Send in the Clowns: Absurdity and Japanese Radicalism

Quick, send in the clowns.
Don’t bother, they’re here.

Stephen Sondheim


Since the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11th, 2011 and the resulting Fukushima maelstrom, the western media has frequently reported a spectacle that appears to surprise them: Japanese people, the “quiet people”, are taking part in demos. Seemingly for the first time, petitions are being signed online and off, angry protests are being voiced on the streets of Tokyo, and even respected celebrities are occasionally wading waist-deep into the debate.

All cultures attract canards. Every nation has its glut of stereotypes. Japan is no exception and even in these multi-media, multi-perspective times the rather unpleasant notions linger that all local woman are submissive, all men stoic. The Japanese are perennially characterised as a modest, subservient race, a fallacy spread by both western novices and veteran observers – and even the Japanese themselves. And yet history is written by those in power; stereotypes are born out of imagined truths more than complex cultural memory. The peasants who revolt but fail are never the shapers and stylists of national identity.

japan anti nuclear power protest demo

As far as the Baby Boomer generation should be concerned, the anti-nuclear power protests that Tokyo has been witnessing of late are old hat. They should remember and perhaps some even participated in the protests of 1960 against the renewal of Anpo, the security treaty with America first signed as the Occupation ended. As much opposition to the pact and what it stood for as fury against then-Prime Minister Kishi’s flippant disregard for parliamentary processes – notoriously calling in police into the Diet to have rival politicians removed like burdocks ripped out of the muddy field – the movement peaked in the summer in an orgy of nationwide demos, hundreds of thousands strong. Millions participated overall in the movement. It saw an invasion of the Diet grounds and the death of a young female university student that remains controversial to this day.

Those too young to join in the melee of Anpo could then make up for lost time in the later Sixties. While Soviet tanks rolled into Prague and American bombs rained down in the Tet Offensive, thousands of Japanese students joined French and American counterparts in campus strikes, protests and anti-Vietnam War clashes. The streets of Tokyo were turned into a battlefield. In 1968 over 6,000 students were arrested for protest activities. The number of political participants doubled in the following year, with 152 of Japan’s nearly 400 four-year universities locked down by disputes. Things got worse after the united campus movement (Zenkyōtō) itself dissipated, with radical groups turning on each other. Or they attacked Japanese society as a whole; there were 192 incidents involving explosives between 1969 and 1972.

The construction of Narita Airport, one of the crowning achievements of the economic growth of post-war Japan, was also marred by the long and drawn-out protests against it by local farmers and student radicals, who battled police for years in a futile effort to stop the relentless destruction of Japanese rural communities in the name of “progress”. Now long-haul international flights are coming into Haneda again and it is tempting to conclude that the new airport was never even needed in the first place.

Radicalism and revolt are not novel to Japan by any means. Even during the feudal era, like any civilisation, the oppressed rose up in local and larger scale rebellions. There were some 3,000 peasant uprisings in the Tokugawa period and around 500 urban disturbances. Major outbreaks include the Shimabara Rebellion in Kyushu in 1637-1638, which centered around a messianic young boy leader. Likewise Anpo was an unusually large mass movement but it was not isolated even in the post-war years; in many ways it was the culmination of nearly 1,000 other much smaller but nonetheless incendiary incidents between 1952 and 1960.


“The real face of our time shows in Samuel Beckett’s novels,” said Herbert Marcuse, the favourite thinker of the 1968 generation. Beckett of course was the master of the absurd. His Japanese comrade is Minoru Betsuyaku, whose dozens of plays include The Move. It depicts an anonymous family ever in motion, always pushing their tottering tower of junk piled onto a cart: Japan’s Economic Miracle in the Sisyphean mode.

zengakuren demo japan

The great Japan scholar Ivan Morris argued that failure was integral to the existence and nature of Japanese rebellion, that a love of the underdog (so-called hōganbiiki) maintains the popularity of “heroes” who were actually rebels. The English instead celebrate the spectacular failure of Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators every year on November 5th with firework displays and macabre effigies that are thrown into a bonfire, like a weird national pagan rite. On the other side of the world in Tokyo’s Ueno Park, an innocuous statute of Saigō Takamori pays tribute to the samurai without mentioning that he died rebelling against the modern Japan he helped to establish. His quixotic demise is central to his enduring appeal. Underdogs are popular in the western imagination as well – but by and large, mostly if they win against the odds. If the Bible had had a Japanese author, perhaps Goliath would have squashed David, but the boy’s glamour would have been none the lesser for it.

To Morris’s concept of the underdog we could add that absurdity and farce also always plays a reoccurring part, like a running gag that just won’t go away. The absurd creeps up on us unawares. It is most unsettling but unforgettable precisely because it is incongruous. It is uncanny in the Freudian sense. This is not to say that it was all fun and games in the Japanese student movement. Far from being frivolous, many of the radicals were deadly serious and hundreds ended up losing their lives – or taking others’.

The most famous incident in the Japanese student movement was what happened at the University of Tokyo. A seemingly minor episode, where medical students protesting with tutors about the internship system turned into a scuffle, ultimately engulfed the whole university and multiple campuses in strikes and barricades. The unified campus organisations (Zenkyōtō) mustered students across departments in rallies and demos, and kick-started large-scale, stubborn strikes. Along the way there was fierce internecine fighting between factions of the Zengakuren student council organisations and the pro-Communist Party wings. The students wore iconic coloured helmets according to their respective sect, like signs of the arcane guild to which they swore allegiance. They carried large wooden staves to battle riot police, right-wing students trying to break up the blockade, or rival factions. It all ended in an inevitable last stand at Yasuda Hall, which held out for two days in the face of over eight thousand riot police. Eventually the cops smashed through and reached the top. The dispute had lasted a year and became the exemplum for Zenkyōtō groups at other universities and colleges all over Japan.

So far, so very passionate. But the loose organisational structure of Zenkyōto all-campus movements and the umbrella-like nature of the individual Zengakuren sects and the student councils meant that students were often unaware of the causes for which they were fighting. They might be told just to muster at a certain place in their gear – and to do battle. It is frequently remarked upon that the original controversy from which the University of Tokyo strike originated became harder to extricate and resolve as the dispute escalated. Many of the people fighting inside Yasuda Hall at the bitter end were not even students from the university.

nihon university zenkyoto student movement

The Yasuda Alamo reached its finale in January 1969. In July that same year a Japanese university student tried to attack the American Secretary of State William Rogers on a visit to Tokyo. Before we debate the merits of such an attack, let us look at the choice of arms here. Writers have long boasted the pen is mightier than the sword, but it would take a very precise assassin to do damage with a pencil. The would-be assailant’s disadvantages were not merely matériel. When he launched his attack he managed to go for the wrong man and Rogers was left not only unscathed, but completely untouched.

Yet more than foreign dignitaries, the student radicals were attacking each other in brutal dogfights that peaked in the Seventies but continued for years after. Particularly violent was the fighting between the Kakumaru-ha and Chūkaku-ha groups. Some forty people were killed in the years immediately after the main student movement dissipated, including the infamous 1970 case of Toshio Ebihara, who was tortured and murdered by Chūkaku-ha radicals on the campus of Hōsei University.

This in-fighting was curiously christened uchi-geba, an intriguing portmanteau partly Japanese (uchi – or “inner”) and married with an abbreviated German loanword (Gewalt, or “force”). Nearly 2,000 violent internal disputes arose between the dozens of factions that split off from the original Zengakuren Bund. Uchi-geba was a perpetual, ingrained problem but actually predated the Zenkyōtō campus movement. The original split in Zengakuren over a decade before 1968 was another example of uchi-geba, where the student councils were permanently rendered between those supporting the JCP and those against it. Though the later factions would prove more adept and brutal at killing each other, the pro- and anti-JCP sides also still managed several memorable scraps during the Sixties. Once at a 1966 assembly of the federation of student dormitories the arch enemies fought with staves, pipes and stones, but the most eye-catching element of the skirmish must surely have been the massive tree trunk that was used to invade the hall, so big that it required five people to carry it.

However, the 1968-1969 campus strikes added fuel to the fire, especially at Yasuda, where Kakumaru was accused of abandoning the citadel to the police. Before things degenerated into totally unpleasant depths, there was still time for absurdity. The graduation ceremony at Waseda University in 1969 was interrupted by non-sect radicals, who burst into the auditorium throwing firecrackers, smoke bombs, eggs and even live, flapping chickens into the air. Not so much revolution, it was bedlam.

zengakuren japan radical politics riot demo


As we now know, though, the antics became something much graver and strange over the coming years, with dozens of notorious lynching incidents as the New Left self-destructed.

The hard-core were sincerely attempting to ignite a revolution as had happened from the grass roots in China and Cuba. The Sekigun-ha, or Red Army Faction, in particular launched an infamous series of small-scale bombings around Japan in 1969, before a police dragnet arrested many of their foot soldiers while training in the countryside. Later their leader was also caught but that did not stop other members from pulling off their most dramatic stunt: Japan’s first hijacking, that of JAL flight 351 in March 1970.

No one was hurt. No planes blew up. The hijackers were even complimented for their courtesy by the passengers after they were released. The band of Sekigun-ha members, armed with Japanese katana swords and the occasional pipe bomb, directed the Fukuoka-bound plane to be flown to North Korea, where they hoped to fly onto Cuba. It was intended as a highly symbolic act that would kick-start a revolution in Japan in the Cuban mode and it was genuinely shocking at the time. The hijackers expected then to be able to return to their homeland one day and assist in the uprising. Their plans were optimistic to say the least.

Getting to Cuba by hijacking is a novel way to travel and had actually been suggested in jest by a young Cuba Embassy staffer when the Sekigun-ha approached him. The Japanese took him at face value. Of course, the North Koreans did not let them fly onto Cuba, despite being “comrades” in the struggle – in fact, they wanted them to stay and help train spies in their missions to abduct Japanese citizens. The Sekigun-ha had unwittingly bought their own one-way ticket to the most closed state in the world.

ashita no jo manga tomorrow's joe

They left a “departure announcement” that they published in their paper. In between a few banzai-s for the world proletariat it ended famously with their rally cry: “We are Ashita no jō!” Ashita no jō (Tomorrow’s Joe) was a comic about young boxers popular at the time; the Sekigun-ha hijackers were trying to tell people how “normal” they were. And yet the only impression it springs to mind is that, in between their large doses of Marx, Takaaki Yoshimoto et al, the radicals were reading manga. The critic Hiroki Azuma also once in Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals made a teasing comparison between New Left extremists and the ardour we see in fans of Japanese subcultures. Were the Sekigun-ha merely the otaku of their day?


Japanese radicalism and the absurd was certainly not only the preserve of the Left. Yukio Mishima was the most famous living Japanese writer in the Fifties and Sixties, even better known than the older Yasunari Kawabata, who ultimately nipped him to the coveted Nobel Prize. But Mishima wore many masks. He was a novelist, a playwright, an actor, a dandy, a narcissist, a homosexual. And also an ultra-nationalist hated both by the student radicals of the time, as well as the more straightforward rightists, whose own simplistic branch of patriotism did not match with Mishima’s esoteric ideals. Mishima, believing that a left-wing revolution was imminent in the chaos of the anti-war riots and campus struggles, started a private army with the help of his elite network. While radicals were turning Shinjuku and Haneda into battlefields of Molotov cocktails, Mishima and his Tatenokai group were training in the countryside for an event that Mishima planned meticulously but kept secret from everyone.

In November 1970 Mishima went to the Ichigaya headquarters of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces with four trusted members of the Tatenokai, including the much younger Masakatsu Morita. Morita and Mishima were enamoured with each other, though it remains to be proved that they were actual lovers. The plan was to initiate a coup, to incite the SDF to rise up and restore the Emperor to full power. Needless to say, this was an utterly preposterous idea and Mishima must certainly have known it. It was not an attempt at revolution so much as an empty sign, a ritualistic gesture expressing Mishima’s warped ideals of beauty, heroism and sincerity. At first everything went like clockwork. They took a senior commander hostage in his office, blocked the door and demanded the soldiers gather in the courtyard below. Then Mishima stepped out onto the balcony to give what was expected to be a remarkable, valedictory exhortation.

yukio mishima attempted coup ichigaya

No one was listening. The soldiers jeered. A police helicopter hovered overhead. His passionate and long-prepared speech was drowned out. Cutting it short, he then stepped back inside to cut himself open. Naturally, seppuku was the perfect means for Mishima to complete his gesture and naturally, the kaishaku – the beheading that is meant to end the suffering of the seppuku as quickly as possible — was to be performed by Morita. Again, they had prepared rigorously, even blocking their colons with cotton in case their bowels evacuated during the process. But the best laid plans of Mishima and Morita went very much awry. The former conducted himself splendidly, plunging the blade deep into his side. However, the pain was too immense and he could not write the customary calligraphy as he’d hoped. Mishima writhed in torment as Morita raised his sword to terminate the would-be revolutionary’s life. But he was no swordsman. Depending on the account he took at least two or three strokes yet Mishima’s head was obstinately still very much attached to his neck. It was left to another of the gang to fully decapitate Mishima and then also just as swiftly dispatch Morita, who was said to have barely penetrated his body when he performed his own “seppuku”.

Many of the activities of right-wing and ultra-nationalist activities are performative – done to be seen and heard as much as with expectation of real political influence – and the charging, blaring caravans of their black trucks that regularly race through Tokyo are still chilling, even if the locals are not paying attention. Occasionally they commit shocking acts of violence. In 1960, Inejirō Asanuma, chairman of the Japan Socialist Party, was stabbed and killed live on television by a teenage zealot while he was giving a speech. And in 1990, Hitoshi Motoshima, then Mayor of Nagasaki, was shot in the back for daring to suggest that Emperor Hirohito bore some responsibility for the atomic bombings. Violent confrontations and attacks still happen today.

But it is the absurd that seems to capture the imagination, to loiter in the memory. Yoshio Kodama, the shadowy figure from the wartime generation of old-school rightists who moved easily between the ranks of the Yakuza and the ultra-nationalist sphere, was implicated in the Lockheed scandal in the Seventies. The American aircraft manufacturer had paid out large “consultancy” fees to secure contracts and Kodama was hired to help put pressure on All Nippon Airways to accept the deal with them. It was later commonly believed that the Prime Minister at the time, Kakuei Tanaka, also benefited from bribes. But Kodama was not just corrupt; he was also a tax-dodger and this was what infuriated one particular nationalist, a minor porn actor called Mitsuyasu Maeno.

Maeno hired a plane from an airport just outside Tokyo. Perhaps the rental staff should have been worried when he arrived in the uniform of a kamikaze pilot. Taking off he soon enough turned the plane towards his destination – Kodama’s house in Setagaya. In what is surely the most eccentric assassination attempt of a public personality in Japanese history, Maeno flew the plane suicidally straight into Kodama’s home with commendable accuracy. Unfortunately for the porn star, though, the elderly Kodama emerged miraculously unscathed.


In the same way that, in contrast to European courts, the Japanese Shogunate and Imperial palace was devoid of jesters, contemporary Japanese television or mainstream comedy lacks any real alternative performers or “edgy” talent. But is that role being filled by high-profile pranksters like the art unit Chim Pom?

chim pom japan real times

From the schoolboy “humour” of their name – a penile reference, just in case you missed it – to the provocative stunts like drawing comic book explosions in the skies of Hiroshima, they have offended and amused in at least equal measure. Their “dangerous” videos made in the Fukushima exclusion zone immediately after the nuclear disaster and their addition to Tarō Okamoto’s The Myth of Tomorrow mural generated a vast amount of hype. There are problems here. Chim Pom are a commercial enterprise, a mini factory of “controversy” issuing art events, fashion collaborations, books and merchandise. Their work has been claimed to be anti-art world, anti-consumerist, to be gleefully subversive – but all I see are formats that work within or even prop up the status quo. Their stunts are clearly publicity campaigns, regardless of whether you feel their work has artistic merit (the jury is decidedly out on that). The press coverage of their Fukushima exhibition translated into a major show at Parco and their bandwagon is not slowing down any time soon. Being tongue-in-cheek but actually fully located in the mainstream is perfectly acceptable as well, but no one can claim you are then the Fool to the zeitgeist’s Lear.


It would be fatuous, not to mention tasteless, to try to use a neat trope to tie up all the gaudy panoply of postwar Japanese extremism. There is nothing absurd or ironic in the death of Michiko Kamba, crushed by police during the 1960 Anpo protests, or that of Hiroaki Yamazaki, like Kamba a student and still a teenager, who was killed by a vehicle – which may or may not have been driven by fellow protestors or police – at tumultuous protests at Haneda Airport in 1967. In 1972, the Asama-Sansō incident shocked the nation when New Left revolutionary terrorists massacred each other in the mountains before taking a hostage in a lodge and killing two police officers in the resulting siege. The event remains chilling today, even in these hardened post-9/11 times.

Jean Baudrillard was similarly criticised for his lack of humanity, for just being too pat with his theorising, when he applied a post-modernist reading to the first Gulf War. People were in fact dying while he claimed the war was not real; it was hyper-real, a war for television, for image, like a simulacrum of war (or a war-game). It “did not take place” in the words of his book title. But only the bourgeois armchair intellectual has the daring and arrogance to throw out such pithy truisms.

While much of the Japanese right-wing extremists are more ridiculous than absurd, you mock them at your peril, as many have found out. Perhaps then it is that the extremism is more shocking precisely for its weirdness. Fanaticism is impenetrable and frequently risible, but its total obliviousness to how it appears to outsiders can make the violent actions then even more horrific. Shōkō Asahara, levitator, visionary and leader of the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyō, between plotting the murder of 13 people with sarin gas on the Tokyo subway in 1995, also found time to record songs and appear in a very jolly promotional anime. One of the former is a kind of peculiar “counting song” including the line “I did not do it”, which is really the most untruthful of lyrics when you consider what happened.

During much of 2012 the Prime Minister had thousands of demonstrators outside his doorstep every week. The July 29th rally outside quondam PM Noda’s home attracted perhaps as many as 150,000 protestors (the police estimate was much more conservative 17,000). Meanwhile somewhere between 170,000 (organiser numbers) and 75,000 (police figures) attended a July rally in Yoyogi Park: labour unions, veteran campaigns and plenty of ordinary shimin (citizens) too.

japan anti nuclear power protest demo

We have yet to see any absurdity in the newly ignited civic activism Japan is experiencing post-Fukushima – but then, we also have yet to witness any radicalism. So far the protest movement seems very motley, a ragbag army of tweeting hipsters, office workers, ex-student activists, and the elderly. The dignified aspects of the movement – candlelit vigils outside the Diet and the PM’s residence – contrast with loud concerts and rallies angrily channelling past the TEPCO headquarters. In their apparent inclusive ambit of the social spectrum it is hard not to join the dots to the Anpo protests of 1960, though, thanks perhaps in part to social media, unlike Anpo, the new anti-nuclear power activists are not reliant on small group organisations to mobilise and organise them. People are shocked and angry at how they were treated as a nation, yet they are perhaps guilty of only earnestness, rather than violence, whereas the 1968 movement had both.

The tragedy now would be if the protests did not metamorphose from just an anti-nuclear power movement into being also a pro-renewable energy campaign. The real absurdity, though, lies in the Japanese government’s continuing efforts to ignore them and to squander this unique opportunity to create a green and better Japan. The announcement recently of the construction of the world’s largest offshore wind farm in Fukushima is a step very much in the right direction.

Farce, though, is a refrain that this writer at least welcomes. To single it out amongst a pantheon of incidents is not a form of mocking. The absurd is vital to a society, whether in peacetime or the most stringent of crises. The absurd brings us perspective on an uncanny platter. It reminds us how close we can get to revolution but yet how far away we always seem to remain.

In the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim:

And where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns.
Well, maybe next year.


This article also appears on HESO Magazine.

This entry was posted in Essays and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Send in the Clowns: Absurdity and Japanese Radicalism

  1. mudakun says:

    Ahh! The curtain rises. I got here, which I think is the first post by means of ranging on the address bar until I hit []. No [Newer Post] button or sidebar with months/years, so i will have to type in numbers, 67, 66, 65 etc to read through the posts in a sequential manner. Still i feel it is worth the effort. looking forward to reading more. Congratulations and thanks!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.