Agnes Chow and the idolisation of female activists in Japan

Following the civil unrest over the subsequently withdrawn extradition bill, the latest chapter in the protracted saga in Hong Kong was the passing of a new national security law. The pro-democracy, anti-Beijing protests in the former British colony have rightly attracted attention worldwide for some time, but Japanese interest in the cause reached an intense peak recently due to the plight of one particular activist: Agnes Chow.

Chow was arrested (yet again) on 10 August, a development that received much mainstream media coverage in Japan. The twenty-three-year-old is a veteran of the pro-democracy cause in Hong Kong, having become a central figure in the Umbrella Movement in 2014 when she was still a teenager and then one of the leaders of a progressive political party, Demosisto, that disbanded after the national security law passed.

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Agnes Chow at a court appearance in August 2020, shortly before her arrest (Photo: Reuters)

Fluent in Japanese (as well as English besides her native Cantonese), Chow is almost certainly the most famous person in Japan associated with the current issues in Hong Kong. This is in no small part the result of her strong visibility on social media, sending updates to nearly 540,000 followers on Twitter. Her YouTube channel has, as of writing, over 300,000 subscribers and over 9.5 million views.

Bolstered by her looks — a pretty young woman who, with her pale features and long hair, would not be out of place in the pages of a shōjo manga — and the reputation and following Chow has accrued largely through her Japanese-language social media posts, Japanese people reacted with shock to her arrest. The footage of her arrest heightened this effect, with Chow’s coronavirus-safeguarding white face mask emphasising her bespectacled innocence.

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The arrest of Agnes Chow on 10 August, 2020 (Photo: Reuters)

The incredulity and concern was intermixed with a curious kind of fandom that has seen her dubbed the “Goddess of Democracy” (民主の女神), a moniker also used by the mainstream media also used in reporting her arrest. Hashtags swiftly emerged and one in Japanese calling for her to be free was included in tens of thousands of tweets — a far greater response than most Japan-based causes can hope to attract. Japanese people shared on social media their private photographs of Chow, showing her as a “normal” young person who liked hanging out with friends and doing the kinds of things that most people her age liked doing (in Japan or Hong Kong). All of this combined to form an image of Chow as a “pure” and angelic figure, a brave victim of a terrible (male) regime.

Though Chow was released on bail a day later, she may still face prosecution — she has already pleased guilty to other charges after an arrest last year — and the ambiguity of her apprehension has triggered fears that Hong Kong authorities will use the new law to suppress political dissent. The Twitter storm ignited by her arrest is unlikely to have influenced the decision to free her, since the police are savvy enough to know that someone with such a high social media profile will automatically garner outrage online, and there have been many other arrests of similarly prominent figures. A blue verified badge on your Twitter handle means nothing to the police.

Nonetheless, the response to her arrest and Chow’s status as the Goddess of Democracy has a clear benefit: it raises awareness of an acute issue among Japanese audiences who might otherwise not follow it so closely or know anything about it. In short, it makes people care. Kyodo quoted a 42-year-old Japanese man working in Beijing as saying “I have become interested in Hong Kong affairs since last year thanks to the Goddess of Democracy.”

The English translation of her nickname may have an awkward ring, though it consciously echoes the Japanese name for Libertas. In this respect, she is a “retrofitted” personification of liberty and democracy, a Marianne for East Asia. But this personification is highly problematic. Would another young and charismatic leader in the movement like Joshua Wong, who happens to male, be dubbed the “God of Democracy”? “Goddess” not only genders Chow, it sexualises her. In this characterisation, she is a meek Valkyrie, a fighter whose status as a woman is as important, if not more so, as what she is fighting for. It belittles her as a “cute” and “pretty” media image to be consumed, as the more acceptable and likable face of the movement than the masked figures smashing windows and engaging the police amid tear gas and gunfire. Always appearing slight of build and humble, Chow’s persona could not be further from that of the at-times violent street protesters on the frontline of the unrest in Hong Kong, even though she is herself frequently there and reporting on it through social media.

This discussion will limit its scope to her reception in Japan, but Chow is also similarly mediated, consumed, and idolised by many in her native Hong Kong (and elsewhere). And it goes without saying that elevating female activists to media celebrity-like status is a global phenomenon — Greta Thunberg being just one obvious example — a process that can spark a backlash and disrupt the message of the activists.

Though she has expressed unease at her sobriquet, Chow is, to some extent, willingly involved in this process. A perfunctory glance at her YouTube channel shows that she presents herself in a visually appealing way, similar to how a music idol might have such a platform, and the videos feature her prominently. However, this is also a very natural social media modus operandi and is ultimately just a smart and professional approach, much as any millennial or generation Z-er serious about promoting something online would surely do today. (It is also worth noting that Chow currently describes herself in her Twitter profile in three languages simply as a “university student”, rather than anything self-aggrandising.) To suggest that Chow is more interested in promoting herself over the content of her political messages would do a terrible disservice to her (and her peers’) truly remarkable achievements.

Rather, the problem lies in the idolisation: it is reductionist, sweeping aside the complexity of the movement and its campaign to focus on sensational, human aspects (a young woman’s arrest). Placing a female activist — or any individual in a movement — on a pedestal ignores the fact that social movements comprise diverse memberships and forces, as Tominaga Kyōko recently argued in a reflexive article in the Mainichi Shimbun exploring the Japanese media representation of Chow. More seriously, the veneration not only ignores but arguably exemplifies the persistent sexism and harassment prevalent in social movements in Japan (and of course, elsewhere), something that sadly has a well-established precedent even among the the New Left during the Long Sixties, and which spurred the Women’s Lib movement locally.

There is a sense of déjà vu about all this. When Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy-s (SEALDs) was active in 2015, its members were readily seized upon by the media as examples of “ordinary” and “noble” youngsters unexpectedly appearing in the staid, male-dominated world of politics. It’s a great story and it sells, and SEALDs was clever enough to milk this and ride the wave of attention to build sympathy for its cause, no doubt in the process attracting thousands more people to join the demonstrators mobilised by the other civil society groups and political parties in involved in opposing the government’s controversial security bills. But I also had serious misgivings about this at the time in that young activists were essentially consumed and mediated as idols. While not overshadowing their cause per se, was this idolisation ultimately a form of exploitation and condescension that meant SEALDs was not taken seriously by the media, much less the political elite?

The SEALDs members went to great lengths to stress that they were normal students, not radicals like the student activists of the New Left. (This is also problematic in that SEALDs, along with the mainstream liberal political parties and social movements, was complicit in perpetuating the demonisation of more robust left-wing politics in Japan, and co-operated with the police and other instruments of the state that works to curb activism and the civil society.) The publicity materials were well produced and professional. In the images, the photogenic members were dressed fashionably and conveyed a simple pro-democracy message. The group notably placed the female members centrally within its self-presentation. Its youthful image aside, this identity also stood in stark contrast to many social movements in Japan up until then, especially in the New Left, which valorised “masculine” sets of practices like violent confrontations, long rallies with fierce speeches, and top-down hierarchies. But this tactic, for all its success, also exposed the members to horrendous cyberbullying.

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The student activist group SEALDs

SEALDs did not happen in a vacuum, but rather emerged out of a general trend towards more “feminised” protest practices in Japan and globally. These practices engage in artistic, creative and parodic tactics, and valorise being ordinary and cool as much (if not more than) ideology or political commitment. This did not mean that “masculine” conflict with authority or even militant tactics disappeared completely — far from it, in many ways — but the current state of social movements suggest that the violence espoused by prominent sections of the New Left during the Long Sixties did not survive. In the case of Japan specifically, Gonoi Ikuo has described such new aesthetics-based and digitally engaged tactics as “kawaii direct action”, the development of which I would suggest has made Japan’s civil society and culture in general more receptive to someone like Agnes Chow.

This is apparent in Japan’s 1990s and 2000s freeter protests, as well documented by the likes of Carl Cassegård. For all their bullish and rowdy antics with street rave-cum-marches, they were not afraid to be playful and even cute with costumes, character art and parody. It worked to reinvigorate protest for the current age in terms of practices but also to legitimise it again for a new generation of participants and stakeholders. As Sharon Hayashi and Anne McKnight wrote in their much-cited 2005 paper, “Good-bye Kitty, Hello War: The Tactics of Spectacle and New Youth Movements in Urban Japan”: “In many elements of the rave demos’ tactical use of media, pop, and anime-based graphics, soft lettering and pastel coloring personalize the situation of protest and take the edge off the hard reality of police control and the possibility of arrest.”

Such kawaii direct action and feminised protest practices are at odds with the views espoused by the small yet well-publicised group Kakumeiteki Himote Dōmei (Revolutionary League of Men Unpopular with Women), or Kakuhidō, which ostensibly brings together self-professed male “losers” to demonstrate in helmets and masks against Christmas Eve and Valentine’s Day in the streets of Tokyo. The group’s clamorous activities, which have continued since 2006 and draw only a modest number of participants, are as much meta-protest as real ones. They have borrowed the language and paraphernalia of 1960s protest and re-situated these in the late-Heisei malaise of disaffected masculinity vulnerable in the face of growing (relatively speaking) female empowerment in Japan and economic stagnation. The context is genuine, yes, but it is deliberately rendered through highly performative, ludic practices. This is perhaps partly because an actual protest against these intangible issues of fragile masculinity is too difficult, and adopting a filter of 1960s protest — now more legitimate with the passage of time and coopting of the Long Sixties into popular memory — allows these men to express their frustrations under a tongue-in-cheek cloak.

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Parodic protest group Kakuhidō, which nominally demonstrates on behalf of unpopular men

The new phase accelerated with the post-2011 wave of anti-nuclear and anti-government movements, which were mobilised by social media and looser networks, and where Nara Yoshitomo’s and straightforward, neutral slogans dominated street demonstrations. The aesthetics that SEALDs presented have also continued to resonate, with the Japanese Communist Party harnessing very similar style for posters as its journey progresses from militancy to parliamentary renegades to local grassroots champions to pacifist liberals effectively part of the mainstream, complete with cute mascots and a quasi-tolerance of the emperor system.

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Japanese Communist Party poster influenced by the SEALDs aesthetic

It even began to rub off on the New Left, with the younger activists associated with Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction) through its Zengakuren league of student groups or NAZEN anti-nuclear group readily adopting costumes, self-parody and friendlier visuals — though without diluting the core political ideas they are disseminating. While the new social movements have made a conscious effort to co-operate with police, this is a line that Zengakuren and its associates would never cross; activists, in fact, remain subject to intense police surveillance and the threat of arrest over infractions as minor as stepping onto a campus to distribute flyers. The transformation of Zengakuren has reached an apotheosis with its Zenshin Channel YouTube videos (over 2 million views and counting) and the group’s de facto version of Agnes Chow, Horaguchi Tomoko, who has attracted a cult following online and eventually became a democratically elected member of the Suginami ward assembly.

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The friendlier face of Zengakuren presented through YouTube videos. Horaguchi Tomoko is on the right

Horaguchi’s popularity is interlinked with the emergence of a subculture called kyōsanshumi (共産趣味): literally meaning “communist taste” — a pun on kyōsanshugi (communism) — it is a type of fandom or otaku subculture that centres on materials related to communist or Marxist movements. It has a particular focus on Japanese movements, especially those from the New Left.

With the exception of some cosplay events and outdoor games, the main sphere for kyōsanshumi fandom is online, especially social media platforms like Twitter. It is here that the fans share moe elements, images (such as old press photos), their own illustrations of real-life figures, parodies and pastiche images, memes, information and trivia, and speculation (“What would this faction have said about this?”). The social media content forms a kind of “database” in the Azuma sense. There is a strong emphasis on uniforms, helmets, the police, paramilitary gear and cute female activists. It can be assumed that the anonymous practitioners are mostly, if not entirely, men, who bring their male gaze to bear on the past (and present) of the New Left, though also, not coincidentally, other military subjects, such as World War II.

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Kyōsanshumi image by illustrator samusamu1002 of a female New Left activist

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Kyōsanshumi image by illustrator leningradcheka, inspired by the University of Tokyo student strike of 1968–69

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Another image by samusamu1002 with a World War II theme

Kyōsanshumi is much more than simply yet another esoteric fandom, however. It is part of an on-going general rediscovery and re-consumption of the Long Sixties, especially since the 2000s with numerous books, events and films. While romanticism and nostalgia are conspicuous in this veritable industry (along with genuine self-reflection and soul-searching), some of the new content has been produced by and for millennials, gravitating away from the problematic sides of the period, away from the ideologies and sensational events to a softer reception more based on visuals. We may now be far enough from 1972’s Asama-sansō and Rengō Sekigun (United Red Army) purge to select, if so willing, other aspects that are more easily consumable and reusable (or if we do want to confront the horrors of the Rengō Sekigun purge and other such incidents, we can do it in bite-sized chunks through movies, manga and guidebooks).

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An example of recent books in Japan about the Long Sixties aimed at a different kind of readership. This one is a guidebook to the sites of famous incidents

After all, if even AKB48 can make a music video set in a vaguely 1968-esque pastiche (yet very anodyne) world of student activism, as the idol supergroup did in 2016, then it is surely fair game for anyone.

The punk-rock idol group Burst Girl released a music video in 2019 for the song “Chō-kakumei” (Super Revolution), which was the high-octane flip side of the AKB48 video: here the female performers wear helmets and towels over their faces, and carry staves while swaggering around a school festooned with revolutionary placards and a picture of Che Guevara. The student activism and sensational incidents carried out by militant factions in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Japan immediately provided source material for literature, manga and cinema (most notably, many sexploitation films) at the time and in the years afterwards, but the performers here indulging in New Left cosplay were born this century. The exploitation is insouciant and quite possibly even oblivious. (For context, though, the group certainly is very aware of the punk tradition in Japan; its name references Burst City, the 1982 film that is a major part of the punk rock canon.)

Another generation Z-er, the artist Jun Inagawa has achieved prominence for fusing street art and otaku culture, but his self-referential moe imagery is also seemingly intermixed with student activism motifs. Emblazoned with the words “otaku” and “anarchy” (in the Roman alphabet) and moe (in kanji), the main white helmet featured in his 2019 exhibition in Tokyo perhaps encapsulates the ambivalence of kyōsanshumi: superficial and visceral, yet also representative of a significant cultural shift. That Inagawa has claimed in an interview that the helmet, which he also wears in publicity shots, was actually inspired by Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is also intriguing. Though clearly not a military design, Inagawa’s visual cribbing suggests that such motifs are seeping into art and pop culture by osmosis, diverted through alternative filters, false memory and misinterpretation. The artist collective that Inagawa leads is called WANK Dōmei (Wank League), echoing (even if unwittingly) the many other dōmei that dominated the New Left but paired with the provocative English that Inagawa frequently employs.

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Artwork by Jun Inagawa

This mode of casual exploitation is not limited to Japanese leftist movements. Uesaka Sumire is a voice actress and idol whose fandom is the Soviet Union, which she draws on as material for her music and persona. Sengun Joshi (literally, Military-First Girls) is an all-girl cosplay “fan club” for North Korea. Similarly, the Nazi chic of benighted music groups in South Korea and Japan has rightly received widespread condemnation.

The moderation and softening process can inevitably descend into cynicism. Just as high-end fashion has exploited the the Rote Armee Fraktion, so we find Isetan Department Sore in Shinjuku — yes, Shinjuku, the notorious site of riots and counterculture in the 1960s — housing a fashion and culture retail floor called Tokyo Kaihō-ku, appropriating the word (meaning roughly “liberated quarter”) that was used, in emulation of what was happening in Paris and elsewhere, to describe areas of the city occupied by activists during the height of the protests. Such words as kakumei (revolution) have become cheap marketing slogans.

None of this, it should be stressed, equates to rehabilitation or release from the heavy baggage of the past. And the subcultural fandom or even mainstream (re)consumption also does little to address seriously the position of women in social movements in Japan, historically or currently — something which a scholar like Chelsea Szendi Schieder is thankfully working to offset with her upcoming book Coed Revolution: The Female Student in the Japanese New Left.

Building on this research, we can identity several key archetypes of women activists in the Long Sixties (in both the mass media and how the movements presented themselves at the time and subsequently): the victims and saints (Kanba Michiko, Tōyama Mieko), the femme fatales (Shigenobu Fusako), the witches/crazies (Nagata Hiroko), the “Gewalt Rosa” (violent Rosa Luxemburg). How far has historical memory, the best efforts of scholars notwithstanding, really evolved? Or has the recent idolisation and “feminisation” outlined above merely added new archetypes, such as the “Agnes Chow type”?

For the first volume of the mammoth 1968 by Oguma Eiji, a leading figure among the younger generation (i.e., younger than the baby boomers) of historians examining the post-war era, the cover is a female student activist in a helmet, almost too willowy and pretty for the helmet that perches on her head. An Agnes Chow type? Seemingly as a complement, second volume, solidifying the standard narrative of a movement failed and traumatic, shows a rugged male activist as he is escorted away by police.

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The cover to the first volume of Oguma Eiji’s 1968

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Aida Makoto’s artwork on the covers of Ōtsuka Eiji’s books

Earlier, in the 1990s, the manga critic Ōtsuka Eiji, who hails from the post-1972 generation and has written extensively about the spread of shōjo culture in Japan, attempted to reclaim Nagata Hiroko from her notoriety as an evil “witch” responsible for a violent purge, discovering something “pure” and innocent about her from her later interest in shōjo manga. Ōtsuka’s output is prodigious and cannot be easily summarised here, though one detail may suffice for now. Two of his most noteworthy books in this context are available in editions with a striking artwork by Aida Makoto, Beautiful Flag (War Picture Returns) (1995). Originally in the format of two folding screen paintings, the panels each feature a schoolgirl in a war-torn landscape, holding up the flag (one Japanese, the other South Korean): a heroine fighting for — what? For her country? The “flag” (whatever it symbolises)? Democracy? The people? Citing wartime propaganda, the bijinga (beautiful woman painting) genre and shōjo tropes, Aida deliberately leaves things ambiguous. Regardless, each girl is noble, strong, determined. Agnes Chow, as she is seen in the eyes of her many admirers in Japan.


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2 Responses to Agnes Chow and the idolisation of female activists in Japan

  1. D says:

    Socialism is retarded.


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