A demo was held recently to mark three decades since the murders of activist-filmmakers Mitsuo Satō and Kyōichi Yamaoka.
Satō had been filming a documentary about Sanya, the day labourer slum district (yoseba) in Tokyo, when he was filming in December 1985 at the age of 37. He was stabbed to death by a member of a Yakuza gang, who control the slums, possibly mistaken for a leftist activist from a group that had attacked the gang’s office. However, merely by the act of turning on his camera, Satō was arguably an activist as much as filmmaker.
Satō’s work was continued by Yamaoka, who was himself then shot dead by another gang in Shinjuku in January 1986. He was 45. The final film the two men had been working on was subsequently screened as YAMA — Attack to Attack, after the name given to the area by locals (the “San” in Sanya can be read as “Yama”).
The demos were heavily policed, as these images on social media show, indicating how tense Sanya remains. While police presence is always high at demos in Japan, this time it may well have been justified, given how dangerous the gangs have shown themselves to be.
Like Kamagasaki, its equivalent in Osaka, Sanya is one of the dirty secrets of the post-war Economic Miracle in Japan. The construction industry built the nation’s roads and office buildings using cheap labour based in flophouses in poor parts of the city. When the economy faltered after the Bubble, these were the first people to suffer. It is no coincidence that Osaka has the highest number of homeless in Japan. The thousands who have lived in the yoseba, caught in a vicious cycle of poor-paying jobs and Yakuza-controlled gambling rackets, are not passive. They regularly protest their lot, leading to perennial riots and confrontations with police and gangs. YAMA — Attack to Attack documents the attempt by the labourers to form a union to protect their rights.
The film — whose Japanese title, Yama — yararetara yarikaese, literally translates as “San’ya If done to, do back!” — is not an ideologically subtle work, as William Wetherall noted:
The movie leaves no proletarian stone unturned. Sanya is made a pretext for mentioning every atrocity that was ever perpetrated on the under-classes and sub-castes in Japan and abroad. The Rape of Nanjing. The plight of Okinawans, Koreans, Chinese, and burakumin (renamed descendants of the eta and hinin). The cries of those caught in the American bombing raids which incinerated the area during the war. The killing of some Yokohama park bums by middle school bullies in 1983. The lynching of two patients at a mental hospital in Utsunomiya in 1984. Yasukuni Shrine where the spirits of war criminals continue to be worshipped by incumbent neo-nationalist politicians.
Sections of the New Left were very interested in this untapped Lumpenproletariat, including some minor members of the Sekigun-ha in the 1970’s, and many activists deeply embedded themselves in the ghettos to organise the workers.
Activist-filmmakers such as Satō and Yamaoka were also not alone. Perhaps most famously, there was Shinsuke Ogawa (best known for his documentaries about the Sanrizuka struggle), while Noriaki Tsuchimoto turned his lens to Minamata and student activism. Even more overtly (and notoriously), Masao Adachi made a propaganda film about Palestinian guerrillas and eventually became a member of the Japanese Red Army.
Demo images via @ryota1981