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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Sanrizuka: The Struggle to Stop Narita Airport

In December last year Susumu Hagiwara passed away at the age of 69. He had been one of the most senior figures in the remaining Narita protest movement, which even if people have heard of it — and many Japanese people surprisingly haven’t — they would probably never imagine that it still continues to this day.

The visitor to Tokyo invariably enters the city via Narita International Airport, an experience likely to leave them struck by the unspectacular mediocrity of the biggest airport of the world’s third biggest economy. In 2020, how many of the visitors to the Olympics will ponder the same thing? No Heathrow or JFK this one. Narita is an odd, anti-climatic patch of concrete out in the green fields of Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo. Express train routes and coach services zip passengers out of this curiously small hub — yes, there really is more than one terminal, despite how itsy the whole place feels — and these conveniences today make the distance between the airport and the city centre much easier to bear, but it still seems isolated. Even the arrivals gate is stunted, like it wants to be a portal for emotional reunions but instead gets dwarfed by any of the many ticket gates at a major Tokyo train station. As you leave and begin somehow to eat away at the nearly 60km until you reach civilization, you can have time to reflect on just how much land there is between Narita and Tokyo. And there was once even more, since before Narita was constructed, the site was agricultural.

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement

In the 1960′s the decision was made to build a new international airport to support the needs of a Japan that was buoyant and bulging. The Tokyo Olympic Games had been held in 1964. The bullet train was running. Incomes were rapidly increasing for much of the population. Haneda was not enough. Japan needed a juggernaut of an airport to prop up its hubris in the age of massive economic advancement. It was to be the largest public works project in Japanese history and the most contested, though the final construction was ultimately only a third of the size of the original master plan and even this was painfully delayed.

The final site chosen lay over farming land in Chiba Prefecture. Despite the name, the airport is not in Narita. That is a small city nearby. The actual airport occupies several agricultural areas, the most famous of which was to become the symbol of the protest movement that continues even today to resist the airport. This was Sanrizuka.

Not everyone affected was a small landholder, though. In fact, the biggest share of the land belonged to the Imperial Household, who owned a pasture in the area. It was ceremonially handed over to the state so that the nation could have its juggernaut. The airport was to be another success story in Japan’s remarkable narrative of post-war reconstruction, which saw the country layer its cities with infrastructure, burrow tunnels through its mountains, and dam almost all its rivers. (Not for nothing the writer Alex Kerr once called Japan the “world’s ugliest country”.) But in its haste, the state overlooked the tenacity of the spurned farmers, who they assumed they could buy off without consulting before announcing the site. The farmers were mortified, as were local officials, who had likewise been sidelined by the state authorities. What erupted next was a gestated, bitter decade-long campaign to stop the airport being built.

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement

The farmers joined together and engaged in legal obfuscations to stop the forcible purchase of land. But what really made an impact was how these motley country bumpkins were prepared to fight physically if needs be, and they were not alone. Sanrizuka became a cause célèbre that attracted the support of the student movement, then at its peak in Japan, and other New Left radical groups.

The Hantai Dõmei, or Farmers League Against the Narita Airport, built ditches, chained themselves to trees and launched shit from catapults. They built forts and bunkers. This was all-out insurrection. The mainstream leftist political parties fled when the protests turned violent but the ferocity of the struggle only added to the necessity for New Left troops to make the journey from Tokyo to Chiba. Student activists and other radicals from groups like Chūkaku (Central Core Faction), a hardcore militant organisation at the time, reinforced the forts marking and protecting the farmers’ land from the encroachment of the airport. The state’s campaign to seize the Sanrizuka fields was seen by the New Left in the same context as the other major struggles at the time: the continued presence of US bases in Japan and the terms of the restoration of Okinawan sovereignty to Japan; the Vietnam War and America’s use of Japanese bases to fuel the war machine; and in the 1980′s, the New Liberalist ideology that saw the LDP government also break up the unions and privatize the national railway.

Twenty-four hour watches were kept at the towers and huts the students and farmers built. Far from being weekend protestors, the activists committed themselves to the Sanrizuka and many moved there full-time. Some farmers even ended up marrying the outsiders.

The first land survey was conducted on October 10th, 1967, supported by 2,000 riot police. The Hantai Dõmei blocked the roads and the protests turned violent. Issaku Tomura, the Christian leader of Hantai Dõmei, was beaten to the ground by police and a bloodied picture of the middle-aged man further turned people against the airport project. The later land surveys in 1968 met impassioned protests, while the first and second land expropriations in February and September 1971 have become notorious. The police deployed 5,000 officers with water cannons, cranes and more in the second operation, only to be met with such aggression on the side of the protestors that three riot police were killed in one clash.

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement

One student hanged himself in despair at what was happening. Another student was hit by a gas shell and killed in 1977 when the authorities moved to dismantle the protestors’ iconic steel tower used to broadcast slogans. Overall, four police lost their lives during the course of the protest movement; thousands of protestors were arrested and injured. And the airport was still not ready.

When the full resources of a nation is set on doing something, you cannot stop it unless you have an army. The protestors were belligerent, often paramilitary, but they were no match in the end for the state. Narita, Japan’s white elephant, did eventually open in 1978, 1,600 hectares in size and with a 4,000-metre runway, though even at this late juncture there was a final stunt. In March, the gleaming, ready-to-open site was stormed by hundreds of radicals. A burning truck rammed and burst into a gate. (One of the drivers would later die from burns.) But this was all a distraction so the security would concentrate on the main attackers, leaving a band of saboteurs to infiltrate the control tower. They then caused carnage to the equipment as they occupied the tower, barricading themselves in for hours. This led to two more months of delay while the damage was repaired. And yet, inevitably, the airport still opened and the planes began to come.

But as anyone with experience of protest movements in Japan knows, Japanese protestors never give up. When the government announced plans to build a new runway, gradually building more of its original master plan, Chūkaku-ha and the farmers launched a new campaign, which led to violent clashes with police in the 1980′s. The second runway and terminal was, nonetheless, completed.

And yet Narita never became the Asian hub it was supposed to be, mostly due to its expensive landing fees, which far exceed those at Seoul’s or Hong Kong’s airports. Haneda, which is laudably close to Tokyo in the west, now also runs international long haul flights again, though Narita is not to be outgunned. Its annual takeoffs and landings are rising, and it still harbors hopes for a third runway, which would finally complete the original vision for this most controversial of airports. These dreams are indefinitely on hold, it seems, but with demographics weighted in the authorities’ favor, it is perhaps only a matter of time before the remaining obstacles are quite literally gone.

Sanrizuka is nearly forgotten, though the place itself still exists on the outskirts of the airport. I have mentioned its name to Japanese people under forty and frequently they have never heard of it, and sometimes are not even aware of the airport protest movement at all. A worthy museum about the airport has opened in the past few years and it commendably does not shy away from including a lot of exhibits and information on the protest movement. However, this very act is a confirmation of the movement’s denouement. It is now caught up in the process of being memorialized. The huts and “fortresses” once occupied twenty-four-seven by protestors have been pulled down. The coda is not yet written; rallies and demos are still held regularly by farmers and New Left groups. The authorities continue to take these seriously and the police presence is high, despite the far smaller numbers of participants than in yesteryears. The original farmers are dying off and the “protestors”, while not without some hardcore youthful political activists from Zengakuren, are mostly elderly. Hagiwara was a relatively young 69 when he died last year. Kõji Kitahara is much older and quite frail these days. He remains the leader of the surviving protest movement, which is active today in spite of a split in 1983 between those who would accept the terms of the authorities and who vowed to fight on.

They have another challenge on the horizon. The next chapter in the Narita saga is likely to be the LCC terminal being constructed now, expected to be ready in 2015 for visitors to take advantage of cheaper air travel to Tokyo. But not so much the airport’s infamous landing fees, the real reason Narita will never be “low-cost” is that it has already paid such a high price in the anguish and struggle to be built in the first place.


Further reading in English:
Apter, David E; Sawa, Nagayo, Against the State: Politics and Social Protest in Japan (Harvard University Press) [1984]

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Tatsuo Suzuki: New Left Lawyer, Candidate for Tokyo Governor

Tokyo gubernatorial elections have their share of fringe characters. From wacky inventor Dr. NakaMats to the even wackier but much loved perennial Mac Akasaka, the ballot is always colourful. Until mainstream politicos like Morihiro Hosokawa and Yōichi Masuzoe threw their respective, ragged hats into the ring, things were looking decidedly freaky with ultra-nationalist Toshio Tamogami, supported by octogenarian Shintarō Ishihara, a real contender at the start. The most viable left-leaning candidate for Sunday’s election is benign elder statesman-type Kenji Utsunomiya, who is endorsed by the major political parts on the Left.

But there are other options for the voters and the most radical is Tatsuo Suzuki.

While both Utsunomiya and Hosokawa are anti-nuclear power — and likely splitting the vote because of it — Suzuki is not only hangenpatsu, he goes several steps further than any other candidate on the ballot. No more nuclear power. No more military build-up. No more poverty and death-by-overworking (karōshi). And certainly no Olympics, that year 2020 boondoggle to end all boondoggles this side of the millennium.

As with all of the main candidates for the election, Suzuki is no spring chicken (he is 73). Like Utsunomiya he has an avuncular charm and is a lawyer by profession. But Suzuki’s road to the Bar is where the difference lies between him and any of the other possible new governors.

Born in Tokyo in 1940, Suzuki took part in the 1960 Anpo struggle against the renewal of the security treaty with America. He then graduated in 1964 and joined NHK, becoming a senior unionist at the broadcaster. He continued to participate in the major New Left causes of the day, including the protests against the docking of the nuclear-powered submarine, USS Enterprise, at Sasebo in Nagasaki in 1968, and then the fight against the renewal of Anpo in 1970. During the latter he became a senior figure in the Hansen Seinen Iinkai, the youth workers’ organisation formed in 1965 to protest against the Vietnam War. At its height it had branches at some 500 places nationwide. It was an umbrella organisation and had links with both the mainstream left and New Left, such as Chūkaku-ha, Kaihō-ha (Kakurōkyō) and the Second Bund.

tatsuo suzuki layer japan tokyo election governor new left

He was fired from NHK due to a dispute and then became a lawyer. Since passing the Bar exam in the early 1990′s he has made a name for himself as a leading counsel in New Left causes. These include the railway union Dōrō Chiba’s fight regarding workers who lost their jobs following the privatization of what is now JR, as well as being the lead lawyer in the arduous legal campaign to free Fumiaki Hoshino. Hoshino is a Chūkaku-ha activist imprisoned for nearly forty years following the death of a police officer in the so-called Shibuya Riot Incident in November 1971, in which both Chūkaku and Hansen Seinen Iinkai rallied in central Tokyo to protest the Vietnam War and the terms of the restoration of Okinawa.

It comes as no surprise then that his election campaign has been heavily supported by Dōrō Chiba, the Revolutionary Communist League (Kakukyōdō) and student activists. Suzuki is a well-known face at Hosei University too, since he also heads the legal fight against the police and college’s clampdown on activists on the campus. Over 100 have been arrested since 2006. However, the reputation of the New Left in Japan being what it is, his portfolio of past activism may be a hampering when it comes to getting the man on the street’s vote. No doubt to compensate, all of Suzuki’s pamphlets and campaign literature seem to emphasize an accessible, humane candidate earnest about pacifism, workers’ rights and nuclear situation. The language is still undeniably New Left — with plenty of slogans calling to “topple Abe” — but the face is softer. Times have changed.

Come Sunday, Suzuki’s chances are likely slim compared to populist Masuzoe. But that day a demo is also being held in Shibuya the mid-afternoon by the supporters of Fumiaki Hoshino, with the march starting from a park very near to Suzuki’s previous employers, NHK (and whose board has revealed its frightening rightist tendencies of late). Obviously, the timing of this is no mere coincidence but it does mean there has never been a more appropriate day to vote for Suzuki.

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Fumiaki Hoshino: The Unknown Revolutionary

This is a story that takes in the whole of Japan. Despite being one of the longest-serving political prisoners in the world, the protagonist is astoundingly little known in his own country. It begins on the northern island of Hokkaido and then moves to central Japan and Tokyo, but flits into the rural region west of the capital. Its heart and passion, though, lies in the far south — in Okinawa. It will later involve another character from Tōhoku (northeast Japan) and will then reach a quasi-denouement on the oft-overlooked fourth largest island, Shikoku, where, barring a legal miracle, it is facing a miserable and drawn-out end.

This is the story of Fumiaki Hoshino. Now in his late sixties, Fumiaki Hoshino is a synecdoche for Japan’s forgotten 1970′s, an inconvenient truth overlooked by the media and wronged by the courts.

Hoshino was born in Sapporo in Hokkaido in 1946. He attended Takasaki City University of Economics in Gunma, where he got involved with a campus strike and appeared in a film, Assatsu no mori (The Forest of Suppression). He then participated in one of the most urgent local issues of the region at the time, the struggle against the construction of the new Tokyo International Airport on farmers’ land in Sanrizuka in Chiba Prefecture. He took part in demos in July 1971 and the violent fight to prevent forced land expropriation in September and a whistle-blowing Hoshino was captured in footage of the protests.

fumiaki hoshino

Now a veteran activist, he was the leader of a demo group that was heading towards Shibuya to participate in a major Chūkaku-ha rally against the use of Okinawa in Vietnam War. At the time, Okinawa was still under direct US control and was a key logistical part of America’s conflict in Southeast Asia. Bombers and supplies flew off from bases in Okinawa, and fuel and other vitual matériel travelled through Tokyo to help grease the war machine. Anpo, the joint security treatment between Japan and USA, had been renewed in 1970 against massive protests — not as wide-spread as 1960′s but still fervent — and ostensibly Okinawan sovereignty was agreed to be returned at last to Japan in 1972. But the bases were to remain and the lives of locals was indelibly affected by their proximity to tens of thousands of foreign troops. (The crimes and accidents continue to the present.) It led to a series of riots in Koza at the end of 1970 during which Okinawan citizens vented their anger at the military authorities. Chūkaku-ha, the militant radical New Left group, called for a Koza to be instigated in Shibuya on November 14th, 1971, which saw police respond by shutting down the thriving commercial centre and blocking it off to incomers. Nevertheless some 5-6,000 people did get in, mostly student activists or workers associated with Chūkaku-ha or Hansen Seinen Iinkai, an anti-war youth group.

Hoshino had already made himself a mark for the police due to his experience in Sanrizuka and now he was leading a group of around 200 protestors walking from the Yoyogi Hachiman area to Shibuya. Along the way the riot police were waiting, creating a bottleneck in the narrow streets. The two sides clashed between Kamiyama police box and the intersection along the road that leads past the Tōkyū Honten department store into the centre of Shibuya. The police retreated from the demonstrators, though one 21-year-old riot officer was left behind by his retreating colleagues and was soon engulfed by angry protestors. Someone or some people began to assault him. Someone was giving orders to kill him. He was beaten with metal pipes and set on fire. Tsuneo Nakamura died the next day.

More than 300 people were arrested during the overall incident in which 12,000 riot officers shut off Shibuya in an attempt to prevent the illegal rally at Miyashita Park from happening. None of the arrested were to do with the attack on the police officer, though ultimately the police would detain around 2,000 activists. In a related protest at Ikebukuro Station, a young female demonstrator called Noriko Nagata was killed in an encounter with the riot police.

After initially focussing on Hansen Seinen Iinkai members, the police began later to arrest many students from Gunma in 1972, after determining they had been part of the Shibuya confrontation. As leader of the demo, Hoshino was specifically targeted by authorities, along with other protestors. Six were arrested in 1972, including three underage students who were arrested directly in connection with the killing, and so facing severe penalties themselves. They hardly knew Hoshino, though some were also Takasaki University students.

The six have never been officially identified. In the testimony taken down by the police, 18-year-old “Kr” stated that Hoshino had beaten the police officer who died, though this was then later denied in court. The statement from “Ao” (19) said that Hoshino had told someone to throw a Molotov cocktail. Again, this was then retracted in court. “Ar” (17) denied that Hoshino had beaten the officer, though his statement also says he had said to throw a Molotov cocktail. This was then denied in court. The other three prosecution witnesses were all aged 20 or over, and gave statements that they had seen Hoshino in the vicinity. Two of them agreed to testimonies presented by police — in Japan, the police draw up the statement, which the detainee is encouraged to sign — in which they allege Hoshino was the one who hit the officer, though once again, the two denied this in court. The sixth arrested student denied everything the police tried to pin on Hoshino and refused to testify in court.

The police are said to have suggested to Kr — whose testimony became the lynchpin of the prosecution’s case — that the person he saw was Hoshino. Kr believed he saw someone wearing a brown jacket hitting the officer with a metal pipe, though he did not see the face. The police then told him that only Hoshino was wearing a brown jacket that day, so logically it must have been Hoshino. In this manner, Kr’s statement points to Hoshino being the perpetrator.

A manhunt for Hoshino began in February 1972 and he went into hiding. He was eventually arrested in August 1975 and charged with being accessory to the death of the riot police officer. Another man, Masaaki Ōsaka, is still wanted for his purported role in the incident and his poster can be found displayed at most police boxes in Tokyo.

It often shocks outsiders to learn that the Japanese police keep arrested offenders incommunicado for extended periods of time, and that the initial 23 days where they may detain suspects can be easily continued by a re-arrest. With no right to counsel, the only thing at the disposal of arrested offenders is silence. Maintaining a state of total silence — not even confirming their name — is something that Hoshino and others have stoically persisted with for decades. To break silence and speak to the police is akin to the tenkō (apostasy) of the Japanese Communists of the pre-war period, who recanted their ideologies in prison. Hoshino has never spoken to the police. In court, he has answered questions but he refused to co-operate with the authorities during the investigation. To do so is not only to participate in their strategies to force a confession out of you but also to acknowledge the very legitimacy of their position. For many years (and still today), the non-partisan support group Kyūen Renraku Sentaa (Relief Liaison Centre) encouraged arrested activists of the New Left to memorize a phrase requesting the police contact them to provide legal assistance (the arrestee has no right to make a telephone call).

Japanese prisons do not allow photography and so there is no recent image of Hoshino, only the self-portraits he paints. He has effectively disappeared. His first trial for his part for the 1971 death was held behind closed doors. In 1979 the prosecution had initially sought the death penalty, though this was met by a campaign to raise 1 million signatures to petition the authorities. Over 120,000 signatures were collected. The trial ended in August 1979 with a guilty verdict and a punishment of 20 years. So why is Hoshino not free now?

An appeal was taken to the Tokyo Supreme Court, who upheld the conviction and also made the unusual decision to make his punishment as harsh as possible with the exception of the death penalty. It rules that he would serve a full life sentence without parole — in other words, that he should die in prison. Even for a conviction for pre-meditated murder, this is an atypical sentence, the kind only reserved for high-profile or sensational crimes. But given how his trial had been closed, Hoshino’s case cannot be said to belong to this genre. It is rather the culmination of the treatment meted out by the state to offenders in the later protest cycle in Japan, where, under threat, the establishment grew increasingly punitive. It is worth remembering that the death sentence was handed down to several New Left radicals in the late 1970′s as the trials for the United Red Army and East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front campaigns concluded. Hoshino was placed in the same category as these activists at a time when the state was determined to eradicate militancy.

A third appeal was rejected in July 1987, after which Hoshino was sent to Tokushima Prison, the gaol with the most long-serving prisoners in Japan. Hoshino was also tried for his activities at Sanrizuka in the early 1970′s and these were open. It was at this trial in 1984 that his future wife, Akiko, would see him for this first time. After participating in anti-war activism in Tohoku and an earlier petition campaign to support Hoshino, she was now setting eyes on him for the first time.

Akiko communicated with Fumiaki through his lawyers, who would hold up messages from her for him to read since she was not allowed to correspond or meet with him directly. Eventually, finding the only way to meet him was by posing ostensibly as a betrothed, she applied and they began to see each other in prison, though always with a panel between them and a prison attendant present. After his Sanrizuka conviction was confirmed he was transferred to prison far away in Tokushima in 1987; Akiko had moved from Tōhoku down to Tokyo to be near him. By this time they were married, though conjugal rights are not allowed in Japan so any chance of children was unthinkable. There is a picture of Akiko on her wedding day at the party, radiant in a dress while cutting the cake. The only element missing from this seemingly generic image is her groom.

fumiaki hoshino tokushima demo protest

Fumiaki Hoshino progressed through the various “ranks” of prison status and is now allowed visitors three times a month, and to send letters five times. Following a change in the law, friends were allowed to see Hoshino, and so far 94 have been able to meet him in Tokushima. However, since Hoshino’s supporters are now seeking state compensation for such things as the blacking out of his letters to his wife, this status has been reversed. To fight is to be punished.

Conditions in Japanese prisons are notoriously bad. Hoshino is allowed to excise in a yard for thirty minutes a day and during the rest of the time he works in a factory making bicycle parts. There is no air-conditioning or fan during the sweltering Japanese summer, nor any heating during the winter. Needless to say, this has long-term effects on his physical well-being. He was once put into a punishment cell merely for stepping on a cockroach. His case was then brought to the attention of Amnesty International in the 1990′s, who began investigating Japanese prisons. Much earlier in 1978, Hoshino suffered from so-called “detention syndrome” due to being kept in solitary confinement under suicide watch for so long. Manifesting both physical and psychological symptoms, Hoshino today is said to have long-term ailments caused by his living conditions.

Japanese prisons are known for their harsh control of prisoners’ physicality, even monitoring and detailing how they can sleep and sit in cells. Certain political prisoners have engaged in protests from behind bars, such as hunger strikes or by refusing to go to court, though compared to the high-profile campaigns by political offenders in the USA or UK, these have been few and far between. The Japanese prisoners find the most powerful weapon they possess is silence.

There are also supported by resilient and committed support networks, who publish regular newsletters, organising fundraising, information-sharing events, and of course, rallies and demos. Many of these will centre around family members and the legal teams, and in Hoshino’s case, his wife is the prominent (and photogenic) spokesperson.

In 1996 Hoshino’s legal supporters put in a request for a retrial. It was thrown out in 2000, which was then challenged the same year, to be thrown out in 2004. A further objection was entered straight afterwards, to be rejected in 2008. This cycle of four years is a remarkable example of the slow-moving cogs that form the Japanese legal juggernaut.

Kr said in court that he had seen Hoshino for the first time that day and so although the man in court was the same Hoshino he had seen at Nakano Station, he hardly knew his face. Kr had been arrested in February 1972 and his testimonies were taken over a two-month period while he was detained.

Kr’s identification of Hoshino is based on the logic feed to him by the police based on the colour of Hoshino’s clothing. There’s only one problem. Hoshino’s supporters say he wasn’t wearing a brown coat; it was blue. A yajiuma (onlooker) identified only as Fu saw a man wearing a “beige” coat hitting the officer multiple times on the head with a stick. This has since been acknowledged by the Supreme Court during Hoshino’s first retrial, where it was accepted that Hoshino’s coat was in fact light blue.

The Hoshino Defence Committee, the support group that co-ordinates the network of 24 offices around Japan campaigning for Hoshino’s release, also stresses how testimony and other pieces of evidence do not match. For example, a photograph from the day taken by a Shūkan Asahi photographer shows the man who apparently beat the officer (i.e. the man in the brown jacket) was wearing a Hansen helmet, a different group to Chūkaku-ha to whom Hoshino belonged. They also believe that Hoshino, as leader of the demo, would not have held back when the scrum happened, but would have naturally been at the front of the group taking everyone forward towards central Shibuya.

Certain evidence was not available to the court since the prosecution did not select it to be included with their case. Recent reforms that saw the introduction of lay judges mean that now trials are meant to be shorter and more evidence in the case is being presented. A May 2013 Japan Times editorial wrote:

In the past, public prosecutors’ records of suspects’ and witnesses’ oral statements played a central role in criminal trials. After the lay judge system started, courts started to pay more attention to oral statements made and objective evidence presented during trials. In response, public prosecutors have started to disclose more evidence. To ensure fair trials, public prosecutors should be legally required to disclose all of the evidence in their possession to defense lawyers. Prosecutors who fail to do should be punished.

The Defence Committee is requesting all evidence to be made public. For example, they have photographs that show at least two other men wearing brown coats, not to mention another with Hoshino later in the day where the pipe he was carrying — at the time it was customary for activists to carry wooden staves (gebabō) and pipes — apparently showing no damage to its paper wrapping. If Hoshino had bludgeoned a man to death, they argue, not unreasonably, that there would be signs of this.

The minutiae surrounding the events of the day, the semiotics of the various objects and props — this is immensely complex and what we can attempt here is a mere overview. Whether the arguments by Hoshino’s legal team prove he did not kill the officer are not for us to speculate. However, what does seem certain is that there is a shadow of a doubt over Hoshino’s conviction, and that a life sentence is grossly disproportionate to the “evidence” presented of his culpability. And if there is reasonable doubt, the conviction should not stick.

What seems shocking more even than the particulars of the case or even the harshness of his treatment is how Hoshino has been effectively ignored by the mass media. For a case that is overtly charged with politics and history, regardless of the legal complexities of Hoshino’s guilt or innocence, the case merits far more attention than it has been granted by mainstream society. And yet the newspapers do not seem interested. David McNeil once wrote an article for Japan Focus and regional newspapers have featured the case. But there seems almost to be a conspiracy of silence not to report on the ongoing struggle.

This is in spite of the recent high-profile reversals that saw Toshikazu Sugaya and Govinda Prasad Mainali freed after years languishing in jail. In both cases, the authorities were again reluctant to acknowledge their own failings or oversights, and the issue of the “confessions” were embarrassingly exposed for the sham they were. And yet, they were criminal cases; Hoshino’s is tainted by politics, thus making it even harder to make progress.

In 2010, Atsuko Muraki, a senior civil servant in the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, was eventually acquitted after it emerged that not only had a prosecutor tampered with evidence to attempt to secure a conviction, his supervisors were also part of the conspiracy. In other words, corruption and cynicism was systematic, and not merely the rogue prosecutors and police officers who felt themselves to be unaccountable to the public.

Japan’s 99% conviction rate has come under the spotlight. It is not unusual for countries without full lay judge systems — like in Japan, which has only very recently introduced limited lay judge trials — to have higher conviction rates, as the prosecution is reluctant to take cases to court unless it is sure of getting a guilty verdict. However, 99% is so high it would induce snorts of derisive laughter if it were not causing untold trauma to the wrongfully convicted.

In Japanese law, police statements take precedence over court testimony. The charged are presumed guilty rather than innocent, and interrogations are notorious for their reported use of sleep deprivations, verbal abuse and other tactics to wear suspects down till they “confess” to whatever they think will get their torturers away from them. Custody can last for up to 23 days — far longer than most countries and detainees are unlikely to be granted bail. During this time they are questioned in “substitute prisons” inside police stations, a kind of limbo which the detained suspect cannot escape and is effectively in an exclusion zone between being a convicted prisoner and being a free citizen. Whether they retain their rights during this time is debatable. They may not even get to see a lawyer or be allowed toilet breaks despite long hours of interrogation.

The interviews are also not fully recorded or videotaped in Japan, only partially — despite wide public support for introducing complete transparency. The same Japan Times editorial also argued:

The police and the prosecution have begun to electronically record, on a trial basis, at least part of the interrogation process for a suspect. This practice should be expanded so all interrogations are electronically recorded in their entirety to reduce the chance of false confessions. The scope of such recordings should also be expanded to cover witnesses’ statements.

During the sessions, often one of the police officers will act paternalistically towards the detainee in an attempt to win their trust: the classic good cop, bad cop. Almost the only thing suspects can do is remain silent, as Fumiaki Hoshino did.

Muraki also held out; the mild-mannered bureaucrat refused to sign a confession despite being detained for 163 days. And because there was no confession, the prosecutors’ case unravelled when it went to court and was exposed as smoke and mirrors. As long ago as 1998, Amnesty International criticized Japan’s justice system as not being up to international standards, but very little has changed since then. (Japan also remains one of the few major industrialized nations still to retain the death penalty.)

Japan’s human rights envoy Hideaki Ueda shouted during a UN panel in Geneva when other participants snickered at his risible attempts to garland his country’s record. After a diplomat had criticized Japan’s use of coerced confessions, Ueda had countered by claiming Japan to be a world leader in human rights. Not surprisingly, this was met with laughter. A video of Ueda then screaming “Shut up!” at his chuckling hecklers went viral and in September it was announced that Ueda had “resigned”. At 68, Ueda should have been already long retired rather than embarrassing the third largest economy in the world. It also didn’t help Ueda’s argument that his English was hardly up to the standards of UN diplomacy: “Don’t laugh! Why you are laughing? [sic] Shut up! Shut up!”

In spite of his plight, Hoshino is not, though, a pessimist. He is a painter and creates vibrant watercolors at the rate of one a month. After many years and taking part in prison system exhibitions, he has now won enough recognition to keep his paints in his cell. He gives his paintings to his wife after they are finished and his supporters issue a calendar every year with the results. They are remarkably bright and varied for a man who had been imprisoned (wrongfully or not) for nearly forty years.

The Hoshino Defence Committee organized a demo in Tokushima in September, where several hundred protested around the prison that houses Hoshino. A major rally is planned for December 1st around the Tokyo Supreme Court. It has also issued a book, Ai to kakumei (Love and Revolution), which documents the case and the opinions of many supporters, including a representative from the Say No! To Wrongful Convictions: Citizens’ Council (SNOW), the group that campaigned successfully for the release of Govinda Prasad Mainali.

Hoshino’s lawyers are in the middle of a second request for a retrial, a laborious process whereby they attempt to have new pieces of evidence submitted and show how there are grounds for a new trial. The crusade is now vigorously channelled towards having all evidence from the case disclosed; the prosecution has withheld certain photographs and other items that do not match with their case,  which effectively hinges on the confession of a minor, possibly under duress. However, with the identification that Kr purportedly made of Hoshino in his statement having been undone and the prosecution’s stance increasingly untenable, the campaigners are very hopeful that Hoshino’s nearly forty years behind bars may soon be over.


Hoshino Defence Committee:
(Selected English available)

An article on this subject by the author appeared in The Japan Times in November 2013.

Further reading:
Jeff Kingston, Justice on Trial: Japanese Prosecutors Under Fire, The Asia-Pacific Journal Vol 9, Issue 10 No 1, March 7, 2011

Kokusai rōdō undō (The International Labour Movement), February 2013 issue (Zenshin)

Ai to kakumei (2013) (Hoshino Defence Committee)

Kagekiha jikenbo 40-nenshi (2007 edition) (Tachibana Shobo)

Special thanks to Professor Patricia G Steinhoff of the University of Hawaii in particular for generously supplying unpublished and forthcoming publication materials as secondary reading.


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White Widows and Our Obsession with the Female Terrorist

The recent terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi immediately ignited a frenzy of media interest in Samantha Lewthwaite, the so-called White Widow. News stations have been ebulliently throwing up tidbits of Hollywood thriller-style plot devices. There’s a “pipeline” that takes terrorists to Somalia. Lewthwaite was plotting to blow up UN offices. She has a new “secret” husband. An Interpol warrant has been issued for her arrest. Everything feels like we have been thrust into the second act of a creaky screenplay. It seems apt — if not pre-determined — that in her crusade Lewthwaite is pursuing the legacy of her deceased husband, since he was one of the perpetrators of the London 2005 suicide bombings. Being a woman, her path to radicalization is not allowed to be purely ideological. It must be emotional as well.

samantha lewthwaite white widow

The media revels in Lewthwaite’s status as a mother. “White Widow Samantha Lewthwaite’s diary says her children want to follow in footsteps of their 7/7 bomber father,” reads a headline for the Mirror. “A ‘shy’ girl from Buckinghamshire but… once again being linked to a global atrocity,” reports the BBC. She went from condemning her husband’s role in the London 7/7 bombings as “abhorrent” to being “the world’s most wanted woman”.

We like this kind of story of high jinks and character arcs. It was not enough for Ulrike Meinhof to be political. She also had to be glamorous and female, a fluent and intellectual journalist with a gift for polemic, and who turned from words to action. “Protest is when I say I don’t like this. Resistance is when I put an end to what I don’t like,” as she famously wrote — and she followed through. Leila Khaled was another beautiful woman — and a PFLP commando who hijacked and blew up an airplane. Her looks perhaps inspired as many followers as her deeds. Or the enduring image is of a girl with a gun; we like this apparent contradiction. It is wealthy heiress Patty Hearst, kidnapped by New Left terrorists in 1973. Hearst later succumbed to the Stockholm Syndrome, denounced her parents and joined the guerrillas, the Symbionese Liberation Army. Security camera footage iconically shows her abetting in a bank robbery, pointing a rifle at customers.

ulrike meinhoff RAF

According to a 1999 Library of Congress report, most terrorists at the turn of the new century were male, with in excess of 80% of terrorist operations in 1966-1976 commanded and carried out by men. However, it has also been at times suggested that the proportion of women involved with terrorism is higher than that of crime, although this claim remains statistically unverified.

Even pre-9/11, women operatives were certainly vital to the militant groups of Latin America, West Germany’s RAF and the Japanese Red Army. Red Zora, a German terrorist group active between the late 1970′s and 1987, recruited only women. In order to explain the larger number of women in groups such as the RAF (at times more women than men), it has been suggested that German women were more emancipated and proactive than counterparts in other nations. Women’s Lib had been so successful in West Germany that it had birthed a terrorism that was literally feminized.

On top of being praised as more practical than male terrorists in the day-to-day running of their organisations, the women may better the men when it comes to the final mission too, since they are less likely to be suspected. No doubt this is why Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi did not think that among the women garlanding him with flowers in May 1991 there would be one with a bomb strapped to her, which she detonated and killed him (as intended, the blast also killed her too — actually severing her head from her body — along with many others nearby). Like the classic honey trap, women can be used to put targets at their ease before executing the mission.

Something like a quarter of suicide bombers between 1985 and 2008 were female. Mia Bloom has made women and terrorism her career’s work, and in books like Bombshell she examines the situations and sometimes exploitation that leads women in Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechnya to attach explosives to themselves and commit atrocities. In Bombshell, though, Bloom does not mention who I want to talk about.

She is another “widow”, another female terrorist who has likewise attracted more than her fair share of media mythologizing. Her name is Fusako Shigenobu. She shares traits with Lewthwaite in that she lost her husband in an attack. But Shigenobu was married to Tsuyoshi Okudaira in name only when he became one of the three Japanese revolutionaries who carried out an assault on Lod Airport in Israel in 1972.

Okudaira, Yasuyuki Yasuda and Kozo Okamoto arrived at the airport from a flight from Rome. Taking out machine guns and grenades from their luggage, they then began firing. It is still a matter of intense controversy whether they deliberately aimed for innocent civilians or whether the massacre happened in the crossfire between the trio and the police. In total, twenty-six lay dead on the floor of the terminal, the majority of whom were Puerto Rico pilgrims. Okudaira and Yasuda were killed, possibly by their own hands. Okamoto was arrested after failing to kill himself. (The BBC World Service broadcast an interview with a survivor last year in which she reflects not just on the horror of the incident but also the sheer arbitrariness of it.)

In order to get a passport and a new name, Shigenobu had married Okudaira. As a known member of the Sekigun-ha, the Red Army Faction, she was being watched by the authorities, who took the group’s threat very seriously. After all, they had already arrested its ideologue and commander, as well as seizing an cache of arms in Yamanashi that the group had been planning to use in a people’s revolution. The remaining hard-core members of the group’s inner circle — including Shigenobu’s boyfriend — then pulled off Japan’s first ever airplane hijacking when they took over JAL Flight 351, the Yodogō, in 1970, and flew it on to North Korea.

fusako shigenobu

Shigenobu was a veteran campaigner for the group, and extremely adept at raising funds. She held several jobs and had put herself through university while working full-time. However, like the Yodogō hijackers, she believed that the future of Sekigun lay in moving overseas to assist in the international revolution at its hotspots around the globe. The most logical place to go was the Middle East, a region teeming with guerrillas and people’s armies. However, Tsuneo Mori, who had taken over the Sekigun by now, was only focussed on the domestic struggle; Shigenobu was forced to go it alone. Later others would trickle over as the new international wing of the Sekigun established itself, eventually numbering some thirty to fifty, but initially it was a mere handful, led by Shigenobu and Okudaira while embedded in the Palestinian cause. At the time, going abroad like that was far more challenging, both financially and administratively, than in today’s low-cost carrier days, and it is worth remembering what a remarkable feat Shigenobu et al achieved just by their very act of emigration.

In the Middle East, Shigenobu and her colleagues would eventually become the independent Japanese Red Army, a group that carried out numerous high-profile hijackings and attacks on embassies in Europe and Asia across the 1970′s, though most of their biggest operations were actually done in order to generate publicity and free imprisoned peers. With the political sands shifting in the late 1980′s, the army changed tactics and targets. It began to spread out around Europe and Latin America. One of its soldiers was arrested in America in 1988 plotting to blow up an army facilities with homemade explosives in his car. Some have speculated the the JRA was also linked to Libya and the Lockerbie bombing.

Shigenobu’s role within the army itself is not as certain as you might think. She was its most famous member and is typically said to have been its commander-in-chief. However, the extent to which she perpetrated or directly planned its operations is debatable. When she was arrested in Osaka in 2000, the prosecution really wanted to bag her but, in spite of her repute, the actual evidence was flimsy. She ended up getting twenty years for passport violations, a harsh conviction that unofficially acknowledging tenuous ties to a 1974 terrorist incident in The Hague.

Shigenobu is a prolific writer and has published several books, both during her “career” and since her incarceration. However, it is as much what others think and write about her that has created her legacy. Especially after her departure from Japan and her appearance in the Koji Wakamatsu and Masao Adachi film Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War as a spokesperson for the revolution, she has been portrayed as the glamorous femme fatale. She was, we are led to believe, a temptress, a beautiful witch who slept with people to get what she needed for the cause. This kind of chauvinistic and cynical cliche seems to follow many female terrorists around, especially when they are leaders. Even Takaya Shiomi, the founder of the Sekigun, once wrote: “She was called an enchantress, a Mata Hari.” Why is it that we find it permissible to associate female terrorists with brutality and mania combined with sexuality?

Comparable attitudes affect how we remember the late Hiroko Nagata, the leader of the Kakusa group which merged with Mori’s Sekigun to form the United Red Army. It retreated into the mountains and ended up massacring its own members, and the final hold-outs managed to take a hostage in a lodge and keep off the police for days. After the bodies of the URA soldiers were unearthed, people could not believe what had happened and it arguably disillusioned a generation of potential student radicals. That Nagata as the second-in-command deserved the blame was cemented when Mori committed suicide in prison. Nagata’s apparent cruelty and heartlessness, especially to other female members of the revolutionaries, has led to her lasting demonization as a witch.

This misogyny wasn’t limited to the Japanese women, of course. In her essay, In Search of Ulrike Meinhof, Karin Bauer writes that “popular reporting on the hunt for terrorists was often highly eroticized”. Gudrun Ensslin was an “ice-cold seductress” while the portrayal of Meinhof was “as a desexualized crusader, a tragically misguided Joan of Arc, and a highly eroticized seductress who took and dismissed lovers and incited young men and women to violence”. The media used images of suspected female terrorists with bare breasts. Meinhof’s radicalization was often quasi-dismissed as being more physiological than ideological, the result of her brain surgery affecting her mental state. Bild-Zeitung even went so far as to suggest that Meinhof’s conversion to militancy was an attempt to flee her failings as a mother.

Although scholars have argued that the deployment of, say, female suicide bombers is often manipulated for maximum media effect to strike chillingly into the heart of society, it is certainly not the case that female terrorists inherently generate more publicity and mythology than their male counterparts. After all, for every Fusako Shigenobu or Ulrike Meinhof or Samantha Lewthwaite, there is a Carlos the Jackal, Bobby Sands or Andreas Baader. But our sensibilities towards paramilitary activities and violence can remain naive. (In the Middle East, no doubt this isn’t the case.) Is it that the women terrorists are betraying our ideals of femininity and maternity? (Shigenobu and Meinhof had children, who were needless to say, guaranteed little else but atypical upbringings.) The rules of engagement dictate that the men should do the hunting; the women, the gathering. The men should be bearing arms while the womenfolk help with fund-raising and practical matters. Even within the New Left organizational structures these old-fashioned attitudes surprisingly prevailed at times, hence Shigenobu’s frustration and desire to take her destiny into her own hands. Shigenobu was the only original female Sekigun activist to rise up the ranks and this was due to her skills at fundraising and her ambition. The other ladies were essentially consigned to (excuse the pun) manning the phones. The filmmaker Adam Curtis also once unearthed an insightful fly-on-the-wall documentary about British students who took over their art college in 1968. “The women make the tea and run the switchboard while all the men sit round talking to [the director] about ‘kicking the police horses’ bottoms’.”

In Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies (2004), Jeremy Varon touches on the frustration of the women in Weatherman, confined to the second tier of the budding guerrilla army. Even in the collectives, the “radicals” reverted to a division of labour that was quite bizarre in the circumstances. In an apartment of the Up Against the Walls Motherfuckers group, one female activist observed that the men were doing the profound theoretic debating while the women were occupied with “cooking, cleaning and changing diapers”. She found herself asking: “What’s different here?” And this sexism in the collectives also led to sexual exploitation.

While women made up something like half of Weatherman, female membership of terrorist groups is usually a minority and often the role of women in Latin American groups like the Tupamaros was limited to non-violent operations, such as collecting intelligence, serving as couriers or nurses, and maintaining safehouses. However, the IRA and some other groups apparently treated male and female members equally, which was a refreshing experience for the women at the time and likely instrumental to their continued participation.

We perhaps like to see the women as having emotional reasons for their terrorism, hence why they are “widows”, angered like Medea by savage events or a wronging into committing their own taboo-busting barbarities. The route to radicalization is often portrayed by the media as being less about politics as melodrama. The Russian press called the Chechen women bombers “Black Widows” when it became apparent they were avenging their dead menfolk. Women terrorists are somehow more dangerous because they are “single-minded”. And yet we are also happy with the archetype of the female Nazi, the concentration camp guards like Irma Grese and Maria Mandel who ruthlessly carried out orders no matter how inhumane.

Lewthwaite, apparently not being an intellectual, will likely find her notoriety like that of a celebrity’s. Once the tabloids get tired of the key details, there won’t be enough to milk, especially if she is caught by the authorities. Putting pen to paper and being fluent on camera were arguably the proficiencies that solidified Shigenobu and Meinhof’s reputations and mythologies. Such people, though, are even more likely to be remembered for their public persona than their genuine causes.


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