On 5 March, police in Hiroshima arrested a 36-year-old male activist linked to the Chūkaku-ha-affiliated Zengakuren student group on suspicion of registering a false address on his driver’s licence. Police allege that the suspect applied to update his licence in January at a centre in Toyama Prefecture with a Toyama City address where in fact he does not reside. Toyama and Hiroshima police conducted a joint investigation, leading to searches of four locations that included the Toyama address on the licence, presumably in the hope that these were ajito (hideouts for political radicals). The arrested activist has been engaged in political campaigning at Hiroshima University and a related college club (circle) site was one of the locations searched.
If this all sounds a little excessive for a matter of a registered address, bear in mind that it is a common police tactic for dealing with and confining activists. A minor, even bureaucratic, slip is exploited as an opportunity to arrest someone and launch raids on multiple sites with the aim of finding evidence about other cases. Once arrested, the suspect effectively disappears, cut off from contact with the outside world except for sanctioned visits by a lawyer. Japan’s dubious system of “hostage justice” — recently under global scrutiny due to the treatment of former Nissan head Carlos Ghosn — allows police and prosecutors to hold suspects without charge for long periods, extendable by re-arrest, until they can sweat out a confession or simply to penalise a suspect for not co-operating. Far-left activists, though, adhere to a strict tradition of not saying anything during their detention terms, even if these last months or years until release or trial.
On the morning of 8 March, police took the driver’s licence “falsification” to its next logical conclusion: by carrying out a search of the Chūkaku-ha headquarters in east Tokyo, Zenshinsha, where many activists live and the group publishes its various organs. The raid involved dozens of Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department Public Security Bureau officers as well as kidōtai (riot police) officers.
How did the Zengakuren activists respond to this? By making a parody TV news report on ZNN (Zenshin News Network), its new spin-off from the successful Zenshin Channel YouTube series that is bringing radical left-wing politics to Japanese millennials.
For this edition of the ZNN “show”, the anchor in the “studio” was former Zengakuren chair Ikuma Saitō, while the reporter in the field was none other than Saitō’s successor, Kyōhei Takahara. Posing as the seasoned correspondent delivering a report from the scene, the University of Tokyo gives an admirably deadpan performance that further shows what a smart choice he was to lead the student group.
By making this kind of video, which was shot immediately as the raid was taking place, edited and then published the same day, Zengakuren is embracing the state’s attempts to oppress its activities. This is not only a novel way to denounce, mock and resist such raids, which are a regular part of life for those living at Zenshinsha, but also functions as a means of weaponising the police tactics against them. In the video, for instance, specific officers are targeted and even named and shamed. Takahara smartly avoids actually touching or blocking them — an arrest-worthy offence — but putting a camera in their faces, as the activists frequently now do at protests, reminds the police they have the same surveillance technology tools at their disposal that the authorities use. It is part of an on-going tit-for-tat with the TMP, stemming not only from a constant cycle of arrests and surveillance but also an alleged incident of assault that sparked a lawsuit by the activists against the police.
In addition to ZNN, the “real” media also covered the raid, including the Fuji News Network and Nippon News Network. This is a standard response by the mainstream media, who are happy to peddle out such reports that further the police’s efforts to reinforce the image of far-left groups as militant and dangerous. Of course, the reports do not question the necessity for the arrest in the first place or speak to the activists — I am sure that Zengakuren would have gladly given an interview — let alone highlight the broader issues at play here, namely, the growing threat of police incursions into the civil society in the run-up to 2020.
Zengakuren will participate in an annual anti-nuclear march in Fukushima on 11 March, marking the anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake that triggered the Fukushima disaster. A prominent female Zengakuren activist, Tomoko Horaguchi, is also standing for election to the Suginami City Assembly next month and has been energetically canvassing voters on the streets of the ward. Her policies and messages are trenchant, from denouncing the 2020 Olympics to calling for an end to the emperor system and a local land redevelopment project, but the image she projects is endearing, approachable and decidedly cute.
As it strives to challenge its reputation as a has-been or dangerous movement, Zengakuren has deployed bold and fresh modus operandi for its activities unfolding in Tokyo, Kyoto and other parts of Japan. In the process, it has successfully attracted both a cult online following as well as actual new activists, most notably Takahara, and the police has responded in kind with repeated arrests, raids and other forms of pressure. Of course, such police strategies merely fortify the Zengakuren narrative that the state, like in the pre-war period, is oppressing political activists.
As yet another illustration of this, three activists in Kyoto were arrested and charged in late 2018 with trespassing on the campus of Kyoto University to distribute flyers. (The case echoes a similar one relating to two activists entering the campus of Tōyō University last year that was never pursued by prosecutors.) Zengakuren was able to mobilise dozens of people to attend the hearings, apparently prompting the court to restrict the numbers who can observe in court as well as limit the time that defendants could make speeches. The release on bail of one of the three, Akinori Takada, was finally confirmed last week, though to considerably less fanfare than Mr Ghosn. More’s the pity, because the former Nissan boss is just one example of a much bigger problem with the system.