“What’s the difference between protesting or stealing?” Some Theatre Responses to Anpo 1960

The media obsession, both locally and overseas, with what swiftly became an old chestnut — “artistic responses to 3.11 and Fukushima” — has mercifully started to fade, and as it recedes so can we really begin the work of assessing the cultural, social and political impact of the Tōhoku disaster. Knee-jerk and early responses rarely stand the test of time.

Back in 1960, at a time when there was next to no public arts scene in Japan and very little media interest, we might imagine there was none of the hype and anticipation we saw in 2011-12, when every curator or editor seemed to want a quick example of “post-Fukushima art”. And yet 1960 witnessed events arguably just as socially turbulent, ones which, needless to say, inspired their own slew of artistic responses.

The current government of Japan’s attempts to force through new security legislation, denounced by many as unconstitutional and in the face of growing protests around the nation, conjures up all sorts of analogies with what happened in 1959-60, when millions were involved in mass protests and strike actions — not least in that then Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi was the grandfather of present incumbent premier Shinzō Abe. The protests over the renewal of the treaty, nicknamed Anpo, rallied a then unprecedented number of people and wide array of different types of citizens and groups together under a common banner. The treaty cemented Japan firmly and dangerously on the side of the United States, to the anger of Japan’s Asian neighbours during a time of tension during the Cold War, and retained American sovereignty of Okinawa and the cluster of military bases spread around the country. The intensity and scale of the protests led to the cancellation of a presidential visit to Japan. Ultimately, though, all the protests on the doorstep of the Diet and even the death of one young female activist did nothing to deter Kishi from ratifying the renewal of the security treaty between America and Japan. You can protest all you like in Japan but is anyone in power paying attention? As one child wrote to the Asahi Shimbun at the time: “Nobody wants to be the Prime Minister when we play ‘make-believe demonstrations’.”(1)

The most famous response to Anpo is probably a cinematic one, Night and Fog in Japan, the political film by Nagisa Ōshima about activists involved in the campaign. The film, released in autumn 1960 following the collapse of the protest movement after the treaty passed, was notoriously pulled from cinemas in the wake of the assassination of politician Inejirō Asanuma by a right-wing radical.

anpo 1960 protests japan

Japan’s nascent post-war theatre scene also responded directly to Anpo.

The playwright Yoshiyuki Fukuda, founder of the pioneering Seigei (Youth Theatre Arts Company). came from a background in shingeki realism but over the course of his career changed tracks several times. In the afterglow of Anpo he wrote the Brechtian Document Number 1, following his and his troupe’s participation in the demos. He interviewed the actors about their experiences and collated this material into a text, which was then performed after another play had finished. The actors remained in their previous costumes and, with the set still being taken down behind them, they used their real names and spoke directly to the audience. This was at a time when shingeki was still dominant, as the first signs of the angura (underground) theatre scene were revealing themselves. As playwrights like Fukuda moved the scene away from realism towards greater experimentation with form, Document Number 1 arguably marked the birth of documentary theatre in Japan.(2)

Another of the most significant cultural works to draw inspiration from Anpo was one that did so almost immediately. Ishi no kataru hi (The Day the Stones Speak), a play by existentialist novelist and playwright Kōbō Abe, premiered in October 1960. At first glance, it appears to be a rather acerbic satire on regional involvement in the Anpo movement, though by the end appears to take on wider but also more didactic dimensions. Compared to Abe’s famous works, such as The Box Man or The Woman in the Dunes, it is a funny and accessible play, revolving around a small business owner, the hen-pecked Ōuchi, who runs a drycleaner’s in a certain town. The local mayor is hoping to attract investment and share in the Economic Miracle transforming Japan, in particular a new dam and factory project, for which he is supported by such figures as Ōuchi.

However, Ōuchi and his wife get lumbered with a large tax bill. They hear that if they join the local Democratic Commerce and Industry Association they can avoid paying taxes, as it promotes ways to countermeasure state levies. However, this Japan Communist Party-affiliated organisation is also involved in the Anpo struggle and, before he knows it, Ōuchi and a sake storeowner find themselves unwittingly leading demos, as well as conducting strikes at their businesses and sit-in protests. There is one particularly funny scene where the two amateur dissidents are somehow inveigled into addressing a conference of representatives from the Miike mine crisis, a long labour crisis that ran parallel with the Anpo struggle in 1960.

To the bewilderment and wrath of his collaborators in the local government, Ōuchi stops promoting the mayor’s industrial schemes and instead becomes a minor hero in the area. It ends with an emotional and exhausting railway occupation protest where they succeed in disrupting the trains.

So much, so amusing. In the service of self-interest and going with whatever your “association” tells you, the nationwide Anpo struggle sometimes engulfed ordinary people in a way that was more physical than political or philosophical. But the implications of the satire go further. The play frequently draws reference to the rising living standards and new money flowing through the hands of many, but not everyone. In their initial confrontation with the zealous tax official, Ōuchi’s wife frantically explains the reason for their high electricity bill by listing their recent acquisitions – a television and an electric rice cooker. The taxman rather woefully responds that this is indeed “proof of the good economy” and yet in his home he has neither appliance.

Anpo saw citizens take to the streets to protect not only democracy but also their own livelihoods that might now be threatened by an invasive government. The feminist thinker Chizuko Ueno has even applied the term seikatsu hoshushugi (lifestyle conservatism) to the 1960 protest.(3) Prosperity had turned people into preservationists; arguably, Anpo was not a sign so much of radical activism or even group-think, as individualism. As we’d expect, Abe’s take on this is more oblique. Ishi no kataru hi opens with the lines: “There are two kinds of things in this world – the necessary and the unnecessary. When civilisation evolves, as the necessary things increase, simultaneously so too do the unnecessary things multiply.”(4) The new affluence had given people many new “necessities”, but it had also augmented other extraneous and unexpected by-products, which the population now had to accept, change — or fight.

Abe’s play begins as a satire on petty small town politics, and the shifting loyalties and fickle affiliations of groups and individuals, but eventually develops into a sincere anti-Anpo message. By the end, despite his comedic entrance into the struggle, Ōuchi has faced down his wife’s disbelief – “There’s no real difference between protesting or stealing!”(5) – and learnt from his involvement in the failed campaign. He changes the way he runs his business to reflect this new humanity, giving more days off to his over-worked employees. Though he had been unsure how demos and strikes could encompass non-socialists and storeowners like himself, in fact he reforms his miniature branch of the capitalist machine into something better and more equal. He becomes a representative of the new Gesellschaft society shimin — active citizens who take their destinies into their own hands. These engaged citizens would be responsible for anti-war protests, grassroots environmentalist movements and more as the 1960’s and 1970’s unfolded.

Hearing that the security treaty had passed through parliament nonetheless, the characters in Abe’s play are naturally disappointed. Ōuchi observes: “If a year ago we had felt like we do now, Anpo probably wouldn’t have turned out as miserable as all this.”(6)


1. Quoted in Jayson Makoto Chun, “Politics as Spectacle: Parades, Pageantry, and Protests” in “A Nation of a Hundred Million Idiots”?: A Social History of Japanese Television, 1953-1973 (Routledge) (2007), p.217
2. David G Goodman, Japanese Drama and Culture in the 1960s: The Return of the Gods (M E Sharpe) (1988), pp.37-39
3. Simon Andrew Avenell, Making Japanese Citizens: Civil Society and the Mythology of the Shimin in Postwar Japan (University of California Press) (2010), p.66
4. Abe Kōbō zenshū 1960.06-1960.12 012 (Kobo Abe Complete Works June 1960 to September 1960, Volume 12) (Shinchōsha) (1998), p.343
5. Ibid., p.366
6. Ibid., p.413. The word used is nasakenee, slang for nasakenai, also meaning “pitiful”, “poor”, “dismal”, “sad” or “woeful”.

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