In The Move, playwright and novelist Minoru Betsuyaku, the Japanese Samuel Beckett, displayed his typical eye for the absurdity underlying the state of the nation. The play, which premiered in 1973, depicts an unnamed family constantly in motion, inexplicably forever nomadic. They carry a huge mountain of baggage on a wagon. We think immediately of Brecht’s Mother Courage. And yet, while old Mutter’s labour was certainly Sisyphean, she was at least following the armies of the 30 Year War around in order to ply her trade. But this family has no such purpose. The landscape is filled with concrete pillars or telegraph poles; the boneyard of infrastructure. Characters die and are left behind, since the only action must be movement and there is no leeway for humanity. So much for the Economic Miracle, a myth shaken temporarily by the oil crisis in the year of the play’s first production. The family in The Move are the Joads of Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl, hounded by post-war, invisible Furies. In Betsuyaku’s view, Japan’s progress is futile and depressing; a perpetual journey to nowhere, accumulating junk at each stop, always burdened by the need for evolution and development.
I think of Betsuyaku’s play every time I move home, packing a life of insignificant belongings into drab cardboard boxes pilfered from drugstore evening chuck-outs. Always on the move every couple of years as a rent contract reaches its dull renewal point. To stay and fork up the fee for the extension of the lease? Or to schlep over to a new domain, a new ward? Fortunately I don’t have to use a wagon.
I have now dropped anchor in Setagaya (again), after a second sojourn in Shinjuku, though in truth it was almost at the border of Toshima, one of Tokyo’s more sinned-against-than-sinning of wards (any area that can house both the august Gakushūin and the shabby Ikebukuro is a winner in my book). It was an odd place in many ways, Nakaochiai, high up on a brief plateau cleaved in half by the trunk road that is Yamate-dori, halfway (and yet not) between Takadanobaba and somewhere to the west. But the area proved coincidentally apt given my research topics over the past few years.
Zenshinsha is the de facto public headquarters of Chūkaku-ha, which is treated by police as an illegal extremist group. It is both the offices of the group and also the publisher for its organs, including Zenshin, a weekly and rather bustling newspaper always packed with developments on various campaigns. Zenshinsha is now based in Edogawa in east Tokyo but was previously in Ikebukuro (leading to Chūkaku-ha’s rival faction Kakumaru-ha calling them the “Bukuro-ha”), and then moved to nearby Chihaya in Toshima.
As I later realised, the site was right by Yamate-dori, near Kanamechō. It was later sold to a bus company and today is a mundane parking lot for silent vehicles. I had run past it many times on nocturnal jogs without any inkling of its previous existence as the land that housed a base for revolutionaries and activists.
By another coincidence, I later realised that where I lived in Osaka many moons ago was in the exact same area as Chūkaku-ha’s Kansai branch office.
Waseda was a short bike ride away from my previous Nakaochiai abode and this is, of course, Kakumaru-ha territory. While the group’s presence and power at Waseda University itself has been much weakened, it would be unthinkable for a Chūkaku-ha activist to come anywhere near the area.
On one of the frequent visits I paid to the libraries of Shinjuku, I was shuttling between the Central Library at Takadanobaba and Tsurumaki Library in Waseda, and took a closer look at the buildings in the neighbourhood. I was doing this because I knew that Kakumaru-ha’s own public headquarters (as opposed to ajito, so-called secret bases) was in the same block in Tsurumaki. Kaihōsha is Kakumaru-ha’s offices, though like Zenshinsha it functions like a dormitory for the senior activists, who likely live inside (as much for safety as any communist lifestyle choice). It publishes the faction’s organs, including the weekly Kaihō.
It is perhaps not a surprisingly “coincidence” that a police box is located right around the corner from Kaihōsha. The building is quite new and clean, though there is an unmistakeable air of the fortress about it. While not quite impregnable, you certainly couldn’t imagine getting in easily. Saying that, the Kakumaru-ha headquarters was at one point more accessible to regular citizens. At the height of the uchi-geba sectarian conflict between Chūkaku-ha and Kakumaru-ha, press conferences were held at Kaihōsha, then housed in a building near Hatsudai.
In Waseda, the windows are always closed, with the blinds down. A park is opposite. It is a quiet residential neighbourhood. The handful of times I passed by, I never saw clear signs of human life inside, though white shirts were occasionally visible drying on a balcony. Next door Kakumaru-ha has its small publisher Akane Books, which handles the printing and distribution of its dogma texts, primarily the works of Kanichi Kuroda, who was Kakumaru-ha’s resident ideologue. If you did not know, you might have thought it was just any old grey condo in Shinjuku. Only the sample copies of Kaihō available for curious pedestrians to take from a signboard gave a hint as to the activities behind the darkened windows.
I titled this little musing “Ghosts of the Radical Past” but that’s disingenuous. These are not ghosts, just invisible dissenters in society. The past is a foreign country, as the saying goes, but at times so is your local neighbourhood.