George Katsiaficas talks of the “world-historical” to describe the global student movement in the late 1960’s, a movement that went far beyond just the campuses of America and western Europe. Japan’s contribution is grossly overlooked, meriting no real mention in such popular accounts of the period as Mark Kurlansky’s 1968: The Year that Rocked the World.
The Nihon University student movement (Nichidai tōsō) of 1968-69 was one of the two main campus struggles in Japan. The Zenkyōtō (All Campus Joint Struggle Committee) formed at the college was all the more remarkable for its size — Nichidai was the largest university in Japan and the movement involved tens of thousands of students — but also because the movement was for the most part free of the bifurcation and sectarianism that exemplify so much of Japanese New Left movements in the 1960’s and beyond.
The campus struggles in Japan began in the mid-1960’s primarily over pragmatic issues of student fees and facilities, especially at private universities. At the time Nihon University was a middle-ranking college undistinguished for any real political identity. In a recent book on the New Left in Japan, Takemasa Andō characterizes the Nihon University struggle as being about self-liberation, while the concurrent University of Tokyo movement was more concerned with self-reflection. While the elite students at the latter sought a higher anti-imperialist, existentialist plain to define 1968-69 (although that movement also began over very specific issues with the medical student internship system), the Nihon University movement was incredibly clearcut. It was about money; vast amounts of university funds had “disappeared” and the tax authorities were investigating.
The students were understandably infuriated and some protested. When this was met with an indignant counterattack from the college, with the staff physically attacking the students and summoning both right-wing students and the police to disperse the demonstrators, the whole student body was united against the arrogance of their superiors. Barricades went up in multiple faculties in June. The movement came to a head with the students confronting their college chairman in a packed auditorium for several hours and getting him to agree that the university had been wrong to call in the riot police to combat the students when they were legitimately protesting at the malpractices.
It was a victory of sorts, although later the university went back on its promises and the government took over. Riot police stormed the barricades and the leaders of the movement were arrested. Even so, it is remembered by participants as a success.
One of the most important accounts of the movement was created at the time by students of the university’s film faculty. The resulting two-part film is valuable not least because the university itself has tried to forget what happened and expunge it from official records.
Nichidai tōsō was filmed mostly without proper sound. Audio was then pieced onto the film later from various sound recordings that are more of less simultaneous. This means the quality is quite variable (occasionally very out of kilter or even non-existent), though this also lends it a rather appropriate sense of cinéma vérité.
This is Part One, which covers the movement from the spring to the summer of 1968. The portrait of the middle-aged man the students carry on the streets in a mock funeral procession in the first few minutes is Jūjirō Furuta, the president of the university. There is some great footage of the students confronting a member of staff who they hold culpable and almost bullying him to admit responsibility for the abuse of money. It concludes with the mass-bargaining with Furuta, where he ostensibly agreed to the Zenkyōtō’s terms.
And here is Part Two. It follows straight on with the next months of the movement when the students are struggling to keep off attacks on the barricades from right-wing students. There is also footage of the University of Tokyo Zenkyōtō movement and the Nihon University students participating in the final battle on January 18th, 1969.
One of the best thing about the films is that between the fighting and speeches there are scenes of the everyday life that went on behind the barricades. Sometimes this is very revealing. Amidst all the earnest debating you can witness “revolution” at work with the female students doing the cooking while their male peers watch and wait. Look out for the pet cat too.
Issues continued at Nihon University in later years. Violence from security guards towards students led to lawsuits and a male student self-immolated in 1978 in protest at oppression from the college. An uneasy situation now persists where the institution has yet to deal with its history of student resistance satisfactorily.
This makes Nichidai tōsō all the more valuable as a resource. However, the link between film and political movements is always complex, forever running the risk of unduly glamorizing, especially if its a fictionalized account.
Other documentaries at the time of Nichidai tōsō such as Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s The Pre-History of the Partisans (1969) (about the Kyoto University campus movement) were, both intentionally and not so, potent propaganda pieces.
Documentary filmmaker Shinsuke Ogawa was occupied with both student protests such as the struggles at Takasaki City University of Economics — the alma mater of Fumiaki Hoshino — and also the protests at Sanrizuka over the construction of Narita International Airport on farmers’ land in Chiba. This culminated in Narita — Heta Village (1973), made when the protests were at their height.
Before he became an international star, Nagisa Ōshima’s camera was also focussed on political movements, such as Night and Fog in Japan (1960), about the 1960 Anpo protests. And, of course, Kōji Wakamatsu and Masao Adachi made their fair share of leftist fiction films that were barely disguised polemics. They were also the leaders of a innovative genre of pinku eiga (softcore pornos) that mixed sex with politics. The results included Female Student Guerrillas (1969), Season of Terror (1969) and Ecstasy of the Angels (1972).
This then culminated in their full-blown propaganda work, Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War (1971), which served as a recruitment call for the Sekigun. Aware of his part in what ended so tragically in the United Red Army purge shortly afterwards, much later with the part-fiction, part-documentary United Red Army (2008) Wakamatsu simultaneously made one of the definitive cinematic treatments of the era and also inventively addressed the issue of how to portray radicalism on celluloid without either condemning or glamorizing.