A War of Words, or a Battle over Silence

Though few would have noticed, a propaganda war is unfolding on the pages of left-wing periodicals in Japan.

As I have written elsewhere and the likes of Patricia G. Steinhoff have also long argued, Japan has a civil society left over from the height of the far-left protests of the 1960s and 1970s that seems to operate at times deliberately in camouflage, at times deliberately hidden hidden by others.

One of the great unsung heroes of Japan’s civil society is Kyūen Renraku Sentā (Relief Liaison Centre, or Kyuen Renraku Centre), which has campaigned tirelessly yet all too often invisibly for the rights of prisoners and police suspects, on behalf of ostracised and neglected figures such as the Yodogō Group and their spouses and children, and against the death penalty and other incursions by the state into the lives of ordinary citizens.

The Centre’s history is inextricably intertwined with that of the New Left social movements in Japan, emerging as a non-sectarian network of legal aid for arrested student activists, most of whom belonged to the main far-left factions then enjoying their peak of influence. Founded in 1969, it continues to despatch lawyers to people when they are arrested and support them during their potentially weeks of interrogation, as the police try to wear suspects down and extract the confession that will clinch a straightforward trial.

Based out of a tiny Shinbashi office that seems to symbolise its location in society — entangled in the core of the city, yet also semi-concealed and easy to overlook — Kyūen is run by a handful of volunteers, most of whom are veterans. In the same building lies the office for the Fumiaki Hoshino campaigners and its home is also ironically only a stone’s throw from the TEPCO headquarters, the target of so much ire from protesters in recent years in Japan.

Kyūen Note — the Centre’s manual containing practical advice on attending a demonstration and what to do if arrested — is still in print, as it has been since 1970, though neophyte student activists today seem to go to great lengths to avoid conflict with police in the first place and are more likely simply to search online for “how to hold a demo” than refer to a paper booklet. The organisation also publishes an eponymous monthly newsletter, which can be bought, like almost all organs and so-called mini-komi newsletters, from the counterculture bookshop Mosakusha in Shinjuku. The cluttered depths of the store are a veritable fulcrum of all the ignored political anger in Japan, from both sides of the ideological spectrum.

kyuen renraku center note pamphlet japan

A 2001 edition of Kyūen Note, the pamphlet offering advice about attending demonstrations and what to do if arrested. It was first published in 1970 and is still in print.

It is partly the monthly bulletin that has ignited the current problem, though at the heart of this conflict lies the appointment of Masakatsu Adachi as representative in September 2015.

From its inception, Kyūen’s policy has been to remain non-sectarian and non-partisan, supporting everyone from the unaffiliated Kantei drone activist to the exiled Yodogō hijackers, and Chūkaku-ha activists like Fumiaki Hoshino and the recent “confinement case”, as well as campaigning against the introduction of the My Number system and the death penalty. Kyūen has only overtly excluded two groups: Kakumaru-ha, since it opposed the Centre and attacked it; and the Japanese Communist Party, as it refused to offer legal help to New Left activists, which was the raison d’être for Kyūen in the first place.

A central element in Kyūen’s advice and support is also kanzen mokuhi hitenkō. Starting in the 1930s with the apostasy of arrested members of the pre-war JCP, there has been a noted tendency for Japanese radical activists to switch sides or give up their activism under pressure from police during interrogation. In response to this, hardcore activists advocated a policy of maintaining complete silence (kanzen mokuhi, or just kanmoku) during police questioning in order both to the deny the legitimacy of the authorities and also to avoid falling victim to recanting (tenkō). As such, the Centre came up with a mnemonic for activists to remember its telephone number, the idea being that, if arrested, you would just give the number and the name of the Centre’s main lawyer, and then say nothing else.

The tactic remains a mainstay of Chūkaku-ha. Arrested activists have loyally stuck to it during their weeks of imprisonment, and then, if charged, in the months leading up to and during the trial (and subsequent retrials), and finally the years of their sentence after their inevitable conviction. This is quite a feat, since arrested activists are subjected to hour upon hour of interrogation each day by security police (without a lawyer present), attempting to wear them down or trick them into making a confession, or — as is often the case when they have been arrested on minor charges — to reveal information on other activists and more serious cases. For someone like Fumiaki Hoshino, he has kept up his kanmoku ever since his arrest in the mid-1970s. It is a badge of pride that the activists wear, for which they are literally applauded when they re-emerge from police custody and make their homecoming at a rally or event. The young activists arrested over their alleged involvement in the recent “confinement incident” (later all released without charge) and the older activists arrested during the police raid of the Nerima non-profit Open Space Machi (likewise, not charged) all preserved their silence, as have the numerous student activists arrested on various charges over the course of the ongoing conflict at Hōsei University.

To return to Adachi’s appointment; it was opposed by many at a September meeting since he apparently has supported Kakumaru-ha in the past and even advocates support for criminal gangs facing state oppression (some of the same laws the police use to arrest activists are also applied regularly to the Yakuza). More seriously, Adachi does not prescribe to kanmoku, as he indicated in his article in the October issue of the Kyūen newspaper. A professor emeritus at Kanto Gakuin University, Adachi first reiterated the two basic principles of the Centre: firstly, that incursion into the human rights of the individual by state power is oppression directed towards all the people; secondly, that the Centre will assist victims of state oppression, regardless of the victim’s ideological creed or political opinion. However, he went on in a separate piece on the back page to speculate whether the tactic of kanmoku was necessary in the current climate. He ended on a note asking for everyone’s co-operation in debating and studying how to take the Centre forward.

Adachi’s statements swiftly drew a lengthy retort from the head of a Suginami-based support group for Fumiaki Hoshino, which to Kyūen’s credit it published in it monthly paper in the December issue. In it, Hidenori Hasegawa criticises Adachi’s for suggesting that Kyūen should also be legally supporting new kinds of groups. But most of all, Hasegawa takes umbrage at the renunciation of kanmoku, pointing out that it is described in the Kyūen Note pamphlet as the “highest weapon” an arrested activist possesses. In fact, Adachi’s stance is not new: Kyūen’s newsletter had recently suggested that it would encourage certain activists to co-operate with police if they seemed unable to cope with the long period of isolation and pressure, such as those who faced the danger of losing their job or had children or other circumstances to consider. In Hasegawa’s eyes, the issue isn’t one of forcing people to adopt kanmoku or not, since it was never a rule: activists were encouraged at all costs to keep silent, though it was always the case that for some it may not be the right tactic. No, Hasegawa is affronted by Adachi’s suggestion that kanmoku is not a “principle” of the Centre’s work. By repudiating the very legitimacy of kanmoku, Adachi is taking Kyūen down the slippery slope to the anodyne and malleable level of SEALDs and the JCP; the rejection of kanmoku as a principle of activism can only lead to the destruction of solidarity among workers and activists.

And then Chūkaku-ha (Kakukyōdō/Kakkyōdō, Revolutionary Communist Japan) formally responded in Zenshin (Issue 2705, 9th November 2015), condemning Adachi for his stance on what it regards as a fundamental aspect of activism and for betraying the history of the Centre. To co-operate or speak with police is to recognise the authority of the state and thus acquiesce to what the far leftists view as the constant harassment and suppression of their civil rights by the security police. As the government seeks to implement its new law on investigation procedures, activists will face greater oppression in the form of phone tapping, undercover offices infiltrating their ranks, and so on. Kanmoku is needed now more than ever.

A war of words indeed, though vitriol is always sandwiched between the political polemic in the pages of the Chūkaku-ha organ. Anger is such a defining characteristic of radicals of any political persuasion, including “polite” Japan. (Incidentally, Zenshin has recently changed from a weekly publication to a twice-weekly one with shorter issues, in an effort ostensibly to meet the zippier demands of the Information Age. Needless to say, the veteran activists are not investing in ways to boost their web presence or presentation, unlike the PR-savvy younger activists such as CRAC and SEALDs.)

Regardless of this current disagreement, Kyūen continues to publish updates on Chūkaku-ha activists and their campaigns, so a total break is not on the immediate horizon, it seems. If anything, it is more likely that the Marxists denounce and then reject Kyūen, ending their co-operation that can be traced back to the first years of the organisation. However, Takeo Hayama — a doyen of activism whose career started in Zengakuren in the 1959-60 Anpo campaign, when he led an infamous invasion of the Diet grounds — is still a Chūkaku-ha lawyer as well as the representative affiliated lawyer for Kyūen, so their legal networks are probably too interconnected for a full divorce. Adachi may simply end up being removed (let’s not use the word “purged”) from his new position.

The danger of this war of words is that it risks fracturing a base of support for New Left activists that has existed for 45 years — or it actually could mark a new beginning for Kyūen, taking them closer towards the young, unaffiliated activists that have emerged more prominently since 2011. Regardless, Kyūen itself is facing a demographic crisis as its main staff and network is rapidly ageing, plus its funds are as always perilous. And therein lies the rub: all this exchange of criticism is academic unless these established New Left groups manage to make themselves relevant to non-sectarian and novice activists.


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1 Response to A War of Words, or a Battle over Silence

  1. Avery says:

    As Yoshimoto Takaaki once said, the true tenkō are those who refuse to tenkō!


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