Zengakuren wins lawsuit against Tokyo Metropolitan Police for assaulting activists

Zengakuren, the network of student groups affiliated with the far-left Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction), has won its long-running lawsuit against the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and Tokyo Metropolitan Police after members of the public security bureau assaulted activists arriving for a rally in September 2016.

On 31 May, Tokyo District Court ordered Tokyo Metropolitan Government to pay damages of ¥1.2 million. The five Zengakuren plaintiffs had sought ¥12 million from Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the TMP officers involved. The ruling recognised he illegality of the force used by officers, which they had argued fell within the scope of questioning citizens (shokumu shitsumon). The court, nonetheless, described this as only “incidental” errors of judgement by individual officers and not the result of a systematic problem within the public security bureau.

security police japan assault harass zengakuren chukaku-ha student activists

Video footage taken by Zengakuren clearly showed the unprovoked tussle as police officers forcibly tried to identify activists wearing masks and sunglasses. Throughout the lawsuit, Zengakuren has harnessed the video for its YouTube channel, which it launched around the same time as the incident, as proof of the level of surveillance and harassment it continues to face.

Probably the last remnant of the New Left directly focused on student activism, Zengakuren is today a small yet feisty organisation with chapters at universities around Japan, though these are entirely unofficial and not recognised by the respective universities as legitimate student clubs or autonomous councils. Zengakuren has maintained a presence particularly at Hōsei University and Kyoto University, and continues to campaign for student freedom and the abolition of tuition fees as well as for Chūkaku-ha’s key issues like unionism, anti-militarisation and international solidarity.

Despite its modest scale, Zengakuren has adopted various new approaches in recent years to appeal to the current generation of youth, including a fun and self-deprecatory, even parodic style that references its former notoriety. The members are presented as essentially ordinary young Japanese men and women, albeit devoted to a brand of politics decidedly extraordinary among the young. Notably, Zengakuren has managed to do this without diluting its central anti-capitalist messaging. (The “new” Zengakuren’s cute and friendly, if somewhat geeky and unashamedly left-wing membership stands in stark contrast to the now-disbanded SEALDs, whose members also went to great lengths to show how normal they were, yet did so with slick visuals and a fashion-conscious presentation.) These tactics have succeeded to some extent in winning Zengakuren increased attention and online fandom, even if the ranks of committed activists have not exactly swelled much.

No doubt this contributed to the police’s aggression, though surveillance of public events and of Zenshinsha, the Chūkaku-ha base where several Zengakuren activists also live, has been a constant for decades now. Minor infractions like stepping on a campus are likely to result in arrest, raids and long detentions.

While the surviving elements of Japan’s New Left are generally ignored by the mainstream media, this lawsuit has generated some degree press interest, perhaps especially because Zengakuren argued that the TMP had violated activists’ constitutional right to free assembly (though the ruling did not go as far as this). Other surprising developments have also sparked headlines along the way: in 2018, Zengakuren’s legal team joined Tokyo District Court judges in seizing evidence after police refused to hand over video footage.

As this five-year case has demonstrated, lawsuits require patience: judgements are often not handed down until years after proceedings begin. Nonetheless, they are one of the few recourses available to the civil society, providing your pockets are deep enough. Notwithstanding its rejection of the Japanese state as imperialist and capitalist, and the courts’ unfavourable predisposition historically to the New Left, Chūkaku-ha regularly pursues litigation through a dedicated team of lawyers. There are several current or recent lawsuits related to the Sanrizuka movement (campaigning against Narita Airport), for instance, while the family and supporters of the late Fumiaki Hoshino are also suing the state over his death.


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East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front documentary screening cancelled due to ultra-nationalist pressure

A cinema in Kanagawa Prefecture has called off the screenings of Searching for the Wolf (Ōkami o sagashite) scheduled for May due to pressure from ultra-nationalists.

In a statement released 4 May, the operator of Atsugi Cinema Kiki said that it had received word on 30 April from police of a two-day protest over the 8–9 May weekend by a far-right group (uyoku dantai) about showing the documentary. As is typical of such groups’ tactics, the protest would involve multiple black vans driving around the local area. These vans are fitted with speakers to play loud patriotic music and amplify slogans in order to cause as much of a nuisance as possible. The operator said that it was concerned about the trouble this would bring others in neighbourhood and, in consultation with the distributor, had made the difficult decision to call off the planned screenings.

east asia anti japan armed front documentary

Given the subject matter, dealing with the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front (Higashi Ajia Hannichi Busō Sensen), one of Japan’s most notorious militant New Left groups that had an explicitly anti-Japanese ideology inspired by the country’s imperialist past and (at the time) neocolonial present in Asia, the film was always going to cause controversy. The fact that the film is directed by a South Korean woman and largely framed from the perspective of the group, including interviews with associates with its three cells, made it inevitable that it would attract attention and a response from the vociferous ultra-nationalist fringes.

east asia anti-japan armed front cancellation statement

Starting 24 April, screenings at Yokohama Cinemarine have also been protested and disruption by right-wing vans driving in the area, forcing volunteers at least once to make a show of guarding the venue amidst a heavy police presence. On 7 May, two men entered the venue and spent around ten hours demanding that the operator cease screening the documentary, which is scheduled to run there until later in the month. The theatre has consulted police about the incident, the distributor and cinema’s lawyer revealed in a press conference on 10 May.

Though these aggressive tactics by far-wing groups are nothing new, they are usually more ritualistic than effective, making it a worrying precedent for artists and producers that pressure and intimidation by political extremists succeeded this time in cowing their perceived enemies and preventing the public from seeing a film. Note that it was the threat of a protest by ultra-nationalists’ vans, not an actual protest, that scared the operator in Atsugi and spurred them to act preemptively.

Freedom of speech has become an acute issue in Japan of late. In 2018, Shinjuku ward responded to an uptick in hate speech marches by curbing the use of its parks for all protests. In 2019, the Aichi Triennale closed an exhibition of anti-emperor artworks after receiving threats. Government subsidy for the festival was then withdrawn, though subsequently reinstated. Another documentary, Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue, lived up to its title, not only illuminating the war of words regarding historical memory of the “comfort women” (which has recently also sparked controversy in academia after J. Mark Ramseyer’s much-criticised intervention) but also itself triggering a heated debate over freedom of expression after several interviewees launched a lawsuit, claiming they were duped into participating (but in the process unwittingly created a version of the Streisand effect and increased publicity for the film). Though already touring widely and internationally, Shusenjo had its appearance at a relatively low-profile film festival in Kawasaki abruptly cancelled in 2019 until an uproar from peers in the Japanese film industry forced the organisers to reverse their decision.

The Atsugi Cinema Kiki’s statement also cited the coronavirus pandemic, in that the protest would become a spectacle and possibly cause crowds to gather, thus increasing the risk of infection. The pandemic has become more serious in recent weeks in parts of Japan, resulting in further states of emergency. While the major chains have bucked the trend and even welcomed record-breaking audiences for the Demon Slayer anime film last year, the crisis has had a major impact on independent movie theatres in Japan. Many are muddling through despite government calls for them to close temporarily but, given that most were struggling in the first place, the pandemic is possibly a final nail in the coffin. The most high-profile victim so far has been Uplink, which announced the closure of its Shibuya venue.

The pandemic also prompted Kyoto Minami Kaikan to postpone its showings of Searching for the Wolf (apparently because of reduced operating hours affecting the screening schedule). Nonetheless, after opening in Tokyo on 27 March, the film has enjoyed a gradual nationwide roll-out at small, independent cinemas (known as “mini theatres” in Japan), including talks with various speakers and a rare screening of a related documentary, Mothers, directed by one of the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front’s members, Kurokawa Yoshimasa, from behind bars. It is also showcased at length in the current issue of leading Japanese film magazine Eiga Geijutsu. Given the buzz and its performance at the box office despite the odds, the Atsugi Cinema Kiki cancellation may only represent an anomaly for what is a much-anticipated documentary.

Searching for the Wolf is on release in Japan at the same time as two other documentaries about traumatic events: Me and the Cult Leader (Aganai) explores the effects of the 1995 Aumn Shinrikyō cult’s sarin attack, while Whiplash of the Dead (Kimi ga shinda ato de) is about the landmark 1967 Haneda Airport incident in which a New Left protestor died during a clash with police.


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Two new documentaries about events that bookend Japan’s Long Sixties

Two new documentaries released in Japan this spring explore events and movements that effectively bookend Japan’s Long Sixties.

Showing from 27 March, Searching for the Wolf (Ōkami o sagashite) deals with the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front (Higashi Ajia Hannichi Busō Sensen), the little-understood, immensely controversial militant group that launched a series of bombings in Japan in the mid-1970s, most notoriously the attack on the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries headquarters in central Tokyo that killed eight and wounded hundreds. The title of the documentary references the name of the original, main cell in the “front”, which was responsible for the Mitsubishi bomb. The arrests of most of the members of the group in May 1975 generally brought the New Left protest cycle in Japan to an end, at least in terms of major “incidents” and unrest, though with the notable exceptions of the Narita Airport struggle, which continued to mobilise large numbers of far-left activists for many years, various other copycat attacks on sites similar to those targeted by the EAAJAF, and the internal fighting among certain factions that would spill out into the subsequent decades.

east asia anti japan armed front documentary

Released in April, Whiplash of the Dead (Kimi ga shinda ato de, literally “After You Died”) examines the so-called “first Haneda struggle” of October 1967, which resulted in the death of a student protestor. The New Left factions descended on Haneda Airport in a bid to prevent the prime minister, Satō Eisaku, from leaving for his state visit to Vietnam. This was during the war in Southeast Asia, of course, in which Japan was a silent partner as the host for many United States military bases directly involved in the conflict.

The airport would become a flashpoint for further protests: in November 1967 to block Satō’s departure for the United States; then in November 1969, again over Satō’s trip to America; and the airport was also the location of one of the most striking incidents of the Anpo movement a decade earlier. The tactics employed by the protestors in October 1967 — especially wearing helmets, carrying staves and engaging in quixotic clashes with well-equipped police forces for maximum spectacle and symbolism — would become the norm for the various incidents that unfolded over the next years.

whiplash of the dead japan documentary sixties protests haneda airport

The film is directed by Daishima Haruhiko, who previously made two well-received documentaries about the Narita Airport protest campaign: The Wages of Resistance: Narita Stories (2014) and The Fall of Icarus: Narita Stories (2017). Though those two films covered decades of history from the twin perspectives of the farmers and the New Left activists who joined their struggle against the airport, this new documentary is possibly even more ambitious in scale: it is three hours and twenty minutes long, split into two parts, and focuses on the protestor who died, Yamazaki Hiroaki.

They are initially showing first at two leading venues for independent cinema in Tokyo: Whiplash of the Dead at Euro Space and Searching for the Wolf at Image Forum.

Four and a half decades after its bombing campaign against Japanese corporations, the EAAJAF remains largely misunderstood. Though not the only urban guerrilla group at the time, its practices as an underground network of cells as well as the backgrounds of its members and the language of its discourse were idiosyncratic. But its position within the tapestry of the New Left and mesh of movements unfolding during the 1960s and 1970s is frequently blurred by the shocking details of the incidents — especially the Mitsubishi bombing, which resulted in fatalities — and the inevitably repellent tone of its name and ideology. This new film forms is an attempt address this neglect and its title emphasises the necessary task of “searching” for the truth amidst both the trauma and condemnation: what were the activists motivations and aims? Why did they, Japanese citizens, so abhor their own country?

Though frequently mentioned within journalistic and scholarly accounts of the Long Sixties, the EAAJAF has received surprisingly little dedicated attention — perhaps in part because its discourse is arcane and inaccessible. The writer and environmental activist Matsushita Ryūichi wrote a well-known non-fiction book about the group in the 1980s, focussing on the leader, Daidōji Masashi. It is difficult but not impossible to buy photocopied versions of the group’s infamous underground tract, Hara Hara Tokei (The Ticking Clock). Another self-history text first published in the late 1970s was reissued in 2019, as was Matsushita’s book and Kiriyama Kasane’s controversial 1980s novel about the EAAJAF in 2017. The scholar Tomotsune Tsutomu, a specialist in modern buraku history, published a book that positions the EAAJAF alongside other minorities as post-war subaltern struggles against state and capitalist hegemony. Few foreign historians of modern Japan have tackled the EAAJAF, though Till Knaudt has written about it in German and Chelsea Szendi Schieder contributed a good English-language overview for The Funambulist in 2019.

Searching for the Wolf, which is years in the making, includes interviews with surviving members of the cells no longer imprisoned. The two others still alive and imprisoned cannot be interviewed as they are either on death row or serving a full life sentence. (Incidentally, two other members remain at large, having been freed as part of the demands of the Japanese Red Army, and are presumed to be overseas; another member was never caught and is nominally still a fugitive.) This makes Kim Mi-re’s film at the very least an important resource, since these former militants are very circumspect about giving interviews to the mainstream media. In a sign of the trust that Kim has been able to build (and of its sympathetic tone towards its subject), the film received the backing of the support group for the imprisoned EAAJAF members.

Though dealing with a far better-known and chronicled part of the Long Sixties than Searching for the Wolf, Whiplash of the Dead also features many valuable interviews with participants, mixed with images from some of the best-known photographers of the militant period, such as Kitai Kazuo and Watanabe Hitomi. Daishima’s two documentaries about Narita Airport interlaced archive footage with on-site interviews and footage of the current lives of the people involved.

Films about Narita are, of course, indelibly associated with the pioneering Ogawa Pro, which set the standard for such politically engaged, activist cinema. (The first of Daishima’s two Sanrizuka documentaries was co-directed by a former Ogawa Pro cameraman.) Like elsewhere, the New Left in Japan had close ties to non-fiction film, whose practitioners frequently strayed across the lines between observer and participant. The Ogawa Pro cycle of Sanrizuka films is perhaps the most celebrated in this respect, though the outputs of Tsuchimoto Noriaki and the Nihon Documentarist Union are further examples. And then there are films like Adachi Masao and Wakamatsu Kōji’s The Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War (1971), which is frequently dismissed as mere propaganda for the PFLP but was actually a radical attempt to prompt viewers’ engagement with the issues and challenges of world revolution alongside self-reflection and criticism of the the movement in Japan at the time.

The period has inspired an immense number of novels, non-fiction books, documentaries and films, with many of the most notable coming in this century, several decades after the events. Being a visceral medium, narrative/fiction films serve a particularly problematic role when it comes to depicting the Long Sixties and thus contributing to their legacy. In The United Red Army on Screen: Cinema, Aesthetics and the Politics of Memory (2015), Chris Perkins has explored in more detail the issues involved with film portrayals of the Rengō Sekigun. Non-fiction cinema, while not free of problems of bias and misrepresentation by any means, is perhaps better able to present the complex nature of these movements, to focus on the first-hand accounts without the need to dramatise or sensationalise. These two new documentaries are sympathetic to the social movements they investigate, but that does not mean they will overlook the negative impact of militant activism.

It is not insignificant that a newer (though not necessarily “young”) generation of film-makers is tackling this material, rather than the tōjisha — the people directly involved (and implicated), already responsible for the mounds of memoirs about the era. A later generation brings more objective distance and fresh perspective, of course, and is sometimes able to navigate the reefs of public memory and come out with a more substantial result. Alongside Daishima (b. 1958) and Kim (b. 1964), we can add Nakamura Mayu, who made Watch Out for the Patriot! Kunio Suzuki (2020) about the legendary New Right figure, and Magome Shingō, who is now making Red Army People about the various associates and members of Sekigun-ha.

As her name suggests, Kim is South Korean (though she has made films related to Japan before). Searching for the Wolf was already screened in Korea last year and won two awards there. The Korean “origin” of this new film is germane to the subject matter, since the EAAJAF occupied a specifically anti-colonialist position within the New Left. While the major factions adhered to anti-imperialist, Marxist and anti-war ideologies, and aspired for world revolution within those contexts, the EAAJAF belonged to a fringe confluence of Asianist tendencies that also included outliers like Umenai Tsuneo and Ōta Ryū, who were obsessed with the revolutionary potential for the “inner colonies” of Japan and their Lumpenproletariat population of Koreans, Okinawans, burakumin and day labourers.

That is not to say that other sections of the New Left or the Left in general ignored Japan’s colonial guilt — or were not transnational in their outlook. Far from it, war guilt was a compelling issue for virtually all intellectuals and activists, and arguably the raison d’être for the very internationally minded Beheiren and the anti-war movement during the Vietnam conflict. But the EAAJAF was distinct in that these issues of colonial guilt were utterly fundamental, developing into an ideology of “anti-Japaneseism” that viewed the members’ own country as incorrigibly aggressive towards its neighbours (like Korea) and peripheral and indigenous peoples (like the Ainu and Okinawans). This ultimately led to the cells’ determination to attack Japan: concretely, bombing places associated with the Japanese military dead, symbolic targets of the colonisation of Hokkaidō, and Japanese corporations involved in wartime forced labour and in post-war neocolonial activities in Asia, and even planning to assassinate Emperor Hirohito. Extraordinary as these ambitions and choices may seem to us, their motivations sprang from anger at exploitation, oppression and war crimes — issues that still drive people of many ilks and beliefs today. As Chelsea Szendi Schieder has written: “One does not have to condone the violence of the EAAJAF to try to understand it.” The EAAJAF refused to see the pre-1945 era as “history”, settled and forgiven. And likewise, neither should we simply consign the militant group to history, nor those events at Haneda Airport in 1967, nor the various other movements that transpired during the Long Sixties.


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How has the coronavirus pandemic affected the civil society in Japan?

The biggest non-news story of the year in Japan was surely the announcement of the “word of the year” as san mitsu, or the “three Cs” (confined and enclosed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings).

The civil society is fragile enough already in Japan, with its various restrictions on the process of protesting as well as other hindrances (ranging from police surveillance to negative press coverage or no press coverage at all) all discouraging movements from growing or newcomers from participating. In 2020, COVID-19 added yet another hurdle to the mix, though it has not created a complete vacuum on the streets like in many other countries. That said, the disproportionate presence of baby boomers in protest movements means the risk of coronavirus infection is particularly acute. But with certain measures or approaches in place, the civil society was nonetheless able to carry on over the course of the year.

One popular online listing of upcoming anti-war and anti-neoliberalism demonstrations remained filled with information on protests, though the schedule was sparser and featured almost no large-scale events. Just to make a very crude numerical comparison, the listing had 157 events of various sizes for July 2019, but just 67 for July this year.

The Yoshihide Suga government’s actions, not least pushing forward with the Go To Travel domestic tourism campaign, and the investigation into alleged misdoings by former prime minister Shinzō Abe’s office have ignited anger, but much of this has had nowhere to go except online as hashtags. With the stakes so high, we might have expected a significant rally over the autumn — but the very nature of target of the indignation (government incompetence in the face of the crisis) makes any major street action illogical at this juncture: to protest this in large numbers would only aggravate the situation.

Surprisingly to some, though, meetings and demonstrations have nonetheless continued, indoors and out, especially after the first wave of infections proved quite moderate. Activists are not blasé by any means, but nor were they panicking. This at times led to conflict with partners based overseas, who could not comprehend any form public gathering given their immediate circumstances.

Social Movements in 2020

What were people protesting? While the news coverage was consumed almost entirely by a single story over the year, a diverse range of movements emerged in response to different issues.

Many protested the government’s policies in regard to the pandemic, such as the national state of emergency invoked by Abe in the spring. The poorly made and ineptly distributed “Abenomasks” were also mocked and people posted images online showcasing unorthodox uses of the masks, or even refused to accept delivery or détourned the mass giveaway by forwarding to organisations that instead distributed the masks to the unhoused or socially vulnerable.

The government also incited anger over the expensive funeral for former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, half of which was paid for by the government, and alleged interference in appointments to the Science Council of Japan.

Black Lives Matter events attracted thousands across the country in a series of marches, forming part of a growing awareness in Japan of issues related to race and inclusiveness, and given further exposure in the public eye by biracial figures recently prominent in sport. Alleged police brutality against a Kurdish migrant also mobilised several hundred people at antifa-linked protests in Shibuya on 30 May and 6 June.

Gender issues were notable, with the case of the female legislator in Kusatsu who accused the mayor of rape and then found herself ousted from the town assembly prompting national and international media attention and protests, and a petition calling for improved access to emergency contraceptive pills for women (currently requiring a prescription) effectively rode a wave of anger after the male vice president of the Japan Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists voiced his opinion on television that easier access would make women take contraception less seriously.

The killing in November of a homeless woman in Shibuya ward highlighted the oft-ignored plight of the socially vulnerable, especially in a district of Tokyo hell-bent on redevelopment and gentrification (necessitating the displacement of the unhoused community that made use of Miyashita Park prior to its transformation into a hotel and retail complex). A street protest attracted significant media coverage.

The main groups campaigning against the Tokyo Olympics, which are closely related to advocacy movements for the unhoused in Shibuya and elsewhere, have also kept up their activism, calling for the postponed Games to be cancelled outright, and holding a series of street protests and other events in Tokyo and Osaka in July when the Olympics were scheduled to take place. The activists’ transnational partners around the world were unable to travel to Japan to support these events but offered support online.


In general, until the government launched the nation into the Go To Travel campaign, Japan was doing relatively well due to jishuku, or self-restraint. At a local level, people, organisations and businesses are good at figuring out workarounds, and calls for self-restraint are familiar from disasters. Over the spring and summer, during the first and second waves of infections, events (including public protests and even just meetings) were cancelled or postponed voluntarily. This has had a devastating effect economically on certain industries like the performing arts and music, but the civil society found ways to carry on.

Changing Formats

These included adopting new formats. Face masks are ubiquitous, of course, though they are already common in Japan, particularly in certain seasons of the year. They were also frequently worn by protesters pre-pandemic (especially those as on the New Left) to conceal identity from police surveillance.

Events have been socially distanced in terms of seating (for indoor events) and standing (at outdoor rallies).

Some groups switched to holding online events when they would have ordinarily have organised in-person ones at venues or on the streets. Known for its boisterous demonstrations with sound trucks, Aequitas, a youth group that campaigns to raise the minimum wage, held an event instead on the DOMMUNE streaming platform.

aequitas dommune protest japan event

Many events were held remotely or virtually, or advertise with the option to “attend” by watching the video stream. Publicity information asked people to consider the risks and their health before participating. Organisers have committed to continuing their campaigns, especially regular and long-running ones, but sometimes called on people to tweet their support rather than physically attend.

The well-known anti-nuclear protests in front of the Kantei (the prime minister’s official residence) in central Tokyo have not ceased, for example, but the Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes announced that only around four or five “members of staff” would actually participate in the weekly demonstrations — a restriction that is set to remain in place through the first months of 2021.

Likewise, guest speakers at rallies occasionally opted to do so via pre-recorded video messages or by sending their speeches for a proxy to read out, rather than travel to Tokyo to attend in person. With borders closed, there were no foreign guest speakers, as is usually the case at, say, the annual Dōrō-Chiba international solidarity labour rally in Hibiya. Instead, speeches were sent in advance for locals to read out.

Police Responses

Just as the civil society did not desist completely, neither did the police. Protests and gatherings were monitored, and police did not refrain from searching sites associated with political activism. How does a police raid work in the time of the coronavirus?

In the case of probably the most prominent one in 2020, where Tokyo police in October raided Zenshinsha, the headquarters of radical left group Chūkaku-ha, officers attempted to proceed in the customary (and highly performative) way. The media was told in advance and the news cameras dutifully assembled outside the building. Riot officers lined up in all their gear and handheld metal cutter machines were put to work on the main door. This spectacle of sparks and matériel is staged for the benefit of the media, presenting the police as “being tough” on political radicals, and these remnants of the Long Sixties as “scary” and “antisocial” elements to be avoided at all costs.

This time, the rug was pulled out from underneath the police. An activist promptly emerged and, with a brusque shove, told the officer with the metal cutter to stop the charade. Instead, the residents of Zenshinsha let the police carry out the raid as long as the officers politely filed up to have their temperatures checked before entering.

This was treated by people on Twitter as comic relief — “Look, in Japan, people are so courteous and orderly that they even allow the police to raid their premises if they don’t have a temperature!” — but what was happening here was actually more complex: it was both a genuine matter of safety — especially considering the ages of many of the activists who live at Zenshinsha — and a form of protest against the police, which had launched a raid yet again on a flimsy pretext in an attempt to turn up any materials or evidence for other cases. Just as the activists usually keep the door shut and force police to cut through it, knowing this does not really make much difference but causes the officers an inconvenience, the response here was another tit for tat, another protest at what they regard as police oppression: if you’re gonna raid us, we’ll make you line up and abide by our coronavirus checks.

The Zengakuren youth activist wing of Chūkaku-ha touched on the viral incident in one of its Zenshin Channel videos with the usual self-aware, tongue-in-cheek style it has cultivated of late. Zengakuren’s affiliates had a fairly busy year, organising a series of ambitious sound demos around the country from October to December calling for the abolition of student tuition fees, and holding a rally on the campus of Kyoto University in December protesting the punishment of politically active students. In response to the recent rally, Kyoto University has persisted with its ongoing war of words with Zengakuren, issuing an official statement that such political activities cause a nuisance on campus and outside the campus entrance, and that students should avoid these events (and the ideology they represent).

Unaffected Events and Movements

Notable among the events that remained little affected by the pandemic were the weekly Shinjuku Station West Gate vigils and other silent “standing” protests. This is because they are small enough not to pose much risk of infection or intermingling in the first place, and have always made a point of continuing to assemble in their modest, unspectacular ways regardless of the weather or season.

More worrisome in terms of infection risk, though, were the events attended by large numbers of people where no masks or social distancing were in evidence. The Kumano Dormitory Festival’s now well-established clock tower roof occupation antics took place on 27 November amidst chaotic and crowded scenes on the campus of Kyoto University, which eventually resulted in police being called in (due primarily to the scuffles between staff and the building-scaling pranksters, rather than breaches to social distancing guidelines per se).

Backlash and Coronavirus Hoax Protests

Like elsewhere, Japan saw a backlash to the strictures imposed by the pandemic, most obviously in the protests by people calling the coronavirus a hoax. Always thinly attended, the demonstrations nonetheless took place in highly visible places like Shibuya and Shinjuku. A “cluster festival”, led by failed Tokyo gubernatorial election candidate Masayuki Hiratsuka, was held on 9 August with speeches for more than three hours outside Shibuya Station, culminating with a stunt in which several dozen participants “hijacked” the Yamanote Line by riding the whole loop without masks on and t-shirts with messages opposed to social distancing. Another such activist was arrested this month for trespassing when demonstrating outside the headquarters of a medical association.

With the pandemic expected to roll into 2021, we can anticipate more examples of anti-vaxxer, anti-mask and coronavirus “hoax” discourse and protests. While many will disregard such people as merely peddling conspiracy theories, they — along with the other protest movements that are continuing — are ultimately signs that COVID-19 won’t spell the end for the civil society in Japan.


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Recreating the Koza Riot, fifty years on

On 12 December in the plaza outside the Ryūkyū Shimpo newspaper headquarters in Naha, Okinawa, a group of men overturned a car. They wore masks, not in the customary manner of camouflaged rioters, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, and gloves, perhaps to provide protection against cuts. The car was a scrap vehicle fitted with a United States license plate, mocked up to look like a military vehicle, and it was overturned carefully onto wooden boards placed on the ground for the purpose. The men then took turns kicking and standing on the car. It was more ritualised than riotous, members of the media and bystanders far exceeding participants — and carried no risk of arrest or repercussions.

koza riot recreation reenactment event

This was a very sanitised and careful re-enactment of a scene from the Koza Riot, which took place on 21 December 1970. According to the Ryūkyū Shimpo, the event was an art performance intended as a “vicarious experience” of the riot, and participants included a man who took part in the original disturbance as well as students. The vehicle was left on display until 13 December, when a related symposium was also held.

Formally established as a municipality in 1956, Koza’s bastardised name — written only in the katakana syllabic script — derived from an American nickname for the area. In this way, Koza was a hybrid place — a mix of Okinawa, American and Japanese influences. By 1969, its population for around 67,000 and it was the fastest-growing city in the prefecture besides Naha. It was a frontier town, full of newcomers and migrants, and with an economy heavily dependent on the United States military. This entailed lots of bars and brothels, but also live rock music venues. As the conflict in Vietnam raged, the Americans passing through Okinawa increased, anxious to make the most of their cash before flying out to South-east Asia, from where they might not return. This meant booming trade for businesses, but all was not happy under the surface.

The riot was sparked when a car driven by United States military personnel hit a citizen. Angry locals threw stones at military police, who responded with warning shots. Things escalated and eventually thousands took to the streets, torching seventy US military vehicles and facilities. A number of people even broke into the grounds of nearby Kadena Air Base. Eighteen were arrested and dozens injured. It was an explosion of the fury and tension that had built up over twenty-five years of occupation by a foreign power. The next day, 22 December, the US military announced 3,000 redundancies for workers employed at bases.

koza riot 1970 okinawa

The violence of Koza is not easily forgotten, even if it has never been repeated in Okinawa. The prefecture reverted back to Japanese control in 1972 and Koza City itself “disappeared” in 1974, subsumed within the bounds of the newly created Okinawa City. But the core conditions that caused the riot have changed relatively little since then. Okinawa is still festooned with a US military presence, accounting for the vast majority of the forces that are stationed in Japan as part of the mutual security treaty with America. This imbalance has been a permanent thorn in the side of relations between Okinawa and the rest of the country. Incidents involving base personnel occur regularly, from crashes to crime — even rape and murder — and the impact of the continued quasi-occupation of the prefecture’s land is grave not only societally but also ecologically. And yet Okinawan (and mainland Japanese) responses have been essentially and commendably non-violent for the most part. The emphasis has been on rallies and protests, or on civil disobedience, such as attempting to disrupt the development of Henoko (Ōura) Bay by blocking vehicles.

In 1970, though, Japan was at the peak of its Long Sixties, a cycle of mass protests and unrest that lasted from around 1967 to 1972. Okinawa was, as noted, still under United States sovereignty, albeit with the pathway to reversion confirmed. Its people had learnt to co-inhabit with the foreign troops, but not without voicing their displeasure. When the Japanese prime minister, Eisaku Satō, visited in 1965, 6,000 took to the streets to protest the treatment of the prefecture, leading to police clashes and sixteen arrests.

This was a period of tumult, sometimes spectacular and shocking, from the riots of International Anti-War Day in October of 1968 and 1969, to Okinawa Day in April 1969 and the Shibuya Riot of November 1971, not to mention the university strikes and campus occupations. Okinawa was caught in the middle of this, not unlike Sanrizuka and the construction of Narita Airport, a touchstone issue for the New Left encapsulating the anti-imperialist cause against war — both the haunting legacy of Japan’s past war of aggression and the current one, waged by the United States with tacit assistance from Japan, in South-east Asia. Several strands of thought appeared in the New Left in relation to Okinawa: one, proposed by Chūkaku-ha, advocated that the Left should seize control of the prefecture from the imperialists; another was that Okinawa should be liberated, either made independent or given self-government; another argued that the real focus was not the US bases and Japanese imperialism, but rather the anti-revolutionary front in Okinawa that the US-Japan alliance perpetuated, solidified in the military bases; a fourth strand, advocated by Kakumaru-ha, criticised the other approaches as merely bourgeois, instead calling for organised efforts by workers to defeat the bases — to go beyond the issue of reversion to fight the labour rationalisation of the bases.

The New Left’s relationship with Okinawa was uneasy, at times co-opting the local dilemma of the prefecture into its macro-ideologies without dealing with the problem of its status as an inner colony of mainland Japan. The leftists would claim to speak in the name of Okinawans as victims of imperialist oppressors, but this earnest endeavour to liberate Okinawa as part of a wider ideological struggle arguably replicated the same hegemony of the imperialist and capitalism systems inflicted upon the prefecture by Japan and the United States. As Hidemi Suga has argued, the early 1970s witnessed a paradigm shift within the New Left in its attitude towards minorities. A fringe element of the New Left would emerge, arguing for Okinawan/Ryūkyūan independence as part of a revolutionary movement of dispossessed and oppressed peoples. While the militant manifestations of this strain of activism somewhat curiously saw wajin (Yamato) Japanese acting on behalf of, say, the Ainu or burakumin in largely ineffective acts of violence in the 1970s, Chūkaku-ha-affiliated Okinawans were themselves involved in direct actions in late 1971, such as invading the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo to protest the visit of Emperor Hirohito to the United States, while even more notoriously, the attack on Crown Prince Akihito in 1975 during a ceremony at the Tower of the Lilies was carried out by Okinawans associated with the New Left.

But the Koza Riot was not initiated by the New Left; it sprung up spontaneously from the streets, which makes its legacy less problematic, whereas the general consensus, as presented by mainstream accounts at the time and subsequently, is that the New Left became delegitimised by its violence (against the state, against citizens and against other activists). It would be surely unimaginable for such a re-enactment event to take place and receive serious media attention if the incident in question was, say, the Asama-sansō seige or the Shibuya Riot. This re-enactment was more permissible, though nonetheless unusual, and you would struggle to find similar events. And while the Koza recreation was about confronting a past trauma from the Long Sixties, the event was not at all like the re-enactments privately practised in the kyōsanshumi fandom, which reclaims the New Left by exploiting, consuming and collecting its “content”.

Albeit conspicuously stage-managed, the Koza recreation seems rather to inherit the more playful, performative and boisterous mode of protest and political expression Japan has seen especially since the Heisei period. The counterculture and bohemian scene in Kōenji has exemplified this, and there is even a direct parallel in the Operation Anti-War Asia! (アジア反戦大作戦) series of pacifist, anti-nuclear events organised in Kōenji and Asagaya in 2015. At one point this involved a car being smashed and overturned on the street by participants in what was a highly performative yet still rebellious stunt.

What is the efficacy of such a re-enactment? It is potentially reductive, falling into the trap of the digital era in which everything, even past civil unrest, is a commodifiable “experience”, an Instagrammable or tweetable photo opportunity. Or it is a genuinely valuable way to show people up-close the kind of actions that now seem so distant, but which in 1970 could easily occur if provoked by circumstances.

For all the unsophisticated zest and ludic anarchy of the Operation Anti-War Asia! stunt, an overturned car is “weird” in the sense proposed by the late Mark Fisher: it is an entity that is wrong, out of place; it should not exist here. Fisher makes a well-known distinction between the weird and the eerie, which we might also apply to the Koza event. The eerie, Fisher suggests, is a failure of presence. What is missing — actual unrest — is what makes this eerie; the upturned car — the damage — is there, but not the disturbance that created it, which has failed to appear. The unrest is hidden. It is lost, to borrow Patricia Steinhoff’s phrase, somewhere within Japan’s invisible civil society; no longer on display because, not least, the use of public space is tightly controlled, or because it has been forgotten or ignored, a relic from a complex, problematic past. In this respect, the Koza re-enactment is an attempt to confront the eerie everyday of Okinawa, living alongside historical trauma that fails to (re)appear and be resolved, by inserting the weird, an out-of-place entity — though not literally out in place if they had staged the re-enactment actually in Koza, but perhaps that would have been a step too far.

The act of overturning a vehicle still has power. During the melee of the Halloween street party in Shibuya in 2018, a small truck was overturned by exuberant revellers, sparking a police crackdown. Though the incident has not quite spelled the end of the street cosplay festivals — and this year, not even the coronavirus pandemic seemed to deter people — the scene was featured prominently and ominously in media coverage, and has certainly put the Shibuya government and Tokyo Metropolitan Police back on the offensive when it comes to tolerating mass gatherings in the district for Halloween, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Even if fleeting, such moments of civil instability have the ability to disturb the everyday, clockwork routine of shopping and commuting that dominate the public sphere in Japanese cities. The challenge lies in capturing and channelling that same potency in non-violent ways.


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