept at such formal theorizing, especially as it originally had a philosopher figure as its leader).

The Shiokawa group set up the Kakumeiteki Kyõsanshugisha Dõmei Saiken Kyõgikai, the Revolutionary Communist League Reconstruction Council. Its main organ is Mirai (The Future). Kakukyōdō Chūkaku-ha accordingly created a new Kansai region committee in late 2007, though its strength in western and southern Japan was weakened by the split.

So how many “Revolutionary Communist Leagues” are there? Ultimately, due to the acrimonious nature of the schisms over the years, the rights to the ownership of the name Kakukyõdõ depends very much on the claimant.


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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 far from being 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. Chūnoshin’s self-immolation was followed by that of 17-year-old Kazuo Shirakawa in April 1968 in front of the US Consulate in Osaka.

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. At the time he was wanted by police in connection with a bombing in Kamagasaki, the slum district in Osaka.

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 for night shifts with 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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