Activists alarmed by Shinjuku ward move to restrict parks for protests

Shinjuku ward in Tokyo revealed a plan on 27 June to reduce the number of parks that demonstrations can use from the current four to just one. The move was initiated as a move to combat hate speech rallies, which have been prominent in Shinjuku of late and which legislation in 2016 failed to prove completely effective against.

Shinjuku ward is surely concerned about the damage such small racist marches, which are always met with robust and even sometimes aggressive antifa counter-protests, do to the image of the area around the main station, which always throngs with tourists and shoppers. (The hate groups target Shinjuku because it is home to Tokyo’s largest population of ethnic Koreans.) Local neighbourhood and shopping street associations are also no doubt bothered by the traffic disruption and noise these rowdy rallies and marches entail.

The plan, which comes into effect from August, will see a new provision added to the rules regarding the use of parks as start points for marches and rallies. Such events will no longer be able to use parks that are located close to schools, educational facilities and shopping districts, which will ban use of Kashiwagi, Hanazononishi and Nishitoyama parks. It means that only Shinjuku Chuo Park, which is tucked away in the quiet skyscraper district very near the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, is left. Though march routes could still presumably then take a protest through the more crowded parts of Shinjuku, the main rallies would be kept far from public gaze.

Coming after the controversial revision to the Tokyo Anti-Nuisance Ordinance in the spring, those in the Left in Japan are increasingly worried that civil rights are under threat. Antifa activists and liberals have, of course, long campaigned for the prohibition of hate speech rallies but such an indiscriminate countermeasure as this would affect others more severely, given that racist protests account for only a minority of demonstrations at the four parks. (Rallies categorised as involving hate speech had been on the decline, though Shinjuku witnessed a sudden surge up to thirteen in the 2017 fiscal year.)

antiracist placard parks shinjuku

Placard design recently issued by the Anti-Racism Project group calling for restrictions on hate protests, rather than demonstrations in general

Since several parks in Shinjuku are popular choices for all kinds of rallies, this latest development has quickly attracted anger from activists and opposition parties, who argue that limitations should be placed on hate speech alone. A online petition was launched, receiving over 2,500 signatures so far.

In the run-up to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, many also expect further restrictions on the use of certain sites for protest activities, while the coronation of the new emperor in spring 2019 — an event that will trigger a flurry of anti-emperor demonstrations and then the prerequisite aggressive counter-protests by ultra-nationalists — will possibly prove another pretext for limiting freedom of speech and assembly, as it did when the current emperor took the throne nearly 30 years ago.

With decently sized plazas are few and far between, parks are commonly used in Japan as the location for the start (and end) points of protest marches, which typically begin with a rally. Certain parks have become associated with particular movements. Kashiwagi Park has recently become a regular site for racist groups to hold events. A few years ago, Yoyogi Park hosted the most iconic rallies from the height of the post-Fukushima anti-nuclear power movement.

As protests and rallies in Japan have to be approved beforehand by the Tokyo Metropolitan Public Safety Commission, it is not unknown for the right to use parks to be withdrawn sometimes by police and local government authorities. An anti-nuclear rally scheduled for Yoyogi in 2014 had to relocate to the much less accessible Kameido Chuo Park in the east of the city after the authorities retracted permission, ostensibly due to an outbreak of dengue fever.

Parks are coveted areas of rare public space in the city, which is more famous for its neon and concrete towers that green lungs. Something like 3.4% of Tokyo comprises public parks and gardens, compared to 38.4% in London and 14% in New York. In fact, parks in the Western sense did not even exist in Tokyo until the late nineteenth century. As such, when these spaces are endangered, people often react due to the immediate impact not just on protestors but also families and the homeless (who often stay or store their belongings in parks). One of the most vibrant and much-studied examples of this was the movement that emerged between around 2008 and 2010 to protect Miyashita Park from privatisation. It succeeded, though the park has since been closed and subsumed within the large-scale commercial redevelopment of Shibuya in conjunction with the Olympics. My current research related to the anti-Olympics movement in Tokyo actually focuses on Miyashita as well as Meiji, another park in the centre of the city where homeless residents lived, as contested sites in a fight against gentrification but also as emblematic of how 2020 is a flashpoint in the struggle for the right to the city.


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Zengakuren reaches milestone (and new viewers) with tongue-in-cheek and self-aware political YouTube video series

Zengakuren is not only an organisation of left-wing student activists; it is also a group of YouTubers.

Perhaps the most unlikely Japanese Internet hit of recent months, Zenshin Channel is named after the main newspaper of the Zengakuren parent organisation, the far-left group known commonly as Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction). The channel was launched in late May 2017 at a time of intense attention on the activists following the arrest of long-time fugitive Masaaki Ōsaka, which generated headlines around the world. Counter-narrative lies at the essence of the channel’s content: the key message of the inaugural video was that “comrade Ōsaka is innocent”.

The channel has grown from its rather unassuming start to have, as of writing, over 2,000 subscribers and regular attract 1-2,000 views for its short videos that are released once or twice a week.

The 100th “anniversary” video, however, released on June 10th, broke new ground in that it was long (over ten minutes) and became something of a viral hit, clocking up over 13,000 views. It is presented by the Zengakuren leader Ikuma Saitō and Tomoko Horaguchi, a young female activist so popular that she has inspired her own meme and fan website in the past.

zenshin channel zengakuren youtube student activists japan

The format of Zenshin Channel’s videos have varied and evolved in ambition over the months, though usually introduce the main articles and issues raised in the latest edition of Zenshin. In response to requests made online, Zengakuren designed the 100th instalment as a guided video tour of Zenshinsha, the headquarters of Chūkaku-ha in east Tokyo housing the printing presses that produce the group’s vast volumes of literature as well as dorms where many members reside.

How do truly committed left-wing activists live in contemporary Japan? This is a subject that others have taken an interest in before, including the mainstream Japanese press. It should also be noted that, while Chūkaku-ha generally gets negative coverage from the press, Zengakuren is treated more generously and the weekly tabloids and other outlets like to interview the young activists (motivated perhaps by curiosity as much as empathy) about their causes.

Guided by Horaguchi, the tour covers such highlights as the unmarked police vehicle that maintains 24-hour surveillance on the entrance to Zenshinsha, the different rooms and facilities in the building (and even the computer where the activists edit and prepare the episodes of Zenshin Channel), and the exterior of the fortified site that features current issues of its newspaper and a box for people to insert coins (mujin-hanbai — self-service retail — is quite common in Japan, particularly unmanned stalls in local neighbourhoods selling vegetables and fruit).

This is not simply a tactic to attract new recruits. There is something quite sophisticated going on here. A full five decades on since ’68, Zenshin Channel speaks to the trend I have noted before whereby “retro” student activism has now become a commodity suitable for cutifying and consumption. This can take the form of protest pastiche that is nonetheless a performative identity politics, cosplay costumes and moe tribute art related to kyōsanshumi (the name given by fans to their interest in communist or New Left content), or even a music video. This unfolds casually and unashamedly in spite of the apparent taboo that the Left’s dogma and problematic history represents for liberal and mainstream young activists such as SEALDs. That latter group, however, while shunning this baggage, was nonetheless a clear manifestation of the feminisation of protest, with its clean, media-friendly image that placed female members front and centre.

Zengakuren’s main activists have embraced this new state of affairs, growing out of the zestful and costumed style of protest championed earlier by NAZEN, a Chūkaku-ha youth group that developed post-3.11 with a focus on the nuclear power struggle, and the general 1990s and 2000s prefigurative culture wave of freeter activist movements.

Eschewing any attempt to fashion overly slick or professional output, Zenshin Channel is in fact highly self-aware and ironic — so much so that it sometimes might surprise outsiders that the makers’ “elders” allow them to jest so much (indicating the freedom that the activists are given). A jingle from The International opens each episode but is a decidedly untraditional recital of the workers’ hymn. Titles, captions and various visual effects are used copiously, yet without any masking of their rather callow level. Bloopers and “behind-the-scenes” shots are incorporated into the final version of the video. In addition to encompassing police surveillance as part of the tour — a fact that one might assume they would wish not to emphasise, given that it suggests they are “dangerous” people to avoid — Horaguchi notes that viewers will be familiar with the door to Zenshinsha from the (partially staged) news footage of police dramatically cutting into it at the start of the raids on the site — and there’s even then a clip of example footage inserted to illustrate the point. And the video ends with a special “viewer giveaway”: genuine Chūkaku-ha helmets that are likely to set the hearts of kyōsanshumi geeks aflutter.

While a far cry from the militancy and ideology for which Zengakuren is most famous, the activists have not abandoned their politics by any means. When presenting these videos, they are able to switch tones from the jokey and parodic to poker-faced quotations from their newspaper’s denunciation of a government policy or an announcement of a rally. In other words, for all the pranks, Zengakuren remains as sincere as ever.


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The Japanese Red Army: A Short History out now in German

The Japanese Red Army: A Short History has been published in paperback by the Austria-based Bahoe Books.

Though originally broached as a partial German translation of my first book, Dissenting Japan, we eventually shaped the project into a kind of spin-off book based on two of the chapters. The relevant sections on the Red Army were updated and heavily expanded so as to work as a standalone book with a majority of new material.

japanese red army short history

Across around 150 pages, The Japanese Red Army: A Short History charts the interrelated stories of the Red Army Faction (Sekigun-ha), United Red Army (Rengō Sekigun) and Japanese Red Army (Nihon Sekigun), with a particular focus on the latter. The book sets out to explain the contexts and events of the groups for the general reader as well as rectify many of the misconceptions about them that have arisen in the mainstream discourse.

For local marketing purposes, the German title was clarified to Die japanische Rote Armee Fraktion (literally, The Japanese Red Army Faction), since Germany already has its own well-known Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion). The book, which is translated by Rudi Gradnitzer, also features an introduction by Gregor Wakounig.

There are currently no confirmed plans for publishing the English edition.

Bahoe Books website


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Activists denounce Tokyo Anti-Nuisance Ordinance revision as curbing right to protest

The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly has passed an update to the Tokyo Anti-Nuisance Ordinance that, activists say, will potentially muzzle protests and free speech, and strengthen police powers over civil liberties.

The revision, which was voted through on 29 March and comes into force on 1 July, broadens the scope of the ordinance to cover actions that fall into a vaguely defined category of “stalking” or “harassing” (worded as tsukimatoi in Japanese). Police in Tokyo commonly charge people with violating the ordinance for such offences as groping, public indecency or taking photographs of someone without permission. However, opponents note that it is not inconceivable that anti-government tweets and emails might fall into this new “harassment” classification. All those angry citizens regularly gathering at the Diet or Kantei these past months to denounce Prime Minister Shinzō Abe for his alleged cronyism might no longer be there in the near future, if such vilifying verbally or on social media is delegated as tsukimatoi.

During the 29 March plenary session, Governor Yuriko Koike’s Tomin First no Kai party, which has a majority in the Assembly when teamed with its allies, passed the revision based on the reasoning that protest and press freedom would be exempt, but it was opposed by the Japanese Communist Party since such safeguards were not included in the actual wording.

protest tokyo law prevent nuisance activists freedom of speech japan

In March, activists held several demonstrations to protest what they saw as Koike’s railroading of the amendments through the Assembly after just a single deliberation session. In addition to these street protests at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku and elsewhere, an online petition was launched. In spite of some press coverage, the case has attracted relatively little public attention and the protests failed to catch on (the petition, for example, received less than 7,500 responses).

While over 100 civil groups sent petitions to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government objecting to revision, major liberal or opposition groups did not mobilise supporters for large rallies. The JCP was vocal in its criticism but the increasingly popular Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan has few seats in the Assembly. Ironically, the largest “opposition” bloc in the Assembly is now the LDP, which is firmly on the Right.

As such, the activists on the streets were generally unaffiliated, though with prominent support from lawyers, which typically means numbers will be low unless the issue is very clear-cut or emotive. That being said, some protestors were associated with formal organisations; the veteran far-left group Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction), for example, held a protest on 22 March at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building related to the revisions as well as its long-running dispute over a laid-off canteen worker at the headquarters.

The new development is the latest in a series of perceived threats against freedom of speech and assembly, following the State Secrecy Law in 2013 and the Conspiracy Law in 2017. There have also been proposals from the Ministry of Justice for some time now to enhance police powers for criminal investigations, such as extending wiretapping practices, ostensibly to combat a rise in fraud cases in Japan.

As Tokyo gears up for the 2020 Olympics, there is anxiety that it will be used as an excuse to crack down on political groups, prevent activists from protesting and carry out arrests or searches on flimsy grounds. It is surely not insignificant that a new edition of Kyūen Note, the famous manual that originally appeared in 1970 offering advice for student activists about what to do if arrested, was published in April with updates reflecting the recent legal changes.


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Trailer released for feature-length documentary about Red Army activists

The first trailer has appeared for Red Army People (Sekigun no Hitobito), a new feature-length documentary about former activists from Sekigun-ha (Red Army Faction) and related groups.

Director Shingō Magome has filmed it over the course of several years as he gradually won the trust of the inner circle of original participants in what is possibly Japan’s most famous yet problematic New Left movement. The diligent Magome has traced the paths of the activists that spread out around the globe, including to North Korea, where the hijackers of the Yodogō plane now languish, and the Middle East, where members of Sekigun-ha (and other groups) settled and formed the Japanese Red Army.

The erstwhile revolutionaries are now approaching the December of their lives and not all the interviewees are still alive, most prominently the founder of Sekigun in 1969, Takaya Shiomi. As such, the film will form a valuable record of the raw voices of these ageing men and women who wanted to change so much about their country and world decades ago.

sekigun hitobito yodogo hijackers north korean japanese red army faction

Image from the upcoming documentary film Red Army People (Sekigun no Hitobito), showing remaining members of the Yodogō Group of hijackers living in North Korea

The footage is shot from a unique position in that Magome is both an insider, having spent so long with the activists working on his labour of love, and an outsider, hailing from a younger generation — one that grew in neoliberal Japan bereft of mass student activism — but fascinated with this dwindling band and their legacy.

Interviewees include the film director Masao Adachi (with whom Magome works regularly), Michinori Katō and Yasuhiro Uegaki of Rengō Sekigun (United Red Army), and Kōji Takazawa, who was an editor closely linked to Sekigun-ha.

While the notorious incidents the film examines — such as the Yodogō hijacking in 1970, the Rengō Sekigun purge and subsequent Asama-sansō siege in 1972, and the Lod Airport attack in 1972 — are familiar from their sensational aspects as era-defining “incidents” and media events, only a relatively select number of participants’ voices are accessible to those not inclined to undertake more serious research. The activists who wrote memoirs have succeeded in cementing their version of the history in consumable formats but various other insights and memories have not been chronicled properly. History (and documentary) always has bias and Magome’s film is certainly no different. However, its breadth of interviews will be welcomed by anyone, irrespective of personal stance. (Another commendable project in this vein is Shōgen Rengō Sekigun, an on-going project publishing short testimonial texts by as many as possible of the surviving people who were involved with the Rengō Sekigun.)

Notwithstanding some shorter pieces made for television, Sekigun has surprisingly not, to my knowledge, received a substantial documentary of this kind until now. Part of this is perhaps due to the vast amount of non-fiction and reportage already existing in print, but probably largely also because of the formidable shadow cast by the fictional or semi-fictional treatments — namely, Kōji Wakamatsu’s United Red Army, which was released a decade ago to much acclaim but a somewhat mixed reception by the original participants. Though it gives the impression of being a docudrama, we should not fall into the trap of viewing it (solely) through this filter. (Incidentally, the best critical English-language exegesis of Wakamatsu’s film and others that deal with the Rengō Sekigun came be found in The United Red Army on Screen: Cinema, Aesthetics and the Politics of Memory by Chris Perkins.)

Shane O’Sullivan’s Children of the Revolution (2011) was about with two daughters of far-left female activists from, respectively, Germany and Japan. Despite the presence of May Shigenobu and the seemingly obvious appeal for local audiences, however, the film was not shown in Japan until 2014.

While details on the official release of Red Army People are as yet unannounced, the time, fifty years on from 1968 and all that, is surely ripe for a plunge once more unto the breach and address the troubled legacy of Sekigun.


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