“The Name of the New Era is Taiyo Komon Spapan”: Thirty Years of Music, Politics, and White Underpants

An Interview with Masanosuke Hanasaki of Taiyo Komon Spapan

Interview and Text by Anastasia Traynin
Photos Copyright Hiromichi Ugaya (except top image)

taiyo komon spapan japan music band interview avant-garde politics

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Heisei era and also its unprecedented end, with Emperor Akihito set to abdicate the throne on April 30. It is also thirty years since the start of Japanese avant-garde music and leftist satire theatre group Taiyo Komon Spapan. Their name, which translates as “the sun,” “anus,” and an alternative transliteration of supapan, an onomatopoeic word in Japanese for an explosion, is an oblique reference to the 1989 death of the previous emperor, Hirohito. Originally started as the “Japanese Frank Zappa” from within the Waseda University jazz scene, their sound is rooted in jazz, but often expands to old pop, punk, rock, folk, soul, blues, and other genre-benders, always serving as the backdrop for the politically driven lyrics and performances.

With a core cast of musicians, and other members coming and going, the band’s history rests largely on their live shows, with men in signature white briefs and women in school cafeteria-style white oversized dresses and hats, accompanied by masks, dancing and theatre as an audiovisual parody of the political figures and issues of the day. Apart from their continued critique of the emperor system and the rule of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, they have ridiculed a range of targets, from US leaders to North Korea’s Kim family, and most recently, have set their sights on protesting the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Beyond the concerts, Taiyo Komon Spapan have released two singles, three full-length albums and two original film soundtracks. In 2017, the band had their first performance at Fuji Rock Festival and released the best-of compilation Taiyo Komon Spapan and Humans, featuring the new song, “Terrorist Trump and Humans,” an extended free jazz and punk takedown of the then newly elected US president. The compilation also includes the satirical sci-fi musical One and Only Flower in the World, directed by Yū Kajino, in which the band members play student victims of Abe’s education policy.

Taiyo Komon Spapan’s founder, songwriter, main composer, lead vocalist and guitarist is Shinjuku resident Masanosuke Hanasaki, a musician and activist since the 1980s. I met Hanasaki while travelling through Tokyo in early February and learned of the thirtieth anniversary celebrations, which will culminate with a September 1 collaborative concert. In person and during a phone interview, we discussed his political awakening, musical journey and the band’s origins, history, and potential future.

On April 16, the band will release music videos for the tracks “Nothing But Crystal Feeling” from the 2015 album Atomic Sunshine: Hippo and Man, with a special DVD release and performance at the Uplink Kichijōji screening of Kajino’s film Aun. Their final Heisei-era performance will be on April 23 at Kōenji’s Grain.

taiyo komon spapan japan music band interview avant-garde politics

When did you first get involved with leftist activism?

In high school, I turned left. Older people on the street were giving out flyers to everybody and I signed a petition against the Japanese emperor system. I got a call the next day at my house and they invited me to a coffee shop. My image of leftists in those days [early 1980s] was that they were dangerous, so I was afraid to go alone and asked three of my high school friends to join. So the group persuaded me [to get involved].

What were the other issues besides the emperor system? You mentioned the Narita Airport eviction of farmers was a major issue and turning point during those days.

There were many other issues, such as school fees or student autonomy. For example, in Kyoto University’s Yoshida Dormitory, travellers can come and stay very cheaply, because the dormitory is completely governed by students and not the administration, but the school has been trying to break the autonomy.

There was fighting and killing among the New Left. During my university days at Waseda, I was only a member of a student activist group. In my university there was one strong group, Kakumaru-ha, and we were very weak, so we could not talk about the Narita Airport issue.

When did you start Taiyo Komon Spapan and can you talk about the exact meaning of the name?

It was during university. 1989 is the year that the emperor changed [from Hirohito to his son, Akihito] and the Heisei period began, so our band has the same thirtieth anniversary. Hirohito was the most hated emperor all over the world. As everyone in Japan knows, before Hirohito died, he had blood coming out of his anus. So our band is named after that.

When the emperor died, it was not a happy time, so the local governments prohibited festivals and there was a lot of self-imposed restraint. Many people thought that festivals were not majestic. So we organized a festival against the emperor and against this collective feeling. The name of the festival was Taiyo Komon Spapan. At first, it was not the band name but the festival name. We invited the very famous noise musician Keiji Haino, who still plays today. This became the origin of our band.

taiyo komon spapan japan music band interview avant-garde politics

Has the style and number of members changed over time or mostly stayed the same?

Basically, the core members of the band are the same. The lineup changes, depending on the concept. Some concepts need dancers and some don’t. Sometimes we need three guitarists and sometimes one or two is enough. The core concept is the same, never changing: always leftist and political. Our first full album was Horse and Man, a live studio recording. We like live performances, not so much studio recording. At some point, I focused more on the studio recording but I’ve come to realize that live performance recording is better. And the studio money is an issue.

The second album was Terrorist Bush Versus All Human Beings. Also, we did the soundtrack for the Japanese documentary film Left Alone, which is about the New Left. You know the famous jazz song by Billie Holliday “Left Alone.” And the left. It has a double meaning. I think it’s a very cool movie title.

For the music style, sometimes it’s very rock and sometimes very jazz. Basically, we like black music. Jazz, funk. And also Frank Zappa. Always changing the style and combining lyrics and music. It’s parody. Every music style has a certain character of people. It’s a social structure.

Your character is the white underpants. What is the meaning behind that?

White underpants in Japan are the most unfashionable and ugly costume; they are an alternative feeling. Ugly is beautiful.

There are also women members of the band. Why don’t they wear the underpants?

We also want women to wear the underwear, or maybe even change to women wearing underwear and men wearing the costume, but this is very difficult, especially for Japanese women. But it’s not sexual. I look fat in white underwear and it’s not a stereotypically beautiful image at all. So for a woman in white underwear, it’s the same. You know, in the USA, for women there is now a movement for greater acceptance of different kinds of bodies, such as “fat” or disabled. What we are doing is something like that.

You play a lot of jazz with a bit of punk. Did you always like that kind of music?

At first in junior high school, I played folk songs. My parents didn’t play any music but my older brother did. So I heard famous Japanese folk like Aris and Masashi Sada and we played in a cover band at a junior high school festival. But this was very commercial and popular, not political.

The origin of Japanese rock history is only following the Beatles and Western influence so there is very little political rock music, but from the 1950s and 1960s, there were many leftist folk musicians. Like in the US when Woodie Guthrie went to a big labor union march and everybody sang “We Shall Overcome” and other songs. It was the same in Japan.

At first, the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) was the only communist party. When the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956, the JCP was divided and a New Left group splintered off. The New Left did everything in their power to be political, but they were very small, so only JCP had influence on the masses and in the art scene.

In 1922, JCP was the first communist party in Asia but in the 1930s, the Japanese government turned fascist and the JCP was banned in the period before World War II. After the war, the US army colonized Japan and freed JCP people from jail but it was not a Japanese action. At first the JCP welcomed the US army because they did some democratic reforms, but because of the Cold War, US politics changed. Many war criminals rejoined the government. At that time, the JCP divided into two groups: one connected with Soviet Union and the other connected with the Chinese Communist Party. The main group was influenced by Mao, and their base was in the mountainside and farming communities. They were armed and they attacked the local government and police station with Molotov cocktails. Many people were arrested. Sadly, the Japanese did not support the JCP, so their power decreased. They had their annual national conference from July 27 to July 30, 1955 and there they renounced violence and turned to extreme happiness and dancing. They organized a singing group called Utagoe Undō, sang labor protest songs and made a dance club based on Cossack song and dance. It was a very funny thing.

It’s very important and influential when we talk about Japanese music and the leftist movement. Some of the Utagoe Undō songs were very popular and some were commercial. Normal, non-leftist Japanese people learned leftist songs only from Utagoe Undō and the JCP had a music association for workers called Rō-on. In the mid-1960s, it was very strong and not commercial.

taiyo komon spapan japan music band interview avant-garde politics

At what point did you move from folk to punk music?

In high school, I liked the Sex Pistols. The first Japanese punk band was Anarchy [named after the Sex Pistols’ song “Anarchy in the UK”]. They are from my hometown of Saitama, so we really liked them. Anarchy had one song against the emperor system but their record label prohibited it. Right-wing people invaded their concert and clashed with them. It was a very sad thing. I was very influenced by that situation so I organized a band in my high school days, a political three-piece punk band also in the style of the Clash and the Jam, called Chitsukeren, a sexual but political name like Pussy Riot. It was very political and emotional. After that, I organized a band that was very smart and fashionable but not political. You know, like Paul Weller’s The Style Council. In my high school days, we liked the Jam, so we thought The Style Council was too superficial. But in the end, I made a band like that, too.

Did you ever have ideas for being something other than a musician or did you have another major at university?

I was a leftist activist, so the main purpose of going to university was never to study. In Japanese history, it’s well known that musicians, painters, and artists take a major in university unrelated to their passion. Japanese jazz musicians since the 1930s didn’t study music at university.

At Waseda University, I was in a university activist group and a jazz circle. Waseda University modern jazz society has produced many leading jazz musicians. I joined that club and another black music club.

Was the jazz club connected with activism as well?

That was complicated. On the jazz side, I only played music as a general member. In the other one, the leftist club, I was a leader. Eventually within the jazz club, the concept changed and went left. I “good brainwashed” and educated some of the musicians, a little. [Laughs]. Some of the members still in the band are from that 1980s jazz club.

taiyo komon spapan japan music band interview avant-garde politics

Was Zappa really popular in Japan at the time?

Frank Zappa said he was not so popular in USA but in Japan, almost everyone who liked music listened to at least one song. I was influenced by his lyrics against right-wing Christianity. So at first our concept was being Frank Zappa in Japanese, against the Japanese politicians and all that.

It seems to be hard to make a living as a full-time musician in Japan and you have mentioned up and down periods within the band. Have there been any particular turning points over the thirty years?

Basically, at first we were students. Some people went and got stable jobs. Not only me and our band but also many other student bands were in a difficult situation. Some of them were not “brainwashed” and educated enough. Some people from our band have become famous musicians. They say things like “you are too leftist and I can’t make money,” so they leave and go commercial. Some are full-time musicians but still stay in the band.

It’s the same all over the world. It was the same in Frank Zappa’s band. Very good musicians like George Duke were in it for only a very short time.

That problem still exists. Some people want to enter my band just as musicians but they are not interested in the politics. They found a big record company doing music for TV or commercials and they have sponsors who are very nervous about political things so they can lose their jobs because of Taiyo Komon Spapan. It’s the main cause of the ups and downs.

taiyo komon spapan japan music band interview avant-garde politics

Were you involved in any other political events during the early formative years leading up to the first album?

We did some events against the PKOs (Peacekeeping Operations). It was very important. The Japanese army is very restricted through Article 9 [of the Constitution]. The United Nations wanted the Japanese army to go abroad so for the first time, they made the Peacekeeping Operation Law, which took effect in 1992. There was a big movement against that and one very big festival in Tokyo that we played at the time.

How does your personal songwriting and composing process work? Do you start with just the words and add the guitar/other musical layers or is there more freedom and improv in putting a song together and do band members eventually collaborate?

Originally it was Hajime Kobayashi and me composing, but these days it is mostly just me. Now he is a very famous keyboard player in Japan. He is still leftist and still in the band, but it’s very dangerous. He does very commercial work every day. The number one keyboard hit in Japan was made by him, so we continue to discuss. Otherwise, sometimes band members collaborate and improvise, and sometimes I bring only the basic elements and we jam and make something together.

Your lyrics touch on serious and tragic topics in Japanese society, like suicide and the education system. Does your initial inspiration come from using musical satire to critique reality or is there something else driving your creativity as well?

Because I am a leftist, in a broad sense, I think art in the capitalist era is all about propaganda. Out process is first, we discuss with the band members and leftist activists about the topics for the music and secondly, I think about the lyrics. It’s always like that. So everyday I am reading the newspaper and in a café, I listen to normal Japanese people’s conversations and I search what they are talking about. Also, it comes from something that politicians like Abe or Trump say. That’s my inspiration.

You also directly critique the US.

The US influence is very big all over the world, for 100 years and still today. So we must talk about US issues. At first, we were only taking on domestic matters like the emperor system. Our second album was originally planned to be about Emperor Hirohito and his wife, Nagako [who died in 2000]. Then George W. Bush invaded Iraq and it was a very big thing, so we changed the album concept and it became about Bush and the war.

About the performance, in Western progressive protest culture, there is somewhat of a tradition of brass instruments, drums, visuals, satire, and sometimes masks. My reference is something like Bread and Puppet. From the Japanese perspective, where does your influence come from?

I had only heard the name Bread and Puppet, but I looked into it more and it’s very interesting.

Japanese demonstrations are a very traditional style. Only physical demonstrations and no music. Actually, I like this tradition style. Snake demonstrations or French-style march, where the protesters take up the whole street.

In Japan, even though music is generally not leftist, theatre and film is more so. So growing up as a leftist musician, I was kind of jealous of those scenes. [Laughs]. As a high school student, I went to a very famous leftist drama at the time, held with a big tent in a park. It had a band with brass and drums and only natural sound. No PA. I was very moved by that. I’m very happy to now have a legendary saxophone player with my band, Kanji Nakao. He was in a group that I saw when I was in high school. From Japan, I’m mostly influenced by drama and film, not music.

Can you talk about Japanese and other filmmakers that have influenced you?

There are many, but especially I’m very moved by American leftist theatre from the Roosevelt era, the late 1930s and 1940s, before the end of the war. Later, they went to Hollywood, but also they were part of the Red Scare. You know the musical drama The Cradle Will Rock from 1937? That’s Orson Welles and Marc Blitzstein in the leftist era. Also there were many European smart leftist intellectuals, like Brecht and Stravinsky, who fled Europe. They did very advanced conceptual leftist theatre. I was very moved by them going into a factory and showing theatre. I was very inspired by this work.

And of course Japanese tent theatre, which is very leftist. Sometimes police came and stopped it. Myself and other student activist comrades from other universities, like the University of Tokyo, wanted to do the same tent theatre, like our first Taiyo Komon Spapan festival that protested the festival restrictions. But the university and police stopped that drama. I was part of a sit-in protest to protect that theatre but we lost and the tent had to be moved out. I was very influenced by that kind of experience.

taiyo komon spapan japan music band interview avant-garde politics

Since the band’s satirical theatrics often extend to sexual elements, especially between male band members, is there any subversion of sex in mind, perhaps related to your subversion of “beauty”?

In Japanese, sexual matters are very controversial. Traditionally, the Japanese had fewer taboos about sex, as can be seen in shunga [erotic woodblock prints], but 150 years ago the Meiji government wanted to westernize and they restricted every aspect of sexual material. So in the 1960s and 1970s, some leftist activism was very connected with sexual expression. The famous film director Nagisa Ōshima made the film In the Realm of the Senses, which included actual sex and hardcore scenes. It was the first movie of that kind in Japan. We could never see the full scenes in Japan but people could in France. That kind of weird and stupid thing is still going on to this day. Some European art films that show women’s pubic hair are censored in Japan with ugly white dots. Japanese police and government are very restrictive about sexual matters. So I also bring sexual topics into my band.

When people see your band, maybe they have some association with this kind of thing and also queer sexuality.

Yes, I think that’s right. So I have the underpants. You know, I think the Japanese indie music scene is not intelligent and has no sense of humor. Seriousness is the Japanese way. It’s fake seriousness, I think. Japanese traditional art like kendō, sadō and the tea ceremonies, karate, Zen Buddhism, Miyamoto Musashi and things like that are so serious. So the rock musicians are also not joking. They are trying too much to look good and come off as very stylish. So the underpants are a purposeful counterpart. At first, we tried to imitate a costume concept, something like the famous US gay band The Village People. The guitarist is a policeman, the bassist is a beggar, and the singer is a doctor. We tried but it cost too much to make the costume. So only underpants are OK, but you can imagine our roles.

Given that you always have many band members and radical theatrics, what kinds of venues do you have a strong relationship with?

The Japanese avant-garde rock scene has no money and there are very few people who attend. For example, Keiji Haino is very popular in Europe and USA, with maybe 500 or 1,000 people in the audience, but in Japan I’ve been to some avant-garde concerts with only five or ten people. Japanese people don’t like avant-garde and advanced music, only idol groups and pop music. So very few venues accept us, a very advanced concept band.

Sadly, the Japanese music scenes are too divided between the different genres. For example, the Japanese jazz scene is very small and does not want to communicate with others. It’s the same with the black music scene and the progressive rock scene. These small communities are very closed and don’t try to open up. In our band, it’s first the lyrics and the concept, and then the music. So it crosses different genres, but it’s a very Japanese way to like only one genre. So our band has a difficult time finding where to play.

We have even experienced venue owners kicking out our band. So we still can’t play many live houses in Tokyo, but there are still a few advanced places that let us have a show. Most of the owners are leftists and support the avant-garde style. In the early 2000s, we could only do an in-store live show at Tower Records in Shinjuku, when many other venues had evicted us. At that time, they had a good attitude towards hosting indie and avant-garde music. Now Tower Records is only in Japan, but it’s more commercial. Last year, we did a performance in the Ikebukuro area but the owner prohibited us from wearing white underpants, so we could only do it wearing clothes. That kind of thing happens many times. We are very concerned every day.

taiyo komon spapan japan music band interview avant-garde politics

How much does audience participation and interaction affect the performance, whether at a big outdoor festival like Fuji Rock or a small Tokyo venue?

Normally our concept is divided into three parts: the show, seated discussion time, and then again the show. But some people who only like music dislike that style, so they go home during the discussion time. In the case of outdoor festivals, it’s a very good opportunity for us because there are many people at the festival, but it’s a difficult matter because in Japan the people who go to festivals don’t normally listen to music or go to live houses [live music venues]. They go with their work friends to one big event, like a hanami cherry blossom festival. Fuji Rock Festival can be like that, too. They only go for fun and they see a funny band wearing white underpants. Festival people are only party people. They enjoy our band a lot but they don’t try to understand our band’s actual concept.

What is your view on the current state of leftist social movements and counterculture in Japan, especially the music and art within them? How does Taiyo Komon Spapan fit in with the scene, or are you doing your own thing entirely?

This is a very important question. Within the leftist scene, it’s not such a good situation. The liberal and ecological, environmental, anti-nuclear movement is popular. Many musicians have taken up these issues and sing about them, like Ryūichi Sakamoto formerly of YMO. They do some kind of anti-nuclear movement and many people follow them, but it’s only anti-nuclear and they do not sing about capitalism and class. So I think their addressing of it has failed because the Japanese nuclear power plant issue is very connected with the economy. The nuclear power plants are in the poor villages and it’s very big money. It’s a class and capitalism thing. Now the job rate is low and many people are getting poorer because of the rise of China. So many poor people support the nuclear power plants for work.

It’s a key point, but the musicians don’t care about poor rural people, so they sing only about abolishing the nuclear plants. It’s only supported by the middle class and upper middle class city people. And the very sad thing is that the liberal, ecological people actually support the emperor system. The current emperor [Akihito] and empress Michiko often go to shake hands with the evicted people in Fukushima. The conservative people really like the emperor, so they cry and enjoy that. So many other intellectuals like novelists now also support the emperor, saying he is “peaceful” and “anti-nuclear.” We think it’s a big problem. In the case of theatre and film directors, there are some leftists and communists, but in the music scene maybe it is only us.

taiyo komon spapan japan music band interview avant-garde politics

The current main political issues seem to be the changeover of emperor and the 2020 Olympics. How are you involved with that?

Of course, we are starting to organize some events. The problem is, there is the music scene on the one hand, and on the other hand, the political and leftist scene is kind of stubborn and traditional. No music, no art. They don’t understand the underpants things, so it’s very difficult to connect the two things. But we want to try.

Beyond that, what is your main political position these days?

I think the main problem in the world is capitalism. Even though I have some criticisms of it, basically I believe in Marxism. I’m a communist.

You’ve played many concerts in Japan. Do you have plans to perform in other countries?

I want to go overseas. In the future, we want to be a global band. We sing about global things, such as capitalism. We collaborate and play together with some Japanese avant-garde jazz musicians. They are not political but also not commercial. Some are not so famous in Japan, but rather more famous in Europe or the USA. They take advantage of having no lyrics. Japanese lyrics are very difficult.

We have the thirtieth anniversary show on September 1 and we will invite other musicians. It is very important for our band and for the Japanese music and leftist art scene, so we want many people to come.

taiyo komon spapan japan music band interview avant-garde politics

taiyo komon spapan japan music band interview avant-garde politics

taiyo komon spapan japan music band interview avant-garde politics

Horse and Man (1998), live in-studio recording
Penis (2000), maxi single
Terrorist Bush Versus All Human Beings (2003), studio album
Sorrow Goodbye (2004), maxi single
Left Alone (2004), soundtrack
Lazarus (2007), soundtrack
Atomic Sunshine: Hippo and Man (2015), studio album
Taiyo Komon Spapan and Humans (2017), best-of compilation


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Activists protest eviction of rough sleepers from Shibuya park for 2020 Olympics redevelopment by hijacking construction hoardings

A curious thing happened in March: out of the blue, chatter emerged online about a particular construction hoarding in Shibuya. As work continues on the grand project to transform and further develop what is already one of the most developed districts in central Tokyo, several of the hoardings around major construction sites have adopted artworks to make the uniformly white fences look more interesting to pedestrians — that is, shoppers in search of new Instagrammable delights. One around the former site of Parco borrowed from the manga and anime Akira, though this is not without irony given the dystopian (and post-Olympic) Tokyo that the acclaimed manga and anime memorably predicts.

Sparked seemingly by one tweeted video, the buzz this month was about “A day in the life [of] Shibuya”, a “touching” story of a girl who loses her dog and recruits the citizens of Shibuya to find it — a reference to Hachikō, the famously faithful dog whose statue is now a popular landmark outside Shibuya Station. It pushes the ward’s earnest vision of “inclusion” and “diversity”, featuring an array of people eager to lend a helping hand.

What the Japanese (and subsequently English) chatter about this hoarding decoration — which has actually been installed for some time and was originally an animation produced for a “diversity summit” event in Shibuya in 2017 — generally failed to note is the immensely sanitised and bourgeois rendering of “diversity” we are presented with here. Sure, along the way the protagonist encounters a same-sex couple (though what a troublingly stereotypical representation that is), people with disabilities, buskers, skateboarders and the elderly, but these demographics are by and large PR-friendly and, to a certain extent, moneyed. (And was it deliberate cynicism to include the two skateboarders, considering the hoardings around Miyashita Park now explicitly say that skateboarding is banned in the area?) The artwork and the hoarding physically mask an uncomfortable truth: that Shibuya has spent years attempting to evict marginalised people — principally, rough sleepers, whose use of public parks has been increasingly restricted by temporary closures at night and over the New Year period, or in the case of Miyashita Park, by eviction to make way for a radical redevelopment of the public space into a commercial complex that also incorporates a hotel. After failing to sell the naming rights to Nike a few years ago due to a public uproar, Shibuya has now succeeded in effectively privatising a prime area of land and fast-tracking its gentrification of this interstitial zone lying between Aoyama and Shibuya Station.

On 27 March, Miyashita Kōen Neru Kaigi (Miyashita Park Neru Conference) demonstrated against the reconstruction of Miyashita Park exactly two years after it was closed with a provocative and eye-catching series of cardboard artworks in the shapes of human figures that they attached to the “heartwarming” hoardings around the park, decorated with Japanese and English slogans like “The park is not for sale”, “We don’t need the Olympics” and “Take back Miyashita Park”. These figures were like the ghosts of the homeless people evicted from the park, returning to haunt the site and clamber over the barriers erected by Mitsui Fudosan and Shibuya City. A day in the life of Shibuya, according to the PR, seems to involve a broad spectrum of citizens, but these climbers were hijacking that marketing to remind passersby that Shibuya’s prioritising of business interests deprives us all — and especially the most marginal members of society — of our fundamental right to the city.

miyashita park shibuya closure olympics games tokyo 2020 protest rough sleepers homeless activists

miyashita park shibuya closure olympics games tokyo 2020 protest rough sleepers homeless activists

miyashita park shibuya closure olympics games tokyo 2020 protest rough sleepers homeless activists

miyashita park shibuya closure olympics games tokyo 2020 protest rough sleepers homeless activists

miyashita park shibuya closure olympics games tokyo 2020 protest rough sleepers homeless activists

Miyashita Kōen Neru Kaigi (here neru is written in hiragana to imply variant meanings of “sleep” but also “work out” or “polish” something like a plan or scheme) is one of three interlinked groups that are the leading forces in the anti-2020 protests, focusing, as the name suggests, on rough sleeper advocacy and the Miyashita Park issue that is not part of the official 2020 Games development but nonetheless a direct consequence of the Olympics build-up.

This is a type of nonviolent direct action that activists have repeatedly done over the years. It is an artistically informed sabotage or graffiti stunt, occupying the physical barricades designed to shut them out from public space in the city with homemade messages or sculptural cardboard images. (At the peak of this practice in late 2014 and early 2015, activists were creating and adding such cardboard artworks every night to parks in Shibuya to protest their nighttime closures. The authorities would take the “additions” down and throw them away each time.) A particularly effective example of this approach was the anti-Olympic message temporarily added to the Miyashita Park hoardings as the 2018 Winter Olympics opened in Pyeongchang, during which Japanese and Korean activists joined forces to protest the two Games in East Asia.

As part of my on-going research into anti-2020 movements, one aspect I am carefully studying is its transnational tendencies. For example, Olympics protestors in South Korea held a demonstration in Seoul on 8 March, directly opposing the 2020 Games and using translated materials originally made by Japanese activists. Likewise, the latest Miyashita stunt attracted the attention of American activists involved with the campaign against the upcoming 2028 LA Olympics, who also responded to the 2018 Pyeongchang actions. From Rio to Paris, LA and beyond, international groups are in contact with the Tokyo activists, reciprocating ideas and resources while also supporting and promoting each other’s activities.

Local campaigners also recently travelled to Tōhoku for the anniversary of the 11 March tsunami and earthquake in order to take part in an anti-nuclear power forum and protest the much-criticised framing of the 2020 Olympics as the “recovery Games” that will somehow help the reconstruction of the north-east of the country and solve the lingering radiation issues in the region. They visited Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium, which will host the softball and baseball events at the 2020 Games, and J-Village, the sports facility in Fukushima controversially funded by Tokyo Electric Power Company that will host pre-games training and serve as the starting point for the 121-day “Hope Lights Our Way” torch relay.

News about the 2020 Tokyo Olympics seems to vacillate wildly between hype and scandal. And so it comes to pass that in the same week that the design for the 2020 torch was unveiled, a splashy plan by celebrity designer Tokujin Yoshioka in a rather obvious cherry blossom shape, the Japanese Olympic Committee head Tsunekazu Takeda also announced his resignation after weeks of speculation following his indictment over bribery allegations related to Tokyo’s bid for the Games. Veering in this way from disgrace to celebration and with eighteen months of preparations still to go, the 2020 Olympics remains a highly contested and ambivalent space.

Images via Hangorin no Kai.


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Campaigners for imprisoned left-wing activist Fumiaki Hoshino hold press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan

Campaigners for the long-imprisoned left-wing activist Fumiaki Hoshino, jailed for the death of a riot police officer at a demonstration in Shibuya in 1971, held a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on 15 March.

In one of the most high-profile showcases to date about the case, two of the prisoner’s counsels as well as Giichi Tsunoda, a former vice chair of the House of Councillors, and Hoshino’s wife, Akiko, spoke with journalists about Hoshino’s treatment in prison, which they denounce as cruel and punitive. The campaigners recently submitted an official complaint to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council about the harsh conditions of Hoshino’s indefinite incarceration, which range from systematic issues, such as a lack of transparency or logic in legal procedures, to the arbitrary or even absurd, such as receiving 20 days of solitary confinement for washing his foot after stepping on a cockroach.

Hoshino’s supporters argue that he is a wrongly convicted political prisoner, found guilt based on dubious evidence and spurious witness confessions by other activists that were extracted under duress and then later retracted. He was convicted and given a full life sentence in the 1980s, which he is serving in Tokushima. Now in his seventies and having spent some 44 years behind bars since his initial arrest in 1975, Hoshino maintains his innocence of the killing.

His prominent role in left-wing student protests organised by Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction) in the late 1960s and early 1970s made him known to police at the time. The so-called Shibuya Riot Incident in November 1971 was one of the final large-scale street actions of its kind during the peak of the New Left mass movements in Japan, bringing out thousands onto the streets of Tokyo to protest the terms of Okinawa’s reversion to Japan that meant the southern prefecture must host numerous United States military bases — a legacy Okinawans continue to live with and struggle against to this day.

Another activist accused of involvement in the death is Masaaki Ōsaka, who was apprehended in 2017 after 45 years on the run. He is currently standing trial over the murder.

fumiaki hoshino campaign prisoner rights japan mistreatment

Legal representatives for Fumiaki Hoshino and his wife, Akiko. Image via FCCJ

The campaigners are fighting for a retrial. That is a on-going endeavour, though there is also hope that Hoshino may be released on parole soon due to his age, even if the political nature of the crime for which he was convicted makes it significantly harder to win early release. The press conference at the FCCJ, which focused mainly on the legal side of the case rather than the political aspects, was particularly timely due to the exposure Japan’s so-called “hostage justice” system has received globally with the apprehension of Carlos Ghosn last year.

The conference (in Japanese with English interpretation) can be watched in full below.

Far from growing weary with age Hoshino’s campaigners, who are organised under the umbrella of the Hoshino Defence Committee, have rather become bolder and better at mobilising their resources. Besides the core team in Tokyo and the legal representatives pursuing the byzantine labour of the retrial application and other legal efforts, the movement is fundamentally a grassroots network of local chapters around Japan, supported by other left-wing organisations and partners in Japan as well as other countries. It has published a book and sends out a regular newspaper. In addition to rallies and marches that attract hundreds of participants, it holds exhibitions of Hoshino’s paintings several times a year, and prints them as an annual calendar that is sold to raise funds for legal costs. The campaign has recently taken out full-page adverts in newspapers to boost awareness of the case. A petition calling for all the evidence in the case to be made public has attracted over 95,000 signatories.

The story of Hoshino and his dedicated wife has also inspired a play by Yōji Sakate, which was first performed in the 2000s and revived last year.


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Zengakuren creates parody TV news report in response to excessive police tactics

On 5 March, police in Hiroshima arrested a 36-year-old male activist linked to the Chūkaku-ha-affiliated Zengakuren student group on suspicion of registering a false address on his driver’s licence. Police allege that the suspect applied to update his licence in January at a centre in Toyama Prefecture with a Toyama City address where in fact he does not reside. Toyama and Hiroshima police conducted a joint investigation, leading to searches of four locations that included the Toyama address on the licence, presumably in the hope that these were ajito (hideouts for political radicals). The arrested activist has been engaged in political campaigning at Hiroshima University and a related college club (circle) site was one of the locations searched.

If this all sounds a little excessive for a matter of a registered address, bear in mind that it is a common police tactic for dealing with and confining activists. A minor, even bureaucratic, slip is exploited as an opportunity to arrest someone and launch raids on multiple sites with the aim of finding evidence about other cases. Once arrested, the suspect effectively disappears, cut off from contact with the outside world except for sanctioned visits by a lawyer. Japan’s dubious system of “hostage justice” — recently under global scrutiny due to the treatment of former Nissan head Carlos Ghosn — allows police and prosecutors to hold suspects without charge for long periods, extendable by re-arrest, until they can sweat out a confession or simply to penalise a suspect for not co-operating. Far-left activists, though, adhere to a strict tradition of not saying anything during their detention terms, even if these last months or years until release or trial.

On the morning of 8 March, police took the driver’s licence “falsification” to its next logical conclusion: by carrying out a search of the Chūkaku-ha headquarters in east Tokyo, Zenshinsha, where many activists live and the group publishes its various organs. The raid involved dozens of Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department Public Security Bureau officers as well as kidōtai (riot police) officers.

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How did the Zengakuren activists respond to this? By making a parody TV news report on ZNN (Zenshin News Network), its new spin-off from the successful Zenshin Channel YouTube series that is bringing radical left-wing politics to Japanese millennials.

For this edition of the ZNN “show”, the anchor in the “studio” was former Zengakuren chair Ikuma Saitō, while the reporter in the field was none other than Saitō’s successor, Kyōhei Takahara. Posing as the seasoned correspondent delivering a report from the scene, the University of Tokyo gives an admirably deadpan performance that further shows what a smart choice he was to lead the student group.

By making this kind of video, which was shot immediately as the raid was taking place, edited and then published the same day, Zengakuren is embracing the state’s attempts to oppress its activities. This is not only a novel way to denounce, mock and resist such raids, which are a regular part of life for those living at Zenshinsha, but also functions as a means of weaponising the police tactics against them. In the video, for instance, specific officers are targeted and even named and shamed. Takahara smartly avoids actually touching or blocking them — an arrest-worthy offence — but putting a camera in their faces, as the activists frequently now do at protests, reminds the police they have the same surveillance technology tools at their disposal that the authorities use. It is part of an on-going tit-for-tat with the TMP, stemming not only from a constant cycle of arrests and surveillance but also an alleged incident of assault that sparked a lawsuit by the activists against the police.

In addition to ZNN, the “real” media also covered the raid, including the Fuji News Network and Nippon News Network. This is a standard response by the mainstream media, who are happy to peddle out such reports that further the police’s efforts to reinforce the image of far-left groups as militant and dangerous. Of course, the reports do not question the necessity for the arrest in the first place or speak to the activists — I am sure that Zengakuren would have gladly given an interview — let alone highlight the broader issues at play here, namely, the growing threat of police incursions into the civil society in the run-up to 2020.

Zengakuren will participate in an annual anti-nuclear march in Fukushima on 11 March, marking the anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake that triggered the Fukushima disaster. A prominent female Zengakuren activist, Tomoko Horaguchi, is also standing for election to the Suginami City Assembly next month and has been energetically canvassing voters on the streets of the ward. Her policies and messages are trenchant, from denouncing the 2020 Olympics to calling for an end to the emperor system and a local land redevelopment project, but the image she projects is endearing, approachable and decidedly cute.

As it strives to challenge its reputation as a has-been or dangerous movement, Zengakuren has deployed bold and fresh modus operandi for its activities unfolding in Tokyo, Kyoto and other parts of Japan. In the process, it has successfully attracted both a cult online following as well as actual new activists, most notably Takahara, and the police has responded in kind with repeated arrests, raids and other forms of pressure. Of course, such police strategies merely fortify the Zengakuren narrative that the state, like in the pre-war period, is oppressing political activists.

As yet another illustration of this, three activists in Kyoto were arrested and charged in late 2018 with trespassing on the campus of Kyoto University to distribute flyers. (The case echoes a similar one relating to two activists entering the campus of Tōyō University last year that was never pursued by prosecutors.) Zengakuren was able to mobilise dozens of people to attend the hearings, apparently prompting the court to restrict the numbers who can observe in court as well as limit the time that defendants could make speeches. The release on bail of one of the three, Akinori Takada, was finally confirmed last week, though to considerably less fanfare than Mr Ghosn. More’s the pity, because the former Nissan boss is just one example of a much bigger problem with the system.


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Preparations for Osaka 2025 World Expo spark local opposition and protests

Patricia G. Steinhoff frequently talks about an “invisible civil society” in Japan: a wide and vibrant swath of social movements, particularly remnants from the radical cycle of protests in the 1960s and 1970s, that are essentially unknown and given little coverage by the mainstream media. And so we have another example.

When Osaka was awarded the 2025 World Expo in November last year, there were scenes of celebration from the bureaucrats in Japan’s second major city (and incidentally, my one-time stomping ground). But like with that other gravy train, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, not everyone is pleased about this mega-event as a use of public money for regeneration projects and expensive spectacle.

The Banpaku Aho chau ka Demo Jikkō Iinkai (loosely, Stupid Expo Demonstration Committee) is apparently organised by people in their twenties and thirties based in the Hokusetsu northern part of Osaka Prefecture, specifically the cities of Minō and Toyonaka. (The name is distinctly Osakan, since aho, or “idiot” or “fool”, is commonly used in the local dialect. The group’s flyers are also sprinkled with the Osaka vernacular.) It has so far held one formal protest, on 8 December in Toyonaka, and has another planned for 27 January in the same area.

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Its activists oppose the forthcoming world fair for three main reasons: firstly, that it allows politicians to escape from tackling real social problems; secondly, that they should prioritise expanding social welfare rather than boosting the economy for the rich; and thirdly, that this model of economic competition, such as the way cities vie with each other to host these expos, is pointless and that we should focus on building solidarity.

While participant numbers are unconfirmed, this is obviously a small movement (so far) and has received coverage only from media with a focus on left-wing social movements, such as Jimmin Shimbun and Labornet. No images have been published online of the December protest, though this is not atypical in Japan for social movements that are careful to protect the privacy of participants. There are signs of wider discontent, however.

To coincide with the 2025 expo, Osaka has also announced plans to overhaul several of its main subway stations as well as extend a line and build a whole new station to serve the expo area in the port. However, the concept images released in December attracted immediate criticism for their tasteless design as well as an online petition demanding the city preserve the historical legacy of the stations.

Given the current escalation of the Tokyo Olympics controversies, with the head of the Japanese Olympic Commitment facing indictment in France for corruption allegations, the reputation of the mega-event is anything but healthy in Japan. Did vote-buying, indirectly or otherwise, play a part in the recent decision to award Osaka the World Expo? One imagines investigative reporters are now contemplating this question.

It should be noted the Olympics scandal is not new, having first surfaced in the foreign press back in 2016. It was, however, dealt with somewhat tentatively by the mainstream media in Japan, leaving subscription-based publications like Facta to name Dentsu for its alleged role in the bribery. Since Dentsu, which was a central part of organising the 2020 bid and stands to make handsome profits overseeing the publicity for the actual games, is by far the most influential force in the Japanese media, the ethics of reporting the news inevitably jut up against the realpolitik of appeasing the agency that handles media purchases for almost all major brands in the country.

The 2025 expo is, like the 2020 Games, hinging heavily on nostalgia. As next year’s Olympics hope to capture the zest of the 1964 Summer Games that cemented Japan’s return to the world stage after its humiliating wartime defeat and occupation, the 2025 expo is emulating another crowning achievement in the post-war Japan narrative, not to mention one of Osaka’s greatest modern triumphs: the 1970 World Expo. This event was an enormous success in terms of visitor numbers and impact on popular culture. It was also unprecedented in allowing avant-garde and visionary ideas in art and architecture to play a central role in such a publicly funded (and corporately sponsored) event, not least the presence of Tarō Okamoto’s immensely iconic Tower of the Sun — pointedly referenced in the protest publicity, in a sarcastic nod to the sentiments of the bureaucrats. However, the 1970 expo had its lesser-reported, darker side, too, in its inflated budget, the huge infrastructural costs and damage to the local environment, the incredible level of consumption that its millions of visitors necessitated and the complicity of artists with the nation-state during a time when Japan was co-operating with the United States in its conflict in Vietnam. The World Expo, or Banpaku, even had its own counter-event, the World Fair for Anti-War (Hansen no tame no Bankokuhaku), or more simply Hanpaku (Anti-Expo), which was held over several days in summer 1969 in Osaka Castle Park and other venues as a pacifist alternative organised by a local chapter of Beheiren. It featured music, teach-ins, talks and performances, and while certainly eclipsed by the actual expo, has nonetheless passed into the memory of the period as a key moment in the anti-war movement. “Hanpaku” was actually a label that appeared in relation to several manifestations of anti-expo feeling by various groups. The members of Zero Jigen (Zero Dimension) and other artists, for example, joined together to form Banpaku Hakai Kyōtō-ha (Expo ’70 Destruction Joint Struggle Group), which spent months in 1969 staging art actions in protest at the artists who had elected to contribute to the expo. Over the course of these, Zero Jigen’s Katō Yoshihiro and others were even arrested for one typically provocative “ritual” event it enacted at a university.

While disappearing into police detention is undoubtedly not something the organisers of the current anti-2025 protests will want to emulate, we can perhaps hope they create a Hanpaku to counter the official extravaganza in Osaka six years from now.


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