It was the end of an era and the beginning of a new one, as Ikuma Saitō handed over the reigns of the left-wing student activist group Zengakuren to Kyōhei Takahara in early September at the 79th Zengakuren National Congress.
A 21-year-old second-year University of Tokyo student, Takahara first crossed paths with Zengakuren two years ago when he was contacted by the group via social media after he distributed flyers on campus criticising the university’s co-operation with the Olympics. As such, this represents not only a changing of the guard in terms of generation, indicating that Zengakuren, far from dying out, is gaining fresh blood, but also a significant coup for the group in securing a new leader from Japan’s most elite college. While Zengakuren — that is, the Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction) national student organisation, formally Marugakudō (Marxist Students League) — is traditionally known for its strongholds at the likes of Hōsei University or Tōhoku University, the group is extending its influence to other institutions, including Okinawa and Kyoto universities. This is borne out by the myriad attendance at the congress, featuring around 65 activists from twelve colleges around Japan. Alongside Takahara as the new chair, a secretary general was appointed from Kyoto University, joining what is now a diverse committee of delegates from student movements at Hōsei, Hiroshima University and Okinawa University. Small yet feisty, Zengakuren is nonetheless truly a national league again.
The novelty of a Tōdai sophomore taking on the mantle of Zengakuren — apparently the first time a Tōdai student has been honcho in some four decades — has meant that mainstream media outlets took an interest in the development. After all, here is someone with no arrest record, a greenhorn yet to be expelled for political activities, landing the top job in Japanese student activism. The University of Tokyo student struggle in 1968 and 1969 was probably the most iconic episode in the entire protest cycle of the period, especially the epic showdown between thousands of police officers and students in Yasuda Auditorium in January 1969. However, Tokyo soon reasserted its position as the most prestigious college in the country and even the veterans of the campus movement were relatively taciturn compared to activists from other universities. History has come full circle, in a sense.
Though it has ostensibly renounced militant means and is today largely a labour union movement, Chūkaku-ha (and by extension, Zengakuren) remains associated with a kind of spectral past of 1960s and 1970s violence. It is a vague series of images: street riots, helmets, sticks, stones, bombs, hijackings. Who actually did what and why is less important that the sensational kaleidoscope. This has served the police and media well over the decades, and is one of the reasons young people have spurred far-left politics. Upon matriculation, students are warned by their universities against “cults” recruiting members; political clubs are banned from the campuses. The autonomous student councils that were so formerly instrumental in mobilising the student movement in 1960s are almost entirely extinct.
Zengakuren has undergone a major facelift in recent years, the latest iteration of which is this new chair. Following on from the achievements of Saitō and the female activist Tomoko Horaguchi, in particular, in presenting the membership as ordinary youth who can be passionate and ideological yet also self-deprecating and funny, Takahara seems to have the kind of appearance that can attract recruits. He, too, at first was wary of Zengakuren when its members contacted him but says he swiftly realised the limitations of his solo attempts at activism. He saw how Chūkaku-ha’s criticism of the Olympics as something that “stirs up xenophobia” was close to his own views, and last year joined the organisation.
While SEALDs received intense levels of media attention in 2015 as fashionable liberal youth activists engaging with politics (albeit not ideology), and were commended for their savvy marketing skills, it seemed to stand in stark contrast to the more sprawling, at times haphazard, use of analogue and digital tools by the likes of Zengakuren. Things have changed. The activists now deploy an arsenal of social media, blogs and YouTube videos, disseminating content at a formidable rate. The relaunched Zengakuren website is comparatively clean and accessible, and filled with an archive of materials and information. It should be noted that the tide was shifting before — aspects of the “cute” Zengakuren could already be seen in NAZEN, a youth wing focused on the nuclear power issue with a penchant for colourful clothes — but it has now surged and expanded beyond expectations.
Zengakuren’s leading figures spotted a “gap” in the market and cleverly exploited it. No one else, so far, has been able to balance appealing directly to digital natives with genuinely far-left politics. Zenshin Channel, its industrious YouTube channel, has attracted a cult following for its amateur and outlandish charms. In offline actions, too, activists happily wear costumes and play up to their pariah status, not unlike other post-Heisei groups such as Kakuhidō, whose members embrace their standing as men unable to get the girls with parodic marches protesting Valentine’s Day. Moreover, Zengakuren’s online posts also practically pander to the eager desires of kyōsanshumi otaku who love everything to do with far-left radical groups from the past.
This has all unfolded in the shadow of renewed pressure from the university authorities and police to squeeze the group’s resources and activities as well as maintain a public image of it as dangerous, resulting in dramatic raids on Kumano Dormitory and the Chūkaku-ha HQ in Tokyo, and regular arrests for minor infractions — all dutifully reported by the press (though almost never when the activists are released without charge, as is often the case).
It seems, however, that Zengakuren’s causes are striking a chord with some students. Its lawsuit against police officers for alleged assault involves merely an extreme version of what students see at the entrances of campuses at Hōsei and Kyoto, where police and administrators grossly outnumber the activists, aggressively document their every move with cameras, and physically prevent them from stepping on the premises. Likewise, while not championed by Zengakuren exclusively, the on-going issues at Kyoto regarding the threatened Yoshida Dormitory eviction and standing signboard censorship speaks to youngsters slowly waking up to the neoliberal realities of the age. (In June, a symposium on the Kyoto University signboard issue was held on campus by a University of Tokyo study group. Speakers included a representative from Dōgakkai, the Kyoto University chapter of the Chūkaku-ha Zengakuren.) While SEALDs was (rightly) praised for making liberal activism cool again, and its campaigning has evidently influenced several other subsequent groups, a lesser-remarked development is that more hard-core and dogmatic left-wing activism — the New Left undōka to the SEALDs akutibisuto — is increasingly no longer a dirty word to some.
Meanwhile, the new academic semester has begun, bringing fresh politicking at Kyoto. Next up for Zengakuren is the nationwide series of demonstrations scheduled for 21 October, known as International Anti-War Day — a date in the late 1960s when several notorious mass riots took place, primarily in protest at the role of the United States (and Japan as a silent partner) in the Vietnam War. From Akita in the north down to Okinawa in the far south, Zengakuren and its associates will organise protests and rallies in one of its most ambitious actions in years.
As Takahara assumes command, the existing talent continues to take on fresh challenges. After seven years spend leading Zengakuren, whither Saitō? Presumably he can look forward to no longer being addressed as -kun in the part organ Zenshin. He will also surely progress up the ranks of Chūkaku-ha as a “regular” activist. (Even if he wanted it, an ordinary career is probably out of the question for someone of his repute.) He has already stood for election before and is set to do the same again in the House of Councillors election in July next year. The popular Tomoko Horaguchi will also stand in April’s Suginami ward election. Dressed in smart suits and transformed into mainstream political candidates, their portraits currently adorn posters plastered all across the local area. As these former student activists enter their thirties, it is less tenable for them to be the faces of Zengakuren — or at least, the most prominent faces. They are, after all, not actually students anymore or even “young” by some standards (outside Japan). Takahara’s arrival is perfectly timed for him to ride a new wave for Zengakuren. “I want to rebuild the student movement,” he told Aera in a largely sympathetic interview. “And in order to do that, I want to develop activism together with various other kinds of activists from many universities.”