Remembering the Asama-sansō Incident, 45 years on

One of my ongoing concerns when researching Japanese radicalism is the question of what happens to activists the morning after the night before: how do they move on, assuming they can? Do they transition to other movements? Or just give up? Some languish in prison. Some turn mainstream. Some kill themselves. Many just disappear, slipping between the gaps of a society where they no longer have a place.

I included many examples that I came across when writing my book, Dissenting Japan, though I could have easily filled the entire text with such case studies. In fact, that would surely be a great book for a dedicated soul to write in the future: the afterlives of activists. (There are already several publications of this ilk available in Japanese.)

This is an issue that frequently comes to mind during anniversaries and a major one was marked recently: 45 years since the Asama-sansō (Mt Asama villa) siege began on February 28th, 1972, when a small group of far-left militants held a woman hostage in a rural part of Nagano. Besieged by police, they were eventually captured and the hostage freed unharmed, though not before two police officers had lost their lives along with a civilian bystander.

They were, of course, members of Rengō Sekigun (United Red Army) — formed a merger of Sekigun-ha (Red Army Faction) and Kakumei Saha (Revolutionary Left) — and the incident is one of the most famous media events of post-war Japan, continuing to retain its place in the public imagination due to multiple reincarnations in popular culture through film, manga and literature.

One of the most respected is Kōji Wakamatsu’s film version, United Red Army (2007), which has been adapted for the stage and currently running in Shinjuku until March 22nd. It is part of a series of events marking 80 years since the late director’s birth, though it also times perfectly with the anniversary. The tiny theatre, Space Zatsuyu, is an ideal venue for conveying the claustrophobia of the radicals as they passed the winter of 1971 and 1972 in a mountain lodge. After the nine-day siege was over, it was revealed that Rengō Sekigun had engaged in a horrific purge that resulted in the brutal deaths of twelve of its own members. The exposure of this self-destructive turn of events is generally viewed as a turning point for the Left in Japan in delegitimising student activism for the next generation.

michinori kato united red army asamasanso

Michinori Katō, a former member of Rengō Sekigun (United Red Army) and a teenager at the time when he took part in the Asama-sansō Incident in 1972.

The online TV broadcaster Abema TV recently interviewed Michinori Katō, a one-time member of Rengō Sekigun who is now 64 years old. He was one of two brothers in the villa at Mt Asama — both were under the legal age at the time so could not be officially named. Their older brother died in the purge. Katō’s sentence of 13 years’ imprisonment was confirmed in 1983 and he was released in 1987, after which he devoted himself to farming.

Toothless and showing apparent signs of the toll his prison term inflicted on his health, Katō maintains that he does not regret taking part in radical activism, though admits that his belief in armed struggle was “fundamentally mistaken”. Tellingly, he says that “now ‘left’ or ‘right’ don’t mean anything”. “If someone asked me now which I am, I would say neither. Theories like communism and socialism do not exist in reality in today’s society and just end up as idealism.”

Katō’s interview concludes with a segment at the end where the show asks young women (strangely only women) in Shibuya what they think about the “left wing”. Responses range from “don’t know” to “unapproachable” and “scary”. Some people literally did not understand what the word meant. Kanji nerds may find the sources of their confusion funny.

The TV show also had a studio discussion, including a couple of former members of the now disbanded student group SEALDs, who were keen to emphasise that they were not “left wing” since the word is still tainted by its association with (strictly speaking, far-left) violent groups like Rengō Sekigun. Instead, they embrace the label of “liberal”.

sealds united red army

Yasumasa Chiba, a former member of SEALDs. The caption reads: “Were SEALDs ‘left wing’?”


Further Reading

William Andrews, Dissenting Japan: A History of Japanese Radicalism and Counterculture, from 1945 to Fukushima, London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 2016.

Yoshikuni Igarashi, ‘Dead Bodies and Living Guns: The United Red Army and Its Deadly Pursuit of Revolution, 1971-1972’, Japanese Studies 27, No.2 (2007).

Chris Perkins, The United Red Army on Screen: Cinema, Aesthetics and the Politics of Memory, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Patricia G. Steinhoff, ‘Memories of New Left Protest’, Contemporary Japan, 25, 2 (2013).

Patricia G. Steinhoff, Gilda Zwerman, ‘Differential Outcomes of Prosecutions for Political Violence’, Political Violence in Context: Time, Space and Milieu, Lorenzo Bosi, Niall Ó Dochartaigh, Daniela Pisoiu (eds.), Colchester: ECPR Press, 2015.

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