The Kumano Festival clock tower occupation and the hauntology of Kyoto University

Hickory, dickory, dock,
The mouse ran up the clock.
The clock struck one.
The mouse ran down.
Hickory, dickory, dock.

Boys and girls come out to play,
The moon doth shine as bright as day.
Leave your supper and leave your sleep,
And join your playfellows in the street.
Come with a whoop and come with a call,
Come with a good will or not at all.
Up the ladder and down the wall,
A half-penny loaf will serve us all;
You find milk, and I’ll find flour,
And we’ll have a pudding in half an hour.

Traditional English nursery rhymes

At an ungodly hour of the morning in November, I found myself crossing the Kamo River. I had detrained from the sleek peloton of progress, that smooth shuttler of bodies that is the Shinkansen, and then headed a little north of Kyoto Station to sit, bleary-eyed and a little self-consciously unadorned in a room full of PhDs, pursuing para-academic flights of fancy about the Japanese New Left and historical memory.

When our workshop broke for lunch, we walked across to the fabulously dilapidated West Auditorium in another part of the Kyoto University campus. This large hall has hosted avant-garde arts and cultural events for over fifty years, though its days may now be numbered given its state of disrepair. But though the doors and walls seem about to give way, and you would never want to be inside during an earthquake, the decoration on the roof shines firm and proud after all these years: three stars representing the trio of Japanese men – Okudaira Tsuyoshi (or Takeshi), Okamoto Kōzō and Yasuda Yasuyuki – who took part in an attack in May 1972 on Lod Airport (today, Ben Gurion Airport) in Tel Aviv, leaving almost thirty dead, including Okudaira and Yasuda, though the exact aims of the attack and who was responsible for the deaths remain contested. But here the three men are fêted and honoured as three stars inspired by Orion’s Belt.

orion stars kyoto university west auditorium japanese red army

Despite the provocative nature of the image, this corner of the campus felt neglected, almost forgotten. The violence that it references was distant, both geographically and historically. Elsewhere on the university campuses, though, things were a different matter a few days after I left Kyoto.

The Kumano Festival is a yearly series of events organised by the titular, student-run dormitory. Part of it involves the “occupation” of the Clock Tower Centennial Hall on the Yoshida Campus, where students scale the walls to stand around on the roof for a while and assert their youthful exuberance. The clock tower was built in 1925 and the occupation has become an annual occurrence, a tradition of sorts or sign of the season (fūbutsushi), performed with ladders put up to the walls to get up on the (relatively low) roof. The prank seemed to start first in around 1994 and became a fixed element of the Kumano Festival from 2008. In the past, as many as two hundred people have climbed up on the roof, and participants have adopted the get-up of past campus militancy in the form of helmets and costumes.

The university authorities, however, were less convinced by these frolics and started to crack down on the event from 2017. Private security officers have prevented the students from bringing ladders to the clock tower, while the pandemic provided another pretext to stop students from gathering in large numbers on the campus, much less clambering up university buildings. Last year, things took a turn for the worse during the first occupation to happen since 2017. The police were called and students were punished for clashing physically (albeit it mildly) with university personnel.

On 24 November, it was announced that three male students who took part in last year’s occupation were suspended for limited periods of one or two months, and five others were officially reprimanded. Needless to say, the timing of the announcements was deliberate: by putting it out there, right before the Kumano Festival, that students who climb onto the roof of the clock tower will face real consequences, the university was hoping to instill fear in the minds of potential “occupiers” this year.

kyoto university clock tower occupation

On 26 November, according to media reports, around a hundred students nonetheless gathered for the annual high jinks, but were prevented from climbing up by around sixty police officers, including riot police. On 3 December, possibly even greater numbers assembled, hankering for the chance to occupy the roof, only to be met by a battalion of police and private security who dashed their hopes.

The university has issued a statement decrying the “violence” of the tactics of the attendees in coming in sunglasses, helmets and face coverings to hide their identities (and thus, evade potential repercussions), and charging onto the campus with ladders despite the instructions of staff. It has also taken the opportunity to criticise the student council (jichikai) that organises the Kumano Festival, claiming it lacks a sense of responsibility or capability befitting an authentic student council.

The sight of dozens of police officers lined up on a university campus is unsettling, especially when it is in response to what is essentially a student prank, though calling in the police like this was something made easier by the legislation passed in the wake of the nationwide campus strikes and unrest at the end of the 1960s.

In particular, the spectacle of police facing off against a gaggle of students, some of them wearing helmets, inevitably resembles a showdown from 1968. Before reaching for schematic comparisons, we should, however, keep in mind that the festival and clock tower stunt are effectively japes. Probably only a minority of the students are politically engaged or “leftist radicals” in the conventional sense (though there are genuine links between Kumano Dormitory and a far-left group — of which, more in due course).

Rather, the festival is an opportunity for students — political or otherwise — to assume a much-needed role, to step onto a sterile twenty-first-century stage and act out a part. This is done as an unashamed spiritual emulation of the Long Sixties; for the ones who follow their predecessors most closely in terms of the paraphernalia, it approaches a kind of Zenkyōtō cosplay, itself a trope now in realms like Comiket, survival games and even music videos. But none of this is to discredit the merit or import of the “jape”. Far from it. Because play is more than child’s play.

But in contemporary Japan (and of course, elsewhere), such play must contest with the quarantine of zest, where any festival is an extension of a mindset that seeks to package “culture”, to present neatly ordered and controlled things for easy consumption. And this is even more the case during a time of viral quarantine, when we are constantly called upon to safeguard physical distance.

Now more than ever, to attempt such an occupation of university space, even if temporarily, even if in jest, is a form of re-territorialisation and resistance, of play and games as protest. To wear masks to mask your identity was (and remains) a tactic of the New Left in Japan in the face of the state’s surveillance of their demonstrations and meetings. But here it takes on a double meaning, a beating-them-at-their-own-game contrivance, since the masked students could rightfully claim they were adhering to the strict rules of our Covid-led governance. For the university and police, blocking the students from occupying the roof is a strategy, as de Certeau would say, whereby they hold all the cards in terms of numbers, matériel and the right to arrest. It is almost too blatant: the repressive state apparatus on show at one of the bastions of the ideological state apparatus. The students must make do with wily schemes, must play the trickster with tactics: adapting to these conditions imposed upon them.

In the end, they failed to achieve their aims but the means are as valid as the ends: détournement of the mask, a masque of masks. Presence in the space alone is provocation by half-remembered alterity: the revellers stood before the ranks of police “with folded arms and looks which are / Weapons of unvanquished war”.

In what Quentin Stevens calls the ludic city, play is vital in urban space to express free will. Play in unpredictable, hard to quantify or qualify. It is diverse and fluid. But while the copious numbers of public arts festivals now found around Japan like to pretend they offer participatory events, their approach to play is the institutionalized form of play known as ludus (mostly, it should be said, at the behest of the funding bodies and sponsoring governments rather than the curators and directors). This is play carefully ordered to ensure there is no risk, that there can be no complaint. Mollycoddled and observed at all times, the visitor to such festivals is never given room for surprise or a real emotion. The tickets are numbered; the waiting times are pre-scheduled; everything is sterile, literally in these pandemic days. It brings to mind Matsuda Masao’s bemusement at the scripted matsuri foisted by Abashiri’s settlers on former Ainu land: it affected the accoutrements of a regular Japanese festival, but “all that was missing was the ‘excitement’ that should accompany a ‘festival'”. For play as subversion, as Situationist and spontaneous, on the other hand, we need paidia, the more riotous form of tomfoolery that stimulates jouissance and genuine diversion.

For the powerless, and students — even those at such an elite college as Kyoto University — are indeed powerless, play is empowering, hence so many social movements and countercultures have reached for parody and japes since the 1990s: when braving the immovable feast that is the state and parliamentary politics, the impasse of the institutions, they turn to music, costumes and humour in their protests. It is perhaps what SEALDs got wrong. For all its impressive organisational skills and professionalism, was it too earnest, too cool? Maybe what was required in 2015 was to turn the streets around the Diet into a harappa, an empty field for play in the heart of Tokyo’s most hegemonic zone.

The Kumano Festival and its thwarted attempt at paidia continued to 5 December. The tension over the festival and the clock tower antics is not isolated, but just one episode in an ongoing saga unfolding between the university and the student-run Kumano Dormitory, not least because of its links to the far-left Chūkaku-ha. The growing presence of the radical group at the university through the student association Dōgakukai has sparked heavy-handed responses from authorities since 2014, when an undercover police office was rumbled on campus and detained by students. If the number of law enforcement officers at the clock tower seems excessive, it’s nothing in comparison with the serried ranks of riot police regularly seen marching into Kumano Dormitory in recent years, nominally on the pretext of a raid. Such a show of force is intended to sow the seeds of alarm among the politically or quasi-politically minded students, and also reinforce the bad image such politicising has in the eyes of their nonpori (apolitical) peers.

It’s not all just for show, though. Students have been actually arrested and suspended for minor infractions like touching security guards or going on (brief) strikes.

This crackdown ties in with the other related, ongoing issues: the conflict over the signboards on the university campus, long an outlet for student creativity and self-expression, and the uncertain future of Yoshida Dormitory, another student-run dorm that the university wants to shut down and demolish. Both have met pushback from students and dismay from among left-leaning circles, which view the signboards and venerable (if indeed ramshackle) dorm within a romantic vision of the campus as a site of student freedom.

More broadly, the current campus shenanigans at Kyoto University and attendant discourse is an extension of issues that intensified in the 2000s, when Hosei and other colleges were gripped by conflicts with small numbers of leftish students trying to hold on to their positions on campus that have resulted in arrests, police raids and lawsuits. The aim was to cleanse campuses of overtly political groups, especially on the Left; the means was the increased securitisation of campuses.

A modest yet feisty cadre of students see the crackdown and suspensions at Kyoto University as a full-frontal attack on their liberty and the sanctity of the autonomous student council, once a mainstay at universities in Japan, and have made this opinion plain, not least in a campus rally on 10 December.

kyoto university emergency student rally campus protest

We must always exercise caution when making sweeping statements based on handfuls of incidents and small numbers of participants, who do not reflect the much greater numbers of “ordinary” students. Any social movement, however, has significance, no matter how minor or even facile it may seem: it is always a barometer of contexts and aspirations. In this case, it speaks to the broader issue of student freedom and the dearth of autonomous student councils, once a bastion of the student movement in Japan but today practically non-existence on campuses.

The Kumano Festival wannabe clock tower occupiers are aware of this and frame their foiled antics in just these terms. “Recently, in Kyoto University, however, liberty and freedom have been taken away from classes, student clubs, laboratories, offices, and other various places on our campus,” notes a statement issued bilingually by the dormitory. When they take possession of the clock tower, it becomes, for them at least, a kind of agora or temporary autonomous zone by turning into an extension or quasi-annex of Kumano Dormitory itself. “On that day, the place will be open for everyone just like an agora. Every student, staff [sic], and citizen can use it freely.” In the heart of a site of hegemony, the students (privileged as they may be by the standards of students in Japan) are subverting the sacredness of the elite to create what Amino Yoshiko called muen, or places of “non-relations”, like those that existed in marginal spaces in historical Japan, where people existed free from the hegemonic bonds that constrained them in the world.

The university’s adamant opposition notwithstanding, the students believe their seizure of the clock tower to be in keeping with the principles of academic liberty at Kyoto University. “The liberal and equal atmosphere has been prevalent in Kyoto University. Such a tradition is the classic core of [the] administrative policy, ‘Academic freedom’, [since] the foundation of Kyoto University [in] 1897.”

The dormitory has also issued a statement directly responding to the university’s recent criticism of the “violence”. The dormitory cites the precedent of the 1952 University of Tokyo “Poporo” incident, in which undercover police officers were found in the audience of a performance on the campus, and the resulting trial of the students who assaulted the officers recognised the inviolability of the university campus under the Constitution as a place for freedom of thought, speech and assembly. The dormitory further references a 1969 statement by Okuda Azuma, the then-president of Kyoto University, explicitly promising to protect the self-governance of the university and prevent interventions into its autonomy by the state and other external pressures.

As such, we are confronted by two competing narratives of Kyoto: as a sophisticated, attractive city for students and tourists, full of traditional culture and natural beauty; and a vibrant, three-dimensional city of cultures plural, of the good, the bad and the ugly. The capers on the roof of the clock tower are a riposte to the official narrative of Kyoto, a reminder that things are never so neat and tidy.

Behold, a series of snapshots from the recent past.

The incident in 1951 that saw Kyoto University students protest the emperor’s visit (mobilised by the current Dōgakukai’s predecessor), resulting in scuffles with police and the suspension of several students. A vibrant, at-times violent student movement and campus strikes during the Long Sixties that, yes, involved the occupation of the clock tower, not to mention birthing the Sekigun-ha (Red Army Faction) and Kyoto University Partisans. The aforementioned West Auditorium, a hub for 1960s and 1970s counterculture, festivals, rock music, dance and avant-garde arts. The café Honyaradō, the city’s bastion of hippiedom. The 1976 arson attack on Heian Jingū, allegedly by a far-left radical.

Cherrypicked examples? For sure, but perhaps little more so than the official narrative of the Old Capital.

Nostalgia be damned, the West Auditorium and Yoshida Dormitory’s admirers must countenance their probable demolition in the not-too-distant future. This “alternative” Kyoto history is ignored and neglected, reduced to the fields of ephemera and marginalia ploughed by articles like this. The present movements, far-left or otherwise, are degraded to the status of esoterica. The clock tower occupation, frustrated or successful, is a joyous mnemonic, a kind of bubbling up of the past zeitgeist, a Freudian return of the repressed that disrupts the placid day-to-day running of the campus.

Earlier I warned against making simplistic comparisons between ’68 and the recent images of the police showdown with helmet-wearing students, and indeed the majority of participants at the Kumano Festival are surely not ideological analogues with their predecessors. Instead of a straight parallel, then, the effect is more that of something uncanny, of the strangely familiar: it feels like we have seen it before, yet it’s not quite right, not quite the same. This dissonance unsettles, but what is truly eerie (in the way that Mark Fisher described) is what is missing from the picture: an actual student movement, or a campus that allows student movements to live and breathe. To wit, the clock tower escapades evince what we might call the hauntology of Kyoto University.

Beyond the campus, the problem may be even more severe. Perhaps that famous Kamo River is more like the Lethe, whose water the municipality partakes to forget both the uncomfortable elements of the past and the crisis lurking around the corner: the fiscal crisis that Kyoto is heading towards, reportedly in the next few years. The Old Capital, content with the narrative it has crafted to sell itself, yet suddenly emptied of foreign tourists by an invisible virus, is a ghost town refusing to face its own ghosts.


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