Nighttime land seizure at Narita Airport sparks fierce protests and memories of the past

On the night of 15 February, a patch of land near one of the runways at Narita Airport was filled with the ranks of riot police facing off against an angry crowd of dozens of residents and activists. With the Chūkaku-ha helmets and flags, with the chorus of Sprechchor chants, it seemed like something out of Japan’s “season of politics” from the 1960s and 1970s, only this time with many of the participants livestreaming the events via their phones.

The police were there to oversee the seizure of Shitō Takao’s farmland, which has become a emotional and symbolic lodestone for the anti-airport movement, a kind of last-stand Alamo that activists are determined to protect at all costs. The first such forced removal since 2017 (when the Yokobori Site Struggle Headquarters hut was removed), it was unusual enough that it was announced beforehand and reported by the mainstream media, making a standoff and clash between supporters and the authorities inevitable.


A court ruling last September authorized the removal of structures from the 4,600-square-meter lot of land, on which the seventy-two-year-old Shitō has doggedly continued to farm while planes fly low overhead. The courts ordered Shitō to surrender the land back in 2016 but its seizure has been delayed by further legal proceedings and the presence of a small tower occupied by activists. Around three hundred police officers guarded the operation on 15 February in which vehicles demolished the most visible elements of resistance — the watchtower and a large sign that said “No Farm, No Life” — and also set about tearing down bamboo trees and other farm structures. Activists were physically removed from the tower and the land was eventually fenced off, though protests and demolition carried on right through the night and into the next day. Videos from news media and circulating on social media showed some scuffles, with protesters (who numbered perhaps as many as one hundred) hitting riot police officers’ shields. At least three people were arrested for obstructing public officials, according to media reports.

Activists from Zengakuren streamed the events live on their popular YouTube channel.

The airport hopes to straighten a taxiway that is currently forced to steer around the land, though another ongoing court case over a second lot of Shitō’s land still prevents it from proceeding with construction. Narita is full of design quirks like this, such as the shrine that is encircled by the airport’s security fences, or the Shibayama Railway line that runs almost entirely under the airport before reaching its one and only stop in the middle of nowhere on the other side. Strange as they may be, they reveal the troubled history of the airport; they are the results of compromises made to appease residents during the protracted negotiations over its construction and expansion.

sanrizuka narita airport land seizure farm demolition protest tower

Activists on the morning of 15 February preparing for the arrival of police. Photo: Asahi Shimbun

While the protests against Narita Airport are relatively well known, many are surprised that they are still ongoing, with rallies and marches held regularly (albeit with far more modest numbers of attendees compared to the thousands in decades past), lawsuits filed in the courts, and resistance against the removal of the towers that protesters erected.

Usually known in Japanese as the “Sanrizuka struggle” (after the name of the farming area affected by the development of the airport), the anti-Narita protest movement emerged in the 1960s as soon as the plans to build the airport were announced. The movement quickly took on a political character, whereby the local residents, who were mostly farmers, were supported by young New Left activists who saw the construction of the airport as part of the infrastructure that was underpinning Japan’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The residents and activists held mass protests to oppose the land seizures and built fortified towers and “solidarity huts” to guard the areas not yet taken by the state. As the airport construction proceeded and even after it opened, it turned the surrounding land into scenes resembling fiercely fought siege warfare.

Over the course of the struggle, hundreds were injured and arrested, and people were killed on both sides (by my count nine, plus at least two suicides and five deaths in a helicopter crash), including in the 1980s and 1990s, when the movement gained renewed impetus over opposition to further expansion of the airport. Security checks were common when entering the airport from the train station until recently, and a glance in a certain direction out the window of your plane as it touched down could reveal a large sign defiantly denouncing the airport from the edge of the disputed land.

A dissertation waits to be written that considers the anti-airport movement through the lens of hauntology. At the risk of reducing what was a genuinely life-and-death struggle for many participants and residents to pat academese, both the airport and protest movement are haunted by failure: neither side has won outright and so the whole struggle remains in a state of perpetual stasis, spectral and tense. Yes, the airport was ultimately built and opened, yet at incredible cost in terms of human life and time. Though “finished”, the airport has never reached the size and scale originally designed, and even after the recent expansion of the airport to meet the demand for inbound tourism in the 2010s, it is merely the shadows flickering on the cave wall, haunted by its initial vision as a grand transport hub for the whole of East Asia. The protest movement itself is also haunted — by its inability to halt the construction, by internal splits and betrayals, by infighting and death.

Despite the presence of a museum in the area dedicated to the history of the airport (including the protests), despite the largely retrospective perspective and elegiac tone of recent documentaries like The Wages of Resistance: Narita Stories (2014) and The Fall of Icarus: Narita Stories (2018), the movement resists easy historization. As the events on the night of 15 February showed, the struggle continues to this day.


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Farewell to a Self-Professed Rogue: Remembering Manabu Miyazaki

Q. When you wrote your book, what period of your life gave you the most pleasure to recall?
A. 1968. This was the time during the Vietnam War when throughout the world there were anti-war demonstrations and movements by students. I think that was the most pleasurable time of my life when I look back on it.

Self-professed outlaw and rebel Manabu Miyazaki died on 30 March, aged seventy-six. His death generated the expected raft of obituaries in the Japanese press but, despite the relative fanfare that greeted the English-language publication of his memoir in the mid-2000s, his death seems to have gone largely unnoticed in the anglophone world.

Miyazaki is often regarded as an archetypal countercultural figure in Japan, as a rebel and rogue. This reputation is, at least in part or even in whole, the result of his own savvy self-marketing (or that of his publishers). He proved himself adept at aggrandizing and his romantic views on the yakuza also slot easily into mainstream discourse (cemented by cinema) about the Japanese mafia. In his view, the yakuza were, at least originally, honourable people whose role complemented that of the police, and the lack of secrecy about the yakuza — such as maintaining offices — remains important to understanding its place in Japanese society. A crime committed by a true “outlaw”, Miyazaki believed, is not something horrific, like an arbitrary murder. “When outlaws commit a crime, they look for a very clear purpose. It is either for honour or for money,” he remarked in 2005. And the political rebel, another kind of outlaw with which Miyazaki was well acquainted, also had a “purpose”.

In this respect, Miyazaki might be positioned as a flashy version of the social bandit that Eric Hobsbawn famously identified (or perhaps, that manner of Robin Hood figure is how Miyazaki himself wanted us to think of him — though not giving to the poor but at least taking the rich and powerful down a peg or two). As Hosbawn wrote in Bandits, “bandits, by definition, resist obedience, are outside the range of power, are potential exercisers of power themselves, and therefore potential rebels.”

toppamono manabu miyazaki

Miyazaki’s memoir, Toppamono: Outlaw. Radical. Suspect—My Life in Japan’s Underworld, published in Japanese in 1996 and in English (with a foreword by Robert Whiting, himself a noted author and memoirist) in 2006, was not only a popular book, it has been widely cited by scholars as an account of the Long Sixties, though Miyazaki’s experiences and trajectory were far from typical. (In fact, it should arguably be referenced more because of what made Miyazaki so unusual, as an outsider’s perspective.) Zenkyōtō memoirs are a veritable cottage industry, yet Miyazaki’s bestseller (600,000 copies) stands out amid the welter of standard leftist accounts (and also by default because it has been translated, while whole shelves of similar books remain obscure beyond the shores of Japan). Miyazaki belies standard dualisms of left and right, nor does he easily conform even to what we might expect from a countercultural and anti-establishment figure, someone who (in the words his publisher) “has spent a lifetime in conflict with authority”. For a start, he was a wealthy celebrity by the end. So what kind of rebel was Miyazaki? A clue is there in the title of his memoir, which derives from a Kansai dialect word meaning someone with a devil-may-care attitude.

Like all memoirs, however, his should be treated with kid gloves. Issues of credibility always cling to life writing and Toppamono is no exception. It is a slick, fun read, and Miyazaki is possibly playing to the gallery at times in his happy-go-lucky portrayal of a scrappy life akin to a picaresque adventure. As the English translation’s publicity blurb puts it: “Shot, stabbed, and beaten, Manabu Miyazaki somehow emerged intact from his first fifty years to put his astonishing life story down on paper.”

The basic facts don’t dispute this per se. Miyazaki was born to a yakuza father in Kyoto and his underworld background meant he was at odds with polite society from the get-go. After failing to get into the prestigious Waseda University in the mid-1960s, he joined the Japanese Community Party. When he finally passed the entrance exam for Waseda, he became a leading member of the JCP’s “foot soldiers” on the campus, the Akatsuki Kōdōtai fighting corps (though the JCP was officially opposed to violence and nominally avoided direct clashes with New Left factions).

Miyazaki claims to have been attracted to student politics by the violence, by the illicit chance to fight ultra-nationalists, sports students and other radical leftists. “I felt that being a Communist was a lot cooler than being a yakuza,” he enthuses in his memoir. This recalls what Akira Asada later said about the Long Sixties in Japan: that the chauvinism and romanticism attracted men but this appeal was also one of the forces that subsequently warped the movement. “The romanticism of the movement was more martial and male-chauvinist,” Asada remarked in 2000. “So when its impetus was frustrated, it turned more quickly and disastrously to internal violence.”

This romanticism also shapes legacy. In an obituary of Miyazaki published in the summer 2022 issue of Jōkyō, a periodical with deep roots in the Japanese New Left, the critic and former Bund activist Osamu Mikami emphasises Miyazaki’s exploits in the Akatsuki Kōdōtai and has apparently little time or inclination for other aspects of Miyazaki’s life and career.

In discussions of the Long Sixties in Japan and beyond, it is common to frame the era around oppositional politics and, unless one is inclined to brave the complex and often murky waters of the various factions’ ideological nuances in detail, discourse quickly descends into enumerations of spectacular incidents, strung together to form a rough, easy-to-digest narrative (and some of my own efforts over the years have unwittingly fallen into this trap). Miyazaki’s later popularity possibly stems from how he played up to that mindset, that in the 1960s it didn’t matter what you were fighting for or who you were fighting, as long as you were fighting.

After his time as a student rebel, Miyazki left the JCP. Mikami suggests that Miyazaki only joined the party by chance and had misgivings from the start. In this sense, his departure represents not the familiar kind of “conversion” — often called tenkō, in reference to pre-war JCP apostasy — that many of his generation underwent once the barricades had come down, but simply the inevitable corollary of someone who was more attracted to the JCP as an extension of an innate anti-authoritarianism instead of a belief in Marxist ideology.

Miyazaki became a journalist in the 1970s and then ran his family’s demolition business in Kyoto. The latter would land him in trouble with police, when he was accused of extortion. He was eventually arrested and released without charge, though his business went bankrupt. In the following decade, he became a kind of outlaw figure involved with shady land deals and the yakuza in the Wild West of Japan’s Bubble era. His reputation was such that he was for a time a prime suspect in the infamous Glico–Morinaga kidnapping and blackmail case, one whose perpetrators was known as the “fox-eyed man”.

He even had political aspirations in late 1990s and early 2000s, though his “party” name — Dennō Toppatō, roughly Cyberbrain Toppa Party, but known in English as the Internet Breakthrough Party of Japan — suggests these were only half-serious, a quasi-parodic gesture cashing in on his notoriety soon after publishing his popular memoir in 1996.

The party was formed by Miyazaki essentially to campaign on a single issue: the new wiretapping law passed in August 1999 that gave the police increased surveillance powers. The party supported candidates from other parties who opposed the wiretapping law, such as Shin’ichirō Kurimoto, a judge on the TV show Iron Chef as well as an academic and member of the House of Representatives. When Miyazaki failed to win a seat in the 2001 House of Councillors election’s national proportional representation block, his party disbanded (as planned). The effectiveness of this campaigning is questionable and in hindsight may seem merely a stunt by a savvy author keen to stay in the limelight that he appeared to crave. Miyazaki’s election poster, instead of disguising his dubious past, highlighted his time as prime suspect in the Glico–Morinaga case: “with the fox-eyed man’s ‘poison’, get the better of the ‘poison’ of the corrupt bureaucracy.”

The wiretapping law was a cause that united yakuza (usually associated with ultra-nationalism) and the Left, since it enabled police tactics that could be utilized effectively against both. It is, then, a characteristic example of Miyazaki’s status and identity: operating in a sphere that didn’t adhere to classic political boundaries, positing himself as an anti-government figure with wide appeal. Miyazaki was a “bipartisan” radical, able to court figures from other sides of the political spectrum (and reap the rewards in terms of publishing contracts and media appearances). At a jocular 2005 press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan to promote the translation of his memoir, for instance, Miyazaki expressed admiration for the words of the anarchist Shūsui Kōtoku — a strange match with his pro-yakuza stance. His wealth, about which he was very open, if not boastful, further sits uneasily with quotations from executed anarchists. Bipartisan, then, but also contradictory.

After his successful memoir, Miyazaki wrote numerous other books about such topics as the buraku and yakuza. He remained a noisy thorn in the side of the establishment, penning a book critical of the police handling of a crime. In 2010, he even sued the Fukuoka police for asking convenience stores to remove yakuza-themed manga and books from its shelves. He argued it was a violation of freedom of expression, though it was personal too, since his own publications were targeted. The lawsuit was eventually thrown out. It surely provoked little surprise when Miyazaki was one of the most prominent people to speak out against anti-yakuza legislation in 2012.

Yakuza advocate (or even apologist). Communist. Criminal. Suspect. Contrarian. Provocateur. Bestselling author. Celebrity. All of that and more, but perhaps one word encapsulates Miyazaki best of all: toppamono.


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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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