Battle for the Campus: Kyoto University’s war against student activism, pranks and signboards

The activist group Dōgakukai, a branch organisation of the Zengakuren league of student groups, joined other students on 1 December in briefly occupying the roof of the clock tower building at the main Yoshida campus of Kyoto University, which resulted in police being called.

The sustained tension at Kyoto University between elements of its student population and the university administration continued to unfold as students, including some wearing helmets and masks, climbed to the roof of the building amid protests against a ban on handing out flyers as well as the expulsion of certain students. Though photographs shared online by eye witnesses suggest minor scuffles with university staff, no arrests were reported.

kyoto university yoshida campus clock tower occupation kumano students festival left wing politics

Image via @884_kattun

kyoto university yoshida campus clock tower occupation kumano students festival left wing politics

Image via Matomame.jp

kyoto university yoshida campus clock tower occupation kumano students festival left wing politics

Image via Matomame.jp

kyoto university yoshida campus clock tower occupation kumano students festival left wing politics

Image via @_SE0

kyoto university yoshida campus clock tower occupation kumano students festival left wing politics

Image via @_SE0

kyoto university yoshida campus clock tower occupation kumano students festival left wing politics

Image via @obascz

kyoto university yoshida campus clock tower occupation kumano students festival left wing politics

Image via Matomame.jp

Kids just wanna play. A tradition has developed at the annual Kumano Dormitory Festival, which is organised independently by the dormitory and an assertion of its autonomy, of occupying the clock tower in a nod to the past radicalism of Japanese campuses. Though done in jest, more as “Zenkyōtō cosplay” than genuine sabotage, the administration attempts to prevent the prank from happening, ostensibly due to the dangers involved. This was the chaotic scene on 29 November when students tried to use ladders to scale the tower.

After having been thwarted that time, the festival’s activities on 1 December were advertised as a “revenge” event where free oden would be available for spectators who wanted to watch the antics. Given what happened, presumably none of them were left disappointed.

Ahead of the Kumano Dormitory Festival, a storm brewed over freedom of expression in the form of signboards (tatekanban) made by students. This is a not a new controversy per se: they have previously been viewed as problematic by Kyoto University due to their political themes otherwise deemed unbecoming of the campus, resulting in some boards being removed or even destroyed.

Widely regarded a part of the culture of the university, along with other colleges throughout the land, recent complaints from local residents, as noted in an Asahi Shimbun article on 25 November, have culminated in the university itself receiving notification from the city in mid-November that the signboards are in potential violation of regulations protecting the cityscape. The college was reported in the article to be considering restricting the locations where signboards can be placed. Currently they can be seen by passersby and motorists even if exhibited well within the confines of the campus, meaning they would fall into the category of an “outdoors advertisement”, which requires permission from the mayor.

kyotouniversity yoshida campus student signboards politics tatekanban

Image via Matomame.jp

The signboards are as vibrant in their content as much as their messages, generally advertising the activities of a specific “circle” (club) or an event. They touch on such issues as LGBT rights, the university’s role in military research or very individual gripes. Being the “old capital” and priding itself on its beautification policies, Kyoto is unlikely to look kindly on such discourse regardless of which side of the political spectrum it leans. As such, the university has already started to take action and censor certain signboards. Late last month, those that did not meet with approval were affixed with notices saying they would be “removed and stored” unless they were taken away by the students by 30 November. Students were quick to note, however, the obvious discrimination at work here in the choice of which signboards were designated as a “nuisance”.

politics kyoto university yoshida campus student signboards tatekanban

Signboard at Kyoto University with a removal notice from the administrators. The signboard is denouncing the university for “abusing” the cityscape ordinance to ban signboards on campus. Image via @wideexit

politics kyoto university yoshida campus student signboards tatekanban

Students respond with a message of protest to the removal notice. Image via @wideexit

This is all just the latest chapter in the ongoing conflict at Kyoto University between radical left-wing students linked to Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction) and the administration. Along the way, an undercover police officer was rumbled on campus and briefly held by students, Zengakuren staged a mini strike with a barricade, and several student activities — both from Kyoto University and not so — have been arrested, including just a few weeks ago. By and large, the activists have been released without charge after a period of detention lasting several days, though the university has punished political students through suspension.

Much of the struggle centres on the Kumano dormitory, which has been the site of frequent police raids. The visually startling scenes of dozens of officers in full riot gear marching into an unsuspecting student dorm in Kyoto is a reminder that the authorities take the threat seriously of embryonic student radicalism: they would prefer to overreact than allow the seeds of militant activism to grow again like they did so violently in the 1960s and 1970s. The Zengakuren activists have responded with zest and élan, staging regular protests at the campus entrance with costumes and parodic props to mock those who would keep them down. Typically all around stand dozens of police officers, like redundant parental minders at a strange party.

What is happening at Kyoto University is effectively a repetition of what started at Hōsei University in Tokyo in 2007, when a conflict over the control of student signboards sparked a years-long struggle and dozens of arrests. It has been led by Bunka Renmei (Culture League), an unofficial student club that is a de facto branch of Zengakuren, though the core participants are no longer enrolled at the university and thus unable to enter the campus proper, heavily restricting their activism and dissemination.

Hōsei was a Chūkaku-ha bastion for decades and, as such, had maintained a political identity better than elsewhere, especially compared to other private colleges. Nonetheless, there was a shift in the 2000s, which ushered in a familiar cycle of arrests (often followed by a release without charge), fines, suspensions and expulsions, the college working assiduously with its own security personnel and the police to stamp out the “foreign” invasion of its campus. While the history of far-left groups weighs heavily against them in terms of their public reputation, which is further compounded by their treatment by the state and mass media, it should be remembered that Chūkaku-ha today is primarily engaged in labor issues and has renounced its past militant tactics.

WILLIAM ANDREWS

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