Fumiaki Hoshino: The Unknown Revolutionary

This is a story that takes in the whole of Japan. Despite being one of the longest-serving political prisoners in the world, the protagonist is astoundingly little known in his own country. It begins on the northern island of Hokkaido and then moves to central Japan and Tokyo, but flits into the rural region west of the capital. Its heart and passion, though, lies in the far south — in Okinawa. It will later involve another character from Tōhoku (northeast Japan) and will then reach a quasi-denouement on the oft-overlooked fourth largest island, Shikoku, where, barring a legal miracle, it is facing a miserable and drawn-out end.

This is the story of Fumiaki Hoshino. Now in his late sixties, Fumiaki Hoshino is a synecdoche for Japan’s forgotten 1970s, an inconvenient truth overlooked by the media and wronged by the courts.

Hoshino was born in Sapporo in Hokkaido in 1946. He attended Takasaki City University of Economics in Gunma, where he got involved with a campus strike recorded in a famous Ogawa Pro film, Forest of Oppression — A Record of the Struggle at Takasaki City University of Economics. He then participated in one of the most urgent local issues of the region at the time, the struggle against the construction of the new Tokyo International Airport on farmers’ land in Sanrizuka in Chiba Prefecture. He took part in demonstrations in July 1971 and the violent fight to prevent forced land expropriation in September and a whistle-blowing Hoshino was captured in footage of the protests.

fumiaki hoshino

Now a veteran activist, he was the leader of a demo group that was heading towards Shibuya to participate in a major Chūkaku-ha rally against the use of Okinawa in Vietnam War. At the time, Okinawa was still under direct US control and was a key logistical part of America’s conflict in Southeast Asia. Bombers and supplies flew off from bases in Okinawa, and fuel and other vital matériel travelled through Tokyo to help grease the war machine. Anpo, the joint security treatment between Japan and USA, had been renewed in 1970 against massive protests — not as wide-spread as 1960s but still fervent — and ostensibly Okinawan sovereignty was agreed to be returned at last to Japan in 1972. But the bases were to remain and the lives of locals was indelibly affected by their proximity to tens of thousands of foreign troops. (The crimes and accidents continue to the present.) It led to a series of riots in Koza at the end of 1970 during which Okinawan citizens vented their anger at the military authorities. Chūkaku-ha, the militant radical New Left group, called for a Koza to be instigated in Shibuya on November 14th, 1971, which saw police respond by shutting down the thriving commercial centre and blocking it off to incomers. Nevertheless some 5-6,000 people did get in, mostly student activists or workers associated with Chūkaku-ha or Hansen Seinen Iinkai, an anti-war youth group.

Hoshino had already made himself a mark for the police due to his experience in Sanrizuka and now he was leading a group of around 200 protestors walking from the Yoyogi Hachiman area to Shibuya. Along the way the riot police were waiting, creating a bottleneck in the narrow streets. The two sides clashed between Kamiyama police box and the intersection along the road that leads past the Tōkyū Honten department store into the centre of Shibuya. The police retreated from the demonstrators, though one 21-year-old riot officer was left behind by his retreating colleagues and was soon engulfed by angry protestors. Someone or some people began to assault him. Someone was giving orders to kill him. He was beaten with metal pipes and set on fire. Tsuneo Nakamura died the next day.

More than 300 people were arrested during the overall incident in which 12,000 riot officers shut off Shibuya in an attempt to prevent the illegal rally at Miyashita Park from happening. None of the arrested were to do with the attack on the police officer, though ultimately the police would detain around 2,000 activists. In a related protest at Ikebukuro Station, a young female demonstrator called Noriko Nagata was killed in an encounter with the riot police.

After initially focussing on Hansen Seinen Iinkai members, the police began later to arrest many students from Gunma in 1972, after determining they had been part of the Shibuya confrontation. As leader of the demo, Hoshino was specifically targeted by authorities, along with other protestors. Six were arrested in 1972, including three underage students who were arrested directly in connection with the killing, and so facing severe penalties themselves. They hardly knew Hoshino, though some were also Takasaki University students.

The six have never been officially identified. In the testimony taken down by the police, 18-year-old “Kr” stated that Hoshino had beaten the police officer who died, though this was then later denied in court. The statement from “Ao” (19) said that Hoshino had told someone to throw a Molotov cocktail. Again, this was then retracted in court. “Ar” (17) denied that Hoshino had beaten the officer, though his statement also says he had said to throw a Molotov cocktail. This was then denied in court. The other three prosecution witnesses were all aged 20 or over, and gave statements that they had seen Hoshino in the vicinity. Two of them agreed to testimonies presented by police — in Japan, the police draw up the statement, which the detainee is encouraged to sign — in which they allege Hoshino was the one who hit the officer, though once again, the two denied this in court. The sixth arrested student denied everything the police tried to pin on Hoshino and refused to testify in court.

The police are said to have suggested to Kr — whose testimony became the lynchpin of the prosecution’s case — that the person he saw was Hoshino. Kr believed he saw someone wearing a brown jacket hitting the officer with a metal pipe, though he did not see the face. The police then told him that only Hoshino was wearing a brown jacket that day, so logically it must have been Hoshino. In this manner, Kr’s statement points to Hoshino being the perpetrator.

A manhunt for Hoshino began in February 1972 and he went into hiding. He was eventually arrested in August 1975 and charged with being accessory to the death of the riot police officer. Another man, Masaaki Ōsaka, is still wanted for his purported role in the incident and his poster can be found displayed at most police boxes in Tokyo.

It often shocks outsiders to learn that the Japanese police keep arrested offenders incommunicado for extended periods of time, and that the initial 23 days where they may detain suspects can be easily continued by a re-arrest. With no right to counsel, the only thing at the disposal of arrested offenders is silence. Maintaining a state of total silence — not even confirming their name — is something that Hoshino and others have stoically persisted with for decades. To break silence and speak to the police is akin to the tenkō (apostasy) of the Japanese Communists of the pre-war period, who recanted their ideologies in prison. Hoshino has never spoken to the police. In court, he has answered questions but he refused to co-operate with the authorities during the investigation. To do so is not only to participate in their strategies to force a confession out of you but also to acknowledge the very legitimacy of their position. For many years (and still today), the non-partisan support group Kyūen Renraku Sentā (Relief Liaison Centre) encouraged arrested activists of the New Left to memorize a phrase requesting the police contact them to provide legal assistance (the arrestee has no right to make a telephone call).

Japanese prisons do not allow photography and so there is no recent image of Hoshino, only the self-portraits he paints. He has effectively disappeared. His first trial for his part for the 1971 death was held behind closed doors. In 1979 the prosecution had initially sought the death penalty, though this was met by a campaign to raise 1 million signatures to petition the authorities. Over 120,000 signatures were collected. The trial ended in August 1979 with a guilty verdict and a punishment of 20 years. So why is Hoshino not free now?

An appeal was taken to the Tokyo Supreme Court, who upheld the conviction and also made the unusual decision to make his punishment as harsh as possible with the exception of the death penalty. It rules that he would serve a full life sentence without parole — in other words, that he should die in prison. Even for a conviction for pre-meditated murder, this is an atypical sentence, the kind only reserved for high-profile or sensational crimes. But given how his trial had been closed, Hoshino’s case cannot be said to belong to this genre. It is rather the culmination of the treatment meted out by the state to offenders in the later protest cycle in Japan, where, under threat, the establishment grew increasingly punitive. It is worth remembering that the death sentence was handed down to several New Left radicals in the late 1970s as the trials for the United Red Army and East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front campaigns concluded. Hoshino was placed in the same category as these activists at a time when the state was determined to eradicate militancy.

A third appeal was rejected in July 1987, after which Hoshino was sent to Tokushima Prison, the gaol with the most long-serving prisoners in Japan. Hoshino was also tried for his activities at Sanrizuka in the early 1970s and these were open. It was at this trial in 1984 that his future wife, Akiko, would see him for this first time. After participating in anti-war activism in Tohoku and an earlier petition campaign to support Hoshino, she was now setting eyes on him for the first time.

Akiko communicated with Fumiaki through his lawyers, who would hold up messages from her for him to read since she was not allowed to correspond or meet with him directly. Eventually, finding the only way to meet him was by posing ostensibly as a betrothed, she applied and they began to see each other in prison, though always with a panel between them and a prison attendant present. After his Sanrizuka conviction was confirmed he was transferred to prison far away in Tokushima in 1987; Akiko had moved from Tōhoku down to Tokyo to be near him. By this time they were married, though conjugal rights are not allowed in Japan so any chance of children was unthinkable. There is a picture of Akiko on her wedding day at the party, radiant in a dress while cutting the cake. The only element missing from this seemingly generic image is her groom.

fumiaki hoshino tokushima demo protest

Fumiaki Hoshino progressed through the various “ranks” of prison status and is now allowed visitors three times a month, and to send letters five times. Following a change in the law, friends were allowed to see Hoshino, and so far 94 have been able to meet him in Tokushima. However, since Hoshino’s supporters are now seeking state compensation for such things as the blacking out of his letters to his wife, this status has been reversed. To fight is to be punished.

Conditions in Japanese prisons are notoriously bad. Hoshino is allowed to excise in a yard for thirty minutes a day and during the rest of the time he works in a factory making bicycle parts. There is no air-conditioning or fan during the sweltering Japanese summer, nor any heating during the winter. Needless to say, this has long-term effects on his physical well-being. He was once put into a punishment cell merely for stepping on a cockroach. His case was then brought to the attention of Amnesty International in the 1990s, who began investigating Japanese prisons. Much earlier in 1978, Hoshino suffered from so-called “detention syndrome” due to being kept in solitary confinement under suicide watch for so long. Manifesting both physical and psychological symptoms, Hoshino today is said to have long-term ailments caused by his living conditions.

Japanese prisons are known for their harsh control of prisoners’ physicality, even monitoring and detailing how they can sleep and sit in cells. Certain political prisoners have engaged in protests from behind bars, such as hunger strikes or by refusing to go to court, though compared to the high-profile campaigns by political offenders in the USA or UK, these have been few and far between. The Japanese prisoners find the most powerful weapon they possess is silence.

There are also supported by resilient and committed support networks, who publish regular newsletters, organising fundraising, information-sharing events, and of course, rallies and demos. Many of these will centre around family members and the legal teams, and in Hoshino’s case, his wife is the prominent (and photogenic) spokesperson.

In 1996 Hoshino’s legal supporters put in a request for a retrial. It was thrown out in 2000, which was then challenged the same year, to be thrown out in 2004. A further objection was entered straight afterwards, to be rejected in 2008. This cycle of four years is a remarkable example of the slow-moving cogs that form the Japanese legal juggernaut.

Kr said in court that he had seen Hoshino for the first time that day and so although the man in court was the same Hoshino he had seen at Nakano Station, he hardly knew his face. Kr had been arrested in February 1972 and his testimonies were taken over a two-month period while he was detained.

Kr’s identification of Hoshino is based on the logic feed to him by the police based on the colour of Hoshino’s clothing. There’s only one problem. Hoshino’s supporters say he wasn’t wearing a brown coat; it was blue. A yajiuma (onlooker) identified only as Fu saw a man wearing a “beige” coat hitting the officer multiple times on the head with a stick. This has since been acknowledged by the Supreme Court during Hoshino’s first retrial, where it was accepted that Hoshino’s coat was in fact light blue.

The Hoshino Defence Committee, the support group that co-ordinates the network of 24 offices around Japan campaigning for Hoshino’s release, also stresses how testimony and other pieces of evidence do not match. For example, a photograph from the day taken by a Shūkan Asahi photographer shows the man who apparently beat the officer (i.e. the man in the brown jacket) was wearing a Hansen helmet, a different group to Chūkaku-ha to whom Hoshino belonged. They also believe that Hoshino, as leader of the demo, would not have held back when the scrum happened, but would have naturally been at the front of the group taking everyone forward towards central Shibuya.

Certain evidence was not available to the court since the prosecution did not select it to be included with their case. Recent reforms that saw the introduction of lay judges mean that now trials are meant to be shorter and more evidence in the case is being presented. A May 2013 Japan Times editorial wrote:

In the past, public prosecutors’ records of suspects’ and witnesses’ oral statements played a central role in criminal trials. After the lay judge system started, courts started to pay more attention to oral statements made and objective evidence presented during trials. In response, public prosecutors have started to disclose more evidence. To ensure fair trials, public prosecutors should be legally required to disclose all of the evidence in their possession to defense lawyers. Prosecutors who fail to do should be punished.

The Defence Committee is requesting all evidence to be made public. For example, they have photographs that show at least two other men wearing brown coats, not to mention another with Hoshino later in the day where the pipe he was carrying — at the time it was customary for activists to carry wooden staves (gebabō) and pipes — apparently showing no damage to its paper wrapping. If Hoshino had bludgeoned a man to death, they argue, not unreasonably, that there would be signs of this.

The minutiae surrounding the events of the day, the semiotics of the various objects and props — this is immensely complex and what we can attempt here is a mere overview. Whether the arguments by Hoshino’s legal team prove he did not kill the officer are not for us to speculate. However, what does seem certain is that there is a shadow of a doubt over Hoshino’s conviction, and that a life sentence is grossly disproportionate to the “evidence” presented of his culpability. And if there is reasonable doubt, the conviction should not stick.

What seems shocking more even than the particulars of the case or even the harshness of his treatment is how Hoshino has been effectively ignored by the mass media. For a case that is overtly charged with politics and history, regardless of the legal complexities of Hoshino’s guilt or innocence, the case merits far more attention than it has been granted by mainstream society. And yet the newspapers do not seem interested. David McNeil once wrote an article for Japan Focus and regional newspapers have featured the case. But there seems almost to be a conspiracy of silence not to report on the ongoing struggle.

This is in spite of the recent high-profile reversals that saw Toshikazu Sugaya and Govinda Prasad Mainali freed after years languishing in jail. In both cases, the authorities were again reluctant to acknowledge their own failings or oversights, and the issue of the “confessions” were embarrassingly exposed for the sham they were. And yet, they were criminal cases; Hoshino’s is tainted by politics, thus making it even harder to make progress.

In 2010, Atsuko Muraki, a senior civil servant in the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, was eventually acquitted after it emerged that not only had a prosecutor tampered with evidence to attempt to secure a conviction, his supervisors were also part of the conspiracy. In other words, corruption and cynicism was systematic, and not merely the rogue prosecutors and police officers who felt themselves to be unaccountable to the public.

Japan’s 99% conviction rate has come under the spotlight. It is not unusual for countries without full lay judge systems — like in Japan, which has only very recently introduced limited lay judge trials — to have higher conviction rates, as the prosecution is reluctant to take cases to court unless it is sure of getting a guilty verdict. However, 99% is so high it would induce snorts of derisive laughter if it were not causing untold trauma to the wrongfully convicted.

In Japanese law, police statements take precedence over court testimony. The charged are presumed guilty rather than innocent, and interrogations are notorious for their reported use of sleep deprivations, verbal abuse and other tactics to wear suspects down till they “confess” to whatever they think will get their torturers away from them. Custody can last for up to 23 days — far longer than most countries and detainees are unlikely to be granted bail. During this time they are questioned in “substitute prisons” inside police stations, a kind of limbo which the detained suspect cannot escape and is effectively in an exclusion zone between being a convicted prisoner and being a free citizen. Whether they retain their rights during this time is debatable. They may not even get to see a lawyer or be allowed toilet breaks despite long hours of interrogation.

The interviews are also not fully recorded or videotaped in Japan, only partially — despite wide public support for introducing complete transparency. The same Japan Times editorial also argued:

The police and the prosecution have begun to electronically record, on a trial basis, at least part of the interrogation process for a suspect. This practice should be expanded so all interrogations are electronically recorded in their entirety to reduce the chance of false confessions. The scope of such recordings should also be expanded to cover witnesses’ statements.

During the sessions, often one of the police officers will act paternalistically towards the detainee in an attempt to win their trust: the classic good cop, bad cop. Almost the only thing suspects can do is remain silent, as Fumiaki Hoshino did.

Muraki also held out; the mild-mannered bureaucrat refused to sign a confession despite being detained for 163 days. And because there was no confession, the prosecutors’ case unravelled when it went to court and was exposed as smoke and mirrors. As long ago as 1998, Amnesty International criticized Japan’s justice system as not being up to international standards, but very little has changed since then. (Japan also remains one of the few major industrialized nations still to retain the death penalty.)

Japan’s human rights envoy Hideaki Ueda shouted during a UN panel in Geneva when other participants snickered at his risible attempts to garland his country’s record. After a diplomat had criticized Japan’s use of coerced confessions, Ueda had countered by claiming Japan to be a world leader in human rights. Not surprisingly, this was met with laughter. A video of Ueda then screaming “Shut up!” at his chuckling hecklers went viral and in September it was announced that Ueda had “resigned”. At 68, Ueda should have been already long retired rather than embarrassing the third largest economy in the world. It also didn’t help Ueda’s argument that his English was hardly up to the standards of UN diplomacy: “Don’t laugh! Why you are laughing? [sic] Shut up! Shut up!”

In spite of his plight, Hoshino is not, though, a pessimist. He is a painter and creates vibrant watercolors at the rate of one a month. After many years and taking part in prison system exhibitions, he has now won enough recognition to keep his paints in his cell. He gives his paintings to his wife after they are finished and his supporters issue a calendar every year with the results. They are remarkably bright and varied for a man who had been imprisoned (wrongfully or not) for nearly forty years.

The Hoshino Defence Committee organized a demo in Tokushima in September, where several hundred protested around the prison that houses Hoshino. A major rally is planned for December 1st around the Tokyo Supreme Court. It has also issued a book, Ai to kakumei (Love and Revolution), which documents the case and the opinions of many supporters, including a representative from the Say No! To Wrongful Convictions: Citizens’ Council (SNOW), the group that campaigned successfully for the release of Govinda Prasad Mainali.

Hoshino’s lawyers are in the middle of a second request for a retrial, a laborious process whereby they attempt to have new pieces of evidence submitted and show how there are grounds for a new trial. The crusade is now vigorously channelled towards having all evidence from the case disclosed; the prosecution has withheld certain photographs and other items that do not match with their case,  which effectively hinges on the confession of a minor, possibly under duress. However, with the identification that Kr purportedly made of Hoshino in his statement having been undone and the prosecution’s stance increasingly untenable, the campaigners are very hopeful that Hoshino’s nearly forty years behind bars may soon be over.


Hoshino Defence Committee:
(Selected English available)

An article on this subject by the author appeared in The Japan Times in November 2013.

Further reading:
Jeff Kingston, Justice on Trial: Japanese Prosecutors Under Fire, The Asia-Pacific Journal Vol 9, Issue 10 No 1, March 7, 2011

Kokusai rōdō undō (The International Labour Movement), February 2013 issue (Zenshin)

Ai to kakumei (2013) (Hoshino Defence Committee)

Kagekiha jikenbo 40-nenshi (2007 edition) (Tachibana Shobo)

Special thanks to Professor Patricia G Steinhoff of the University of Hawaii in particular for generously supplying unpublished and forthcoming publication materials as secondary reading.


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