While browsing images of the cosplay at the biannual Comiket event in Tokyo last weekend, I came across something rather curious. Among the usual suspects of scantily-clad girls and iconic characters from the worlds of anime and manga, a solitary and rather formidable figure stood out.
The man had dressed up as a student activist, complete with a mask over the face and sunglasses to hide his identity from the snapping lenses of the security police, and of course, the prerequisite helmet and gebabō stave.
The helmet is blue. You can’t quite see from the photo but given the colour the helmet should be for the Shaseido Kakaihō-ha’s student group, Hantei Gakuhyō (Anti-Imperialist Student Council). (You can just make out the character for “gaku” on the helmet.)
Obviously this gentleman is unlikely to be a real “student activist”. If you walked around like that on the streets of Tokyo the security police would soon be on to you. This is a playful recreation of a once routine sight.
He wears a sash with the slogan of his “campaign”: Sayama tōsō danko kantetsu (literally, “The Sayama Struggle, Decisive Achievement”). This is a reference to the Sayama campaign against the police discrimination against a member of the former Buraku caste in a murder case. It was a popular cause for certain New Left and Old Left groups in the 1970’s, including Kaihō-ha, Kakumaru-ha, and the Japanese Communist Party.
The Sayama campaign actually still continues to this day and Kaiho-ha remains a strong part of it. While it may be that this kind of cosplay is a perennial occurrence at Comiket, given the bad association many non-political youngsters have with such getup, I suspect not. And that is what makes this an intriguing image. Even if the cosplayer is just that, costume playing, he is inadvertently furthering the campaign in Odaiba and more importantly, his choice of garb points to a shift in the perception of the post-war katsudōka (activist).
The katsudōka, goes the common narrative, was heavily discredited in the fallout from such traumas as the United Red Army Purge in 1971-72 and the escalating internal New Left factional conflicts during the 1970’s and 1980’s. This is a rather simplistic reading of the milieu but it certainly has some truth. Katsudōka were portrayed by the police as extremists and even the word had bad implications. It denoted not so much activism as being part of a fanatic kagekiha, an extremist militant faction. Sometimes you could recently find a more neutral, contemporary-sounding word like akuteibisuto (activist) being used instead.
However, the situation seems to be changing. With the revival of the student movement in Japan, we are seeing the emergence of a new generation of katsudōka. The Hōsei University movement developing over the past eight years has struggled against the private college’s efforts to stamp out the student groups. Initially the slogans were anti-war or anti-state, though increasingly the student movement at Hōsei has become a powerful, quasi-cannibalistic force. It is a solipsist, existing to fight its own parent institution, Hōsei itself, which has has come to be a symbol of academia’s role in the Neoliberalism which has encroached on Japan since the 1980’s. And the students openly label themselves as katsudōka.
Alongside this there have been modest revivals of student movements in regions like Kansai and Okinawa. The latter, of course, will always been fervently anti-war and politicized due to the ongoing presence of the US military bases in the prefecture.
The post-Fukushima anti-nuclear movement was also very young and featured many countercultural participants, not least Shirōto no Ran (Amateurs’ Revolt) in Kōenji. Students, though, have actually been playing a more overt role in the more recent anti-government demonstrations that have been raging since the end of 2013, focussed on Prime Minister Abe and his efforts to introduce two major controversial bills (on state secrets and collective self-defence). We have also seen student anti-race hate demos in Waseda and elsewhere, in response to the new wave of ultra-nationalism which has reared an ugly head in the past few years.
These various prongs are combining to usher in a rebirth of student activism. After the height of the student movement in the late 1960’s, the Japanese government and universities worked to dismantle the apparatus that was underpinning the Zengakuren factions. That is why today you cannot find the old jichikai student councils which formed the bread and butter of student activist group membership in past decades. Such groups now tend to exist on campus only unofficially or have been diluted almost beyond repair.
While this has until now been a major hamper, it ironically serves the new student movement well, as they have to start fresh from scratch. Unlike before, there are no guarantees of membership numbers and fees due to the arbitrary affiliation of certain clubs and councils. It means the movements have to attract students to the causes on their own merits. It will be more incremental but it may ultimately turn out less factional.
And that the image of the katsudōka has now made it even to Comiket’s bonanza of cosplay might indicate that things have indeed moved on.