Zengakuren goes pop on the election campaign trail in Tokyo

Strange, confusing days in Japanese parliamentary politics. Plus ça change. A snap general election. A new challenger and her impromptu party. The de facto dissolution of the main opposition party, and a breakaway rump party. An op-ed pining, or warning, of the “death of liberalism”. But the real story is surely the nearly 40 per cent of voters, by some polls, who concede to supporting no party.

The canvassing has been hampered by several days of rain, though the sonic attacks of the election vans have continued regardless, blasting out candidates’ names to residents who go about their daily business, or foisting unwanted pamphlets on to unsuspecting commuters at a local station. For all the talk of Koike’s perceived popularism, and such wild-card policies as “exterminating hay fever” do smack of it (or otherwise, sheer lunacy), the Corbyn or Sanders effect, this ain’t.

The far left is not silent either and, despite ostensibly opposing the entire system of Japanese capitalism, participating in the election. Ikuma Saitō, the head of the Chūkaku-ha iteration of the student league Zengakuren, is standing for a seat in Tokyo 8th district, facing up against Nobuteru Ishihara, who hails from an established political clan and has eight victories in a row under his belt. To Ishihara’s LDP conservatism, Saitō is advocating a number of radical policies, not least abolishing the irregular employment that is now the bread and butter of neoliberal Japan, doing away with consumption tax, cancelling the 2020 Olympics, repealing the 2015 state security legislation and dismantling the public security police. His list of ten policies concludes with a call to form a workers’ party in Japan and, almost as a finale, to throw Prime Minister Abe and Governor Koike in prison. These proposals are striking enough in their own right, but let’s focus rather on the identity signals being emphasised in his campaign.

Born in 1988, Saitō is a veteran of the long-running Zengakuren dispute with Hōsei University. Given the credentials, the mediation of his campaign through the official Zengakuren and Chūkaku-ha channels is intriguing. Whereas in the past his parent organisation has put forward older activists in the same Suginami ward area such as the lawyer Tatsuo Suzuki and unionist Kunihiko Kitajima, Saitō represents the younger generation of Marxists in Japan. There is a sense here of both fresh blood and fresh approaches, though elements have been ongoing since, for example, the formation of the youth-led anti-nuclear power group NAZEN (Nonukes Zenkoku Network).

ikuma saito zengakuren election campaign

Image via Zengakuren

Even predating the current one, the election campaigns have gradually become more feminised, unfolding with a more overtly friendly and “pop” character via social media, pamphlets, organ newspapers and the other means of dissemination at the group’s disposal. Dressed often in a smart suit, Saitō’s publicity has leant him a kakkoi (cool) or ikemen (hot guy) look in the Tarō Yamamoto vein that potential voters might not typically associate with a far-left revolutionary group. The campaign’s sound truck is also an affable little vehicle plastered with slogans of “revolution” in bright fonts. From the pink sash and light blue uniforms to the shots of the campaign team greeting the public with smiles, the impression here is of a fun and accessible group of young citizens — and with no Molotov cocktails in sight, notwithstanding the blitz of sensationalist news earlier this year following the arrest of Masaaki Ōsaka. That being said, the slogans and politics are not watered down in any way, shape or form despite the shift in tacks. In this way, the spectator (and prospective voter) consumes a fascinating, yet problematic, oxymoron of soft visuals and hard dogma.

ikuma saito zengakuren election campaign japan student activism

Image via Zengakuren

ikuma saito zengakuren election japan

Image via Zengakuren

It was relayed to me anecdotally by an insider that Zengakuren has seen some relative growth this year and the police pressure has backed off somewhat after officers’ ham-fisted attempt to engage activists at a rally that resulted in a current lawsuit.

In the wake of Ōsaka and an onslaught of negative press, Zengakuren launched a savvy counterattack: an online charm offensive. It has attempted to build on buzz, expanding on the popularity of certain activists like Tomoko Horaguchi. In particular, its regular YouTube series Zenshin Channel has developed a cult following for its semi-parodic style and sheer eccentricity (surely no one else is making videos like this in Japan!). The online broadcaster Abema TV has often interviewed the activists and recently covered the Saitō campaign. Now the challenge is to go beyond Internet niche or retro novelty to something more sustainable. Voters of Tokyo 8th district, polling day is October 22nd.


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