A short history of the Japanese hippie movement

We might begin with a series of snapshots.

Young people sniffing paint thinner in plastic bags around Shinjuku Station. Long-haired, bearded musicians like the Taj Mahal Travellers, embarking on a tour of Asia. Artists hanging out at trendy, edgy venues — the coffee shop Fūgetsudō, perhaps — before heading off to a shrine to stage a performance in a tent. Hirsute hippies from the Bum Academy rambling around.

Of the many histories of Japan’s Long Sixties waiting to be written, an account of the Japanese hippie movement would prove one of the messiest. Figures and groups can be traced, but they overlap or fade away too easily, and paper trail is vague. Instead, we are left with a heavy haze of tropes and images, the anti-war, New Left and student movements all merging into one, embellished by flashes of colour: folk music, drugs, communes, sexual hedonism, deviance.

paint thinner sniffing tokyo japan shinjuku hippies counterculture

paint thinner sniffing tokyo japan shinjuku hippies counterculture

These images are informed by aspects of popular culture as much as reality. Actuality has been remediated through cinema or tabloid magazines to disseminate a photogenic, readily consumable version of counterculture. Films like Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969), Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) and Shinjuku Mad (1970) cemented what was already a media frenzy at the time, preserving in aspic a portrait of Tokyo — especially Shinjuku — as an oasis of sexual and moral freedom for oddballs, volatile hippies and dangerous dropouts. Was it true? Yes, in part. Was it romanticised, then and in the years after? Undoubtedly so.

The impossibility of writing anything coherent and valuable about such an inherently sprawling and loose movement — even assuming we think of it as a single movement — has long defeated me. Nonetheless, in lieu of a more robust survey, the following is an attempt to chart a basic chronology of the movement.

Timeline

1923 The poet Sakaki Nanao was born in Kagoshima. He is generally regarded as the founding father of the Japanese hippie movement.

1946 Fūgetsudō opened in Tokyo. It would become a famed hang-out for bohemians (wannabe or otherwise) in the subsequent decades.

1950 The bookstore Unita opened in Kanda, Tokyo. It developed into one of the most prominent counterculture hubs in Japan and, as a place that circulated politically radical and subversive materials, frequently faced police raids and even prosecution. It closed in 1982.

1956 The poet Gary Snyder (b. 1930) came to Japan for the first time. At Fūgetsudō, he subsequently met figures central to the Japanese hippie movement like Tetsuo Nagasawa (Naga, or Naaga) and Kaiya Yamada (Pon).

1963 Nanao met Naager and Pon at the Kōenji coffee shop Nelken. Nanao and Naager later met Allen Ginsberg in Kyoto. The Beat Generation proved a major influence on the nascent Japanese hippie movement, along with New Age ideas imported from India like the ashram. This went both ways. Snyder, for instance, not only contributed to the Japanese hippie movement but Asia greatly impacted his work and world-view. These transnational, transpacific connections also continued, with Nanao and others visiting and staying in California in the early 1970s.

1965 Beheiren was established. It became the leading force in the 1960s and 1970s anti-war movement, attracting a broad sweep of society. Hippies were associated with Beheiren in various ways, as musicians at rallies as well as part of its clandestine network for helping US servicemen desert. In this year, Fūgetsudō became increasingly popular with (counter)cultural figures, though it closed in 1973.

1966 The Bum Academy was founded. It name was conceived by Sakaki Nanao. The group is loosely defined, comprising a motley set of hippies in Shinjuku. It later changed its name to Buzoku (the Tribe, sometimes the Tribes) after launching the Buzoku Shimbun (Tribe Newspaper) in 1967. Less a single group than an umbrella label, Buzoku is ultimately used as a name to cover all the various communes and groups that sprang up. An alternative network of communes and counterculture was the Hoshi no Yūgyōgun (Star Tour Army), which emerged a little later with links to the likes of Teruo Ōtomo.

japan buzoku the tribe hippies 1967 japan buzoku the tribe hippies 1967

1967 The Kaminari Akagarasu-zoku (Thunderbolt Red Crow Tribe) commune was founded in the mountains of Nagano. Its Meditation Center of Harijan would attract attendees widely.

Other hippies groups/communes were establishsed this year, like the Gajumaru no Yumezoku (Banyan Dream Tribe), later renamed the Banyan Ashram, on the southern subtropical island of Suwanosejima, and the Yume miru Yadokari-zoku (Dreaming Hermit Crab Tribe) in Miyazaki.

Also in 1967, the Bum Academy held its first three festivals in Tokyo and Miyazaki. Other outdoor festivals with hippie and ecological themes would be organised around Japan in the years to come, including Tokyo, Hiroshima, Ishikawa, Chiba, Shizuoka and Hokkaidō. These continued well beyond the peak of the hippie and New Age movements, with the anti-nuclear Inochi no Matsuri (Festival of Life), for instance, taking place in the mountains of Nagano in 1988. It is still held every twelve years.

The snack bar Horagai opened in Kokubunji, West Tokyo, as the first rock music coffee shop in the country. It was initially run by a team that included Sansei Yamao, another key figure in the Japanese hippie movement and associated with Nanao and his peers. Horagai, which means “giant triton”, was one of the sites linked to a Kokubunji commune called Emerarudo Iro no Yosofū-zoku (Emerald Breeze Tribe), started by Yamao in 1968.

The Greenhouse, as the lawn plaza in front of the east side of Shinjuku Station became known, was by now a gathering place for fūten (literally, “insane”) drop-outs. Young people congregated there from around the country and over five hundred were counted as sleeping rough at the site during the summer of 1967. Efforts were inevitably made to put a stop to this phenomenon, with the authorities officially erecting signage warning that the area is out of bounds, though people continued to assemble there in their dozens in the next summer.

1969 Kansai activists associated with Beheiren held the Hanpaku (Anti-Expo), an anti-war peace festival, in Osaka Castle Park as an alternative to the official World Expo that took place in Suita, Osaka, in 1970.

Beheiren was also linked to the “folk guerrilla” anti-war music concerts at the West Gate (Nishiguchi) plaza on Shinjuku Station, which were held weekly throughout the spring and summer, eventually attracting thousands of mostly young people and transforming the underground station plaza into a festive place for students, activists and music fans. The gatherings were ultimately broken up by police and the leading musicians arrested.

1970 The bookstore Mōsakusha opened in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Like the earlier Unita in Kanda, it became a central nexus for distributing and disseminating not only New Left materials but also various other forms of subculture and counterculture. In this year, LSD was also classified as a narcotic in Japan.

1971 The Shakujii Village Commune was founded in Tokyo by Teruo Ōtomo with a name harking back to to a village that once existed on the outskirts of the city in the feudal era. Various other communes appeared from Hokkaidō in the far north down to Fukuoka and even the island of Suwanosejima in the far south. A commune map of Japan published in a May 1977 issue of Namae no nai shimbun (see below) listed almost two hundred sites stretching right across the archipelago.

1972 The Namae no nai shimbun (Nameless Newspaper) was launched in Tokyo by Hikaru Hamada, an anti-war activist. Over the years, it would publish material about counterculture and anti-establishment movements until 1977. It ceased publication for a time but was then revived in 1988 for the Inochi no Matsuri that year.

Small hubs for hippie culture were increasingly popping up around the country, frequently as coffee shops or live music venues. Guwarandō had opened in Kichijōji in 1970. The cafe Hobbit opened in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi, in 1972. Also in 1972 came the short-lived yet legendary OZ, a live rock music venue in Tokyo, while Yadokari (Tenant or Hermit Crab) opened in Miyazaki and Honyaradō in Kyoto (which burnt down in 2015, destroying much of co-founder and street photographer Kai Fusayoshi’s collection of prints and negatives).

1975 The Mugari Dōjō commune was founded by Kaiya Yamada and others on a remote, uninhabited island in the Amami chain in opposition to plans by ENEOS to exploit it for oil. The commune, whose name literally means the “selfless training room” but is also partly derived from local dialect, lasted for many years.

1976 Teruo Ōtomo started the Milky Way community in Mitaka (in the west of Tokyo). It was a major centre for Tokyo-based counterculture for four decades. Ōtomo was a leading figure in the younger generation of hippies. He walked across Japan for six months from 1975, starting in Hokkaidō and finishing in Okinawa, a journey he called the Milky Way Caravan.

Hobbit Village, a vine-covered building in Nishi-Ogikubo in the west of Tokyo, with an organic grocery store, organic food restaurant (Balthazar), bookshop and school. It is still in operation today.

1980 Banyan Ashram on Suwanosejima disbanded. The commune played a role in Beheiren’s covert network providing shelter for United States servicemen who deserted while in Japan to avoid fighting in Vietnam. A fictional account of this forms part of Matthew Turner’s novel Sweden.

The commune had been a key part of opposition to the resort development of the island by Yamaha, which also led to the establishment of the Cosmic Children’s Council in Nishi-Kokubunji for printing and disseminating information about the campaign. The commune was unable to gain support from the locals on the island, however, who endorsed the Yamaha plan. The resort opened in 1977, though would close in 1982. The commune and island inspired a documentary film by Keiichi Ueno, Suwa-no-se, the Fourth World, which was released in 1977.

1990 I Am Hippie by Kaiya Yamada, a memoir chronicling the author’s remarkable, peripatetic life and which has become a key account of the hippie movement in Japan, is published. Yamada died in 2010 and his book was reissued in 2013 in an expanded edition.

2008 Sakaki Nanao died.

“Primitives of Unknown Culture” and Other Tropes

Some might scoff and call the preceding attempt to impose a conventional structure on counterculture as, if you’ll pardon the expression, counterintuitive. Pity the tomfool who then attempts a summary. Amid the meandering chronology, key themes recur, many of which are familiar from hippie and New Age movements elsewhere.

To begin with those familiar ones.

Yes, there was music and guitars, and long hair.

Yes, there were drugs — we are talking about hippies, after all — and in particular LSD and marijuana. One particular bust for cannabis possession saw five key figures arrested, including Sansei Yamao. It was reported by the media and contributed to the notoriety of the movement.

Yes, the hippies were interlinked with the concurrent anti-war movement and there was also some overlap with the New Left (especially Beheiren, which I here include within that term, and other groups/causes). But the hippies were not just peaceniks: their ecological and environment concerns were as pressing as such issues as the Vietnam War and imperialism, and eventually the former took precedence as the 1970s wore on. In fact, the hippies arguably at least in part anticipated the emergence of the recycling and green movement in the civil society in Japan during the later 1970s.

Yes, there were communes — and which should not be conflated with the communes of the various new religious movements in post-war Japan, though some did chronologically grow out of the New Left and encompass aspects of spirituality that echo New Age beliefs.

But these hippies communes were essentially counterspaces, not cults. Establishing physical sites as havens and hubs for counterculture was a recurrent aspect of the practices during the period, evolving into a network of cafes, coffee shops, printers and more. These were frequently rural or, if in Tokyo, to the (then less-developed, greener) west of the city, though Shinjuku did justify its reputation as the home of several hippies happenings and spaces. The sites were not static, however, but rather also led to large-scale events, especially outdoor festivals.

What is important to stress, and what can be hard at first to decipher from the documentation and images that remains, was that these were not simply one-off larks; they were sustained and ambitious events, and evinced a genuine urge towards an alternative lifestyle. As Sakaki Nanao wrote in an English-language text about a Suwanosejima hippie gathering: “Every day as Festival. That is your duty, your love, and your destiny.” This aspired lifestyle was nomadic and migratory when much of the population was cashing in the dividends of the Economic Miracle by settling down into bourgeois citizenship. Far from buying houses and cars and household appliances, the hippies rejected consumerism to farm, travel and meditate.

Nagasawa’s “Buzoku sengen” (Tribe Declaration) (1967), the de facto manifesto of the movement, is a famous embodiment of hippies’ hopes. “What we call the Tribe Society (buzoku shakai) is a society where there are no individuals or institutions ruling or ruled, where even the word “rule” is useless; a society that is not born from the earth and then builds something on top of it, but rather simply exists with the earth, that returns to the earth, that is supported by the bonds between individuals through the love and freedom and knowledge that is the respiration of the soul. [. . .] We will watch over the fate of the nation-state to fade away. We are now shaping a single path, the right path of survival, not the path that leads to the demise of the human race.”

Another aspect of this was a new concept of the land of Japan as spiritual, mysterious and universal, attuned to an ancient energy (as the name of Buzoku/Tribe suggests) that can attract people from the metropolis and even from around the world to travel together to remote parts of the country. Nanao, in that aforementioned report on the Suwanosejima event, extolled: “One by one, from San Francisco, Tokyo, and several other cities people arrived upon the scene. Those who were unable to take part, held the festival within themselves. We are primitives of unknown culture. [. . . ] Our leader is a two year old [sic] baby. He is completely naked, healthy and vivid. [. . .] For us the earth is too small and the city too narrow. [. . . ] We are not only representatives of some tribes but heirs of ancient peoples. Besides, we are natural spirits, like the coyote.” The flower-people and back-to-the-land language notwithstanding, this vividly evokes the mood of the event and the scale of the vision espoused by the wandering poet. The 1977 commune map referenced above not insignificantly labelled the Japanese island chain as the “Yaponesia Mandala,” borrowing from the novelist Toshio Shimao’s concept of Yaponesia (or sometimes Japonesia), a pre-modern image of Japan as archipelagic and with links to the Pacific dating back to before the arrival of rice cultivation from the Asian continent and the emergence of the Yamato Japanese people on the main islands. Shimao, like the hippies, wanted us to look to the periphery rather than the mainland, which is dominated by the Yamato Japanese and, of course, the big cities.

In the arts, similar tendencies are evident during this same period. In the 1970s, the conceptual artist Yutaka Matsuzawa sought to abandon materiality and challenge the bourgeois hierarchy of art — the broader project of the anti-art movement — alongside modernity and civilisation itself. He created a concept of primal painting and immaterial exhibitions (that is, non-exhibition) in imaginary spaces in the wilderness of Japan. Assisted by various other practitioners in the anti-art and avant-garde scene in the 1960s and 1970s, he attempted to attain asceticism through meditation events and commune-style art gatherings in the mountains of Suwa, Nagano. Another example of a conscious retreat away from civilisation towards something purer was the Toga Festival. Launched in a village in Toyama Prefecture in 1982 as Japan’s first major international performing arts festival, it was arguably the greatest achievement of the underground theatre and dance scene of the 1960s and 1970s just as the original generation of practitioners started to either die off or take up sinecures.

Some of the hippies’ aspirations were more grounded in daily realities. Part of their efforts to practise an alternative society related to diet and food, most obviously in growing, eating and selling organic produce. Teruo Ōtomo, for instance, went on to run an organic food store, while Tabemonoya (literally, Food Shop) was a restaurant opened in Nishi-Ogikubo in 1977 by a collective of women linked to the movement (including the then wife of musician Shinya Kawauchi, who had started OZ and initially ran Hobbit Village). It was operated until 1989, with all the women on the team granted equal status. This also did not originate in a vacuum but parallels similar developments that grew out of the New Left and student movement of the Long Sixties, perhaps most notably the food co-operatives that are still widespread today and, in the case of Tabemonoya, the belated flowering of Women’s Lib in Japan.

Another more concrete aspect to the hippies’ practices was the wealth of writings and publications they produced, though little was distributed widely and almost none of is easily available today. These materials joined the confluence of alternative media then blossoming, notably the development of minikomi (“mini communication”) leaflets, pamphlets, and small hand-printed publications that we might today call zines. What the hippies penned and printed was nonetheless discrete from the other alternative media that existed at the time in the form of the vast volume of New Left faction organs and newspapers or other political materials published by Beheiren and various other activist groups.

Coda: Tetsuo Nagasawa Today

And what of the aftermath? Where did the hippies go when their communes and ashrams broke up, or their coffee shops closed? Well, some did not. A handful of places are still in operation — or were until quite recently. Many individuals have continued to live true to their values in modest, quiet ways far from the spectacle of the cinema and tabloid portrayals.

Tetsuo Nagasawa, for instance, still lives on Suwanosejima, where he lives with his wife. He continues to write and publish collections of poetry. Each day he rises at 5 a.m. to go fish in the harbour for food, and tend to his crops of fruits and vegetables. In his unassuming and small-scale manner, he carries on his practice of the Tribe Society he advocated more than five decades ago.

WILLIAM ANDREWS

Further Reading

http://amanakuni.net/pon/hippie

Farrer, James, “From Ginsberg to Organic: Becoming the Bohemian Face of a Bourgeois Neighborhood”, Nishiogiology, 2017.

Shiozawa Yukito (ed.), Keiichi Ueno, Zenkiroku Suwanose daiyon sekai: Nihon no hippī mūbumento (Suwanose, the Fourth World Full Record: The Japanese Hippie Movement), Tokyo: Kawade Shobō Shinsha, 2020.

Spectator, vol. 30, 2014.

Spectator, vol. 45, 2019.

Turner, Matthew, Sweden, Astoria: The Mantle, 2018.

Yamada Kaiya, Ai amu hippī: Nihon no hippī mūbumento ’60–’90 (I Am a Hippie: Japan’s Hippie Movement, 1960–90), Tokyo: Daisan Shokan, 1990. A new edition was issued in 2013 by Mori to Shuppan.

Yamazato, Katsunori, “Snyder, Sakaki, and the Tribe”, in Gary Snyder: Dimensions of a Life, ed. Jon Halper, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991.

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5 Responses to A short history of the Japanese hippie movement

  1. fireminer says:

    Thank you very much for writing this article! It’s uniquely interesting for someone interested in Japanese history like me.
    I’ve got some questions though:
    1. How did the hippies respond to the Japanese glided age of the 1980s? Was there a sense of fugue and detachment like many American in the left-counterculture movement felt in the 1970s?
    2. Was there any attempt to co-opt and commercialize the Japanese hippies movement? I’ve seen it happened with punk and emo counterculture in America in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
    3. For the establishments established by the hippies and continued to exist long after, did they transit into actual businesses? Examples could be seen with the Oneida Community (became Oneida Limited) and The Brotherhood of the Sun commune (became Sunburst Farms).

    Like

    • @fireminer

      Thanks for reading and your questions. I will answer as best I can.

      Since the hippies and communes were less spectacular (and numerous) than the New Left factions, the “end” is also less obvious. The disbanding of Banyan Ashram was a significant milestone in many ways but my chronology perhaps unfairly positions it like the end of the movement. Not so. Older and wiser, the hippies continued to do things during the 1980s and many of the places that they established in the 1970s were still going. The decade saw new developments like the Inochi no Matsuri, not to mention the relaunch of the Namae no nai shimbun. I would rather emphasise the sustained, albeit low-scale, nature of the movement(s) than fugue.

      Regarding co-opting and commercialisation, I don’t think the Japanese hippie movement is/was prominent enough to attract much of this (the student movement and campus strikes have, however, been co-opted in various ways that I have explored before on this website). But at the time, we can see something of this related to the fūten and paint thinner sniffers than the commune hippies. They were something of a lazy trope for the tabloids and cinema, most notably sexploitation films (Shinjuku Mad, which I mentioned briefly in the article, is a prime example).

      In terms of businesses… In a way, many of the places established by the hippies were businesses of a sort. That is, they were shops, cafes and so on. Some are still in operation. Other figures went on to establish other businesses in related fields, such as Tami Kawauchi, who eventually set up Organic Life Support Sora, which sells organic products, after her involvement with Tabemonoya. But I don’t know of communes that evolved into businesses per se. Perhaps more interesting in this respect is Yamagishi-kai, a religious organisation that ran commune-like farms and developed into a very large and successful enterprise before a tax scandal brought it down.

      Like

      • fireminer says:

        It’s so nice for giving me such informative answers. I really appreciate it!
        So, am I correct to think that since the hippies movement in Japan didn’t occur in a stormy period like America, the former participants could and have found a peaceful adaptation to new environments? Or, in other words, could you explore more the extend to which the hippies and anti-war/revolutionary left entangled with each other? I have the impression that for the American hippies who protested at Kent State or during the Chicago 7 trial, going into the 1970s could be a shock to them.
        And you spoke of cults, which makes me remember something else I have been wondering for some time now: One or twice I have came across the notion that when revolution is no longer a possibility anymore the people’s “spirit”/”anger” etc. could be channeled into religion. One big example people giving out is Eldridge Cleaver. Do you think that idea has any purchase in Japan? Like cults are both the direct opposite and the release valves to revolutionary politic? Bigger still, was the promotion of State Shinto (a cult to “normal” Shinto, am I right?) in the early 20th century is an attempt to quell the internal tension in Japan at the time?
        I am really sorry if my questions are too long and out of place.

        Like

      • @fireminer

        The period in which the hippie movement emerged in Japan — the 1960s and early 1970s — was incredibly turbulent. The hippies were just one example of the many groups then seeking radical alternatives to society, be it through far-left politics, university reform, drugs, avant-garde art, liberation from discrimination and so on.

        The link between the anti-war movement and the hippies is, I hope, broadly sketched out in the article. It would require a book-length answer to do justice to your question, however. I recommend reading Matthew Turner’s Sweden for a nice portrayal of the intersection of the communes and Beheiren network.

        Liked by 1 person

      • fireminer says:

        This last reply is less of a question and more of a request: In this articles and many other, you discussed the young Japanese in the 50s and 60s who sought to change the societal order through one way or another. But what about those who preserved the order? When I tried to read into the English literature about Nippon Kaigi, I came across the information that there were two conservative, anti-Communist student organizations playing a role in the formation of that organization. The reactionary, counter-protesting student movement maybe a topic you can explore in the future?
        Anyway, thank you very much for this article and the responds.

        Like

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