The Anti-Olympic Torch arrives in Tokyo

The Anti-Olympic Torch has arrived in Tokyo, continuing a journey that began in Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Games there and since passing through Olympic resistance movements at host cities at all subsequent Games.

Brought now to Tokyo by activists from South Korea who had led the recent anti-PyeongChang protests, its passing to the locals involved in the little-noticed yet feisty movement against 2020 formed a nearly week-long series of events.

This “relay” is, of course, a parody of the actual Olympic torch relay, set to start in Japan in March 2020 and last 114 days (travelling around the country under the cringeworthy motto of “hope lights our way”), as well as a testament to the transnational network of anti-Games movements that has now built up around the counter the sport mega-event and what Jules Boykoff calls “celebration capitalism”.

anti-olympics protest torch handover tokyo

I attended two of the Anti-Olympic Torch events for my fieldwork researching the anti-2020 protests in Tokyo.

The first was the symbolic handover of the torch itself, which is overtly “shabby” and rustic to emphasis its representation of the excluded groups who frequently clash with redevelopment projects in Olympics host cities. Organised by Hangorin no Kai (Anti-Olympic Group, or sometimes No Olympics 2020), one of the main activist groups in the anti-2020 movement, participants met outside Sendagaya Station on the afternoon of 21 November. We then toured around the construction site of the controversial New National Stadium and other related facilities, which has entirely swallowed Meiji Park, where many homeless people were staying, and Kasumigaoka Apartments, a public housing complex originally built under the umbrella of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics redevelopment. Former homeless residents, whose lawsuit over the loss of the park is on-going, and someone from the Kasumigaoka community also joined the tour at various points to share their insights. As we moved, participants played music on small instruments, forming a kind of makeshift chindonya marching band. The climax was the actual handover “ceremony”, involving several representatives from across the protest movement as well as someone in drag doing exaggerated performance calligraphy with the slogan “Hangorin” (Anti-Olympic). It came to an end just as the light was fading. Other than the attendees and random passersby, the main audience was actually a healthy contingent of public security bureau officers from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police watching and making studious notes from across the street.

The finale of the Anti-Olympic Torch events was a tour of the Tokyo Bay redevelopment sites on 23 November, organised by Okotowa Link (known in English as “No Thank You to Olympic Disasters” or “Another Olympics Disaster? No Thanks!”). This was a more ambitious undertaking that saw participants first gather in Tsukiji to hear about the closure of the market from local activists. We then boarded vehicles and drove to various places around the bay, culminating in a walk through the desolate Olympic Village construction site in Harumi. Since the day was a public holiday, no work was going on at the sites, conjuring up a particularly eerie atmosphere and a vision of what things might be like after the two-week bonanza is over in summer 2020 and the city is left with these expensive real estate investments that it potentially cannot reuse or sell on.

tokyo bay 2020 olympics construction development

I was reminded of the writer Iain Sinclair and his brilliant psychogeography memoir-cum-travelogue Ghost Milk. With customary surgical, almost fragmentary yet lyrical prose, Sinclair uses the titular metaphor as a refrain to describe these grand projects: ephemeral capital fuelling ubiquitous and soon-to-be-empty construction sites intended to realise phantom visions of city branding. Instead all they seem to usher in is surveillance, security, evictions and boondoggles. “The scam of scams was always the Olympics,” Sinclair writes, “Engines of regeneration. Orgies of lachrymose nationalism. War by other means. […] The five-hooped golden handcuffs. Smoke rings behind which deals could be done for casinos and mosques and malls: with corporate sponsorship, flag-waving and infinitely elastic budgets…” A brazenly suggested Olympic plan for hosting the 1988 Games in London is denounced as “the worst sort of land piracy”. What would Sinclair say about the developments in Tokyo Bay or Sendagaya?

The other events in the Anti-Olympic Torch handover included a talk at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies and screening of a film about protests at the 1988 Seoul Games, shown in Mitake Park in Shibuya in the vicinity of the now-closed Miyashita Park, which is another one of the flashpoints in the anti-2020 campaign.

The arrival of the Anti-Olympic Torch garnered some press attention from at least two outlets, the independent media OurPlanet-TV and Tokyo Shimbun. The torch also came to Japan against a poignant backdrop of related news stories: Osaka was selected to host the 2025 World Expo and organisers claimed they had received 80,000 applicants for the contentious 2020 Games volunteers programme (though 44% of them were not Japanese). The ghost milk of mega-events in Japan continues to trickle.


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Letter from Tokyo: A documentary about counterculture in Tokyo

Letter from Tokyo is a documentary made by Morgan Quaintance, a London-based artist, writer and curator, about counterculture in Japan’s capital.

It highlights several key counterspaces in the city, such as the anarchist infoshop Irregular Rhythm Asylum and the “intersectional zone” Kosaten. There is also a brief shot from the legendary Shinjuku bookstore Mosakusha, which stocks a large number of political titles as well as a remarkably comprehensive range of newsletters, pamphlets, and newspapers by various political factions and activist groups.

letter from tokyo counterculture documentary

The documentary features footage of recent street protests in Tokyo, such as an anti-racist counter-protest, the demonstrations against former Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda, Tokyo No Hate Festival and May Day marchers. Interviewees include IRA owner Keisuke Narita, Yasumichi Noma of the prominent antifa group CRAC and the photographer Ryūdai Takano.

In addition to the growth of LGBT movements in Japan, it also examines the wider issue of public space in Tokyo, noting the historical scarcity of open areas for people to use freely, and then the development of parks in imitation of Western cities in the Meiji era. Commentators note the threat that the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo poses for regulation of the streets as well as ushering in destructive gentrification and redevelopment initiatives, most notably in Tsukiji.

The 40-minute film was shot over a three-month period in Tokyo and was premiered in London in September at Jerwood Space alongside an installation of “images, objects and ephemera” collected by Quaintance during the filming of the work.


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Police arrest two Zengakuren activists for entering university campus in Tokyo to distribute political materials

Tokyo Metropolitan Police officers arrested two activists from the left-wing student group Zengakuren on 4 November on suspicion of entering a university campus to distribute political publications without permission.

The activists were nabbed in central Tokyo as they made their way to the annual Dōrō-Chiba “international solidarity” labour union rally in Hibiya, which is the largest far-left labour gathering in Japan, attracting up to 10,000 participants from a wide range of groups and visiting overseas delegates.

Though the alleged trespassing took place in late July, the timing of the arrests was both a practical one, since the police knew that the event was an ideal opportunity to serve open arrest warrants on the activists guaranteed to attend, but also deliberately scheduled in order to send a symbolic message to the rally organisers.

The two activists — Yōhei Sakube (27, of Dōgakukai, the de facto Kyoto University branch of Zengakuren) and Yūichi Utsumi (38) — are accused of entering the campus of Tōyō University, a private college located in Bunkyō ward in Tokyo, and distributing political publications to students for over an hour. They are alleged to have visited various student club rooms and handed out organs and flyers with information on an upcoming rally. Sakube is one of the central figures in the on-going Zengakuren lawsuit against police brutality, while Utsumi is a veteran originally affiliated with activism at Hōsei University in the 2000s (I actually interviewed him a few years ago for a piece in The Japan Times).

The incident raises issues regarding the restrictions on student activism in Japan. For all the fanfare and gushing about SEALDs in 2015, the grim reality is that holding a campus strike is rewarded with arrests and expulsions, and, as we see, entering a campus to distribute flyers is a newsworthy offence that merits police action. A way around the trespassing problem is to be a student actually enrolled at the university, of course, but then you might be punished for promoting an unauthorised organisation. The entrances to Kyoto and Hōsei universities are these days regularly the scenes of amusing standoffs between university staff and Zengakuren activists. The former hold up signs telling the activists not to use bullhorns as well as film the intruders’ every move with cameras. The latter, though, merely pounce on the administrators’ zealous response as proof of the oppression they are fighting — and happily shout this to the rooftops for every passing student to hear. But if one of them enters the campus, it’s game over and possible grounds for arrest.

So how can student activists agitate and politicise, regardless of their causes, if they cannot enter the campus? Should the university be a sacred ground, a temenos cleansed of politics and struggles? Zengakuren continues to challenge this mindset.

zengakuren activist japan arrested trespassing left wing student

zengakuren activist japan arrested trespassing left wing student

The media reaction to the arrests has been reliably telling. Despite the relative insignificance of this development, it was treated as a news story and dutifully reported by such press outlets as the Sankei accompanied by dramatic images of the two “criminals” being escorted solemnly away. (See above images for examples.) The implication, of course, is that Zengakuren and, by extension, student activism is mediated as a form of antisocial behaviour, alongside the wrongdoing of other rouges paraded routinely in front of the cameras of the Japanese news media. This stands in stark contrast with the “lighter” public image Zengakuren has been at pains to stress of late, particularly through social media.

What the mainstream media does not report in almost all cases is that many of these arrests often end with no charges being pursued, as I suspect will happen here. Quite frequently the activists are released after the 23 days of detention is up or even sooner, though this period can be extended by re-arresting them. Far-left activists adhere to a policy of maintaining total silence during detention, known as kanzen mokuhi or kanmoku, which is quite a stoic undertaking, given that the days in detention unfold in complete isolation from the outside world and interrogations take place without full recording or lawyers present. Chūkaku-ha, which is the parent organisation of Zengakuren, has particularly upheld this strategy as the best strategy, simultaneously denying the imperialist and bourgeois capitalist state its authority as well as functioning as the effective defence mechanism that has allowed it to survive decades of police aggression, inner ruptures and attacks from other left-wing groups. Police know this, of course, so can only hold slight hope that they can break committed activists. Arrests for such trivial offences, then, are as much punitive as pragmatic. They are a warning, an attempt to remind the activists that the police continue to monitor them and restrict their resources.

Zengakuren has denounced the arrests, sharing video footage of the apprehensions almost real-time on Twitter and decrying the police actions as a thinly veiled application of the new conspiracy law in the wake of another activist’s arrest in Kyoto. That case involved the arrest of senior Dōgakukai member Akinori Takada on the campus of Kyoto University on 18 October, ostensibly for refusing to leave the premises, though this was later changed to a more straightforward trespassing charge when he was formally indicated on 29 October. Once again, the timing of this ahead of the rally is surely not coincidental, though it is also merely the latest in a litany of tit-for-tat conflicts between the student movement and Kyoto University, beginning in roughly 2014.

Modest in size yet feisty and ambitious, Zengakuren recently appointed a new chair from the University of Tokyo. It is the only far-left student organisation still operating at any real scale in the student movement in Japan. It has built up a cult following through videos posted on the highly original Zenshin Channel on YouTube, where activists like Sakube are a frequent presence in front of the camera and Utsumi plays a key role behind the scenes. Needless to say, the group was quick to respond to the arrests with this video message.

Update: 22 November 2018

The two Zengakuren activists were released from police custody on 22 November without charge. Unusually, and perhaps in a sign of the impact Zengakuren’s recent tactics are having, this merited press attention, such as a report on TBS News.


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Ittoku 2018 protest music festival makes noise on the streets around the National Diet

Ascending from the barren bowels of Kokkai-gijidomae Station in the early afternoon of Sunday 7 October to an Indian summer bout of unexpected sunshine, the empty streets of Japan’s parliament district were disturbed by throbbing. As I skirted around the west side of the National Diet, I could hear that Ittoku 2018, the second edition of the annual music protest festival, was already well underway.

Coming to the front facade of the Diet, the first of the nine staging areas became visible at last: musicians and bands belting out tunes in the open air. Buskers are relatively rare in Tokyo, generally only permitted at a handful of stations, but this was more than just street musicians: it was explicitly organised as a middle-finger-raising series of sets aimed squarely at the monolithic vessel of power that is the Diet. The songs I heard were often directly anti-government and anti-authoritarian in tone, all watched over by phlegmatic cops in the 30-degree heat. Even when the music was not overtly politicised, the mere act of playing music in this part of the city was now a political act, as the constant presence of musicians at the weekly Kanteimae or Kokkaimae rallies has demonstrated.

ittoku 2018 music protest tokyo diet

The roads carried few taxis or other vehicles. This was the weekend in Tokyo’s government district. Nothing is open. It is, as the Ittoku publicity warned with telling language, a “wilderness” with few shops or facilities. The tree-lined pavements were mostly empty of pedestrians, except the riot police officers scattered around the various sites of the festival, and the audience members, of which there were plenty, though modestly distributed across the points.

ittoku festival music protest tokyo diet national

ittoku festival music protest tokyo diet national

Led by the musician Chikara Urabe, who is a common face to spot at protests around Tokyo, Ittoku launched last year, specifically to protest the new state secrets, wiretapping and conspiracy laws. This year’s event had a focus on the recently revised Tokyo Anti-Nuisance Ordinance, though the “Declaration of Resistance” that it published also mentioned the resurgent crackdown on dancing in clubs, such as the arrests at Aoyama Hachi in January. Its name is an abbreviated version of ittoku kedo, ore no jiyū wa yatsura nya yaranee! Rokku fesutibaru (言っとくけど、俺の自由はヤツラにゃやらねえ!ロック・フェスティバル), a combative chunk of slang that translates roughly as the “I’ll just say this, my freedom won’t be screwed by that lot! Rock Festival”.

This year featured nine performance “stages” (two more than last year) spread around two sides of the Diet in addition to two other spots that served, respectively, as a kind of casual speaker’s corner in a park — not insignificantly, in front of Constitution Memorial Hall — and an open mic event. This is not dissimilar to the regular protests at the Diet, particularly since 2015, where different spots and corners around the pavements take on different functions, each hosting certain groups, campaigns and activists with varying tones and practices. The stage names were also pertinently chosen. There was the “culture yard”, occupied by a DJ booth. Other names exhibited a certain style and attitude: “roar stage”, “howl stage”, “raging fire”, “storm”, “angry waves”, “thunderclap”, and “singing Gumisaka” (named after the street near the Diet).

There was an overarching rock theme, but the actual lineup and “stages” encompassed reggae, folk and other genres. Sets of between 30 and 60 minutes ran throughout the festival at the different stages, including by the likes of Rankin Taxi, Peace Winds, and The Tokyo Blue Mountains.

ittoku 2018 music protest tokyo diet

ittoku 2018 music protest tokyo diet

ittoku 2018 music protest tokyo diet

Both performers and audiences inclined a little older; most seemed over forty, but this is the reality of counterculture in Tokyo — and it still felt like a “younger” event than most others cut from the same political cloth. If you were to conjure up an image of hippie middle-aged musicians descending on central Tokyo to play songs, you might be forgiven for imagining plenty of long hair and beards, and these were indeed present in abundance, alongside the expected t-shirts adorned with peacenik symbols. If it all sounds like an esoteric cliche, though, rest assured that the festival vibe was fresh, fun and accessible, especially compared to the quarter’s concrete and greenery that is so lifeless. Prominent activists who took part included Tetsu Makuro (aka Kaebin Tetsu). It was very much the typical anti-nuclear power and Kanteimae crowd. There were veterans from the Henoko base relocation protests and also someone from the Michibata Kōgyō roadside music protest movement.

When I attended in the early and mid-afternoon, the static attendees per stage were not vast in number, but many spectators were shuffling between the stages. Naturally, different bands had stronger followings, and the bigger names were scheduled for the evening. Running from 11 am to 8 pm, the set-up was impressive by the sheer dint of it being lots of musicians playing on the streets around the Diet. But the basic concept does not do justice to the practicalities. An event like this takes some serious organisation. Every space had loudspeakers, mics, and other equipment, not to mention the heavy instruments that each performer seemed to bring along — as well as generators to power it all. This is not a cheap undertaking and audiences were encouraged to donate or buy the official t-shirts to help cover the costs.

ittoku 2018 music protest tokyo diet

ittoku 2018 music protest tokyo diet

The “stages”, of course, did not have an actual stage. Rather, they were quite confined spaces, hemmed in by police barriers that ensured no one stepped out of the allotted space for the performances and that the pavements were not blocked for passing pedestrians (of whom, they were basically only a handful of tourists). Around four police officers kept watch over each stage. Movement is always very restricted in Tokyo for demonstrations, especially in this high-security area that has experienced several sensational protests that escalated beyond police control.

ittoku festival music protest tokyo diet national

It is tempting to see the event in simplistic terms of “hijacking” the sacred sector of parliamentary democracy in Japan, but the conditions of the festival were carefully negotiated with the authorities. Naturally, like all protests and street events in Japan, a permit was required and dutifully applied for, which gave the organisers official sanction but at a price: police guards. If you were to try to breech these regulations in such a sensitive location, it would probably result in immediate arrest for disturbing the peace. That is not to say the performers held back, just that they knew the rules of the game. Speeches were made. Musicians bantered with the cops. The atmosphere was jovial, helped by the sunny weather and jiving attendees, but there was an unspoken tension in the air. Epitomising the irreverent and parodic spirit of the festival, the Ittoku publicity uses a logo-cum-mascot that is a modified image of the Diet, transformed into a wall of speakers and brandishing a mic. It’s a bit punk, yet also cute. For so many, however, the parliament truly is a hollow place that does not hear what they say. So then it’s up to people, musicians or otherwise, to mutate into anthropomorphic Diets like the logo suggests and make their own noise.


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Changing of the guard for Zengakuren as University of Tokyo student activist becomes chair

It was the end of an era and the beginning of a new one, as Ikuma Saitō handed over the reigns of the left-wing student activist group Zengakuren to Kyōhei Takahara in early September at the 79th Zengakuren National Congress.

A 21-year-old second-year University of Tokyo student, Takahara first crossed paths with Zengakuren two years ago when he was contacted by the group via social media after he distributed flyers on campus criticising the university’s co-operation with the Olympics. As such, this represents not only a changing of the guard in terms of generation, indicating that Zengakuren, far from dying out, is gaining fresh blood, but also a significant coup for the group in securing a new leader from Japan’s most elite college. While Zengakuren — that is, the Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction) national student organisation, formally Marugakudō (Marxist Students League) — is traditionally known for its strongholds at the likes of Hōsei University or Tōhoku University, the group is extending its influence to other institutions, including Okinawa and Kyoto universities. This is borne out by the myriad attendance at the congress, featuring around 65 activists from twelve colleges around Japan. Alongside Takahara as the new chair, a secretary general was appointed from Kyoto University, joining what is now a diverse committee of delegates from student movements at Hōsei, Hiroshima University and Okinawa University. Small yet feisty, Zengakuren is nonetheless truly a national league again.

kyohei takahara zengakuren

The new chair of Zengakuren, Kyōhei Takahara. Photo: Aera

The novelty of a Tōdai sophomore taking on the mantle of Zengakuren — apparently the first time a Tōdai student has been honcho in some four decades — has meant that mainstream media outlets took an interest in the development. After all, here is someone with no arrest record, a greenhorn yet to be expelled for political activities, landing the top job in Japanese student activism. The University of Tokyo student struggle in 1968 and 1969 was probably the most iconic episode in the entire protest cycle of the period, especially the epic showdown between thousands of police officers and students in Yasuda Auditorium in January 1969. However, Tokyo soon reasserted its position as the most prestigious college in the country and even the veterans of the campus movement were relatively taciturn compared to activists from other universities. History has come full circle, in a sense.

Though it has ostensibly renounced militant means and is today largely a labour union movement, Chūkaku-ha (and by extension, Zengakuren) remains associated with a kind of spectral past of 1960s and 1970s violence. It is a vague series of images: street riots, helmets, sticks, stones, bombs, hijackings. Who actually did what and why is less important that the sensational kaleidoscope. This has served the police and media well over the decades, and is one of the reasons young people have spurred far-left politics. Upon matriculation, students are warned by their universities against “cults” recruiting members; political clubs are banned from the campuses. The autonomous student councils that were so formerly instrumental in mobilising the student movement in 1960s are almost entirely extinct.

Zengakuren has undergone a major facelift in recent years, the latest iteration of which is this new chair. Following on from the achievements of Saitō and the female activist Tomoko Horaguchi, in particular, in presenting the membership as ordinary youth who can be passionate and ideological yet also self-deprecating and funny, Takahara seems to have the kind of appearance that can attract recruits. He, too, at first was wary of Zengakuren when its members contacted him but says he swiftly realised the limitations of his solo attempts at activism. He saw how Chūkaku-ha’s criticism of the Olympics as something that “stirs up xenophobia” was close to his own views, and last year joined the organisation.

While SEALDs received intense levels of media attention in 2015 as fashionable liberal youth activists engaging with politics (albeit not ideology), and were commended for their savvy marketing skills, it seemed to stand in stark contrast to the more sprawling, at times haphazard, use of analogue and digital tools by the likes of Zengakuren. Things have changed. The activists now deploy an arsenal of social media, blogs and YouTube videos, disseminating content at a formidable rate. The relaunched Zengakuren website is comparatively clean and accessible, and filled with an archive of materials and information. It should be noted that the tide was shifting before — aspects of the “cute” Zengakuren could already be seen in NAZEN, a youth wing focused on the nuclear power issue with a penchant for colourful clothes — but it has now surged and expanded beyond expectations.

Zengakuren’s leading figures spotted a “gap” in the market and cleverly exploited it. No one else, so far, has been able to balance appealing directly to digital natives with genuinely far-left politics. Zenshin Channel, its industrious YouTube channel, has attracted a cult following for its amateur and outlandish charms. In offline actions, too, activists happily wear costumes and play up to their pariah status, not unlike other post-Heisei groups such as Kakuhidō, whose members embrace their standing as men unable to get the girls with parodic marches protesting Valentine’s Day. Moreover, Zengakuren’s online posts also practically pander to the eager desires of kyōsanshumi otaku who love everything to do with far-left radical groups from the past.

This has all unfolded in the shadow of renewed pressure from the university authorities and police to squeeze the group’s resources and activities as well as maintain a public image of it as dangerous, resulting in dramatic raids on Kumano Dormitory and the Chūkaku-ha HQ in Tokyo, and regular arrests for minor infractions — all dutifully reported by the press (though almost never when the activists are released without charge, as is often the case).

zengakuren membership japan student activists

The leading faces of Zengakuren, as presented on the group’s website

It seems, however, that Zengakuren’s causes are striking a chord with some students. Its lawsuit against police officers for alleged assault involves merely an extreme version of what students see at the entrances of campuses at Hōsei and Kyoto, where police and administrators grossly outnumber the activists, aggressively document their every move with cameras, and physically prevent them from stepping on the premises. Likewise, while not championed by Zengakuren exclusively, the on-going issues at Kyoto regarding the threatened Yoshida Dormitory eviction and standing signboard censorship speaks to youngsters slowly waking up to the neoliberal realities of the age. (In June, a symposium on the Kyoto University signboard issue was held on campus by a University of Tokyo study group. Speakers included a representative from Dōgakkai, the Kyoto University chapter of the Chūkaku-ha Zengakuren.) While SEALDs was (rightly) praised for making liberal activism cool again, and its campaigning has evidently influenced several other subsequent groups, a lesser-remarked development is that more hard-core and dogmatic left-wing activism — the New Left undōka to the SEALDs akutibisuto — is increasingly no longer a dirty word to some.

Meanwhile, the new academic semester has begun, bringing fresh politicking at Kyoto. Next up for Zengakuren is the nationwide series of demonstrations scheduled for 21 October, known as International Anti-War Day — a date in the late 1960s when several notorious mass riots took place, primarily in protest at the role of the United States (and Japan as a silent partner) in the Vietnam War. From Akita in the north down to Okinawa in the far south, Zengakuren and its associates will organise protests and rallies in one of its most ambitious actions in years.

As Takahara assumes command, the existing talent continues to take on fresh challenges. After seven years spend leading Zengakuren, whither Saitō? Presumably he can look forward to no longer being addressed as -kun in the part organ Zenshin. He will also surely progress up the ranks of Chūkaku-ha as a “regular” activist. (Even if he wanted it, an ordinary career is probably out of the question for someone of his repute.) He has already stood for election before and is set to do the same again in the House of Councillors election in July next year. The popular Tomoko Horaguchi will also stand in April’s Suginami ward election. Dressed in smart suits and transformed into mainstream political candidates, their portraits currently adorn posters plastered all across the local area. As these former student activists enter their thirties, it is less tenable for them to be the faces of Zengakuren — or at least, the most prominent faces. They are, after all, not actually students anymore or even “young” by some standards (outside Japan). Takahara’s arrival is perfectly timed for him to ride a new wave for Zengakuren. “I want to rebuild the student movement,” he told Aera in a largely sympathetic interview. “And in order to do that, I want to develop activism together with various other kinds of activists from many universities.”


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