Zengakuren reaches milestone (and new viewers) with tongue-in-cheek and self-aware political YouTube video series

Zengakuren is not only an organisation of left-wing student activists; it is also a group of YouTubers.

Perhaps the most unlikely Japanese Internet hit of recent months, Zenshin Channel is named after the main newspaper of the Zengakuren parent organisation, the far-left group known commonly as Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction). The channel was launched in late May 2017 at a time of intense attention on the activists following the arrest of long-time fugitive Masaaki Ōsaka, which generated headlines around the world. Counter-narrative lies at the essence of the channel’s content: the key message of the inaugural video was that “comrade Ōsaka is innocent”.

The channel has grown from its rather unassuming start to have, as of writing, over 2,000 subscribers and regular attract 1-2,000 views for its short videos that are released once or twice a week.

The 100th “anniversary” video, however, released on June 10th, broke new ground in that it was long (over ten minutes) and became something of a viral hit, clocking up over 13,000 views. It is presented by the Zengakuren leader Ikuma Saitō and Tomoko Horaguchi, a young female activist so popular that she has inspired her own meme and fan website in the past.

zenshin channel zengakuren youtube student activists japan

The format of Zenshin Channel’s videos have varied and evolved in ambition over the months, though usually introduce the main articles and issues raised in the latest edition of Zenshin. In response to requests made online, Zengakuren designed the 100th instalment as a guided video tour of Zenshinsha, the headquarters of Chūkaku-ha in east Tokyo housing the printing presses that produce the group’s vast volumes of literature as well as dorms where many members reside.

How do truly committed left-wing activists live in contemporary Japan? This is a subject that others have taken an interest in before, including the mainstream Japanese press. It should also be noted that, while Chūkaku-ha generally gets negative coverage from the press, Zengakuren is treated more generously and the weekly tabloids and other outlets like to interview the young activists (motivated perhaps by curiosity as much as empathy) about their causes.

Guided by Horaguchi, the tour covers such highlights as the unmarked police vehicle that maintains 24-hour surveillance on the entrance to Zenshinsha, the different rooms and facilities in the building (and even the computer where the activists edit and prepare the episodes of Zenshin Channel), and the exterior of the fortified site that features current issues of its newspaper and a box for people to insert coins (mujin-hanbai — self-service retail — is quite common in Japan, particularly unmanned stalls in local neighbourhoods selling vegetables and fruit).

This is not simply a tactic to attract new recruits. There is something quite sophisticated going on here. A full five decades on since ’68, Zenshin Channel speaks to the trend I have noted before whereby “retro” student activism has now become a commodity suitable for cutifying and consumption. This can take the form of protest pastiche that is nonetheless a performative identity politics, cosplay costumes and moe tribute art related to kyōsanshumi (the name given by fans to their interest in communist or New Left content), or even a music video. This unfolds casually and unashamedly in spite of the apparent taboo that the Left’s dogma and problematic history represents for liberal and mainstream young activists such as SEALDs. That latter group, however, while shunning this baggage, was nonetheless a clear manifestation of the feminisation of protest, with its clean, media-friendly image that placed female members front and centre.

Zengakuren’s main activists have embraced this new state of affairs, growing out of the zestful and costumed style of protest championed earlier by NAZEN, a Chūkaku-ha youth group that developed post-3.11 with a focus on the nuclear power struggle, and the general 1990s and 2000s prefigurative culture wave of freeter activist movements.

Eschewing any attempt to fashion overly slick or professional output, Zenshin Channel is in fact highly self-aware and ironic — so much so that it sometimes might surprise outsiders that the makers’ “elders” allow them to jest so much (indicating the freedom that the activists are given). A jingle from The International opens each episode but is a decidedly untraditional recital of the workers’ hymn. Titles, captions and various visual effects are used copiously, yet without any masking of their rather callow level. Bloopers and “behind-the-scenes” shots are incorporated into the final version of the video. In addition to encompassing police surveillance as part of the tour — a fact that one might assume they would wish not to emphasise, given that it suggests they are “dangerous” people to avoid — Horaguchi notes that viewers will be familiar with the door to Zenshinsha from the (partially staged) news footage of police dramatically cutting into it at the start of the raids on the site — and there’s even then a clip of example footage inserted to illustrate the point. And the video ends with a special “viewer giveaway”: genuine Chūkaku-ha helmets that are likely to set the hearts of kyōsanshumi geeks aflutter.

While a far cry from the militancy and ideology for which Zengakuren is most famous, the activists have not abandoned their politics by any means. When presenting these videos, they are able to switch tones from the jokey and parodic to poker-faced quotations from their newspaper’s denunciation of a government policy or an announcement of a rally. In other words, for all the pranks, Zengakuren remains as sincere as ever.


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