The curious disappearance of Kōichi Kishi, leading activist in the Sanrizuka protests

Speak no ill of the dead, as the philosophers say.

Haruhiko Daijima’s documentary The Fall of Icarus: Narita Stories about the Sanrizuka protest movement against Narita Airport was released in September. I had rather mixed feelings about the predecessor, The Wages of Resistance: Narita Stories, primarily because it completely ignored the contribution of the student movement and New Left factions to the protests, and the follow-up has largely rectified this imbalance. One issue I have with documentaries like this is that they seem to promise comprehensiveness and then fail to deliver it. Even after watching both films, the average viewer will still need to read and research more to understand the basics of the Sanrizuka movement. But this is the longest-running protest movement in Japan, so it may be churlish to expect such an exhaustive account of something so complex.

One of the main interviewees in the film is Kōichi Kishi, a former member Chūkaku-ha, the Central Core Faction of Kakukyōdō (the Revolutionary Communist League). In the film Kishi criticises himself and Chukaku-ha, and, in perhaps the documentary’s biggest coup, appears to end by admitting his own ultimate failure after 25 years of participation in the protest and, in possibly the most contentious statement in the film, the failure of the movement as a whole.

koichi kishi chukakuha sanrizuka

Former high-ranking Chūkaku-ha activist Kōichi Kishi

What is not made fully explicit in the film is that he is so open about his actions and, though somewhat allusively, critical of Chūkaku-ha’s involvement in the Sanrizuka struggle, because he left the organisation. The circumstances surrounding this are disputed by the two parties, but it dates back to the fourth Kakukyōdō split, a conflict in 2006 within Chūkaku-ha and the eventual expulsion or departure of the Shiokawa and Yoda factions for ideological reasons. The problems centred on activists in Kansai and accusations of confinement and violence have been made.

Critical of what he saw as a purge, Kishi left his role on the frontline of the Sanrizuka struggle in 2006 and was officially removed from the league the following year. Also expelled were two other prominent activists in Suginami, a key Chūkaku-ha area, who also served in the ward assembly. (Subsequent attempts by Chūkaku-ha activists to win election in the district have so far failed.) In November 2007, a Kansai splinter group formed its own regional faction that evolved into Kakumeiteki Kyōsanshugisha Dōmei Saiken Kyōgikai, the Revolutionary Communist League Reconstruction Council the following year.

In May 2015, Kishi published a book with another ex-Chūkaku-ha activist, Yasutaka Mizutani. The 450-page The Failure of the Revolutionary Communist League Politburo 1975–2014 (or the Collapse of Chūkaku-ha) came out around the same time as several other books, all competing to portray the history of organisation in a certain way. As the title makes clear, Kishi and Mizutani’s was a highly critical book that was inevitably denounced by Chūkaku-ha.

chukaku-ha history book

“The Failure of the Revolutionary Communist League Politburo 1975-2014 (or the Collapse of Chūkaku-ha)”, which was co-written by Kishi and published in spring 2015

Putting aside the particulars of these contrasting books, the case of the 69-year-old Kishi is made more curious by recent events that happened after the documentary wrapped. While this year the news about Chūkaku-ha has been understandably dominated by the apprehension of Masaaki Ōsaka after over four decades on the run, another tiding was also reported: Kishi mysteriously disappeared in March while on a skiing trip in Niigata. Leaving his accommodation early in the morning of March 26th, Kishi telephoned in the mid-afternoon to say that he had got lost, after which he was never seen or heard from again. Searches have revealed his backpack but nothing else.

At the time, the police announced that Kishi, a native of Gunma Prefecture, was a company employee living in the West Waseda area of Tokyo. He studied at Keiō University and was a veteran of the struggle against the United States field hospital at Ōji in 1968 as well as the protest against Prime Minister Eisaku Sato’s visit to America, where he was arrested. He was promoted to lead the Chūkaku-ha struggle at Sanrizuka in 1981, after Narita Airport had opened but at a key juncture when the protest movement was splitting and the construction of the second runway got underway. Kishi oversaw a period in the campaign which saw fighting directed against activists from another faction as well as the airport authority. In The Fall of Icarus, while not overly pressed by the director, Kishi calmly defends the targeting of the airport authority employee Nobuo Maeda, given what Maeda was doing to disunite the movement, and justifies the group’s tactics as legitimate during such a conflict.

The days of internal and inter-factional violence, known as uchi-geba (literally, “inner Gewalt“), are supposedly long gone, not least because most of the surviving members of the New Left in Japan are surely too old for that sort of thing, and there is no evidence or suggestion that Kishi met a sticky end at the hands of former colleagues. In which case, what happened to him? He may have faked his death for some reason. He may have committed suicide, as viewers of the film might be tempted to think, though he was apparently quite active at the time of his disappearance. He may have simply vanished. Every year people go missing in the treacherous Japanese countryside when skiing or hiking. No one can say with certainty, but one thing is for sure: it makes for a disquieting end to an already controversial activist’s life.

WILLIAM ANDREWS

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