Reflecting on the legacy of Fusako Shigenobu

While my publications here have been less than minimal these past months, I have published work elsewhere.

I recently contributed two articles on the legacy of Fusako Shigenobu, the former leader of the Japanese Red Army who was finally released from prison in late May.

fusako shigenobu famous image

fusako shigenobu rifle gun

I wrote one, “The Complex Legacy of Fusako Shigenobu’s Years in the Middle East”, for the Abu Dhabi newspaper The National, focused on the two “versions” of Shigenobu that seem to exist in the social imaginary (as a infamous terrorist mastermind and as a glamorous leftist revolutionary), and argue that neither is accurate.

The second article, “Shigenobu Fusako and the Haze of Cultural Memory”, written for the Critical Asian Studies Commentary Board, is longer and more in depth, once again setting out to debunk some of the misinformation and misconceptions about Shigenobu that have persisted for various reasons, especially in the mainstream media’s treatment of her. I examine several examples of how the media has portrayed her over the decades and take this further to explore the mishmash approach to the Long Sixties that has emerged in cultural memory, perpetuated by the mass media and, to some extent, researchers and writers (including myself).

I also invite people to read Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda’s valuable translation of Shigenobu’s final newsletter from behind bars, which she has made available online.

With Shigenobu’s release and first public appearance in more than two decades, we will surely see more discourse about her activism as well as the broader legacy of the Japanese Red Army and the radical Left. Some of this may come from Shigenobu herself, health permitting.


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The Kumano Festival clock tower occupation and the hauntology of Kyoto University

Hickory, dickory, dock,
The mouse ran up the clock.
The clock struck one.
The mouse ran down.
Hickory, dickory, dock.

Boys and girls come out to play,
The moon doth shine as bright as day.
Leave your supper and leave your sleep,
And join your playfellows in the street.
Come with a whoop and come with a call,
Come with a good will or not at all.
Up the ladder and down the wall,
A half-penny loaf will serve us all;
You find milk, and I’ll find flour,
And we’ll have a pudding in half an hour.

Traditional English nursery rhymes

At an ungodly hour of the morning in November, I found myself crossing the Kamo River. I had detrained from the sleek peloton of progress, that smooth shuttler of bodies that is the Shinkansen, and then headed a little north of Kyoto Station to sit, bleary-eyed and a little self-consciously unadorned in a room full of PhDs, pursuing para-academic flights of fancy about the Japanese New Left and historical memory.

When our workshop broke for lunch, we walked across to the fabulously dilapidated West Auditorium in another part of the Kyoto University campus. This large hall has hosted avant-garde arts and cultural events for over fifty years, though its days may now be numbered given its state of disrepair. But though the doors and walls seem about to give way, and you would never want to be inside during an earthquake, the decoration on the roof shines firm and proud after all these years: three stars representing the trio of Japanese men – Okudaira Tsuyoshi (or Takeshi), Okamoto Kōzō and Yasuda Yasuyuki – who took part in an attack in May 1972 on Lod Airport (today, Ben Gurion Airport) in Tel Aviv, leaving almost thirty dead, including Okudaira and Yasuda, though the exact aims of the attack and who was responsible for the deaths remain contested. But here the three men are fêted and honoured as three stars inspired by Orion’s Belt.

orion stars kyoto university west auditorium japanese red army

Despite the provocative nature of the image, this corner of the campus felt neglected, almost forgotten. The violence that it references was distant, both geographically and historically. Elsewhere on the university campuses, though, things were a different matter a few days after I left Kyoto.

The Kumano Festival is a yearly series of events organised by the titular, student-run dormitory. Part of it involves the “occupation” of the Clock Tower Centennial Hall on the Yoshida Campus, where students scale the walls to stand around on the roof for a while and assert their youthful exuberance. The clock tower was built in 1925 and the occupation has become an annual occurrence, a tradition of sorts or sign of the season (fūbutsushi), performed with ladders put up to the walls to get up on the (relatively low) roof. The prank seemed to start first in around 1994 and became a fixed element of the Kumano Festival from 2008. In the past, as many as two hundred people have climbed up on the roof, and participants have adopted the get-up of past campus militancy in the form of helmets and costumes.

The university authorities, however, were less convinced by these frolics and started to crack down on the event from 2017. Private security officers have prevented the students from bringing ladders to the clock tower, while the pandemic provided another pretext to stop students from gathering in large numbers on the campus, much less clambering up university buildings. Last year, things took a turn for the worse during the first occupation to happen since 2017. The police were called and students were punished for clashing physically (albeit it mildly) with university personnel.

On 24 November, it was announced that three male students who took part in last year’s occupation were suspended for limited periods of one or two months, and five others were officially reprimanded. Needless to say, the timing of the announcements was deliberate: by putting it out there, right before the Kumano Festival, that students who climb onto the roof of the clock tower will face real consequences, the university was hoping to instill fear in the minds of potential “occupiers” this year.

kyoto university clock tower occupation

On 26 November, according to media reports, around a hundred students nonetheless gathered for the annual high jinks, but were prevented from climbing up by around sixty police officers, including riot police. On 3 December, possibly even greater numbers assembled, hankering for the chance to occupy the roof, only to be met by a battalion of police and private security who dashed their hopes.

The university has issued a statement decrying the “violence” of the tactics of the attendees in coming in sunglasses, helmets and face coverings to hide their identities (and thus, evade potential repercussions), and charging onto the campus with ladders despite the instructions of staff. It has also taken the opportunity to criticise the student council (jichikai) that organises the Kumano Festival, claiming it lacks a sense of responsibility or capability befitting an authentic student council.

The sight of dozens of police officers lined up on a university campus is unsettling, especially when it is in response to what is essentially a student prank, though calling in the police like this was something made easier by the legislation passed in the wake of the nationwide campus strikes and unrest at the end of the 1960s.

In particular, the spectacle of police facing off against a gaggle of students, some of them wearing helmets, inevitably resembles a showdown from 1968. Before reaching for schematic comparisons, we should, however, keep in mind that the festival and clock tower stunt are effectively japes. Probably only a minority of the students are politically engaged or “leftist radicals” in the conventional sense (though there are genuine links between Kumano Dormitory and a far-left group — of which, more in due course).

Rather, the festival is an opportunity for students — political or otherwise — to assume a much-needed role, to step onto a sterile twenty-first-century stage and act out a part. This is done as an unashamed spiritual emulation of the Long Sixties; for the ones who follow their predecessors most closely in terms of the paraphernalia, it approaches a kind of Zenkyōtō cosplay, itself a trope now in realms like Comiket, survival games and even music videos. But none of this is to discredit the merit or import of the “jape”. Far from it. Because play is more than child’s play.

But in contemporary Japan (and of course, elsewhere), such play must contest with the quarantine of zest, where any festival is an extension of a mindset that seeks to package “culture”, to present neatly ordered and controlled things for easy consumption. And this is even more the case during a time of viral quarantine, when we are constantly called upon to safeguard physical distance.

Now more than ever, to attempt such an occupation of university space, even if temporarily, even if in jest, is a form of re-territorialisation and resistance, of play and games as protest. To wear masks to mask your identity was (and remains) a tactic of the New Left in Japan in the face of the state’s surveillance of their demonstrations and meetings. But here it takes on a double meaning, a beating-them-at-their-own-game contrivance, since the masked students could rightfully claim they were adhering to the strict rules of our Covid-led governance. For the university and police, blocking the students from occupying the roof is a strategy, as de Certeau would say, whereby they hold all the cards in terms of numbers, matériel and the right to arrest. It is almost too blatant: the repressive state apparatus on show at one of the bastions of the ideological state apparatus. The students must make do with wily schemes, must play the trickster with tactics: adapting to these conditions imposed upon them.

In the end, they failed to achieve their aims but the means are as valid as the ends: détournement of the mask, a masque of masks. Presence in the space alone is provocation by half-remembered alterity: the revellers stood before the ranks of police “with folded arms and looks which are / Weapons of unvanquished war”.

In what Quentin Stevens calls the ludic city, play is vital in urban space to express free will. Play in unpredictable, hard to quantify or qualify. It is diverse and fluid. But while the copious numbers of public arts festivals now found around Japan like to pretend they offer participatory events, their approach to play is the institutionalized form of play known as ludus (mostly, it should be said, at the behest of the funding bodies and sponsoring governments rather than the curators and directors). This is play carefully ordered to ensure there is no risk, that there can be no complaint. Mollycoddled and observed at all times, the visitor to such festivals is never given room for surprise or a real emotion. The tickets are numbered; the waiting times are pre-scheduled; everything is sterile, literally in these pandemic days. It brings to mind Matsuda Masao’s bemusement at the scripted matsuri foisted by Abashiri’s settlers on former Ainu land: it affected the accoutrements of a regular Japanese festival, but “all that was missing was the ‘excitement’ that should accompany a ‘festival'”. For play as subversion, as Situationist and spontaneous, on the other hand, we need paidia, the more riotous form of tomfoolery that stimulates jouissance and genuine diversion.

For the powerless, and students — even those at such an elite college as Kyoto University — are indeed powerless, play is empowering, hence so many social movements and countercultures have reached for parody and japes since the 1990s: when braving the immovable feast that is the state and parliamentary politics, the impasse of the institutions, they turn to music, costumes and humour in their protests. It is perhaps what SEALDs got wrong. For all its impressive organisational skills and professionalism, was it too earnest, too cool? Maybe what was required in 2015 was to turn the streets around the Diet into a harappa, an empty field for play in the heart of Tokyo’s most hegemonic zone.

The Kumano Festival and its thwarted attempt at paidia continued to 5 December. The tension over the festival and the clock tower antics is not isolated, but just one episode in an ongoing saga unfolding between the university and the student-run Kumano Dormitory, not least because of its links to the far-left Chūkaku-ha. The growing presence of the radical group at the university through the student association Dōgakukai has sparked heavy-handed responses from authorities since 2014, when an undercover police office was rumbled on campus and detained by students. If the number of law enforcement officers at the clock tower seems excessive, it’s nothing in comparison with the serried ranks of riot police regularly seen marching into Kumano Dormitory in recent years, nominally on the pretext of a raid. Such a show of force is intended to sow the seeds of alarm among the politically or quasi-politically minded students, and also reinforce the bad image such politicising has in the eyes of their nonpori (apolitical) peers.

It’s not all just for show, though. Students have been actually arrested and suspended for minor infractions like touching security guards or going on (brief) strikes.

This crackdown ties in with the other related, ongoing issues: the conflict over the signboards on the university campus, long an outlet for student creativity and self-expression, and the uncertain future of Yoshida Dormitory, another student-run dorm that the university wants to shut down and demolish. Both have met pushback from students and dismay from among left-leaning circles, which view the signboards and venerable (if indeed ramshackle) dorm within a romantic vision of the campus as a site of student freedom.

More broadly, the current campus shenanigans at Kyoto University and attendant discourse is an extension of issues that intensified in the 2000s, when Hosei and other colleges were gripped by conflicts with small numbers of leftish students trying to hold on to their positions on campus that have resulted in arrests, police raids and lawsuits. The aim was to cleanse campuses of overtly political groups, especially on the Left; the means was the increased securitisation of campuses.

A modest yet feisty cadre of students see the crackdown and suspensions at Kyoto University as a full-frontal attack on their liberty and the sanctity of the autonomous student council, once a mainstay at universities in Japan, and have made this opinion plain, not least in a campus rally on 10 December.

kyoto university emergency student rally campus protest

We must always exercise caution when making sweeping statements based on handfuls of incidents and small numbers of participants, who do not reflect the much greater numbers of “ordinary” students. Any social movement, however, has significance, no matter how minor or even facile it may seem: it is always a barometer of contexts and aspirations. In this case, it speaks to the broader issue of student freedom and the dearth of autonomous student councils, once a bastion of the student movement in Japan but today practically non-existence on campuses.

The Kumano Festival wannabe clock tower occupiers are aware of this and frame their foiled antics in just these terms. “Recently, in Kyoto University, however, liberty and freedom have been taken away from classes, student clubs, laboratories, offices, and other various places on our campus,” notes a statement issued bilingually by the dormitory. When they take possession of the clock tower, it becomes, for them at least, a kind of agora or temporary autonomous zone by turning into an extension or quasi-annex of Kumano Dormitory itself. “On that day, the place will be open for everyone just like an agora. Every student, staff [sic], and citizen can use it freely.” In the heart of a site of hegemony, the students (privileged as they may be by the standards of students in Japan) are subverting the sacredness of the elite to create what Amino Yoshiko called muen, or places of “non-relations”, like those that existed in marginal spaces in historical Japan, where people existed free from the hegemonic bonds that constrained them in the world.

The university’s adamant opposition notwithstanding, the students believe their seizure of the clock tower to be in keeping with the principles of academic liberty at Kyoto University. “The liberal and equal atmosphere has been prevalent in Kyoto University. Such a tradition is the classic core of [the] administrative policy, ‘Academic freedom’, [since] the foundation of Kyoto University [in] 1897.”

The dormitory has also issued a statement directly responding to the university’s recent criticism of the “violence”. The dormitory cites the precedent of the 1952 University of Tokyo “Poporo” incident, in which undercover police officers were found in the audience of a performance on the campus, and the resulting trial of the students who assaulted the officers recognised the inviolability of the university campus under the Constitution as a place for freedom of thought, speech and assembly. The dormitory further references a 1969 statement by Okuda Azuma, the then-president of Kyoto University, explicitly promising to protect the self-governance of the university and prevent interventions into its autonomy by the state and other external pressures.

As such, we are confronted by two competing narratives of Kyoto: as a sophisticated, attractive city for students and tourists, full of traditional culture and natural beauty; and a vibrant, three-dimensional city of cultures plural, of the good, the bad and the ugly. The capers on the roof of the clock tower are a riposte to the official narrative of Kyoto, a reminder that things are never so neat and tidy.

Behold, a series of snapshots from the recent past.

The incident in 1951 that saw Kyoto University students protest the emperor’s visit (mobilised by the current Dōgakukai’s predecessor), resulting in scuffles with police and the suspension of several students. A vibrant, at-times violent student movement and campus strikes during the Long Sixties that, yes, involved the occupation of the clock tower, not to mention birthing the Sekigun-ha (Red Army Faction) and Kyoto University Partisans. The aforementioned West Auditorium, a hub for 1960s and 1970s counterculture, festivals, rock music, dance and avant-garde arts. The café Honyaradō, the city’s bastion of hippiedom. The 1976 arson attack on Heian Jingū, allegedly by a far-left radical.

Cherrypicked examples? For sure, but perhaps little more so than the official narrative of the Old Capital.

Nostalgia be damned, the West Auditorium and Yoshida Dormitory’s admirers must countenance their probable demolition in the not-too-distant future. This “alternative” Kyoto history is ignored and neglected, reduced to the fields of ephemera and marginalia ploughed by articles like this. The present movements, far-left or otherwise, are degraded to the status of esoterica. The clock tower occupation, frustrated or successful, is a joyous mnemonic, a kind of bubbling up of the past zeitgeist, a Freudian return of the repressed that disrupts the placid day-to-day running of the campus.

Earlier I warned against making simplistic comparisons between ’68 and the recent images of the police showdown with helmet-wearing students, and indeed the majority of participants at the Kumano Festival are surely not ideological analogues with their predecessors. Instead of a straight parallel, then, the effect is more that of something uncanny, of the strangely familiar: it feels like we have seen it before, yet it’s not quite right, not quite the same. This dissonance unsettles, but what is truly eerie (in the way that Mark Fisher described) is what is missing from the picture: an actual student movement, or a campus that allows student movements to live and breathe. To wit, the clock tower escapades evince what we might call the hauntology of Kyoto University.

Beyond the campus, the problem may be even more severe. Perhaps that famous Kamo River is more like the Lethe, whose water the municipality partakes to forget both the uncomfortable elements of the past and the crisis lurking around the corner: the fiscal crisis that Kyoto is heading towards, reportedly in the next few years. The Old Capital, content with the narrative it has crafted to sell itself, yet suddenly emptied of foreign tourists by an invisible virus, is a ghost town refusing to face its own ghosts.


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Zengakuren wins lawsuit against Tokyo Metropolitan Police for assaulting activists

Zengakuren, the network of student groups affiliated with the far-left Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction), has won its long-running lawsuit against the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and Tokyo Metropolitan Police after members of the public security bureau assaulted activists arriving for a rally in September 2016.

On 31 May, Tokyo District Court ordered Tokyo Metropolitan Government to pay damages of ¥1.2 million. The five Zengakuren plaintiffs had sought ¥12 million from Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the TMP officers involved. The ruling recognised he illegality of the force used by officers, which they had argued fell within the scope of questioning citizens (shokumu shitsumon). The court, nonetheless, described this as only “incidental” errors of judgement by individual officers and not the result of a systematic problem within the public security bureau.

security police japan assault harass zengakuren chukaku-ha student activists

Video footage taken by Zengakuren clearly showed the unprovoked tussle as police officers forcibly tried to identify activists wearing masks and sunglasses. Throughout the lawsuit, Zengakuren has harnessed the video for its YouTube channel, which it launched around the same time as the incident, as proof of the level of surveillance and harassment it continues to face.

Probably the last remnant of the New Left directly focused on student activism, Zengakuren is today a small yet feisty organisation with chapters at universities around Japan, though these are entirely unofficial and not recognised by the respective universities as legitimate student clubs or autonomous councils. Zengakuren has maintained a presence particularly at Hōsei University and Kyoto University, and continues to campaign for student freedom and the abolition of tuition fees as well as for Chūkaku-ha’s key issues like unionism, anti-militarisation and international solidarity.

Despite its modest scale, Zengakuren has adopted various new approaches in recent years to appeal to the current generation of youth, including a fun and self-deprecatory, even parodic style that references its former notoriety. The members are presented as essentially ordinary young Japanese men and women, albeit devoted to a brand of politics decidedly extraordinary among the young. Notably, Zengakuren has managed to do this without diluting its central anti-capitalist messaging. (The “new” Zengakuren’s cute and friendly, if somewhat geeky and unashamedly left-wing membership stands in stark contrast to the now-disbanded SEALDs, whose members also went to great lengths to show how normal they were, yet did so with slick visuals and a fashion-conscious presentation.) These tactics have succeeded to some extent in winning Zengakuren increased attention and online fandom, even if the ranks of committed activists have not exactly swelled much.

No doubt this contributed to the police’s aggression, though surveillance of public events and of Zenshinsha, the Chūkaku-ha base where several Zengakuren activists also live, has been a constant for decades now. Minor infractions like stepping on a campus are likely to result in arrest, raids and long detentions.

While the surviving elements of Japan’s New Left are generally ignored by the mainstream media, this lawsuit has generated some degree press interest, perhaps especially because Zengakuren argued that the TMP had violated activists’ constitutional right to free assembly (though the ruling did not go as far as this). Other surprising developments have also sparked headlines along the way: in 2018, Zengakuren’s legal team joined Tokyo District Court judges in seizing evidence after police refused to hand over video footage.

As this five-year case has demonstrated, lawsuits require patience: judgements are often not handed down until years after proceedings begin. Nonetheless, they are one of the few recourses available to the civil society, providing your pockets are deep enough. Notwithstanding its rejection of the Japanese state as imperialist and capitalist, and the courts’ unfavourable predisposition historically to the New Left, Chūkaku-ha regularly pursues litigation through a dedicated team of lawyers. There are several current or recent lawsuits related to the Sanrizuka movement (campaigning against Narita Airport), for instance, while the family and supporters of the late Fumiaki Hoshino are also suing the state over his death.


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East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front documentary screening cancelled due to ultra-nationalist pressure

A cinema in Kanagawa Prefecture has called off the screenings of Searching for the Wolf (Ōkami o sagashite) scheduled for May due to pressure from ultra-nationalists.

In a statement released 4 May, the operator of Atsugi Cinema Kiki said that it had received word on 30 April from police of a two-day protest over the 8–9 May weekend by a far-right group (uyoku dantai) about showing the documentary. As is typical of such groups’ tactics, the protest would involve multiple black vans driving around the local area. These vans are fitted with speakers to play loud patriotic music and amplify slogans in order to cause as much of a nuisance as possible. The operator said that it was concerned about the trouble this would bring others in neighbourhood and, in consultation with the distributor, had made the difficult decision to call off the planned screenings.

east asia anti japan armed front documentary

Given the subject matter, dealing with the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front (Higashi Ajia Hannichi Busō Sensen), one of Japan’s most notorious militant New Left groups that had an explicitly anti-Japanese ideology inspired by the country’s imperialist past and (at the time) neocolonial present in Asia, the film was always going to cause controversy. The fact that the film is directed by a South Korean woman and largely framed from the perspective of the group, including interviews with associates with its three cells, made it inevitable that it would attract attention and a response from the vociferous ultra-nationalist fringes.

east asia anti-japan armed front cancellation statement

Starting 24 April, screenings at Yokohama Cinemarine have also been protested and disruption by right-wing vans driving in the area, forcing volunteers at least once to make a show of guarding the venue amidst a heavy police presence. On 7 May, two men entered the venue and spent around ten hours demanding that the operator cease screening the documentary, which is scheduled to run there until later in the month. The theatre has consulted police about the incident, the distributor and cinema’s lawyer revealed in a press conference on 10 May.

Though these aggressive tactics by far-wing groups are nothing new, they are usually more ritualistic than effective, making it a worrying precedent for artists and producers that pressure and intimidation by political extremists succeeded this time in cowing their perceived enemies and preventing the public from seeing a film. Note that it was the threat of a protest by ultra-nationalists’ vans, not an actual protest, that scared the operator in Atsugi and spurred them to act preemptively.

Freedom of speech has become an acute issue in Japan of late. In 2018, Shinjuku ward responded to an uptick in hate speech marches by curbing the use of its parks for all protests. In 2019, the Aichi Triennale closed an exhibition of anti-emperor artworks after receiving threats. Government subsidy for the festival was then withdrawn, though subsequently reinstated. Another documentary, Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue, lived up to its title, not only illuminating the war of words regarding historical memory of the “comfort women” (which has recently also sparked controversy in academia after J. Mark Ramseyer’s much-criticised intervention) but also itself triggering a heated debate over freedom of expression after several interviewees launched a lawsuit, claiming they were duped into participating (but in the process unwittingly created a version of the Streisand effect and increased publicity for the film). Though already touring widely and internationally, Shusenjo had its appearance at a relatively low-profile film festival in Kawasaki abruptly cancelled in 2019 until an uproar from peers in the Japanese film industry forced the organisers to reverse their decision.

The Atsugi Cinema Kiki’s statement also cited the coronavirus pandemic, in that the protest would become a spectacle and possibly cause crowds to gather, thus increasing the risk of infection. The pandemic has become more serious in recent weeks in parts of Japan, resulting in further states of emergency. While the major chains have bucked the trend and even welcomed record-breaking audiences for the Demon Slayer anime film last year, the crisis has had a major impact on independent movie theatres in Japan. Many are muddling through despite government calls for them to close temporarily but, given that most were struggling in the first place, the pandemic is possibly a final nail in the coffin. The most high-profile victim so far has been Uplink, which announced the closure of its Shibuya venue.

The pandemic also prompted Kyoto Minami Kaikan to postpone its showings of Searching for the Wolf (apparently because of reduced operating hours affecting the screening schedule). Nonetheless, after opening in Tokyo on 27 March, the film has enjoyed a gradual nationwide roll-out at small, independent cinemas (known as “mini theatres” in Japan), including talks with various speakers and a rare screening of a related documentary, Mothers, directed by one of the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front’s members, Kurokawa Yoshimasa, from behind bars. It is also showcased at length in the current issue of leading Japanese film magazine Eiga Geijutsu. Given the buzz and its performance at the box office despite the odds, the Atsugi Cinema Kiki cancellation may only represent an anomaly for what is a much-anticipated documentary.

Searching for the Wolf is on release in Japan at the same time as two other documentaries about traumatic events: Me and the Cult Leader (Aganai) explores the effects of the 1995 Aumn Shinrikyō cult’s sarin attack, while Whiplash of the Dead (Kimi ga shinda ato de) is about the landmark 1967 Haneda Airport incident in which a New Left protestor died during a clash with police.


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Two new documentaries about events that bookend Japan’s Long Sixties

Two new documentaries released in Japan this spring explore events and movements that effectively bookend Japan’s Long Sixties.

Showing from 27 March, Searching for the Wolf (Ōkami o sagashite) deals with the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front (Higashi Ajia Hannichi Busō Sensen), the little-understood, immensely controversial militant group that launched a series of bombings in Japan in the mid-1970s, most notoriously the attack on the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries headquarters in central Tokyo that killed eight and wounded hundreds. The title of the documentary references the name of the original, main cell in the “front”, which was responsible for the Mitsubishi bomb. The arrests of most of the members of the group in May 1975 generally brought the New Left protest cycle in Japan to an end, at least in terms of major “incidents” and unrest, though with the notable exceptions of the Narita Airport struggle, which continued to mobilise large numbers of far-left activists for many years, various other copycat attacks on sites similar to those targeted by the EAAJAF, and the internal fighting among certain factions that would spill out into the subsequent decades.

east asia anti japan armed front documentary

Released in April, Whiplash of the Dead (Kimi ga shinda ato de, literally “After You Died”) examines the so-called “first Haneda struggle” of October 1967, which resulted in the death of a student protestor. The New Left factions descended on Haneda Airport in a bid to prevent the prime minister, Satō Eisaku, from leaving for his state visit to Vietnam. This was during the war in Southeast Asia, of course, in which Japan was a silent partner as the host for many United States military bases directly involved in the conflict.

The airport would become a flashpoint for further protests: in November 1967 to block Satō’s departure for the United States; then in November 1969, again over Satō’s trip to America; and the airport was also the location of one of the most striking incidents of the Anpo movement a decade earlier. The tactics employed by the protestors in October 1967 — especially wearing helmets, carrying staves and engaging in quixotic clashes with well-equipped police forces for maximum spectacle and symbolism — would become the norm for the various incidents that unfolded over the next years.

whiplash of the dead japan documentary sixties protests haneda airport

The film is directed by Daishima Haruhiko, who previously made two well-received documentaries about the Narita Airport protest campaign: The Wages of Resistance: Narita Stories (2014) and The Fall of Icarus: Narita Stories (2017). Though those two films covered decades of history from the twin perspectives of the farmers and the New Left activists who joined their struggle against the airport, this new documentary is possibly even more ambitious in scale: it is three hours and twenty minutes long, split into two parts, and focuses on the protestor who died, Yamazaki Hiroaki.

They are initially showing first at two leading venues for independent cinema in Tokyo: Whiplash of the Dead at Euro Space and Searching for the Wolf at Image Forum.

Four and a half decades after its bombing campaign against Japanese corporations, the EAAJAF remains largely misunderstood. Though not the only urban guerrilla group at the time, its practices as an underground network of cells as well as the backgrounds of its members and the language of its discourse were idiosyncratic. But its position within the tapestry of the New Left and mesh of movements unfolding during the 1960s and 1970s is frequently blurred by the shocking details of the incidents — especially the Mitsubishi bombing, which resulted in fatalities — and the inevitably repellent tone of its name and ideology. This new film forms is an attempt address this neglect and its title emphasises the necessary task of “searching” for the truth amidst both the trauma and condemnation: what were the activists motivations and aims? Why did they, Japanese citizens, so abhor their own country?

Though frequently mentioned within journalistic and scholarly accounts of the Long Sixties, the EAAJAF has received surprisingly little dedicated attention — perhaps in part because its discourse is arcane and inaccessible. The writer and environmental activist Matsushita Ryūichi wrote a well-known non-fiction book about the group in the 1980s, focussing on the leader, Daidōji Masashi. It is difficult but not impossible to buy photocopied versions of the group’s infamous underground tract, Hara Hara Tokei (The Ticking Clock). Another self-history text first published in the late 1970s was reissued in 2019, as was Matsushita’s book and Kiriyama Kasane’s controversial 1980s novel about the EAAJAF in 2017. The scholar Tomotsune Tsutomu, a specialist in modern buraku history, published a book that positions the EAAJAF alongside other minorities as post-war subaltern struggles against state and capitalist hegemony. Few foreign historians of modern Japan have tackled the EAAJAF, though Till Knaudt has written about it in German and Chelsea Szendi Schieder contributed a good English-language overview for The Funambulist in 2019.

Searching for the Wolf, which is years in the making, includes interviews with surviving members of the cells no longer imprisoned. The two others still alive and imprisoned cannot be interviewed as they are either on death row or serving a full life sentence. (Incidentally, two other members remain at large, having been freed as part of the demands of the Japanese Red Army, and are presumed to be overseas; another member was never caught and is nominally still a fugitive.) This makes Kim Mi-re’s film at the very least an important resource, since these former militants are very circumspect about giving interviews to the mainstream media. In a sign of the trust that Kim has been able to build (and of its sympathetic tone towards its subject), the film received the backing of the support group for the imprisoned EAAJAF members.

Though dealing with a far better-known and chronicled part of the Long Sixties than Searching for the Wolf, Whiplash of the Dead also features many valuable interviews with participants, mixed with images from some of the best-known photographers of the militant period, such as Kitai Kazuo and Watanabe Hitomi. Daishima’s two documentaries about Narita Airport interlaced archive footage with on-site interviews and footage of the current lives of the people involved.

Films about Narita are, of course, indelibly associated with the pioneering Ogawa Pro, which set the standard for such politically engaged, activist cinema. (The first of Daishima’s two Sanrizuka documentaries was co-directed by a former Ogawa Pro cameraman.) Like elsewhere, the New Left in Japan had close ties to non-fiction film, whose practitioners frequently strayed across the lines between observer and participant. The Ogawa Pro cycle of Sanrizuka films is perhaps the most celebrated in this respect, though the outputs of Tsuchimoto Noriaki and the Nihon Documentarist Union are further examples. And then there are films like Adachi Masao and Wakamatsu Kōji’s The Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War (1971), which is frequently dismissed as mere propaganda for the PFLP but was actually a radical attempt to prompt viewers’ engagement with the issues and challenges of world revolution alongside self-reflection and criticism of the the movement in Japan at the time.

The period has inspired an immense number of novels, non-fiction books, documentaries and films, with many of the most notable coming in this century, several decades after the events. Being a visceral medium, narrative/fiction films serve a particularly problematic role when it comes to depicting the Long Sixties and thus contributing to their legacy. In The United Red Army on Screen: Cinema, Aesthetics and the Politics of Memory (2015), Chris Perkins has explored in more detail the issues involved with film portrayals of the Rengō Sekigun. Non-fiction cinema, while not free of problems of bias and misrepresentation by any means, is perhaps better able to present the complex nature of these movements, to focus on the first-hand accounts without the need to dramatise or sensationalise. These two new documentaries are sympathetic to the social movements they investigate, but that does not mean they will overlook the negative impact of militant activism.

It is not insignificant that a newer (though not necessarily “young”) generation of film-makers is tackling this material, rather than the tōjisha — the people directly involved (and implicated), already responsible for the mounds of memoirs about the era. A later generation brings more objective distance and fresh perspective, of course, and is sometimes able to navigate the reefs of public memory and come out with a more substantial result. Alongside Daishima (b. 1958) and Kim (b. 1964), we can add Nakamura Mayu, who made Watch Out for the Patriot! Kunio Suzuki (2020) about the legendary New Right figure, and Magome Shingō, who is now making Red Army People about the various associates and members of Sekigun-ha.

As her name suggests, Kim is South Korean (though she has made films related to Japan before). Searching for the Wolf was already screened in Korea last year and won two awards there. The Korean “origin” of this new film is germane to the subject matter, since the EAAJAF occupied a specifically anti-colonialist position within the New Left. While the major factions adhered to anti-imperialist, Marxist and anti-war ideologies, and aspired for world revolution within those contexts, the EAAJAF belonged to a fringe confluence of Asianist tendencies that also included outliers like Umenai Tsuneo and Ōta Ryū, who were obsessed with the revolutionary potential for the “inner colonies” of Japan and their Lumpenproletariat population of Koreans, Okinawans, burakumin and day labourers.

That is not to say that other sections of the New Left or the Left in general ignored Japan’s colonial guilt — or were not transnational in their outlook. Far from it, war guilt was a compelling issue for virtually all intellectuals and activists, and arguably the raison d’être for the very internationally minded Beheiren and the anti-war movement during the Vietnam conflict. But the EAAJAF was distinct in that these issues of colonial guilt were utterly fundamental, developing into an ideology of “anti-Japaneseism” that viewed the members’ own country as incorrigibly aggressive towards its neighbours (like Korea) and peripheral and indigenous peoples (like the Ainu and Okinawans). This ultimately led to the cells’ determination to attack Japan: concretely, bombing places associated with the Japanese military dead, symbolic targets of the colonisation of Hokkaidō, and Japanese corporations involved in wartime forced labour and in post-war neocolonial activities in Asia, and even planning to assassinate Emperor Hirohito. Extraordinary as these ambitions and choices may seem to us, their motivations sprang from anger at exploitation, oppression and war crimes — issues that still drive people of many ilks and beliefs today. As Chelsea Szendi Schieder has written: “One does not have to condone the violence of the EAAJAF to try to understand it.” The EAAJAF refused to see the pre-1945 era as “history”, settled and forgiven. And likewise, neither should we simply consign the militant group to history, nor those events at Haneda Airport in 1967, nor the various other movements that transpired during the Long Sixties.


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