Zengakuren, the network of student groups affiliated with the far-left Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction), has won its long-running lawsuit against the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and Tokyo Metropolitan Police after members of the public security bureau assaulted activists arriving for a rally in September 2016.
On 31 May, Tokyo District Court ordered Tokyo Metropolitan Government to pay damages of ¥1.2 million. The five Zengakuren plaintiffs had sought ¥12 million from Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the TMP officers involved. The ruling recognised he illegality of the force used by officers, which they had argued fell within the scope of questioning citizens (shokumu shitsumon). The court, nonetheless, described this as only “incidental” errors of judgement by individual officers and not the result of a systematic problem within the public security bureau.
Video footage taken by Zengakuren clearly showed the unprovoked tussle as police officers forcibly tried to identify activists wearing masks and sunglasses. Throughout the lawsuit, Zengakuren has harnessed the video for its YouTube channel, which it launched around the same time as the incident, as proof of the level of surveillance and harassment it continues to face.
Probably the last remnant of the New Left directly focused on student activism, Zengakuren is today a small yet feisty organisation with chapters at universities around Japan, though these are entirely unofficial and not recognised by the respective universities as legitimate student clubs or autonomous councils. Zengakuren has maintained a presence particularly at Hōsei University and Kyoto University, and continues to campaign for student freedom and the abolition of tuition fees as well as for Chūkaku-ha’s key issues like unionism, anti-militarisation and international solidarity.
Despite its modest scale, Zengakuren has adopted various new approaches in recent years to appeal to the current generation of youth, including a fun and self-deprecatory, even parodic style that references its former notoriety. The members are presented as essentially ordinary young Japanese men and women, albeit devoted to a brand of politics decidedly extraordinary among the young. Notably, Zengakuren has managed to do this without diluting its central anti-capitalist messaging. (The “new” Zengakuren’s cute and friendly, if somewhat geeky and unashamedly left-wing membership stands in stark contrast to the now-disbanded SEALDs, whose members also went to great lengths to show how normal they were, yet did so with slick visuals and a fashion-conscious presentation.) These tactics have succeeded to some extent in winning Zengakuren increased attention and online fandom, even if the ranks of committed activists have not exactly swelled much.
No doubt this contributed to the police’s aggression, though surveillance of public events and of Zenshinsha, the Chūkaku-ha base where several Zengakuren activists also live, has been a constant for decades now. Minor infractions like stepping on a campus are likely to result in arrest, raids and long detentions.
While the surviving elements of Japan’s New Left are generally ignored by the mainstream media, this lawsuit has generated some degree press interest, perhaps especially because Zengakuren argued that the TMP had violated activists’ constitutional right to free assembly (though the ruling did not go as far as this). Other surprising developments have also sparked headlines along the way: in 2018, Zengakuren’s legal team joined Tokyo District Court judges in seizing evidence after police refused to hand over video footage.
As this five-year case has demonstrated, lawsuits require patience: judgements are often not handed down until years after proceedings begin. Nonetheless, they are one of the few recourses available to the civil society, providing your pockets are deep enough. Notwithstanding its rejection of the Japanese state as imperialist and capitalist, and the courts’ unfavourable predisposition historically to the New Left, Chūkaku-ha regularly pursues litigation through a dedicated team of lawyers. There are several current or recent lawsuits related to the Sanrizuka movement (campaigning against Narita Airport), for instance, while the family and supporters of the late Fumiaki Hoshino are also suing the state over his death.