Sweden, a new novel by Matthew Turner about the fascinating history of American Vietnam War deserters in Japan

I uncovered many things during my brief and, so far, sole trip to Hawaii, though probably none that the regular visitor would expect. I was there to browse materials in the Kōji Takazawa Collection of Japanese Social Movement Materials at the University of Hawai’i. As such, far from the busy beaches and sun-drenched tourist destinations, I sequestered myself in a chilly archive room sifting through old documents, cuttings, letters and so on. The collection is a veritable Aladdin’s Cave and enough for a lifetime of research sessions. I resigned myself only to looking at a random sampling of materials from various topics I was studying for my book, Dissenting Japan. These included Beheiren, the loose and non-partisan citizens’ group that organised large protests against the Vietnam War in Japan during the 1960s and 1970s. One of the most provocative activities that fell within the Beheiren ambit was helping servicemen deserting from the numerous United States military bases around Japan.

Within one unassuming folder in the archive at Hawaii I remember finding a single sheet of typewritten English text — I believe the only item not in Japanese I encountered during my sessions in the archive. This was an original copy of a statement issued by deserters from the USS Intrepid at a press conference in Tokyo in 1967, though the deserters themselves were not present and instead shown to attendees on a 16mm film. I ended up using a quote in my book and including some of the details of the deserters’ tale. It was, however, just one of several such cases of Beheiren’s Japan Technical Committee for Assistance to Anti-War US Deserters (JATEC) helping AWOL Americans hide from the authorities, escape Japan and then make their way to refuge in Europe.

sweden matthew turner

That press conference for the USS Intrepid deserters provides the opening scene for a new novel by the New Zealander writer Matthew Turner, Sweden. The titular nation offered sanctuary to hundreds of deserters and draft resisters during the Vietnam War, though Turner’s book is set in Japan except for some flashbacks. Published earlier this year by The Mantle, Sweden promises to be “your passport to discover a part of American history you never knew”. In fact, Turner’s debut is, as far as I am aware, the first novel about this topic in English, despite its seemingly rich potential for fiction. In 1971, Terry Whitmore’s published a memoir Memphis, Nam, Sweden: The Story of a Black Deserter. There was also previously a film, Summer Soldiers (1972), directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara and written by John Nathan, also recounting the experiences of deserters and their (not always easy) relationship with Japanese “host families” and the local anti-war movement. In addition, Sweden forms part of a canon of “Zenkyōtō literature”, encompassing rite-of-passage novels about youth behind the barricades on campuses and more sensational stories dealing with the terrorist groups that later conducted bombing campaigns and hijackings.

Turner says he first heard about the Japanese peaceniks in the 1990s while he was living in Mishima and working as a translator. Fast-forward to the 2010s and Turner, now in his fifties and living in Christchurch, was finally writing his novel. Like all the best historical fiction, Sweden is long and well researched while managing to feel lively and pacy. Turner has done his homework, drawing on largely Japanese-language sources such as Kaiya Yamada’s famed Ai amu hippī: Nihon no hippī mūbumento ’60–’90 (I Am a Hippie: Japan’s Hippie Movement, 1960–90), which details the hippie commune on Suwanosejima where deserters stayed. He also travelled extensively around Japan to scout locations used by the clandestine JATEC network, including Hokkaido.

While the novel is a work of fiction, structured around three narratives told from different perspectives, it integrates real-life figures such as poet Gary Snyder, who spent time in Japan during the period, and one of the founders of Beheiren, Shunsuke Tsurumi. Across its 300-plus pages, the novel encompasses a wide range of characters and settings. Along the way we encounter activists, hippies, servicemen, girlfriends and culture clashes aplenty. It portrays a vibrant, exciting time at the end of the 1960s, packed with the passion of personal entanglements, street riots and ideologies. But through it all pulses a timeless, poignant urge. As one character remarks early on, “Some of [the activists] are communists. Some are Buddhists. Some are even Christians. They’re just normal people who want the Vietnam War to end.”


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Ghosts of militant Sanrizuka movement resurrected with unexploded shell found at Narita Airport

The Narita Airport protest movement, or the Sanrizuka struggle, is probably the longest social movement in Japan. Many believe it is consigned to the past, an iconic yet extinguished part of the radical militancy of the 1970s. That is wrong. Yes, the figures in the movement are dying off (after all, the movement started five decades ago). But the movement is alive, albeit non-violently. The protests by residents and far-left activists continue in the form of rallies and marches as well as lawsuits, publications and more. A demonstration is scheduled for 14 October in Narita City and will certainly come with a large police escort.

In addition to this animate aspect, however, the Sanrizuka struggle also represents a problematic and unresolved trauma for the nation-state, local area, activists and police. People are still attempting to come to terms with what happened during the most turbulent years of the movement. The recent documentaries The Wages of Resistance: Narita Stories and The Fall of Icarus: Narita Stories in part addressed this from, respectively, the experiences of the now-ageing farmers and the far-left activists.

We had a reminder of the lingering unsettled state of affairs during the early hours of 13 September, when one of the two runways at Narita was closed for three hours after an unexploded shell was found buried in the ground.

unexploded bomb shell mortar narita airport

Contractors stumbled upon the shell while drilling at night. Japanese media reported that it closely resembles the kind of homemade mortar (hakugekidan or hishōdan) commonly used by far-left groups during the militant protests against the airport. Is the shell a leftover projectile fired (largely symbolically) by Chūkaku-ha or Kakurōkyō, the two main far-left groups involved with the Narita protests?

Leading up to the airport opening in 1978, residents and activists fiercely resisted the land surveys and expropriations, leading to many arrests, injuries and deaths (on both sides). Even after the airport had started operating, the fight did not simply ebb away. Activists besieged the airport in “solidarity huts”, maintaining a vigilant watch over the employees, police and residents (for signs of betrayal). Militant acts of sabotage, arson, small bombs and mortar attacks continued through to the 2000s, with a prominent spike in the 1990s. Each new stage in the airport expansion, such as building the much-delayed second runway in the 1980s, prompted fresh mass protests. It is worth remembering that the scale of the airport is still not as large as was originally planned and that, if nothing else, the protracted movement has succeeded in preventing that from coming to pass.

But of the 40 million passengers and 250,000 flights that pass through Narita each year right now, how many know this history, let alone the movement’s current status? Churned up in the soil of the airport, a lot more is buried other than unexploded shells.


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Activists in Japan protest Olympics-focused Israeli arms trade fair held near Tokyo

Anti-Olympics campaigners and other activists gathered yesterday just outside Tokyo to protest against the opening of an Israeli arms and military expo.

ISDEF is Israel’s largest international defence and homeland security exhibition. It is happening in Japan at Todoroki Arena in Kawasaki, a city between Tokyo and Yokohama, from August 29th to August 30th. According to its publicity, ISDEF “brings together government and military officials, industry members, end users and decision-makers from Israel and around the world”. The main event in Israel has been held since 2007 and the 2019 edition is expected to attract 15,000 visitors and 300 exhibiting companies. This 2018 Japan expo features exhibitors from six countries, including Israel and Japan. Visitors are restricted to government and industry representatives; it is not open to the general public.

The Network Against Japan Arms Trade (NAJAT) [sic] is a pacifist group dedicated to fighting the global arms market in Japan. In partnership with Action Kanagawa, an anti-Abe and anti-war group based in the prefecture, it formed a dedicated unit, the Group Opposing the Israeli Military Expo in Kawasaki, for campaigning against the ISDEF expo in Kawasaki.

On August 29th, the group organised a picket and die-in event at the arena entrance with some 200 participants, according to announced information. They unfurled striking banners in English and Japanese, and then laid down like dead bodies on the ground outside the venue. Speakers at the rally included Middle East researchers and anti-Olympic protestors. Demonstrators also clashed verbally with arriving attendees and organisers.

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The die-in protest on August 29th. Image via @AntiArmsNAJAT.

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Image via @AntiArmsNAJAT.

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Protestors jostled and clashed verbally with organisers. Image via @AntiArmsNAJAT.

It was a small protest but one that succeeded in getting noticed. Riot police officers were in attendance at the venue, indicating the tension over the timing and nature of the event, along with members of the press. The ISDEF Japan organisers have also been closely following the protest movement over the summer, it seems, and have blocked activists (and myself, ostensibly an observer) on social media.

Japan effectively banned exports of munitions and arms by domestic corporations from 1967 to 2014. Previously restricted to circumventing the ban by selling only parts, major manufacturers are now set to benefit as the new market opens up. Campaigners, though, see the lifting of the ban as a shift towards remilitarisation. While an expo spokesperson talking to the local media emphasised the focus on security, safety and terrorism countermeasures, ISDEF taking place in Japan is a further sign for activists of the dangerous path that Japan is lurching towards, led by the lobby pushing for reform of the pacifist Constitution. Though this is the first ISDEF in Japan, two similar foreign arms trade events happened in, respectively, 2015 and 2016. The one in 2015 was the first military industry trade show in Japan — and the first anywhere to feature Japanese manufacturers. Those same two pioneering events — Japan International Aerospace Exhibition and Maritime/Air Systems & Technologies Asia — are scheduled to happen yet again in 2018 and 2019.

Ironically, the fairs will have trouble finding a venue in Tokyo in 2020, since Big Sight and other such sites are blocked off for several months to host Olympics-themed events and preparations. NAJAT is also associated with one of the main anti-Olympic groups in Japan protesting the 2020 Games and attended the recent rally in Harajuku. Likewise, campaigners from key anti-2020 group Hangorin no Kai were at the August 29th die-in. The protest against ISDEF is linked by activists to their concerns that the upcoming Tokyo Olympics will be exploited as an excuse to usher in increased state and police surveillance, oppression and militarisation. Anti-Olympic slogans were explicitly incorporated into the protests — in the same way the ISDEF Japan organisers directly referenced the 2020 Games and the need to boost security.

Last week Hangorin no Kai issued a “letter of protest” in both Japanese and English.

We learned about the 2018 ISDEF Japan Exhibition on May 15th, the very day known as the Nakba day; it was in the midst of Israeli Defense Force mercilessly shooting down Palestinian people who were marching to their homeland, unarmed. Many lives were lost due to the military action taken by the IDF.

We are troubled by the Olympic logo conspicuously placed on the ISDEF promotional poster, which reads: With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on the horizon, and over 40 million tourists expected to visit; security is the greatest concern to the organizers and authorities.

It is obvious to us that ISDEF Japan is taking up the Olympic opportunity to sell the security technology that is responsible for the killing of many Palestinian people. We do not want to see a bloodstained event, and are determined to fight against the Olympics that necessitates the violent technology against people.

The protestors also demonstrated ahead of the opening of the fair. On August 27th, a small group held up placards outside the corporate headquarters of telecommunications giant SoftBank, which is sponsoring ISDEF Japan in its capacity as a stakeholder in the cybersecurity market. Hangorin no Kai even turned up the expo venue two days before ISDEF Japan opened, to display an anti-Olympic banner (“We don’t need ISDEF Japan or the Olympics”) across the loading entrance while materials for the fair were taken off a truck and transported into the arena.

An online petition was also launched earlier in the summer on Change.org, attracting over 4,000 signatures. This was then submitted to the office of the mayor of Kawasaki on August 16th, calling on him to withdraw permission for the event.

A demonstration also takes place today on the final day of the expo. The movement, especially the opening day protest, has drawn attention from not only alternative media like Labor Net but also mainstream outlets like NHK, Sankei Shimbum, TV Kanagawa, Yahoo News and Tōyō Keizai. This is significant, since the anti-2020 movement, especially the aspects related to homeless evictions, has been almost entirely ignored.

It goes without saying that this protest campaign against the ISDEF event in Kawasaki is also rooted in the anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian movement in Japan. Many of the banners and publicity images for the protest has hinged as much on anger against Israeli state’s violence against the Palestinians as Japan-specific contexts like remilitarisation, the Olympics and the Constitution. Far from a novel development, this has an established precedent within the Japanese New Left, going back mainly to the early 1970s with, most famously, the emergence of the Japanese Red Army in Lebanon, but also continues today. President Trump’s decision to relocate the United States embassy to Jerusalem, for example, was protested by veteran campaigners in Tokyo on 14 May this year. Besides the far-left Japanese activists and (in the eyes of many) terrorists who have taken up arms to fight Israel, many Japanese journalists and photographers have dedicated their careers to highlighting the Palestinian cause, including Toshikuni Doi and Ryūichi Hirokawa. Certain sections of this movement are anti-Zionist and opposed to the state of Israel’s existence. Whether or not their beliefs also constitute anti-Semitism is a matter of debate, with scholars like the late David G. Goodman condemning the Japanese New Left for its indulgence in the “socialism of fools”, but a closer reading of the discourse of the JRA and others over the years suggests that their agenda should not be simply dismissed as racist.


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Anti-government monk group JKS47 protests nuclear power with monthly prayer rituals in Kasumigaseki

It should be obvious to all that Premium Friday, that ill-named and ill-begotten government gimmick to encourage workers to leave their jobs early on the final Friday of the month, has utterly failed when even the (no doubt overworked and under-appreciated) employees of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry do not leave their office at 3pm, as per the fundamental concept. I know this because I recently had cause to be outside METI on Premium Friday on 27 July, but I was not there in Kasumigaseki to gloat over the failure of yet another government scheme. I was there to watch JKS47.

Formed in August 2015, JKS47 is the Jusatsu Kitōkai Sōdan 47 (literally, Curse Death Prayer Meeting Monk Order 47), also known in English as the Japan Kitou Society. The naming is a clear nod towards AKB48, JKT48 and other many-membered pop idol groups, as well as to the loyal retainers of the Chūshingura, but first and foremost it references a group of monks from the 1970s who protested environmental pollution. Today, of course, the gravest environmental threat Japan faces is the long-term risks posed by the Fukushima radiation and the continued uncertainty over nuclear power in the nation — and this is the target of JSK47. The participants gather monthly at METI to protest the government policy of restarting the network of reactors around the country, done through Buddhist incantation and music that lasts around an hour. “The dead shall judge,” as declares the slogan for their prayer meetings (kitōe).

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JKS47 prayer meeting protest outside the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in Tokyo on 27 July 2018

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An anti-nuclear power banner displayed during the protest

The result is curiously hybrid: clamorous and declamatory; theatrical and performative; religious and ritualistic; isolated and stark against the grey buildings of the Kasumigaseki district in central Tokyo.

Somewhere between 12 and 20 people assemble in black robes with white sashes outside the METI headquarters. They erect banners and prepare instruments, speakers and microphones. A cymbal crashes and the proceedings begin. Another banner is unfurled and a trumpet blasts. People pass, bewildered by this hubbub in the pristine district of bureaucrats, not to mention its quasi-religious spectacle. What are Buddhist monks or priests doing here, making so much noise? Actually, it is perhaps more surprising how little flustered or responsive the pedestrians are to the event, indicating either people who work in the area are now used to the monthly protest or that ministry employees are a phlegmatic bunch. Even passing police officers seemed more bemused than concerned.

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The protest-ritual takes place right in front of METI in Kasumigaseki, central Tokyo

The music gives way to speeches (or rather, monologues) and then to a series of Buddhist sutras or prayers, morphing into further speeches and incantations. Much of this is accompanied by percussion and eventually grows increasingly frenetic and enraged. It is nigh-impossible to make out the exact words (especially for a foreigner with limited knowledge of Buddhist rituals), though “scripts” are handed out to the attendees to follow along. There is even flint-sparking — the purification custom of kiribi, which is meant to bring good fortune — before everyone joins in a prayer with drumming, the beats resounding off the walls of the office buildings. The rhythm and flow of the event is difficult to capture with expanded field notes alone, but this video from the June edition probably conveys the atmosphere better than words.

JKS47 has attracted some press attention, not least for the novelty factor but also its links to other movements like the Tent Plaza (Tento Hiroba) and the opposition to the protests against the state security bills in 2015. Every session features a battery of supporters’ cameras filming and documenting. In this way, despite its modest size, older demographic and rather eccentric, even arguably esoteric, approach, JKS47 deftly uses tools to extend its reach and status as a social movement.

JKS47 logo

JKS47 logo

The participants are aged mostly in their fifties and sixties, and include veterans from music, photography, and theatre. One prominent figure is Seibun Uesugi, originally a playwright from 1960s underground theatre, who is joined by the likes of the film director Masao Adachi and actor Michio Akiyama — both legends of 1960s and 1970s Japanese cinema. Indeed, it might just look like a lot of play-acting. Nonetheless, Uesugi is an actual monk at a Nichiren temple and there is a genuine Buddhist element to the rituals. The group’s website carries a long explanation of the arcane meanings and nuances of jusatsu kitō.

I leave July’s session a little early, the sounds of the sutra reverberating after me while I descend the stairs to the subway, as if I were an Orpheus or some other doomed hero entering Charonium. And if JKS47 is right, the dead in the underworld are restless and demanding justice.


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Shinjuku Station West Gate: Reclaiming Tokyo’s banned plaza as a political space

Over the years I have continued to gravitate back towards the Shinjuku Station West Gate (Nishiguchi) protests, which I believe to be one of the most important yet little-known social movements in Tokyo today.

Every Saturday from 5pm to 7pm, demonstrators gather at the station area to protest against whatever issues they feel strongly about that week. They call it a “standing demo”; it is a kind of informal vigil, attended by a hard-core handful of liberal activists but also anyone who happens to turn up that weekend. There is no concrete co-ordination or rules other than the participants always gather outside the Odakyu Department Store above ground from 5pm to 6pm, and then from 6pm to 7pm below ground in the main plaza space outside the JR station ticket gates. They hold up or display placards, but that is all.

Of course, this movement, which has been going on since 2003 and is known as Shinjuku Nishiguchi Hansen Ishi Hyōji (新宿西口反戦意思表示, rendering slightly awkwardly into English as the Shinjuku West Gate Expression of Anti-War Intent), harks back to the famous West Gate “folk guerrilla” rallies that were led by Beheiren musicians. Starting off as anti-war concerts in early 1969, the weekly gatherings grew into immense rallies attracting thousands by the summer. Inevitably, they also attracted the police, who arrested the main musicians, forcibly expelled the participants and then blocked protestors from entering the underground plaza. The movement died out and could not repeat its success elsewhere, not least because the West Gate plaza was a surprisingly suitable venue: convenient and accessible, yet large enough for people to spread out and accommodate a range of different groups and also enclosed enough that it felt intimate and self-contained as a space.

The authorities notoriously reconfigured the “plaza” into a “passageway”, meaning that people could not stop in it. The movement was then historicised as an iconic episode in Japan’s “season of politics”. But this somewhat ossified status is no longer accurate. In addition to (and arguably, because of) the regular Saturday vigils, which are loosely led by Seiko Ōki, one of the original folk guerrilla musicians who returned to the site in 2003 to protest the Iraq War, the West Gate plaza has slowly started to re-acquire its former function as a public space facilitating citizens who want to exercise their right to the city in Tokyo.

After all, Japan is experiencing a period of liminality, in the Victor Turner sense of the word, and since 2011 has witnessed wave after wave of new social movements and practices. These have tested the (considerable) limits and restrictions placed on public space in Tokyo, giving birth, among others, to the long-running Kanteimae Friday night vigils outside the Prime Minister’s official residence protesting against nuclear power and the tents that occupied a plot of land outside the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in Kasumigaseki for several years until their removal in 2016.

Within this current, Shinjuku Station West Gate has reappeared as a popular choice for speeches, rallies and other political stagings. The National Diet remains the most potent symbolic site — an anti-government rally by Sōgakari on 10 June against the Moritomo Gakuen cronyism scandal, for example, mobilised 27,000, despite heavy rain — yet the Nishiguchi plaza has practical advantages: it is underground, making it ideal in the June rainy season, and there is always an audience of passing pedestrians, shoppers and railway passengers.

On the evening of 25 June, the prominent Social Democratic Party lawmaker Mizuho Fukushima was at the West Gate giving a speech about the government’s controversial labour reforms. It was the follow-up to a sequence of speeches and protests at the West Gate on 18 June, with protestors and opposition politicians appearing at stations and elsewhere to appeal to the public. (Fukushima also addressed a crowd that evening.) The so-called “work-style reform” legislation was eventually enacted by the Diet on 29 June.

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25 June rally at Shinjuku Station West Gate (Nishiguchi) with Mizuho Fukushima. Image via @mkimpo_kid.

Launched by Mitsuko Uenishi, a law professor at Hosei University, Kokkai Public Viewing is a series of quasi-guerrilla actions that see large television screens temporarily installed in public spaces around Tokyo, showing the proceedings from the National Diet (Kokkai) related to important legislation — footage that is broadcast on television but rarely seen by people who work during the daytime. Since the first event in June at Shinbashi’s SL Plaza, the screenings have surfaced all over the city in recent weeks (one is planned for 12 August from 7pm to 8pm at Hachikō in Shibuya). On 23 July, Fukushima was again at the West Gate giving a speech and introducing Kokkai Public Viewing footage.

Similarly to the Saturday evening Shinjuku “standing demos” that are careful not to obstruct the foot traffic and, thus, avoid the need for a permit, these screenings can tactically, as de Certeau would put it, circumvent the legal constraints placed on more standard types of demonstrations and rallies. The organisers view their project as essentially open-source, inviting others to hold Kokkai Public Viewing using the guidelines on the website. They are much more than just outdoor screenings: they endeavour to re-democratise public space that often feels so commercial in Japan and divorced from the powers that run the nation.

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23 July Kokkai Public Viewing event at Shinjuku Station West Gate with Mizuho Fukushima. Image via @mkimpo_kid

On 6 July, a decidely less stuffy or staid political rally was held in the evening at the West Gate with a Tanabata festival theme. Once again the main target of this “singing and dancing” demonstration was Prime Minister Abe and his cronyism scandal, though this time the participants dressed in yukata and colourful wigs, and used music rather than declamatory speeches. The movement is known as Michibata Kōgyō (literally, Roadside Industrial Enterprise) and emerged in early July out of a protest that took place outside the Kantei for several weeks from March. It continues to unfold regularly on the streets, including at the West Gate, and always with plenty of élan and charm. While the folk guerrillas are not exactly back in town, their successors are doing a fine job.

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Michibata Kōgyō “singing and dancing” rally at Shinjuku Station West Gate on 6 July. Image via @mkimpo_kid.

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Publicity image for another Michibata Kōgyō event on 8 August, held at Shinjuku Station West Gate outside the Odakyu Department Store, and raising money for people affected by the floods in western Japan earlier in the summer.

All this is not to suggest that Shinjuku Station West Gate has never hosted these kinds of practices in previous years, but the recent developments certainly represent a new energy — and one galvanised, if not even epitomised, by the Saturday evening protests. For all its concrete pillars and purported nomenclature as a passageway, the West Gate remains in spirit very much a plaza — and one of the most vital examples of one in a city where most of the large open space is privately owned or, even if public, hardly utilised.


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