Tokyo Metropolitan Police officers arrested two activists from the left-wing student group Zengakuren on 4 November on suspicion of entering a university campus to distribute political publications without permission.
The activists were nabbed in central Tokyo as they made their way to the annual Dōrō-Chiba “international solidarity” labour union rally in Hibiya, which is the largest far-left labour gathering in Japan, attracting up to 10,000 participants from a wide range of groups and visiting overseas delegates.
Though the alleged trespassing took place in late July, the timing of the arrests was both a practical one, since the police knew that the event was an ideal opportunity to serve open arrest warrants on the activists guaranteed to attend, but also deliberately scheduled in order to send a symbolic message to the rally organisers.
The two activists — Yōhei Sakube (27, of Dōgakukai, the de facto Kyoto University branch of Zengakuren) and Yūichi Utsumi (38) — are accused of entering the campus of Tōyō University, a private college located in Bunkyō ward in Tokyo, and distributing political publications to students for over an hour. They are alleged to have visited various student club rooms and handed out organs and flyers with information on an upcoming rally. Sakube is one of the central figures in the on-going Zengakuren lawsuit against police brutality, while Utsumi is a veteran originally affiliated with activism at Hōsei University in the 2000s (I actually interviewed him a few years ago for a piece in The Japan Times).
The incident raises issues regarding the restrictions on student activism in Japan. For all the fanfare and gushing about SEALDs in 2015, the grim reality is that holding a campus strike is rewarded with arrests and expulsions, and, as we see, entering a campus to distribute flyers is a newsworthy offence that merits police action. A way around the trespassing problem is to be a student actually enrolled at the university, of course, but then you might be punished for promoting an unauthorised organisation. The entrances to Kyoto and Hōsei universities are these days regularly the scenes of amusing standoffs between university staff and Zengakuren activists. The former hold up signs telling the activists not to use bullhorns as well as film the intruders’ every move with cameras. The latter, though, merely pounce on the administrators’ zealous response as proof of the oppression they are fighting — and happily shout this to the rooftops for every passing student to hear. But if one of them enters the campus, it’s game over and possible grounds for arrest.
So how can student activists agitate and politicise, regardless of their causes, if they cannot enter the campus? Should the university be a sacred ground, a temenos cleansed of politics and struggles? Zengakuren continues to challenge this mindset.
The media reaction to the arrests has been reliably telling. Despite the relative insignificance of this development, it was treated as a news story and dutifully reported by such press outlets as the Sankei accompanied by dramatic images of the two “criminals” being escorted solemnly away. (See above images for examples.) The implication, of course, is that Zengakuren and, by extension, student activism is mediated as a form of antisocial behaviour, alongside the wrongdoing of other rouges paraded routinely in front of the cameras of the Japanese news media. This stands in stark contrast with the “lighter” public image Zengakuren has been at pains to stress of late, particularly through social media.
What the mainstream media does not report in almost all cases is that many of these arrests often end with no charges being pursued, as I suspect will happen here. Quite frequently the activists are released after the 23 days of detention is up or even sooner, though this period can be extended by re-arresting them. Far-left activists adhere to a policy of maintaining total silence during detention, known as kanzen mokuhi or kanmoku, which is quite a stoic undertaking, given that the days in detention unfold in complete isolation from the outside world and interrogations take place without full recording or lawyers present. Chūkaku-ha, which is the parent organisation of Zengakuren, has particularly upheld this strategy as the best strategy, simultaneously denying the imperialist and bourgeois capitalist state its authority as well as functioning as the effective defence mechanism that has allowed it to survive decades of police aggression, inner ruptures and attacks from other left-wing groups. Police know this, of course, so can only hold slight hope that they can break committed activists. Arrests for such trivial offences, then, are as much punitive as pragmatic. They are a warning, an attempt to remind the activists that the police continue to monitor them and restrict their resources.
Zengakuren has denounced the arrests, sharing video footage of the apprehensions almost real-time on Twitter and decrying the police actions as a thinly veiled application of the new conspiracy law in the wake of another activist’s arrest in Kyoto. That case involved the arrest of senior Dōgakukai member Akinori Takada on the campus of Kyoto University on 18 October, ostensibly for refusing to leave the premises, though this was later changed to a more straightforward trespassing charge when he was formally indicated on 29 October. Once again, the timing of this ahead of the rally is surely not coincidental, though it is also merely the latest in a litany of tit-for-tat conflicts between the student movement and Kyoto University, beginning in roughly 2014.
Modest in size yet feisty and ambitious, Zengakuren recently appointed a new chair from the University of Tokyo. It is the only far-left student organisation still operating at any real scale in the student movement in Japan. It has built up a cult following through videos posted on the highly original Zenshin Channel on YouTube, where activists like Sakube are a frequent presence in front of the camera and Utsumi plays a key role behind the scenes. Needless to say, the group was quick to respond to the arrests with this video message.
Update: 22 November 2018
The two Zengakuren activists were released from police custody on 22 November without charge. Unusually, and perhaps in a sign of the impact Zengakuren’s recent tactics are having, this merited press attention, such as a report on TBS News.