Activists denounce Tokyo Anti-Nuisance Ordinance revision as curbing right to protest

The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly has passed an update to the Tokyo Anti-Nuisance Ordinance that, activists say, will potentially muzzle protests and free speech, and strengthen police powers over civil liberties.

The revision, which was voted through on 29 March and comes into force on 1 July, broadens the scope of the ordinance to cover actions that fall into a vaguely defined category of “stalking” or “harassing” (worded as tsukimatoi in Japanese). Police in Tokyo commonly charge people with violating the ordinance for such offences as groping, public indecency or taking photographs of someone without permission. However, opponents note that it is not inconceivable that anti-government tweets and emails might fall into this new “harassment” classification. All those angry citizens regularly gathering at the Diet or Kantei these past months to denounce Prime Minister Shinzō Abe for his alleged cronyism might no longer be there in the near future, if such vilifying verbally or on social media is delegated as tsukimatoi.

During the 29 March plenary session, Governor Yuriko Koike’s Tomin First no Kai party, which has a majority in the Assembly when teamed with its allies, passed the revision based on the reasoning that protest and press freedom would be exempt, but it was opposed by the Japanese Communist Party since such safeguards were not included in the actual wording.

protest tokyo law prevent nuisance activists freedom of speech japan

In March, activists held several demonstrations to protest what they saw as Koike’s railroading of the amendments through the Assembly after just a single deliberation session. In addition to these street protests at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku and elsewhere, an online petition was launched. In spite of some press coverage, the case has attracted relatively little public attention and the protests failed to catch on (the petition, for example, received less than 7,500 responses).

While over 100 civil groups sent petitions to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government objecting to revision, major liberal or opposition groups did not mobilise supporters for large rallies. The JCP was vocal in its criticism but the increasingly popular Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan has few seats in the Assembly. Ironically, the largest “opposition” bloc in the Assembly is now the LDP, which is firmly on the Right.

As such, the activists on the streets were generally unaffiliated, though with prominent support from lawyers, which typically means numbers will be low unless the issue is very clear-cut or emotive. That being said, some protestors were associated with formal organisations; the veteran far-left group Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction), for example, held a protest on 22 March at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building related to the revisions as well as its long-running dispute over a laid-off canteen worker at the headquarters.

The new development is the latest in a series of perceived threats against freedom of speech and assembly, following the State Secrecy Law in 2013 and the Conspiracy Law in 2017. There have also been proposals from the Ministry of Justice for some time now to enhance police powers for criminal investigations, such as extending wiretapping practices, ostensibly to combat a rise in fraud cases in Japan.

As Tokyo gears up for the 2020 Olympics, there is anxiety that it will be used as an excuse to crack down on political groups, prevent activists from protesting and carry out arrests or searches on flimsy grounds. It is surely not insignificant that a new edition of Kyūen Note, the famous manual that originally appeared in 1970 offering advice for student activists about what to do if arrested, was published in April with updates reflecting the recent legal changes.


Posted in News | Tagged | Leave a comment

Trailer released for feature-length documentary about Red Army activists

The first trailer has appeared for Red Army People (Sekigun no Hitobito), a new feature-length documentary about former activists from Sekigun-ha (Red Army Faction) and related groups.

Director Shingō Magome has filmed it over the course of several years as he gradually won the trust of the inner circle of original participants in what is possibly Japan’s most famous yet problematic New Left movement. The diligent Magome has traced the paths of the activists that spread out around the globe, including to North Korea, where the hijackers of the Yodogō plane now languish, and the Middle East, where members of Sekigun-ha (and other groups) settled and formed the Japanese Red Army.

The erstwhile revolutionaries are now approaching the December of their lives and not all the interviewees are still alive, most prominently the founder of Sekigun in 1969, Takaya Shiomi. As such, the film will form a valuable record of the raw voices of these ageing men and women who wanted to change so much about their country and world decades ago.

sekigun hitobito yodogo hijackers north korean japanese red army faction

Image from the upcoming documentary film Red Army People (Sekigun no Hitobito), showing remaining members of the Yodogō Group of hijackers living in North Korea

The footage is shot from a unique position in that Magome is both an insider, having spent so long with the activists working on his labour of love, and an outsider, hailing from a younger generation — one that grew in neoliberal Japan bereft of mass student activism — but fascinated with this dwindling band and their legacy.

Interviewees include the film director Masao Adachi (with whom Magome works regularly), Michinori Katō and Yasuhiro Uegaki of Rengō Sekigun (United Red Army), and Kōji Takazawa, who was an editor closely linked to Sekigun-ha.

While the notorious incidents the film examines — such as the Yodogō hijacking in 1970, the Rengō Sekigun purge and subsequent Asama-sansō siege in 1972, and the Lod Airport attack in 1972 — are familiar from their sensational aspects as era-defining “incidents” and media events, only a relatively select number of participants’ voices are accessible to those not inclined to undertake more serious research. The activists who wrote memoirs have succeeded in cementing their version of the history in consumable formats but various other insights and memories have not been chronicled properly. History (and documentary) always has bias and Magome’s film is certainly no different. However, its breadth of interviews will be welcomed by anyone, irrespective of personal stance. (Another commendable project in this vein is Shōgen Rengō Sekigun, an on-going project publishing short testimonial texts by as many as possible of the surviving people who were involved with the Rengō Sekigun.)

Notwithstanding some shorter pieces made for television, Sekigun has surprisingly not, to my knowledge, received a substantial documentary of this kind until now. Part of this is perhaps due to the vast amount of non-fiction and reportage already existing in print, but probably largely also because of the formidable shadow cast by the fictional or semi-fictional treatments — namely, Kōji Wakamatsu’s United Red Army, which was released a decade ago to much acclaim but a somewhat mixed reception by the original participants. Though it gives the impression of being a docudrama, we should not fall into the trap of viewing it (solely) through this filter. (Incidentally, the best critical English-language exegesis of Wakamatsu’s film and others that deal with the Rengō Sekigun came be found in The United Red Army on Screen: Cinema, Aesthetics and the Politics of Memory by Chris Perkins.)

Shane O’Sullivan’s Children of the Revolution (2011) was about with two daughters of far-left female activists from, respectively, Germany and Japan. Despite the presence of May Shigenobu and the seemingly obvious appeal for local audiences, however, the film was not shown in Japan until 2014.

While details on the official release of Red Army People are as yet unannounced, the time, fifty years on from 1968 and all that, is surely ripe for a plunge once more unto the breach and address the troubled legacy of Sekigun.


Posted in News, Resources | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

New academic year begins with student activists and Hōsei University staff clashing at campus entrance

In Japan, April is far from the cruellest month and perhaps rather the most optimistic, not least because it heralds the cherry blossom and the start of the new fiscal and academic year.

I recently had the somewhat unnerving experience of ploughing through a scrum of undergraduates on a crowded campus in central Tokyo that had transformed into a temporary bazaar: it was the first week of the spring semester at Sophia University and everywhere one turned, tables were vying for freshers’ attention, competing to sign students up for their respective clubs. Many were dressed in a certain “costume”, be it the appropriate gear or uniform for a sports or outdoor activities club, or something more outlandish and incongruous if the club simply wanted to pique interest.

But something was missing amidst all this jingle-jangle of the stalls: politics. At almost all universities in Japan, especially the private colleges, one effectively cannot find student clubs linked to major political parties, nor, as was once standard, officially permitted student organisations associated with the New Left factions.

Let’s travel from Sophia’s campus at Yotsuya to nearby Ichigaya, where another major private university, Hōsei, has its main campus. Hōsei has been locked in a conflict with left-wing student activists for over ten years. A traditional stronghold for the group commonly known as Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction) and its student wing, Zengakuren, the dispute started in 2006 when students’ signboards with political messages were removed from campus. That might seem minor enough but it exemplified a widespread attempt, especially since the 1990s, to cleanse campuses of far-left groups and remove the student clubs that would disseminate ideology and recruit new activists from bases on the grounds and at dormitories. Similar efforts took place at Waseda, Meiji and other universities. What was at stake here was the politicisation of students: the administrators want students to take part in extracurricular activities, but heaven forfend that those are political in nature.

In Hōsei’s case, the clash centres on Bunka Renmei (Culture League), a student circle that is a de facto branch of Zengakuren but is no longer given official recognition by Hōsei. Students who protested what the university was doing, such as by tearing down notices, were suspended or arrested. The Hōsei dispute has, over the course of its meandering history, seen well over 100 arrests (sometimes the same students detained multiple times) and regular protests near its main campus. At its peak between 2006 and 2009, and again around 2012, a series of boisterous protests both on and around the main campus led to physical fights between activists and police or university security staff. Students were forcibly dragged off the campus. The TV news captured scenes of scores of police officers charging into the university. The non-student wings of Chūkaku-ha even joined in the fray, resulting in packed rallies featuring hundreds of people along the banks of the Outer Moat. Some of the footage is quite startling, given the anaemic reputation of Japanese universities.

Though more serious charges were brought against a handful of students, the arrests in more recent years have often been for quite trivial offences and often did not result in indictments. Nonetheless, the situation remains tense and even now activists are sometimes taken into police custody, largely as a deterrent or way of asserting the university’s authority.

This video charts a basic yet relatively lucid chronology of the Hōsei conflict, from the Zengakuren perspective. Naturally, the university will have quite different footage in its own archive, but regardless of a viewer’s political leaning, the shots of staff hitting and pulling students are pretty damning. The university hates the militancy and “bad image” the activists present, and previously engaged in a public war of words with them. These days, however, it keeps silent in the face of activists’ taunts online and in print. In response to the spats, however, security measures intensified, including new guards and surveillance cameras. This merely served as further proof for Zengakuren that the university is emblematic of a neoliberal paradigm whereby education is privatised, commercialised and authoritarian.

Left-wing activism is part of Hōsei’s culture and heritage, as any glance at the 1960s and 1970s will reveal. Arguably what is happening today is only a fresh strain of this legacy, albeit curbed by the overall poverty of the student movement in Japan and the direct policies of the university. Hōsei has become an interstitial space of radical activism: neither its former glory, nor phased out completely, it occupies a kind of rowdy yet ghostly limbo.

Whenever the Zengakuren activists — usually led by ex-students from Hōsei — now appear, they are certainly not allowed on campus. Just one step over the entrance might well be enough to merit an arrest. University staff monitor the activists doggedly with cameras, while the activists likewise film their surveyors. Somewhere in between this barrage of lenses, ordinary students come and go, perhaps bemused by the spectacle.

hosei university bunka renmei left-wing activists conflict zengakuren

Activists from the Bunka Renmei wing of Zengakuren clash with staff at Hōsei University. The former denounced the latter’s actions as a “red purge”. Image via @jinmin1991 (Bunka Renmei’s Twitter account)

What transpired on 7 April demonstrates the current situation. An activist was removed from the campus grounds at the entrance to the university. This brief confrontation climaxed with a member of staff seizing and throwing down a Bunka Renmei flag. The student who took the flag onto the campus is not, apparently, one of the activists who has been suspended or expelled, and thus within his rights to enter the grounds. Nonetheless, the activists knew full well that they were testing a new boundary here and no doubt also hoped to provoke a response that would give them the moral high ground when the student was inevitably ejected (“Look! The oppressors of student activism strike again!”). The video’s captions, at any rate, indicate that fellow students were clapping and calling out encouragement. Of course, whether this is genuine sympathy, caustic mocking or amusement at the diversion is a matter of debate.

What I find most intriguing about this, though, is the video itself, which veers from denunciation to jest — and almost self-parody — through its use of a soundtrack, intertitles, speeding-up and image inserts. We might suggest that Zengakuren and Bunka Renmei accepts and plays up to its role as part of the campus entertainment: a disruptive yet tacitly enjoyed and even permitted force.

This is not an exclusive occurrence. Much of the way that Zengakuren presents itself now, particularly its activism at Kyoto University and the Zenshin Channel series of YouTube videos, is similarly tongue-in-cheek and playful while nonetheless utterly sincere. Driven by activists born in the late 1980s and 1990s, it reveals the impact of a generation of looser freeter activism in the Heisei period; it is dogma without the customary poker face. Interestingly, while the likes of SEALDs bespoke a post-Fukuyama mode, not least in its ideology (or lack thereof), it was by and large “serious”. These “cute” affectations of Zengakuren would surely be, to SEALDs’ digitally savvy eyes, dasai (uncool), but they actually seem to concur with the broader idiosyncrasies of Heisei-era activism in Japan on the left (or far left). Earlier this month, for instance, I noted a comparable trait in a quite different section of the radial spectrum, where activists linked to the Sanya slum area of Tokyo mixed images of cats with condemnation of the police for an unlawful arrest.

Despite all the fanfare and deserved attention, SEALDs, which drew much of its core membership from affluent private colleges like Sophia and Meiji Gakuin, lasted little more than a year. The exact circumstances behind its disbanding are quite sensible and practical, so the length of its life should not be the only yardstick we use to judge it. After all, its influence on subsequent youth and even established activist groups is evident, and some of the most prominent SEALDs activists have returned to the fore at the recent National Diet rallies against the government as the Moritomo cronyism scandal continues to unfold. Aki Okuda’s notable presence at the big rally at the Diet on 14 April, which organisers claim drew 50,000 people and saw demonstrators overrun police barriers, is a case in point.

On the other hand, the campus remains a neglected site. In this vein, under the leadership of former Hōsei student Ikuma Saitō, Zengakuren is almost alone in diligently pursuing efforts to rebuild the student movement in Japan, cultivating engagement with politics at such universities as Hōsei, Kyoto, Okinawa and Tōhoku.


Posted in Essays, News, Resources | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Japanese activists denounce increased police oppression after arrest for refusing stop and frisk

Although Japan can appear very safe and there is undeniably little petty crime, the calm exterior masks two key conditions: that Yakuza control over sections of society is rampant and it is likely in part this network of organised crime that keeps street crime low; and that the police maintain a close watch on citizens for signs of aberration.

Indeed, when someone “suspicious” is encountered in public, police may overreact and swarm the suspect, making their power known — performing the might of the law — and perhaps implicitly warning passersby that they should always comply with what the boys in blue say.

Activists in Japan have denounced the recent arrest of a peer for refusing to assent to a stop and frisk. Late at night on 25 March, a person identified only as “A-san” (Mr. or Ms. A) was apparently on his or her way home when two police officers appeared and began an interrogation on the street.

This is called shokumu shitsumon in Japanese, translating more literally as “questioning in duties” but effectively meaning a spot check or stop and frisk. Police may deploy the tactic on anyone they deem “suspicious” enough to merit attention. The criteria is hazy and the cause to question someone might be very trivial. It’s late a night. Your bicycle looks too old or too new. You are foreign (particularly if you are South American, black or Chinese). If you resist, officers will make it harder and harder on you, and you may then find yourself arrested and in detention for 23 days.

This was seemingly the situation on 25 March. What is crucially different, however, and why it features on this blog, is that A-san is associated with activists working in Sanya, a slum area in Tokyo for day labourers, and anti-Olympic protest groups. (It is not clear as of writing if A-san is himself or herself a known activist. He or she is described as nakama, a “friend” or “associate”.) Police wanted to conduct a shokumu shitsumon stop but A-san refused, as is the right of any citizen. A-san asked to see the police officers’ IDs and their grounds for the stop, but was apparently ignored. The police instead demanded A-san show them what was in his or her bag. What happened next is where the details become subjective but by the end, A-san had been arrested on a charge of obstructing public officials in carrying out their duties. Supporters claim that A-san was injured and belt broken in the resulting scuffle that ultimately involved over ten officers. They say A-san was then taken away to the nearby Minami-Senjū police station and allegedly interrogated until 5 a.m.

This video was a different case entirely from 23 February but shows an example of shokumu shitsumon on a man refusing to comply. Note how several police officers surround the man and prevent him from moving. Any attempt to leave will entail physical contact with the police, which might then be grounds for arrest for obstructing a public official.

Activists have joined together to form a support network. As I have written about elsewhere, these kyūenkai support groups play a vital role in helping arrested activists (and non-activists) on remand or serving sentences, and represent a robust, committed yet obscure section of the civil society in Japan.

In addition to protesting at Minami-Senjū police station on 2 April, they have publicised the case online on the Sanya Labour Welfare Hall Action Committee website and on social media, and among their network. (An appeal was made at the end of a symposium I attended about Fukushima and the anti-2020 Olympics movement.) Incidentally, while it might seem counterproductive for supporters not to identify their detained peer and provide a name to personalise an otherwise abstract cause, this is very typical of left-wing social movements in Japan, which protect the privacy of the suspect/victim (not least because sometimes he or she may not be responding to police officers during interrogations, even to acknowledge their name). During the crackdown on the veteran newspaper Jimmin Shimbun last year, for example, though it was well known that Yōichi Yamada was the editor-in-chief, he was never named in campaigners’ publicity materials when he was arrested.

The publicity materials here are striking for another reason. While the tone of the statements and denunciation is tough, activists have also made use of “cute” touches in images and banners as well as cardboard signs (a kind of Lumpenproletariat version of the usual handwritten large white scrolls activists unfurl to tell the waiting press pack the result of a court case). This would seem to constitute a familiar approach from freeter precariat activism that can mix the cute and the disorderly with more dogmatic or forceful elements.

arrested sanya activist protest

A cardboard sign with a handwritten protest denouncing the extension of detention for A-san for refusing to comply with the police questioning on the street. It says the police are trying to use A-san to set an example. Image via @ReclaimMpark.

arrested sanya activist banner

A banner, saying “Release quickly!”, with a “cute” cat for decoration. Image via @ReclaimMpark.

sanya arrested activist protest

Publicity materials for the case made by supporters, curiously mixing “cute” and serious elements. Image from the Sanya Labour Welfare Hall Action Committee website

sanya arrested activist protest

The image of the shocked cats has a disclaimer saying it is “not directly related to the case” but “includes photography by people who have suffered from stop and frisk”. Image from the Sanya Labour Welfare Hall Action Committee website

sanya arrested activist protest

Another cat decorates messages decrying the 2020 Olympics as a pretext for stop and frisk tactics, and alleged police brutality and infringement on human rights. Image from the Sanya Labour Welfare Hall Action Committee website

A-san is linked to groups operating outside the major New Left sphere but that have been instrumental in the more recent wave of social movements in Japan pursuing causes on behalf of the homeless, freeter and day labourer class. These were arguably pioneered by far-left radicals in the 1970s, but are more prominent today as Japan’s civil society and left-wing movements have emerged from the period of militant activism. The happy-go-lucky and creative style of this Heisei-era Lumpenproletariat and precariat activism was perhaps best exemplified by the vibrant Miyashita Park movement almost ten years ago that successively fought against privatisation.

After an initial ten-day detention was confirmed on 27 March, A-san had his or her period of detention without indictment extended again at a hearing on 3 April at Tokyo District Court on the basis that A-san resisted police violently and struck an officer in the chest. Supporters say it is a frame-up. The charge of hindering or interfering with the duties of a public official (kōmushikkōbōgai, 公務執行妨害) is a convenient catch-all frequently turned to as a pretext for arresting left-wing activists. The latter often accuse police officers of faking a stumble or physical collision in order to manufacture cause for arrest during a stop and frisk or search of a property.

This is, of course, just a single isolated case — and, some might say, a minor one at that. But activists have pointed to the broader context and I’m inclined to agree. When contacted, the Sanya Labour Welfare Hall Action Committee remarked that the arrest is “merely the tip of the iceberg”.

It points to a troubling trend where activists predict “police oppression” to rise in the lead-up to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. There are certainly signs of increased surveillance already, such as the introduction of more security cameras. The A-san support group also writes in its official statement that the police presence has increased in the area around Minami-Senjū Station, which is used for people travelling to and from the Sanya district.

Moreover, the passing of the Conspiracy Law by the national government last year and the recent revisions to the Tokyo Anti-Nuisance Ordinance by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government all extend the powers of police and authorities over Japan’s citizens, and have particular implications for social and protest movements. And about which, I plan to write soon.

Update (13 April)

A-san was released today from police custody, according to announcements by the Sanya Labour Welfare Hall Action Committee.

While I found the case noteworthy for its connections to activists against a backdrop of assiduously growing pressure on civil rights, it may seem even more startling when raised as an example of what can happen to any ordinary member of the public regardless of political affiliations. Citizens are not wholly powerless, however. In the past, victims have launched lawsuits seeking compensation over perceived illegitimate stop-and-frisk stops. As Japan gears up for the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, further instances of controversy will inevitably arise as the state comes increasingly into conflict with the citizenry. And therein lies the rub, since the onus is on the civil society to monitor, engage and, if necessary, protest.


Posted in News | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Masaaki Ōsaka breaks silence (and Japanese New Left convention) and admits identity in court

The man identified by police as Masaaki Ōsaka and standing trial for his alleged part in the death of a police officer during the Shibuya Riot Incident in 1971 has broken his silence.

Since his apprehension last year after over four decades on the run, Ōsaka — or the man presumed to be him, identified only by somewhat questionable DNA testing — had refused to speak to police during interrogations or respond during trial proceedings. Known as kanzen mokuhi (or kanmoku), this “total silence” has been a signature tactic of left-wing activists in Japan from the late 1960s and continues to be championed by Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction), the common name for Kakukyōdō (Revolutionary Communist League) and the group to which Ōsaka belongs. It is both a practical convention, in that stoic silence is effectively the only weapon available to a suspect after arrest during the long periods of detention before they are formally indicted — interrogations conducted without a lawyer present and only partially recorded — as well as a form of protest, in that the activist is wordlessly declaring his or her refusal to accept the bourgeois state apparatus that has taken them into custody.

masaaki osaka

Masaaki Ōsaka as he appeared in his wanted poster (left) and when he was paraded on his perp walk in 2017.

At the pretrial arrangement procedures for his first hearing at Tokyo District Court for 26 March, however, Ōsaka confirmed his name with a simple verbal response. His legal team also commented to the press that he now admits his identity. The mainstream Japanese media has quickly pounced on this development, reporting it as a sign that the 68-year-old is co-operating with his trial for the killing of 21-year-old Tsuneo Nakamura during violent protests against the military presence in Okinawa at the height of the Vietnam War. This is surely something of an exaggeration, since the chances of Ōsaka abandoning such a fundamental practice of the New Left, especially for Chūkaku-ha, are practically zero, given his ability to survive decades of an underground existence whereby he could hardly ever go outside (at the risk of belittling the situation, it was surely a life not all that dissimilar to his current fate behind bars in some respects).

Moreover, the Chūkaku-ha organ, Zenshin, tacitly acknowledges that the man on trial is Ōsaka in its regular articles denouncing the charges against him. His identity is not so much the issue as his innocence and the inability of the prosecutors to provide real proof of his guilt, as it does with Fumiaki Hoshino, another veteran Chūkaku-ha activist tried for his alleged role in the death of Nakamura. Hoshino’s case is the subject of an on-going campaign for a retrial and acquittal, given the flimsy evidence that was responsible for his receiving a full-life sentence. His supporters argue that his is an example of wrongful conviction (enzai), recognition of which is growing in Japan following several high-profile instances and recent documentaries on the subject. Given the precedent for convictions in Japan, particularly in political cases, it is very likely that Ōsaka will also to be found guilty of murdering the police officer during the Shibuya riot and, thus, another enzai campaign will begin, calling for a retrial. (My personal stance has always been that I do not know if Hoshino — or, for that matter, Ōsaka — was responsible for the death of Nakamura, since I was not there and am no legal expert, but I do feel strongly that the evidence is highly suspect and that Hoshino’s conviction was politically motivated.)

Chūkaku-ha is a formerly militant far-left group that is today predominantly engaged in peaceful labour activism and student politics. It is the most prominent and energetic of the groups that remain from Japan’s New Left movement, and has mobilised activists many times at rallies and protests in the present wave of demonstrations sparked by the Moritomo cronyism scandal.


Posted in News | Tagged , , | Leave a comment