Footage has emerged showing apparently unprovoked police brutality against members of the student activist group Zengakuren.
While nothing like the recent bodycam scenes we are seeing of officers gunning down unarmed black citizens in the United States, the videos are still shocking for revealing the temerity and impunity with which the Japanese security police act. When it comes to confronting perceived political radicals, the police seem to believe there is nothing amiss about physically assaulting a citizen in broad daylight.
The incidents happened outside the venue for a two-day Zengakuren rally in Tokyo on September 1st and September 2nd, where numerous security police officers were waiting to photograph and monitor arriving attendees. On both days, the police seemed to pounce on the activists, leading to short but intense scrums. Those with their faces covered with hats or masks to protect their identities had their camouflage unceremoniously pulled off.
Zengakuren has claimed that the attacks left activists with broken glasses, ripped clothes and minor injuries. Its lawyers have announced their intention to sue. The group will next organise a rally at Kyoto University on October 3rd, which we can expect to be heavily policed, though in theory officers will not actually be able to be on campus.
Let’s go back to basics. Zengakuren is a league of student organisations across Japan, originally formed shortly after the war. At one time, Zengakuren was a fully national network of powerful student councils, which were controlled by New Left factions or the youth wing of the Japanese Communist Party. Those days are long gone, and this incarnation of Zengakuren is actually the student organisation, Marugakudō (Marxist Student League), of the wing of Kakukyōdō (Revolutionary Communist League) better known as Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction).
While there are other groupsicules, this remaining branch of Zengakuren is the only real group that can claim to be continuing the legacy of genuinely left-wing activism in Japan. Its membership is relatively small — though not much more so than the actual membership of SEALDs, in spite of the media ballyhoo that group generated last year — yet the police deal with it as a serious threat.
The recent crackdown is arguably an extension of what has been ongoing for several years now, starting as a protest movement at the traditional Chūkaku-ha stronghold of Hōsei University from around 2006. That movement, which has its roots in Chūkaku-ha’s presence on campus and also the increase in protest activities against the Iraq War in 2003-4, is directed against the prevailing neoliberal atmosphere at the college. It still produces fresh arrests every few months, largely on frivolous charges. However, things really kicked off again in November 2014.
During the march following the annual rally organised by Dōrō-Chiba — a labour union affiliated with Chūkakua-ha — three student activists were mistakenly arrested in Ginza. None were ultimately charged but the bad publicity sparked further police action.
An undercover security police officer was rumbled on the campus of Kyoto University and held by activists for a short period. Later, Kumano Dormitory was raided by riot cops. Through the first half of November, multiple sites associated with Chūkaku-ha were searched by police on flimsy pretexts.
The whole world is watching, as the 1968 slogan has it, though in the case of the security bills protests last year it at times felt like the world was just watching the cool kids from SEALDs, while the older demonstrators and those located further to the left of the liberal group were ignored. The police, at any rate, were indeed watching, and used the protests as an excuse to raid and arrest far-left activists during the protests. In September, police also arrested Zengakuren activists on suspicion of “confining” a spy, though no one was charged.
In late 2015, while the media was lionising SEALDs, Zengakuren’s Kyoto University branch, Dōgakukai, organised a small campus strike that received next to no mainstream press attention. The very limited action was nonetheless treated as a misdemeanour and led to several arrests this year. Four of the students involved have also been suspended permanently by the institution, which Zengakuren responded to with a march through central Kyoto on August 25th.
Don’t believe the hype about SEALDs, folks: student activism in Japan is officially taboo.
That being said, Kyoto University is once again a centre of student activism. Its pedigree is a long one: in addition to one of Japan’s major campus strikes in 1968, the university also incubated several of the radicals who went on to form the militant Sekigun-ha (Red Army Faction) in 1969.