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.

WILLIAM ANDREWS

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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.

Jishuku

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.

WILLIAM ANDREWS

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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.

WILLIAM ANDREWS

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A short history of the Japanese hippie movement

We might begin with a series of snapshots.

Young people sniffing paint thinner in plastic bags around Shinjuku Station. Long-haired, bearded musicians like the Taj Mahal Travellers, embarking on a tour of Asia. Artists hanging out at trendy, edgy venues — the coffee shop Fūgetsudō, perhaps — before heading off to a shrine to stage a performance in a tent. Hirsute hippies from the Bum Academy rambling around.

Of the many histories of Japan’s Long Sixties waiting to be written, an account of the Japanese hippie movement would prove one of the messiest. Figures and groups can be traced, but they overlap or fade away too easily, and paper trail is vague. Instead, we are left with a heavy haze of tropes and images, the anti-war, New Left and student movements all merging into one, embellished by flashes of colour: folk music, drugs, communes, sexual hedonism, deviance.

paint thinner sniffing tokyo japan shinjuku hippies counterculture

paint thinner sniffing tokyo japan shinjuku hippies counterculture

These images are informed by aspects of popular culture as much as reality. Actuality has been remediated through cinema or tabloid magazines to disseminate a photogenic, readily consumable version of counterculture. Films like Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969), Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) and Shinjuku Mad (1970) cemented what was already a media frenzy at the time, preserving in aspic a portrait of Tokyo — especially Shinjuku — as an oasis of sexual and moral freedom for oddballs, volatile hippies and dangerous dropouts. Was it true? Yes, in part. Was it romanticised, then and in the years after? Undoubtedly so.

The impossibility of writing anything coherent and valuable about such an inherently sprawling and loose movement — even assuming we think of it as a single movement — has long defeated me. Nonetheless, in lieu of a more robust survey, the following is an attempt to chart a basic chronology of the movement.

Timeline

1923 The poet Sakaki Nanao was born in Kagoshima. He is generally regarded as the founding father of the Japanese hippie movement.

1946 Fūgetsudō opened in Tokyo. It would become a famed hang-out for bohemians (wannabe or otherwise) in the subsequent decades.

1950 The bookstore Unita opened in Kanda, Tokyo. It developed into one of the most prominent counterculture hubs in Japan and, as a place that circulated politically radical and subversive materials, frequently faced police raids and even prosecution. It closed in 1982.

1956 The poet Gary Snyder (b. 1930) came to Japan for the first time. At Fūgetsudō, he subsequently met figures central to the Japanese hippie movement like Tetsuo Nagasawa (Naga, or Naaga) and Kaiya Yamada (Pon).

1963 Nanao met Naager and Pon at the Kōenji coffee shop Nelken. Nanao and Naager later met Allen Ginsberg in Kyoto. The Beat Generation proved a major influence on the nascent Japanese hippie movement, along with New Age ideas imported from India like the ashram. This went both ways. Snyder, for instance, not only contributed to the Japanese hippie movement but Asia greatly impacted his work and world-view. These transnational, transpacific connections also continued, with Nanao and others visiting and staying in California in the early 1970s.

1965 Beheiren was established. It became the leading force in the 1960s and 1970s anti-war movement, attracting a broad sweep of society. Hippies were associated with Beheiren in various ways, as musicians at rallies as well as part of its clandestine network for helping US servicemen desert. In this year, Fūgetsudō became increasingly popular with (counter)cultural figures, though it closed in 1973.

1966 The Bum Academy was founded. It name was conceived by Sakaki Nanao. The group is loosely defined, comprising a motley set of hippies in Shinjuku. It later changed its name to Buzoku (the Tribe, sometimes the Tribes) after launching the Buzoku Shimbun (Tribe Newspaper) in 1967. Less a single group than an umbrella label, Buzoku is ultimately used as a name to cover all the various communes and groups that sprang up. An alternative network of communes and counterculture was the Hoshi no Yūgyōgun (Star Tour Army), which emerged a little later with links to the likes of Teruo Ōtomo.

japan buzoku the tribe hippies 1967 japan buzoku the tribe hippies 1967

1967 The Kaminari Akagarasu-zoku (Thunderbolt Red Crow Tribe) commune was founded in the mountains of Nagano. Its Meditation Center of Harijan would attract attendees widely.

Other hippies groups/communes were establishsed this year, like the Gajumaru no Yumezoku (Banyan Dream Tribe), later renamed the Banyan Ashram, on the southern subtropical island of Suwanosejima, and the Yume miru Yadokari-zoku (Dreaming Hermit Crab Tribe) in Miyazaki.

Also in 1967, the Bum Academy held its first three festivals in Tokyo and Miyazaki. Other outdoor festivals with hippie and ecological themes would be organised around Japan in the years to come, including Tokyo, Hiroshima, Ishikawa, Chiba, Shizuoka and Hokkaidō. These continued well beyond the peak of the hippie and New Age movements, with the anti-nuclear Inochi no Matsuri (Festival of Life), for instance, taking place in the mountains of Nagano in 1988. It is still held every twelve years.

The snack bar Horagai opened in Kokubunji, West Tokyo, as the first rock music coffee shop in the country. It was initially run by a team that included Sansei Yamao, another key figure in the Japanese hippie movement and associated with Nanao and his peers. Horagai, which means “giant triton”, was one of the sites linked to a Kokubunji commune called Emerarudo Iro no Yosofū-zoku (Emerald Breeze Tribe), started by Yamao in 1968.

The Greenhouse, as the lawn plaza in front of the east side of Shinjuku Station became known, was by now a gathering place for fūten (literally, “insane”) drop-outs. Young people congregated there from around the country and over five hundred were counted as sleeping rough at the site during the summer of 1967. Efforts were inevitably made to put a stop to this phenomenon, with the authorities officially erecting signage warning that the area is out of bounds, though people continued to assemble there in their dozens in the next summer.

1969 Kansai activists associated with Beheiren held the Hanpaku (Anti-Expo), an anti-war peace festival, in Osaka Castle Park as an alternative to the official World Expo that took place in Suita, Osaka, in 1970.

Beheiren was also linked to the “folk guerrilla” anti-war music concerts at the West Gate (Nishiguchi) plaza on Shinjuku Station, which were held weekly throughout the spring and summer, eventually attracting thousands of mostly young people and transforming the underground station plaza into a festive place for students, activists and music fans. The gatherings were ultimately broken up by police and the leading musicians arrested.

1970 The bookstore Mōsakusha opened in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Like the earlier Unita in Kanda, it became a central nexus for distributing and disseminating not only New Left materials but also various other forms of subculture and counterculture. In this year, LSD was also classified as a narcotic in Japan.

1971 The Shakujii Village Commune was founded in Tokyo by Teruo Ōtomo with a name harking back to to a village that once existed on the outskirts of the city in the feudal era. Various other communes appeared from Hokkaidō in the far north down to Fukuoka and even the island of Suwanosejima in the far south. A commune map of Japan published in a May 1977 issue of Namae no nai shimbun (see below) listed almost two hundred sites stretching right across the archipelago.

1972 The Namae no nai shimbun (Nameless Newspaper) was launched in Tokyo by Hikaru Hamada, an anti-war activist. Over the years, it would publish material about counterculture and anti-establishment movements until 1977. It ceased publication for a time but was then revived in 1988 for the Inochi no Matsuri that year.

Small hubs for hippie culture were increasingly popping up around the country, frequently as coffee shops or live music venues. Guwarandō had opened in Kichijōji in 1970. The cafe Hobbit opened in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi, in 1972. Also in 1972 came the short-lived yet legendary OZ, a live rock music venue in Tokyo, while Yadokari (Tenant or Hermit Crab) opened in Miyazaki and Honyaradō in Kyoto (which burnt down in 2015, destroying much of co-founder and street photographer Kai Fusayoshi’s collection of prints and negatives).

1975 The Mugari Dōjō commune was founded by Kaiya Yamada and others on a remote, uninhabited island in the Amami chain in opposition to plans by ENEOS to exploit it for oil. The commune, whose name literally means the “selfless training room” but is also partly derived from local dialect, lasted for many years.

1976 Teruo Ōtomo started the Milky Way community in Mitaka (in the west of Tokyo). It was a major centre for Tokyo-based counterculture for four decades. Ōtomo was a leading figure in the younger generation of hippies. He walked across Japan for six months from 1975, starting in Hokkaidō and finishing in Okinawa, a journey he called the Milky Way Caravan.

Hobbit Village, a vine-covered building in Nishi-Ogikubo in the west of Tokyo, with an organic grocery store, organic food restaurant (Balthazar), bookshop and school. It is still in operation today.

1980 Banyan Ashram on Suwanosejima disbanded. The commune played a role in Beheiren’s covert network providing shelter for United States servicemen who deserted while in Japan to avoid fighting in Vietnam. A fictional account of this forms part of Matthew Turner’s novel Sweden.

The commune had been a key part of opposition to the resort development of the island by Yamaha, which also led to the establishment of the Cosmic Children’s Council in Nishi-Kokubunji for printing and disseminating information about the campaign. The commune was unable to gain support from the locals on the island, however, who endorsed the Yamaha plan. The resort opened in 1977, though would close in 1982. The commune and island inspired a documentary film by Keiichi Ueno, Suwa-no-se, the Fourth World, which was released in 1977.

1990 I Am Hippie by Kaiya Yamada, a memoir chronicling the author’s remarkable, peripatetic life and which has become a key account of the hippie movement in Japan, is published. Yamada died in 2010 and his book was reissued in 2013 in an expanded edition.

2008 Sakaki Nanao died.

“Primitives of Unknown Culture” and Other Tropes

Some might scoff and call the preceding attempt to impose a conventional structure on counterculture as, if you’ll pardon the expression, counterintuitive. Pity the tomfool who then attempts a summary. Amid the meandering chronology, key themes recur, many of which are familiar from hippie and New Age movements elsewhere.

To begin with those familiar ones.

Yes, there was music and guitars, and long hair.

Yes, there were drugs — we are talking about hippies, after all — and in particular LSD and marijuana. One particular bust for cannabis possession saw five key figures arrested, including Sansei Yamao. It was reported by the media and contributed to the notoriety of the movement.

Yes, the hippies were interlinked with the concurrent anti-war movement and there was also some overlap with the New Left (especially Beheiren, which I here include within that term, and other groups/causes). But the hippies were not just peaceniks: their ecological and environment concerns were as pressing as such issues as the Vietnam War and imperialism, and eventually the former took precedence as the 1970s wore on. In fact, the hippies arguably at least in part anticipated the emergence of the recycling and green movement in the civil society in Japan during the later 1970s.

Yes, there were communes — and which should not be conflated with the communes of the various new religious movements in post-war Japan, though some did chronologically grow out of the New Left and encompass aspects of spirituality that echo New Age beliefs.

But these hippies communes were essentially counterspaces, not cults. Establishing physical sites as havens and hubs for counterculture was a recurrent aspect of the practices during the period, evolving into a network of cafes, coffee shops, printers and more. These were frequently rural or, if in Tokyo, to the (then less-developed, greener) west of the city, though Shinjuku did justify its reputation as the home of several hippies happenings and spaces. The sites were not static, however, but rather also led to large-scale events, especially outdoor festivals.

What is important to stress, and what can be hard at first to decipher from the documentation and images that remains, was that these were not simply one-off larks; they were sustained and ambitious events, and evinced a genuine urge towards an alternative lifestyle. As Sakaki Nanao wrote in an English-language text about a Suwanosejima hippie gathering: “Every day as Festival. That is your duty, your love, and your destiny.” This aspired lifestyle was nomadic and migratory when much of the population was cashing in the dividends of the Economic Miracle by settling down into bourgeois citizenship. Far from buying houses and cars and household appliances, the hippies rejected consumerism to farm, travel and meditate.

Nagasawa’s “Buzoku sengen” (Tribe Declaration) (1967), the de facto manifesto of the movement, is a famous embodiment of hippies’ hopes. “What we call the Tribe Society (buzoku shakai) is a society where there are no individuals or institutions ruling or ruled, where even the word “rule” is useless; a society that is not born from the earth and then builds something on top of it, but rather simply exists with the earth, that returns to the earth, that is supported by the bonds between individuals through the love and freedom and knowledge that is the respiration of the soul. [. . .] We will watch over the fate of the nation-state to fade away. We are now shaping a single path, the right path of survival, not the path that leads to the demise of the human race.”

Another aspect of this was a new concept of the land of Japan as spiritual, mysterious and universal, attuned to an ancient energy (as the name of Buzoku/Tribe suggests) that can attract people from the metropolis and even from around the world to travel together to remote parts of the country. Nanao, in that aforementioned report on the Suwanosejima event, extolled: “One by one, from San Francisco, Tokyo, and several other cities people arrived upon the scene. Those who were unable to take part, held the festival within themselves. We are primitives of unknown culture. [. . . ] Our leader is a two year old [sic] baby. He is completely naked, healthy and vivid. [. . .] For us the earth is too small and the city too narrow. [. . . ] We are not only representatives of some tribes but heirs of ancient peoples. Besides, we are natural spirits, like the coyote.” The flower-people and back-to-the-land language notwithstanding, this vividly evokes the mood of the event and the scale of the vision espoused by the wandering poet. The 1977 commune map referenced above not insignificantly labelled the Japanese island chain as the “Yaponesia Mandala,” borrowing from the novelist Toshio Shimao’s concept of Yaponesia (or sometimes Japonesia), a pre-modern image of Japan as archipelagic and with links to the Pacific dating back to before the arrival of rice cultivation from the Asian continent and the emergence of the Yamato Japanese people on the main islands. Shimao, like the hippies, wanted us to look to the periphery rather than the mainland, which is dominated by the Yamato Japanese and, of course, the big cities.

In the arts, similar tendencies are evident during this same period. In the 1970s, the conceptual artist Yutaka Matsuzawa sought to abandon materiality and challenge the bourgeois hierarchy of art — the broader project of the anti-art movement — alongside modernity and civilisation itself. He created a concept of primal painting and immaterial exhibitions (that is, non-exhibition) in imaginary spaces in the wilderness of Japan. Assisted by various other practitioners in the anti-art and avant-garde scene in the 1960s and 1970s, he attempted to attain asceticism through meditation events and commune-style art gatherings in the mountains of Suwa, Nagano. Another example of a conscious retreat away from civilisation towards something purer was the Toga Festival. Launched in a village in Toyama Prefecture in 1982 as Japan’s first major international performing arts festival, it was arguably the greatest achievement of the underground theatre and dance scene of the 1960s and 1970s just as the original generation of practitioners started to either die off or take up sinecures.

Some of the hippies’ aspirations were more grounded in daily realities. Part of their efforts to practise an alternative society related to diet and food, most obviously in growing, eating and selling organic produce. Teruo Ōtomo, for instance, went on to run an organic food store, while Tabemonoya (literally, Food Shop) was a restaurant opened in Nishi-Ogikubo in 1977 by a collective of women linked to the movement (including the then wife of musician Shinya Kawauchi, who had started OZ and initially ran Hobbit Village). It was operated until 1989, with all the women on the team granted equal status. This also did not originate in a vacuum but parallels similar developments that grew out of the New Left and student movement of the Long Sixties, perhaps most notably the food co-operatives that are still widespread today and, in the case of Tabemonoya, the belated flowering of Women’s Lib in Japan.

Another more concrete aspect to the hippies’ practices was the wealth of writings and publications they produced, though little was distributed widely and almost none of is easily available today. These materials joined the confluence of alternative media then blossoming, notably the development of minikomi (“mini communication”) leaflets, pamphlets, and small hand-printed publications that we might today call zines. What the hippies penned and printed was nonetheless discrete from the other alternative media that existed at the time in the form of the vast volume of New Left faction organs and newspapers or other political materials published by Beheiren and various other activist groups.

Coda: Tetsuo Nagasawa Today

And what of the aftermath? Where did the hippies go when their communes and ashrams broke up, or their coffee shops closed? Well, some did not. A handful of places are still in operation — or were until quite recently. Many individuals have continued to live true to their values in modest, quiet ways far from the spectacle of the cinema and tabloid portrayals.

Tetsuo Nagasawa, for instance, still lives on Suwanosejima, where he lives with his wife. He continues to write and publish collections of poetry. Each day he rises at 5 a.m. to go fish in the harbour for food, and tend to his crops of fruits and vegetables. In his unassuming and small-scale manner, he carries on his practice of the Tribe Society he advocated more than five decades ago.

WILLIAM ANDREWS

Further Reading

http://amanakuni.net/pon/hippie

Farrer, James, “From Ginsberg to Organic: Becoming the Bohemian Face of a Bourgeois Neighborhood”, Nishiogiology, 2017.

Shiozawa Yukito (ed.), Keiichi Ueno, Zenkiroku Suwanose daiyon sekai: Nihon no hippī mūbumento (Suwanose, the Fourth World Full Record: The Japanese Hippie Movement), Tokyo: Kawade Shobō Shinsha, 2020.

Spectator, vol. 30, 2014.

Spectator, vol. 45, 2019.

Turner, Matthew, Sweden, Astoria: The Mantle, 2018.

Yamada Kaiya, Ai amu hippī: Nihon no hippī mūbumento ’60–’90 (I Am a Hippie: Japan’s Hippie Movement, 1960–90), Tokyo: Daisan Shokan, 1990. A new edition was issued in 2013 by Mori to Shuppan.

Yamazato, Katsunori, “Snyder, Sakaki, and the Tribe”, in Gary Snyder: Dimensions of a Life, ed. Jon Halper, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991.

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Agnes Chow and the idolisation of female activists in Japan

Following the civil unrest over the subsequently withdrawn extradition bill, the latest chapter in the protracted saga in Hong Kong was the passing of a new national security law. The pro-democracy, anti-Beijing protests in the former British colony have rightly attracted attention worldwide for some time, but Japanese interest in the cause reached an intense peak recently due to the plight of one particular activist: Agnes Chow.

Chow was arrested (yet again) on 10 August, a development that received much mainstream media coverage in Japan. The twenty-three-year-old is a veteran of the pro-democracy cause in Hong Kong, having become a central figure in the Umbrella Movement in 2014 when she was still a teenager and then one of the leaders of a progressive political party, Demosisto, that disbanded after the national security law passed.

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Agnes Chow at a court appearance in August 2020, shortly before her arrest (Photo: Reuters)

Fluent in Japanese (as well as English besides her native Cantonese), Chow is almost certainly the most famous person in Japan associated with the current issues in Hong Kong. This is in no small part the result of her strong visibility on social media, sending updates to nearly 540,000 followers on Twitter. Her YouTube channel has, as of writing, over 300,000 subscribers and over 9.5 million views.

Bolstered by her looks — a pretty young woman who, with her pale features and long hair, would not be out of place in the pages of a shōjo manga — and the reputation and following Chow has accrued largely through her Japanese-language social media posts, Japanese people reacted with shock to her arrest. The footage of her arrest heightened this effect, with Chow’s coronavirus-safeguarding white face mask emphasising her bespectacled innocence.

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The arrest of Agnes Chow on 10 August, 2020 (Photo: Reuters)

The incredulity and concern was intermixed with a curious kind of fandom that has seen her dubbed the “Goddess of Democracy” (民主の女神), a moniker also used by the mainstream media also used in reporting her arrest. Hashtags swiftly emerged and one in Japanese calling for her to be free was included in tens of thousands of tweets — a far greater response than most Japan-based causes can hope to attract. Japanese people shared on social media their private photographs of Chow, showing her as a “normal” young person who liked hanging out with friends and doing the kinds of things that most people her age liked doing (in Japan or Hong Kong). All of this combined to form an image of Chow as a “pure” and angelic figure, a brave victim of a terrible (male) regime.

Though Chow was released on bail a day later, she may still face prosecution — she has already pleased guilty to other charges after an arrest last year — and the ambiguity of her apprehension has triggered fears that Hong Kong authorities will use the new law to suppress political dissent. The Twitter storm ignited by her arrest is unlikely to have influenced the decision to free her, since the police are savvy enough to know that someone with such a high social media profile will automatically garner outrage online, and there have been many other arrests of similarly prominent figures. A blue verified badge on your Twitter handle means nothing to the police.

Nonetheless, the response to her arrest and Chow’s status as the Goddess of Democracy has a clear benefit: it raises awareness of an acute issue among Japanese audiences who might otherwise not follow it so closely or know anything about it. In short, it makes people care. Kyodo quoted a 42-year-old Japanese man working in Beijing as saying “I have become interested in Hong Kong affairs since last year thanks to the Goddess of Democracy.”

The English translation of her nickname may have an awkward ring, though it consciously echoes the Japanese name for Libertas. In this respect, she is a “retrofitted” personification of liberty and democracy, a Marianne for East Asia. But this personification is highly problematic. Would another young and charismatic leader in the movement like Joshua Wong, who happens to male, be dubbed the “God of Democracy”? “Goddess” not only genders Chow, it sexualises her. In this characterisation, she is a meek Valkyrie, a fighter whose status as a woman is as important, if not more so, as what she is fighting for. It belittles her as a “cute” and “pretty” media image to be consumed, as the more acceptable and likable face of the movement than the masked figures smashing windows and engaging the police amid tear gas and gunfire. Always appearing slight of build and humble, Chow’s persona could not be further from that of the at-times violent street protesters on the frontline of the unrest in Hong Kong, even though she is herself frequently there and reporting on it through social media.

This discussion will limit its scope to her reception in Japan, but Chow is also similarly mediated, consumed, and idolised by many in her native Hong Kong (and elsewhere). And it goes without saying that elevating female activists to media celebrity-like status is a global phenomenon — Greta Thunberg being just one obvious example — a process that can spark a backlash and disrupt the message of the activists.

Though she has expressed unease at her sobriquet, Chow is, to some extent, willingly involved in this process. A perfunctory glance at her YouTube channel shows that she presents herself in a visually appealing way, similar to how a music idol might have such a platform, and the videos feature her prominently. However, this is also a very natural social media modus operandi and is ultimately just a smart and professional approach, much as any millennial or generation Z-er serious about promoting something online would surely do today. (It is also worth noting that Chow currently describes herself in her Twitter profile in three languages simply as a “university student”, rather than anything self-aggrandising.) To suggest that Chow is more interested in promoting herself over the content of her political messages would do a terrible disservice to her (and her peers’) truly remarkable achievements.

Rather, the problem lies in the idolisation: it is reductionist, sweeping aside the complexity of the movement and its campaign to focus on sensational, human aspects (a young woman’s arrest). Placing a female activist — or any individual in a movement — on a pedestal ignores the fact that social movements comprise diverse memberships and forces, as Tominaga Kyōko recently argued in a reflexive article in the Mainichi Shimbun exploring the Japanese media representation of Chow. More seriously, the veneration not only ignores but arguably exemplifies the persistent sexism and harassment prevalent in social movements in Japan (and of course, elsewhere), something that sadly has a well-established precedent even among the the New Left during the Long Sixties, and which spurred the Women’s Lib movement locally.

There is a sense of déjà vu about all this. When Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy-s (SEALDs) was active in 2015, its members were readily seized upon by the media as examples of “ordinary” and “noble” youngsters unexpectedly appearing in the staid, male-dominated world of politics. It’s a great story and it sells, and SEALDs was clever enough to milk this and ride the wave of attention to build sympathy for its cause, no doubt in the process attracting thousands more people to join the demonstrators mobilised by the other civil society groups and political parties in involved in opposing the government’s controversial security bills. But I also had serious misgivings about this at the time in that young activists were essentially consumed and mediated as idols. While not overshadowing their cause per se, was this idolisation ultimately a form of exploitation and condescension that meant SEALDs was not taken seriously by the media, much less the political elite?

The SEALDs members went to great lengths to stress that they were normal students, not radicals like the student activists of the New Left. (This is also problematic in that SEALDs, along with the mainstream liberal political parties and social movements, was complicit in perpetuating the demonisation of more robust left-wing politics in Japan, and co-operated with the police and other instruments of the state that works to curb activism and the civil society.) The publicity materials were well produced and professional. In the images, the photogenic members were dressed fashionably and conveyed a simple pro-democracy message. The group notably placed the female members centrally within its self-presentation. Its youthful image aside, this identity also stood in stark contrast to many social movements in Japan up until then, especially in the New Left, which valorised “masculine” sets of practices like violent confrontations, long rallies with fierce speeches, and top-down hierarchies. But this tactic, for all its success, also exposed the members to horrendous cyberbullying.

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The student activist group SEALDs

SEALDs did not happen in a vacuum, but rather emerged out of a general trend towards more “feminised” protest practices in Japan and globally. These practices engage in artistic, creative and parodic tactics, and valorise being ordinary and cool as much (if not more than) ideology or political commitment. This did not mean that “masculine” conflict with authority or even militant tactics disappeared completely — far from it, in many ways — but the current state of social movements suggest that the violence espoused by prominent sections of the New Left during the Long Sixties did not survive. In the case of Japan specifically, Gonoi Ikuo has described such new aesthetics-based and digitally engaged tactics as “kawaii direct action”, the development of which I would suggest has made Japan’s civil society and culture in general more receptive to someone like Agnes Chow.

This is apparent in Japan’s 1990s and 2000s freeter protests, as well documented by the likes of Carl Cassegård. For all their bullish and rowdy antics with street rave-cum-marches, they were not afraid to be playful and even cute with costumes, character art and parody. It worked to reinvigorate protest for the current age in terms of practices but also to legitimise it again for a new generation of participants and stakeholders. As Sharon Hayashi and Anne McKnight wrote in their much-cited 2005 paper, “Good-bye Kitty, Hello War: The Tactics of Spectacle and New Youth Movements in Urban Japan”: “In many elements of the rave demos’ tactical use of media, pop, and anime-based graphics, soft lettering and pastel coloring personalize the situation of protest and take the edge off the hard reality of police control and the possibility of arrest.”

Such kawaii direct action and feminised protest practices are at odds with the views espoused by the small yet well-publicised group Kakumeiteki Himote Dōmei (Revolutionary League of Men Unpopular with Women), or Kakuhidō, which ostensibly brings together self-professed male “losers” to demonstrate in helmets and masks against Christmas Eve and Valentine’s Day in the streets of Tokyo. The group’s clamorous activities, which have continued since 2006 and draw only a modest number of participants, are as much meta-protest as real ones. They have borrowed the language and paraphernalia of 1960s protest and re-situated these in the late-Heisei malaise of disaffected masculinity vulnerable in the face of growing (relatively speaking) female empowerment in Japan and economic stagnation. The context is genuine, yes, but it is deliberately rendered through highly performative, ludic practices. This is perhaps partly because an actual protest against these intangible issues of fragile masculinity is too difficult, and adopting a filter of 1960s protest — now more legitimate with the passage of time and coopting of the Long Sixties into popular memory — allows these men to express their frustrations under a tongue-in-cheek cloak.

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Parodic protest group Kakuhidō, which nominally demonstrates on behalf of unpopular men

The new phase accelerated with the post-2011 wave of anti-nuclear and anti-government movements, which were mobilised by social media and looser networks, and where Nara Yoshitomo’s and straightforward, neutral slogans dominated street demonstrations. The aesthetics that SEALDs presented have also continued to resonate, with the Japanese Communist Party harnessing very similar style for posters as its journey progresses from militancy to parliamentary renegades to local grassroots champions to pacifist liberals effectively part of the mainstream, complete with cute mascots and a quasi-tolerance of the emperor system.

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Japanese Communist Party poster influenced by the SEALDs aesthetic

It even began to rub off on the New Left, with the younger activists associated with Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction) through its Zengakuren league of student groups or NAZEN anti-nuclear group readily adopting costumes, self-parody and friendlier visuals — though without diluting the core political ideas they are disseminating. While the new social movements have made a conscious effort to co-operate with police, this is a line that Zengakuren and its associates would never cross; activists, in fact, remain subject to intense police surveillance and the threat of arrest over infractions as minor as stepping onto a campus to distribute flyers. The transformation of Zengakuren has reached an apotheosis with its Zenshin Channel YouTube videos (over 2 million views and counting) and the group’s de facto version of Agnes Chow, Horaguchi Tomoko, who has attracted a cult following online and eventually became a democratically elected member of the Suginami ward assembly.

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The friendlier face of Zengakuren presented through YouTube videos. Horaguchi Tomoko is on the right

Horaguchi’s popularity is interlinked with the emergence of a subculture called kyōsanshumi (共産趣味): literally meaning “communist taste” — a pun on kyōsanshugi (communism) — it is a type of fandom or otaku subculture that centres on materials related to communist or Marxist movements. It has a particular focus on Japanese movements, especially those from the New Left.

With the exception of some cosplay events and outdoor games, the main sphere for kyōsanshumi fandom is online, especially social media platforms like Twitter. It is here that the fans share moe elements, images (such as old press photos), their own illustrations of real-life figures, parodies and pastiche images, memes, information and trivia, and speculation (“What would this faction have said about this?”). The social media content forms a kind of “database” in the Azuma sense. There is a strong emphasis on uniforms, helmets, the police, paramilitary gear and cute female activists. It can be assumed that the anonymous practitioners are mostly, if not entirely, men, who bring their male gaze to bear on the past (and present) of the New Left, though also, not coincidentally, other military subjects, such as World War II.

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Kyōsanshumi image by illustrator samusamu1002 of a female New Left activist

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Kyōsanshumi image by illustrator leningradcheka, inspired by the University of Tokyo student strike of 1968–69

kyosanshumi fandom japan

Another image by samusamu1002 with a World War II theme

Kyōsanshumi is much more than simply yet another esoteric fandom, however. It is part of an on-going general rediscovery and re-consumption of the Long Sixties, especially since the 2000s with numerous books, events and films. While romanticism and nostalgia are conspicuous in this veritable industry (along with genuine self-reflection and soul-searching), some of the new content has been produced by and for millennials, gravitating away from the problematic sides of the period, away from the ideologies and sensational events to a softer reception more based on visuals. We may now be far enough from 1972’s Asama-sansō and Rengō Sekigun (United Red Army) purge to select, if so willing, other aspects that are more easily consumable and reusable (or if we do want to confront the horrors of the Rengō Sekigun purge and other such incidents, we can do it in bite-sized chunks through movies, manga and guidebooks).

kakumei no chizu

An example of recent books in Japan about the Long Sixties aimed at a different kind of readership. This one is a guidebook to the sites of famous incidents

After all, if even AKB48 can make a music video set in a vaguely 1968-esque pastiche (yet very anodyne) world of student activism, as the idol supergroup did in 2016, then it is surely fair game for anyone.

The punk-rock idol group Burst Girl released a music video in 2019 for the song “Chō-kakumei” (Super Revolution), which was the high-octane flip side of the AKB48 video: here the female performers wear helmets and towels over their faces, and carry staves while swaggering around a school festooned with revolutionary placards and a picture of Che Guevara. The student activism and sensational incidents carried out by militant factions in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Japan immediately provided source material for literature, manga and cinema (most notably, many sexploitation films) at the time and in the years afterwards, but the performers here indulging in New Left cosplay were born this century. The exploitation is insouciant and quite possibly even oblivious. (For context, though, the group certainly is very aware of the punk tradition in Japan; its name references Burst City, the 1982 film that is a major part of the punk rock canon.)

Another generation Z-er, the artist Jun Inagawa has achieved prominence for fusing street art and otaku culture, but his self-referential moe imagery is also seemingly intermixed with student activism motifs. Emblazoned with the words “otaku” and “anarchy” (in the Roman alphabet) and moe (in kanji), the main white helmet featured in his 2019 exhibition in Tokyo perhaps encapsulates the ambivalence of kyōsanshumi: superficial and visceral, yet also representative of a significant cultural shift. That Inagawa has claimed in an interview that the helmet, which he also wears in publicity shots, was actually inspired by Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is also intriguing. Though clearly not a military design, Inagawa’s visual cribbing suggests that such motifs are seeping into art and pop culture by osmosis, diverted through alternative filters, false memory and misinterpretation. The artist collective that Inagawa leads is called WANK Dōmei (Wank League), echoing (even if unwittingly) the many other dōmei that dominated the New Left but paired with the provocative English that Inagawa frequently employs.

jun inagawa artist

Artwork by Jun Inagawa

This mode of casual exploitation is not limited to Japanese leftist movements. Uesaka Sumire is a voice actress and idol whose fandom is the Soviet Union, which she draws on as material for her music and persona. Sengun Joshi (literally, Military-First Girls) is an all-girl cosplay “fan club” for North Korea. Similarly, the Nazi chic of benighted music groups in South Korea and Japan has rightly received widespread condemnation.

The moderation and softening process can inevitably descend into cynicism. Just as high-end fashion has exploited the the Rote Armee Fraktion, so we find Isetan Department Sore in Shinjuku — yes, Shinjuku, the notorious site of riots and counterculture in the 1960s — housing a fashion and culture retail floor called Tokyo Kaihō-ku, appropriating the word (meaning roughly “liberated quarter”) that was used, in emulation of what was happening in Paris and elsewhere, to describe areas of the city occupied by activists during the height of the protests. Such words as kakumei (revolution) have become cheap marketing slogans.

None of this, it should be stressed, equates to rehabilitation or release from the heavy baggage of the past. And the subcultural fandom or even mainstream (re)consumption also does little to address seriously the position of women in social movements in Japan, historically or currently — something which a scholar like Chelsea Szendi Schieder is thankfully working to offset with her upcoming book Coed Revolution: The Female Student in the Japanese New Left.

Building on this research, we can identity several key archetypes of women activists in the Long Sixties (in both the mass media and how the movements presented themselves at the time and subsequently): the victims and saints (Kanba Michiko, Tōyama Mieko), the femme fatales (Shigenobu Fusako), the witches/crazies (Nagata Hiroko), the “Gewalt Rosa” (violent Rosa Luxemburg). How far has historical memory, the best efforts of scholars notwithstanding, really evolved? Or has the recent idolisation and “feminisation” outlined above merely added new archetypes, such as the “Agnes Chow type”?

For the first volume of the mammoth 1968 by Oguma Eiji, a leading figure among the younger generation (i.e., younger than the baby boomers) of historians examining the post-war era, the cover is a female student activist in a helmet, almost too willowy and pretty for the helmet that perches on her head. An Agnes Chow type? Seemingly as a complement, second volume, solidifying the standard narrative of a movement failed and traumatic, shows a rugged male activist as he is escorted away by police.

eiji oguma 1968 cover

The cover to the first volume of Oguma Eiji’s 1968

eiji otsuka shojo united red army emperor

Aida Makoto’s artwork on the covers of Ōtsuka Eiji’s books

Earlier, in the 1990s, the manga critic Ōtsuka Eiji, who hails from the post-1972 generation and has written extensively about the spread of shōjo culture in Japan, attempted to reclaim Nagata Hiroko from her notoriety as an evil “witch” responsible for a violent purge, discovering something “pure” and innocent about her from her later interest in shōjo manga. Ōtsuka’s output is prodigious and cannot be easily summarised here, though one detail may suffice for now. Two of his most noteworthy books in this context are available in editions with a striking artwork by Aida Makoto, Beautiful Flag (War Picture Returns) (1995). Originally in the format of two folding screen paintings, the panels each feature a schoolgirl in a war-torn landscape, holding up the flag (one Japanese, the other South Korean): a heroine fighting for — what? For her country? The “flag” (whatever it symbolises)? Democracy? The people? Citing wartime propaganda, the bijinga (beautiful woman painting) genre and shōjo tropes, Aida deliberately leaves things ambiguous. Regardless, each girl is noble, strong, determined. Agnes Chow, as she is seen in the eyes of her many admirers in Japan.

WILLIAM ANDREWS

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