On 31 December, 2018, while much of Japanese society was getting ready to crowd around the TV to watch Kōhaku Uta Gassen that evening on NHK or helping out in the kitchen, the scene was quite different in Odaiba, where Comiket 95 thronged with attendees eager to catch the third day of the final Comic Market of the Heisei era.
Comiket is, of course, the massive dōjinshi fair that takes place biannually at Tokyo Big Sight. It is THE place to go to buy self-published comics and witness some of the best cosplayers strut their stuff. It is always a veritable smorgasbord of fan-made content; a wild and complex feast of references and styles. But what it is not known for is politics. Rather, if one adheres to the Azuma-Ōtsuka school of thought, the rise of Comiket from the mid-1970s and through the 1980s alongside otaku culture signals a paradigm shift away from the “season of politics” towards a more introspective, subculture-informed (or even subcultures-obsessed) mass society.
But times have changed. At Comiket 95, attendees passing one particular booth on the third day of the fair would have encountered the student activist group Zengakuren, participating under the name “Sākuru Midoru Koa” (Circle Middle Core — a kind of pun on Chūkaku-ha, which can be translated as “Middle Core Faction”).
The Heisei period will come to an end in just a few months’ time with the abdication of the emperor. In the three decades since Akihito first ascended to the throne, freeter activism and sound demos have transformed the repertoire of protest. Instead of grand narratives and revolution, a vibrant array of groups and individuals have advocated alternative lifestyle models that are low-key yet accessible. Fukushima and the return of Shinzō Abe to power have sparked several further waves of social movements, galvanising new types of people to come out on the streets and motivating young people to join the rallies, not least SEALDs.
The student movement never went away and the Chūkaku-ha Zengakuren has diligently continued to campaign against capitalism, imperialism and neoliberalism. As I have previously discussed, Zengakuren has entered a novel and exciting phase in its history, influenced by recent movements as well as the earlier efforts of NAZEN, a Chūkaku-ha group with a strong youth presence and which already adopted approaches linked to freeter activism. Led by Ikuma Saitō until last year and now by a student from the University of Tokyo, the new Zengakuren is building on momentum from the Hōsei University conflict that emerged in the 2000s and continues to this day, and also its current success at Kyoto University.
Zengakuren has changed, yet not changed, and therein lies the heart of the matter. While its self-presentation has radically shifted, its messages are more or less the same. It embraces social media and has nurtured a following through its prolific YouTube channel called Zenshin Channel (named after the Chūkaku-ha organ) that proffers a cuter, softer image that feels at odds with the far-left group’s reputation as a militant, if not violent, organisation responsible for riots and even murders.
In short, this entails placing female members at the front as one of the prominent faces of the movement (not unlike SEALDs so effectively did). The content they disseminate is at times jokey and light-hearted, unafraid of appearing dasai (uncool) and amateurish — even, in fact, taking delight in this. It conjures up a picture of an earnest, sincere and ordinary set of youngsters who just so happen also to be committed to a certain political position, which they refuse to water down for their audience.
What problematises this further is the way that the group also “plays up” to the aforementioned notoriety. Given the tone of the recent efforts, one might perhaps expect the activists to disguise or minimise the past. Far from it; they embrace it, as the details of the Comiket booth conspicuously demonstrated. The members manning the desk wore Chūkaku-ha helmets (recalling the New Left cosplay costume spotted at Comiket back in 2014). The booth, decorated with a classic Chūkaku-ha banner, showcased wares that included four tracts featuring hard-core Marxist theory and communist history. There was also a dōjinshi called Midoru Koa C95 as well as t-shirts and badges. Even more overt, however, was the plastic document files they were flogging for ¥500 each. These quite brilliantly, if controversially, were designed to look like a reprint of an infamous 1971 edition of the faction newspaper that called on activists to take part in a large street protest in Tokyo. This event then later became known as the Shibuya Riot Incident, culminating in the death of a police officer. Many activists were subsequently arrested. The evidence compiled by police, which was mainly the witness statements and confessions dubiously obtained under lengthy interrogations of the detained activists, pointed to Fumiaki Hoshino and Masaaki Ōsaka. The former has languished behind bars since the mid-1970s while supporters campaign for a retrial; the latter was a fugitive for over four decades until his sensational arrest in 2017. As such, the choice of design for the merchandise at the Comiket booth is quite remarkable, exploiting the furore that has kept Chūkaku-ha’s name, not always accurately, in the headlines for the past couple of years. (Incidentally, the plastic file folders sold out.)
Zengakuren’s announcement of its plan to exhibit at Comiket ignited both excitement and debate about the boundaries of freedom of speech as well as criticism from some that the leftists were politicising the event. But Comiket’s countercultural (and accommodatingly chaotic) nature actually makes it a good fit for the activists who, though belonging to an institution, nonetheless exist firmly outside the mainstream. Just like the other dōjinshi circles, Zengakuren has to do everything itself in a DIY, low-fi way with limited resources. Such was the novelty of the Zengakuren presence at Comiket, which was overseen by activist Yū Yoshida, that it even attracted some advance attention from the regular press. Yoshida explained to Oricon News that the idea for taking part in Comiket developed from the recently boosted endeavours to reach a mass audience, such as by publishing the Zenshin newspaper now twice weekly and the launch of the popular YouTube channel. Comiket is, Yoshida says, the “largest mass movement in the 21st century”, so an ideal place for connecting with other kinds of people and reaching new audiences.
Comiket is associated most readily with otaku subcultures, which is not as far removed from Zengakuren as you might think. Indeed, the growth of kyōsanshumi fan culture focused on New Left and communist content — particularly related to post-war Japan, though also often avidly following the current activities of Zengakuren — exemplifies this overlap. And since a far-left worldview is inevitably condemned in neoliberal, politically apathetic Japan to be a subculture, numerically speaking, Zengakuren’s latest strategy arguably shows the merits of accepting this state of affairs fully, of running with it to see how far you can go, and of attempting to bypass the “scary” image the police and media has cultivated. Marxist slogans aside, succeeding at this would be nothing short of revolutionary.