Kumano Dormitory students occupy Kyoto University clock tower hall roof

Life spent monitoring Japanese radicalism and counterculture would be dull if there weren’t high jinks at Kyōdai. And here they are again: students at Kyoto University yesterday occupied the Kyoto University Clock Tower Centennial Hall.

On November 25th, students from Kumano Dormitory, which is home to activists associated with Dōgakukai, a branch of the Chūkaku-ha faction of Zengakuren, used ladders to ascend to the roof of the hall. There they unfurled banners and waved flags in scenes reminiscent of the events of 1968. Some of the students really got into the nostalgia of the stunt and even wore helmets.

kyoto university occupation clock tower student movement activism kumano dormitory

Image via @tokou207

The clock tower, built in 1925, is a symbol of the university and the centrepiece of the main Yoshida campus. Behind it is the former site of Classroom No.1 in the Faculty of Law and Economics, the largest in the university, where mass negotiations took place during the height of the student movement and also connected to the Takigawa Incident (1932-33), when the university was accused of suppressing free thinking.

The university placed signs around the campus warning that climbing the tower was not permitted, and staff apparently also took measures to prevent some students from climbing. This prank has become an annual occurrence as part of the Kumano Dormitory Festival since at least late November 2014, when the trouble centring on the dormitory started. After the Dōrō-Chiba international solidarity union rally that takes place every November in Hibiya Park, three student activists were arrested during the march through Ginza. An undercover officer from the public security police was then rumbled on the campus of Kyoto University without permission. The officer was held for a while but then released by activists. The police took revenge with their favourite tactic: overreacting. They raided multiple sites linked to Chūkaku-ha and its small yet feisty student movement. The vista of squads of riot officers entering Kumano Dormitory shocked many students and created an online storm.

During the subsequent Kumano Dormitory Festival, a large number of students then occupied the clock tower at the end of that November. They did the same thing in November 2015, shortly after Zengakuren/Dōgakukai staged an anti-war campus strike at Kyoto University. The barricade was only up for a brief time but inevitably it led to further repercussions: police raided more sites in February and March this year, arresting six students, and the university permanently suspended four of the students involved in the strike.

Throughout the year left-wing student activists at Kyoto have organised many demonstrations and protest actions, including against the G7 summit. Dōgakukai has also launched a petition campaign to challenge the suspensions. Things are escalating: none of the Kumano Dormitory or Dōgakukai activists have been charged with criminal offences, as far as I am aware, though the police apparently take the students so seriously that they practically assaulted several in broad daylight in September. So much for SEALDs making student activism cool and accessible.

All this means that Kyoto University is currently a very interesting place for the student movement in Japan.

The Yoshida campus has come alive with so-called tachikanban, or standing signboards, carrying political or provocative slogans and images. (Such signs used to be common sights at campuses in Japan and the removal of them at Hōsei led to the prolonged problems there.) Some of these signs have been created by the Kumano and Dōgakukai activists but a particularly conspicuous one was created by a mystery group called Gorilla & Schola (a nod to Jūichi Yamagiwa, the university president, whose background is as an ape and gorilla researcher), who are apparently sympathetic to the Zengakuren-affiliated students. This sign was temporarily destroyed, seemingly on orders from the university’s powers that be.

The university authorities are in a tight spot. Unlike a private college such as Hōsei, they are more restricted in terms of calling in police. Moreover, suppressing the far-left students on campus is tantamount to suppressing freedom of speech, notwithstanding the fact that the university’s motto is “Freedom of academic culture”.

It also cannot have escaped many administrators that the university has an ingrained history of activism and politics, not least having hosted the Kyoto Partisans and Osamu Takita (Nobuhiro Takemoto) as well as several members of Sekigun-ha (Red Army Faction). However, this reputation as a breeding ground for extremism may very well be the key reason the university is keen to nip the new students in the bud.

The university’s legacy of activism can actually be traced back earlier to 1951, when students erected signs and placards telling the visiting Emperor Hirohito that he was not welcome at the Yoshida campus. A prominent Zenkyōtō campus movement was also formed at Kyoto during the height of the strikes around the country in the late 1960s.

The Kyoto University clock tower was more aggressively occupied by masked and helmeted student activists from Chūkaku-ha in November 1990 to protest the changeover in emperor. Indeed, Kyoto University’s political pedigree includes many developments in the Heisei period, as covered extensively by the scholar Carl Cassegård. Back in the 1990s, Kinji House was an example of large-scale squatting. Ishigaki Café appeared from January to August 2005, a counter-space for events, music and more. Union Extasy was a union for the university’s part-time employees, founded in 2007. It organised colourful actions to protest the treatment of staff by the institution, and also created Kubikubi Café as a two-year space to discuss the plight of precarity and disseminate information. In fact, there were also various parallel developments elsewhere in Kyoto, such as at Ritsumeikan and Kyoto Seika, all forming streams in the currents of the burgeoning freeter movement.

Dōgakukai’s name is a reference to the student council of the same name that existed for many years. The group was resurrected in 2012 by a popular vote from the student body. Unsurprisingly, though, Dōgakukai is not recognised by Kyoto University as an official student council or club. Like in so many universities in Japan, the former student councils or self-governing associations (jichikai) that were under the umbrella of Zengakuren have long been extinct or repackaged by the universities, in part to phase out the influence of the far-left political factions and change the university into a service-provider fit for the neoliberal age. Likewise, student dormitories were previously powerful and independent places that cultivated activism and clubs. Needless to say, the universities had mixed feelings about this situation that sanctioned political hotbeds on campus. A law went into effect in 2004, turning national universities into corporations, though the movements that transpired at Kyoto University and also earlier at Hōsei under Hajime Matsumoto (later of Shirōto no Ran fame) fought against this gentrification of campuses.

All this should tell us that the Kumano and Dōgakukai activities are part of a lineage that is well and truly established. One interesting element is how playful much of it is: despite the ostensible involvement of far-left activists, who are known for their dogma and seriousness, there is a sense of zest and fun to a lot of these actions. No one, for example, should claim that Friday’s “occupation” of the hall roof was an ideological protest, but rather an assertion of student autonomy and energy. The tongue is often firmly in the proverbial cheek: this sign warning people not to litter at the notoriously dilapidated Yoshida Dormitory overtly flirts with the university’s radical past.

This casual and jesting style further indicates, as I have previously suggested, the continued cutification and feminisation of even far-left activism or its perception in Japan.

The example of the long-running dispute between the Bunka Renmei students and Hōsei University in central Tokyo shows that attempting to prevent activists from politicking on campus only aggravates and makes them more likely to fight harder. Crackdowns are not the answer.

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For now, the university has largely made do with suspending the four students and sending out employees to hold up signs during protests saying that unofficial organisations or unenrolled students are not allowed on the campus. Dōgakukai next plans a demonstration at Kyoto University on December 12th, once again superimposing the local issues (the suspended students) with wider ones (the Abe government, constitutional change, the protests in South Korea). Keep your eyes on the old capital, folks.


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