Former Red Army Faction leader Takaya Shiomi dies, aged 76

Takaya Shiomi, former leader of Sekigun-ha (Red Army Faction), has died aged 76, reported Japanese media today.

He passed away from heart failure on November 14th at a hospital in Kodaira, a city in west Tokyo. Born in Hiroshima in 1941, Shiomi became involved with radical politics during his time at Kyoto University. He formed Sekigun-ha in 1969 as a breakaway faction from the Bund at the peak of the Japanese student movement and campus strikes. Generally regarded as the best-known far-left group in Japan, the faction immediately achieved notoriety by attacking other leftist activists in public. It launched a series of attacks against police stations and vehicles in Tokyo and Osaka before the authorities conducted a large-scale raid in November 1969, arresting dozens of members while they were training in the countryside.

takaya shiomi red army faction sekigun-ha election kiyose city municipal assembly april 2015

Takaya Shiomi during his 2015 Kiyose assembly election campaign.

Shiomi and the other leaders went underground, where they planned Japan’s first airplane hijacking. The so-called Yodogō incident (after the aircraft’s name) was carried out in March 1970, though Shiomi was apprehended by police shortly beforehand. This ultimately proved somewhat fortunate for him, since the hijackers became stuck in North Korea after the plane was flown there. Shiomi served nearly 20 years in prison, much of it on remand, for planning the hijacking, though there was no law specifically against airplane hijacking at the time, as well as conspiring to attack the prime minister’s residence and other charges. Elements of Sekigun-ha then developed into other factions such as Rengō Sekigun (United Red Army), which self-destructed through an infamous purge in late 1971 and early 1972, and the internationally based Japanese Red Army.

sekigunha red army faction

Members of Sekigun-ha (Red Army Faction), the far-left radical group that Shiomi founded

Following his release from prison in late 1989, Shiomi worked as a parking lot attendant in Kiyose, a small city on the outskirts of Tokyo. He also published several books — most recently in 2014 — and was quite a regular guest speaker at public talks. He campaigned unsuccessfully for a seat in the Kiyose municipal assembly election in 2015.

Shiomi is one of several other prominent figures in the Japanese New Left who have died this year, including East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front bomber Masashi Daidōji, Sanrizuka movement leader Kōichi Kitahara, and former Chūkaku-ha radical Kōichi Kishi.


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Protests in Tokyo against President Donald Trump’s first state visit to Japan

Between the round of golf, the much-mocked koi carp fish feeding session, and the meeting with the families of Japanese abductees, President Donald Trump’s presence in Tokyo during his first official state visit also resulted in heightened security measures that affected the general public, anxiety over his audience with the emperor, and anger from certain sections of society that manifested as several protests.

These were not coordinated and, as such, no single event stood out or managed to mobilise impressive numbers, as might have been the case had the JCP or the anti-war umbrella group Sōgakari planned something. (In fact, Sōgakari held a large protest attended by some 40,000 people around the National Diet on November 3rd, demonstrating against the re-election of Shinzō Abe’s LDP and the prime minister’s pledge to revise the Constitution.) The discontent against Trump’s visit seemed spread out over a handful of smaller street marches and rallies in Tokyo. I have summarised below the main examples in the city that I followed, though was unable to attend any in person.

November 4th

On the day prior to Trump’s arrival, a march in Shinjuku by Zainichi Koreans (ethnic Koreans permanently resident in Japan) objected to his visit to Japan and South Korea as tensions with Pyongyang continue to escalate.

November 5th

On the day of the president’s arrival, the Vote Out the Scandal rally was held at the very visible location of Hachiko in Shibuya by members of a local chapter of Democrats Abroad. It was attended by a modest but boisterous group of non-Japanese residents, particularly US citizens.

Meanwhile, the far-left labour union Dōrō-Chiba held its annual international workers solidarity rally in Hibiya, followed by a march through central Tokyo during the afternoon. This is usually attended by several thousand people, bringing together a range of different activists and labour groups. Naturally this year the event took on an anti-Trump tone and the rally included performers dressed up as Abe and Trump, who were subsequently “arrested” on the stage. Somewhat provocatively, the marchers also carried effigies of the two leaders (see a video at Police presence at the rally venue and along the march is always very high.

In the evening of the Sunday, a colourful march in Shinjuku was organised by several established left-wing and anti-war groups, including Kyūen Renraku Sentā (Relief Liaison Centre, or Kyuen Renraku Centre) and Tachikawa Self-Defence Forces Monitoring Tent Village.

anti donald trump protests march tokyo japan

Photo via @mkimpo_kid

November 6th

On Trump’s final full day in the capital, a lone protestor was spotted with a placard at Yotsuya. However, as this was a Monday, there was an understandable lack of notable street actions.

The response to Trump’s sojourn was not only one-sided. These protests by liberal and left-wing groups were also met by small pro-Trump and pro-Anpo counter-protests, who held up Japanese and American flags as well as pro-Trump banners (see examples here and here). Trump’s rhetoric against North Korea and decision to meet the families of abductees as well as his perceived tougher stance towards China has made him popular with Japanese ultra-nationalists, who generally view the US-Japanese alliance as preferrable to improved relations with Japan’s neighbours.

pro trump counter protest japan tokyo

Photo via @jinmin1991

On November 7th, Trump departed Japan for South Korea without incident, almost certainly unaware of the protests during his stay. In all, the most serious disturbance was the series of bomb threats received at locations outside Tokyo and also at Waseda University, which closed the campus for much of November 7th. No bombs were found, however, and the threats were most likely the handiwork of merely opportunistic pranksters.

Although there was a striking increase in the numbers of officers on duty at stations around Tokyo, the police crackdown was relatively restrained. That being said, on November 2nd police raided sites linked to a far-left group that it suspects of carrying out previous attacks against United States military facilities.


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Police raid far-left group Kakurōkyō sites ahead of Trump visit to Japan

Japanese media reported that the police conducted raids on November 2nd at five sites linked to one of the factions of the far-left radical group Kakurōkyō (Revolutionary Workers).

Deliberately timed as a crackdown just ahead of the arrival of President Trump in Japan on November 5th, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department as well as Saitama and Kanagawa police searched the sites, including Sekisaisha, the official headquarters of the group located in Taito ward in Tokyo, in connection with their investigation over the homemade rocket launched at a condominium in Kawaguchi City in October 2014. That incident targeted a corporate contractor involved with the controversial US base relocation in Henoko, Okinawa. Police seized 51 items, including computers, SD cards and mobile phones, but no arrests were made.

kakurokyo police raid trump visit

The group is alleged to have set up a rocket-launching timer device near Yokota Air Base in 2009 immediately prior to the visit of President Obama. As such, police raided Sekisaisha and other locations as part of its increased security efforts in preparation for Trump’s arrival, which Kakurōkyō had openly denounced in its organ. Such raids are heavily orchestrated, however, with the press informed in advance so that they can be present to capture the police entering the buildings. This helps create a media image of the remnants of Japan’s New Left movement as dangerous and anti-social.

The “non-mainstream” (Kimoto-ha or Yamashige-ha) faction of Kakurōkyō is arguably the only far-left group in Japan still committed to armed struggle, at least to some degree, and is suspected of carrying out previous projectile attacks on Yokota Air Base in 2013 and Camp Zama in 2015. The incidents resulted in no casualties or serious damage. Responsibility was claimed by a group calling itself the Revolutionary Army, though police have identified this as a paramilitary cell within the non-mainstream Kakurōkyō. The Kimoto-ha faction is alleged of several such small mortar attacks against United States military facilities over the past two decades. The struggle against the US-Japan security alliance and the presence of American military bases in Japan, especially in Okinawa, remains a key campaign for the group. In an effort to prevent it from carrying out further attacks, police maintain pressure, including regular searches and arrests, including the arrest of a prominent activist earlier this year over the 2013 Yokota Air Base incident.


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Two Zengakuren activists at Kyoto University arrested as police increase pressure on student politics

Police have arrested two activists at Kyoto University linked to far-left group Chūkaku-ha’s student organisation, Zengakuren, after security guards were allegedly touched and kicked during scuffles with activists on campus earlier this year.

On October 31st, a 21-year-old fourth-year literature student at Kyoto University and a 27-year-old activist who is a former graduate student at the college were arrested on charges of interfering with duties. This is typical of the kind of minor offence exploited to arrest left-wing activists in Japan, hold them in detention punitively for weeks without indictment, and then more often than not release them without charge. Police also carried out raids on October 31st at five locations, including the university’s Kumano Dormitory while in full riot gear.

The charges relate to two incidents in August in which the men made physical contact with security personnel on campus. One is alleged to have pressed down on the neck of a security guard who was trying to stop him from handing out leaflets, while the other is said to have kicked a security guard who was removing a wooden sign made by the activists. (A video shared on Twitter by the Hōsei University Bunka Renmei group appears to show one of the incidents.) This is a standard practice: police hold onto evidence of a minor crime and then wait until a seemingly opportune moment to arrest the suspect. Activists, however, merely see this as further proof of their victimisation by the police, state and university. The usual tactic they employ is to maintain complete silence during the entire period of detention.

The Kyoto University branch of Zengakuren — not officially recognised by the college — is Dōgakukai and strives to re-politicise the campus through a series of protests and even a short strike. These activities have been effectively prohibited by the university and the students arrested and expelled.

A particular site of contention has been the large signboards with political messages that student activists erect around the campus, a practice with a long precedent at Kyoto and other colleges but which is being quashed in an effort to sanitise universities. Students in Japan will certainly be confronted by an array of signs about clubs and various campus activities, but rarely political slogans. The same thing happened at Hōsei in the late 2000s, which sparked an ongoing tit for tat in the struggle over the signboards and the right to disseminate political messages.

zengakuren kyoto university arrests students

Kumano Dormitory has become a site of frequent police raids in recent years due to its links to Dōgakukai. Just this year, for example, the arrest of a Zengakuren activist in Kyoto sparked a raid on the student facility. This is commonly done with an exaggerated show of manpower in an apparent attempt to signify activism and student leftist politics as “illegal”, “dangerous” and “anti-social”.

In general, police and university pressure has increased in Kyoto in an effort to stamp out the boisterous fringe group, just as Hōsei University has spent years fighting its own Zengakuren cell. (Hōsei, however, is a private university and thus able to impose harsher controls over the campus than Kyoto University, which is one of the oldest and most respected public higher education institutions.) Dōgakukai has responded energetically (and with parody) to the oppression, regularly holding small protests in which the activists are outnumbered by the police officers and administrators in attendance.

This week’s tidings come just days after the head of Zengakuren campaigned, unsuccessfully, in last month’s lower house election for a seat in Tokyo and prior to a major annual rally in Hibiya this weekend by Dōrō-Chiba, a labour union associated with Chūkaku-ha and Zengakuren. It was after this rally in 2014 that the current conflict at Kyoto University intensified when activists were arrested during the march and then a police officer was rumbled on the campus.

Police also continue to take an interest in nabbing the senior generation of Chūkaku-ha activists for trivial reasons. A 54-year-old man from Matsusaka City in Mie Prefecture was arrested on October 26th on suspicion of fraud and violating traffic laws. He is accused of driving without a licence and not paying for a train ticket. The allegations relate to an incident on August 30th when the man bought a train ticket for ¥150 and rode from Nagoya Station to Matsusaka Station on the Kintetsu Line. He failed to pay the required difference of ¥670 when he left the station. He is also accused of driving a truck in Mie Prefecture on August 17th and September 13th without the correct licence. All of this was ominously reported in a short article in the Sankei without any mention of the insignificance of the crime, but rather due emphasis placed on the perpetrator’s links to a political group and how his movements were related to his radicalism.


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The curious disappearance of Kōichi Kishi, leading activist in the Sanrizuka protests

Speak no ill of the dead, as the philosophers say.

Haruhiko Daijima’s documentary The Fall of Icarus: Narita Stories about the Sanrizuka protest movement against Narita Airport was released in September. I had rather mixed feelings about the predecessor, The Wages of Resistance: Narita Stories, primarily because it completely ignored the contribution of the student movement and New Left factions to the protests, and the follow-up has largely rectified this imbalance. One issue I have with documentaries like this is that they seem to promise comprehensiveness and then fail to deliver it. Even after watching both films, the average viewer will still need to read and research more to understand the basics of the Sanrizuka movement. But this is the longest-running protest movement in Japan, so it may be churlish to expect such an exhaustive account of something so complex.

One of the main interviewees in the film is Kōichi Kishi, a former member Chūkaku-ha, the Central Core Faction of Kakukyōdō (the Revolutionary Communist League). In the film Kishi criticises himself and Chukaku-ha, and, in perhaps the documentary’s biggest coup, appears to end by admitting his own ultimate failure after 25 years of participation in the protest and, in possibly the most contentious statement in the film, the failure of the movement as a whole.

koichi kishi chukakuha sanrizuka

Former high-ranking Chūkaku-ha activist Kōichi Kishi

What is not made fully explicit in the film is that he is so open about his actions and, though somewhat allusively, critical of Chūkaku-ha’s involvement in the Sanrizuka struggle, because he left the organisation. The circumstances surrounding this are disputed by the two parties, but it dates back to the fourth Kakukyōdō split, a conflict in 2006 within Chūkaku-ha and the eventual expulsion or departure of the Shiokawa and Yoda factions for ideological reasons. The problems centred on activists in Kansai and accusations of confinement and violence have been made.

Critical of what he saw as a purge, Kishi left his role on the frontline of the Sanrizuka struggle in 2006 and was officially removed from the league the following year. Also expelled were two other prominent activists in Suginami, a key Chūkaku-ha area, who also served in the ward assembly. (Subsequent attempts by Chūkaku-ha activists to win election in the district have so far failed.) In November 2007, a Kansai splinter group formed its own regional faction that evolved into Kakumeiteki Kyōsanshugisha Dōmei Saiken Kyōgikai, the Revolutionary Communist League Reconstruction Council the following year.

In May 2015, Kishi published a book with another ex-Chūkaku-ha activist, Yasutaka Mizutani. The 450-page The Failure of the Revolutionary Communist League Politburo 1975–2014 (or the Collapse of Chūkaku-ha) came out around the same time as several other books, all competing to portray the history of organisation in a certain way. As the title makes clear, Kishi and Mizutani’s was a highly critical book that was inevitably denounced by Chūkaku-ha.

chukaku-ha history book

“The Failure of the Revolutionary Communist League Politburo 1975-2014 (or the Collapse of Chūkaku-ha)”, which was co-written by Kishi and published in spring 2015

Putting aside the particulars of these contrasting books, the case of the 69-year-old Kishi is made more curious by recent events that happened after the documentary wrapped. While this year the news about Chūkaku-ha has been understandably dominated by the apprehension of Masaaki Ōsaka after over four decades on the run, another tiding was also reported: Kishi mysteriously disappeared in March while on a skiing trip in Niigata. Leaving his accommodation early in the morning of March 26th, Kishi telephoned in the mid-afternoon to say that he had got lost, after which he was never seen or heard from again. Searches have revealed his backpack but nothing else.

At the time, the police announced that Kishi, a native of Gunma Prefecture, was a company employee living in the West Waseda area of Tokyo. He studied at Keiō University and was a veteran of the struggle against the United States field hospital at Ōji in 1968 as well as the protest against Prime Minister Eisaku Sato’s visit to America, where he was arrested. He was promoted to lead the Chūkaku-ha struggle at Sanrizuka in 1981, after Narita Airport had opened but at a key juncture when the protest movement was splitting and the construction of the second runway got underway. Kishi oversaw a period in the campaign which saw fighting directed against activists from another faction as well as the airport authority. In The Fall of Icarus, while not overly pressed by the director, Kishi calmly defends the targeting of the airport authority employee Nobuo Maeda, given what Maeda was doing to disunite the movement, and justifies the group’s tactics as legitimate during such a conflict.

The days of internal and inter-factional violence, known as uchi-geba (literally, “inner Gewalt“), are supposedly long gone, not least because most of the surviving members of the New Left in Japan are surely too old for that sort of thing, and there is no evidence or suggestion that Kishi met a sticky end at the hands of former colleagues. In which case, what happened to him? He may have faked his death for some reason. He may have committed suicide, as viewers of the film might be tempted to think, though he was apparently quite active at the time of his disappearance. He may have simply vanished. Every year people go missing in the treacherous Japanese countryside when skiing or hiking. No one can say with certainty, but one thing is for sure: it makes for a disquieting end to an already controversial activist’s life.


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