Pan-Asianism and the post-war Japanese radical Left: Some movements and tendencies

What kinds of Asianist tendencies, or attitudes towards Asia, are visible in the post-war Japanese radical left? Is Pan-Asianism a useful framework for thinking about aspects of post-war left-wing activism in Japan? Drawing on a range of case studies, including a mass movement and several fringe movements, this essay will examine aspirations for Asian (and Asianist) solidarity among the left in Japan, with a particular focus on the 1960s and 1970s.

I will begin with an overview of some post-war discourse related to Asia and Asianism before proceeding to examine the Vietnam War and Beheiren. It will then survey examples of an “Asian turn” in left-wing movements during the 1960s, ushering in a rise in interest in Asian solidarity and ethnic minorities. Within this, I will consider internationalist aspirations among the New Left as well as the ideas of Ōta Ryū and others that looked towards an Asian Lumpenproletariat both in Japan and beyond. The final section will deal with more concrete realisations of these ambitions in the form of cine-activism and the Japanese Red Army’s activities.

Running throughout these examples is a common thread: they all sought to engage with Asia or the need for Asian solidarity in their respective ways. They were different kinds of movements (mass movement, student movements, radical cells, militants, journals) and adopted varying practices (mass protests and rallies, textual discourse, exchange, non-violent direct action, violence). Moreover, they possessed different concepts and visions of “Asia” and Japan’s relationship with it (Japan as a victim, Japan as fellow victim alongside other Asian nations, Japan as a victimiser of Asia, Japan as complicit in Vietnam, neo-colonialist expansion in Asia by Japanese industry, contemporary Japanese sex tourism, liberating an Asian Lumpenproletariat or dispossessed peoples), which then affected what they proposed to do.

I believe this investigation is necessary because there has been little examination of post-war leftist Asianism, especially in English. An exception in German is the work of Till Knaudt (2016), who has discussed several of the same movements, though within the framework of a transnational struggle against imperialism. Indeed, transnationalism is a growing research field, notably as part of the “Global Sixties” discourse. It is my hope that this modest intervention can contribute to an expanding body of scholarship.[1]

Pan-Asianism remains arguably associated first and foremost with wartime militarism and imperialism. In post-war Japan, activists and thinkers were torn by the need to express solidarity with events in Asia, most notably in Vietnam, and also deal with the guilt and legacy of Japanese colonialism. The anti-war movement was one major manifestation of this, while more radical activities were relegated only to smaller circles and marginal publications. For some, their ideological urges took them beyond conventional boundaries of Asia to the Pacific and Middle East. Thinking about the influence or presence of Asianist ideas among left-wing movements allows us to transcend the simplistic framing of Pan-Asianism as solely “fascist” or “imperialist”, while also intersecting with a range of other concepts.

Pan-Asianism as a “Bridge”
To begin with something more basic: what was Pan-Asianism? While we may well readily associate it foremost with Japanese imperialism on the Asian mainland, perhaps most emblematically Manchukoku and its motto of “Five Races Under One Union”, Pan-Asianism is actually a slippery concept, a chameleon that has meant different things for different proponents over the decades, and was only aligned with actual Japanese official polices in Asia at a relatively late stage.

Saaler and Szpilman (2011: 14) note that widespread use of the term “Pan-Asianism” dates back to the 1910s, though it had emerged after several decades of discourse by thinkers calling for Asian solidarity in the name of various agendas. These sought to bestow Asian nations with a common identity based on geography, cultural unity, historical interconnectedness, racial kinship, perceived shared values and spirituality, and a mutual destiny. The discourse engendered by these ideals attempted to define Asia and its global contribution; urged Asians to join together in solidarity; and debated Asia’s place within international relations (ibid.: 4, 34). Eri Hotta (2007: 7–8) has outlined three typologies of Pan-Asianism: a “Teaist” branch that was peace-loving and searched for commonalities; a Sinic or “yellow-race” strand that wanted to create Asian alliances, especially in East Asia; and the more destructive meishu variety, which asserted Japan’s role as the “leader” in Asia.

Pan-Asianism was always a broad church, and this encompassed people we would likely categorise on the left. The original proponents of Pan-Asianism from the Meiji period on were quite diverse, including many of the pioneers of liberalism in Japan.[2] Contrary to its reputation, it is not originally the preserve of the far right as it became during the militarist era during the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, Pan-Asianism would almost seem to function at times like a flexible “bridge” between thinkers on different sides of the political spectrum, even allowing them to cross it as their affiliations switched from left to right, or vice versa. We can find several prominent examples of tenkō (ideological reversion), facilitated by Pan-Asianism, from the Marquis Tokugawa Yoshichika’s post-war career as a Socialist Party sponsor after a pre-war life as a rightist, or Hayashi Fusao’s path from pre-war Communist to post-war ardent Pan-Asianist seeking to “affirm” Japan’s wartime record. The ideologue Ōkawa Shūmei had sympathies with Lenin and the Bolsheviks (Szpilman 1998), while various other Pan-Asianists dabbled in Marxism and socialism at some point in their lives.[3] Miyazaki Masayoshi could be a critic of capitalism yet also a Pan-Asianist. Likewise a figure such as Ozaki Hotsumi juggled the designations of communist, internationalist, nationalist and Pan-Asianist. From Marxists to ultra-nationalists, liberals and anarchists, Pan-Asianism seemed to offer something for people of almost any ideological shade. All this serves to demonstrate that hybridity is part of the essence of Asianism.

Post-War Discourse
As Orr (2001) has argued, Japanese post-war identity hinged on a self-image as peace-loving. The nation had now renounced war and, though terrible things were done in the past, the ordinary people had been innocent victims of a corrupt system. This Japan-as-victim paradigm (higaisha ishiki) became dominant in popular consciousness. On the other hand, the Japan Socialist Party and Japanese Communist Party (JCP), along with progressives, attacked the conservative establishment for its links to the recent past and for reviving militarism by rearming Japan. They demanded that Japan, including the emperor, accept its war responsibility. This dichotomy of war guilt and Japan-as-victim remains unresolved to this day, but in the short term succeeded in engendering a strong pacifist and Ban-the-Bomb movement.

For the left, Pan-Asianism was “practically synonymous with Japanese colonialism and aggression” (Saaler, Szilmann 2011: 29). It was condemned as an ideology used to legitimise war and empire. Of course, this made it a very loaded concept, if not outright taboo, which accounts for the relevant absence of “Pan-Asianism” or even “Asia” from early post-war discourse. An exception that proves the rule, so to speak, would be Maruyama Masao’s assertion that Pan-Asianism was one of three central tenets of Japanese ultra-nationalism and fascism (Saaler & Szpilman 2011: 28). Nonetheless, in the post-war period, the progressive intellectuals were developing a critique of the JCP and the domestic left, partly due to Asian perspectives. The Chinese Revolution of 1949 demonstrated the superiority of mainland Asia to Japan as a place where a socialist revolution could be realised (Oguma 2006). Likewise the independence movements springing up in places like India were inspiring to the intellectuals, some of whom saw the post-war era as a restoration of Japan’s status as “Asian”. Gradually we see Pan-Asianism being reclaimed, most famously by Takeuchi Yoshimi (1963), who, following his writings in the 1950s that stressed the connections and cultural interaction between China and Japan, promoted a new, untainted concept of “Asianism”. Around the same time, Hayashi Fusao (1963) was advocating an affirmation of the Greater East Asian War, whereby Pan-Asianism could link Asian independence movements. He contrasted Japan’s “defensive” attitude with the aggression of the West over the past 100 years. In this way, Japan and other Asian nations could enjoy solidarity as fellow victims of Western expansion. This was nothing short of a corrective in the face of mass criticism of Japanese imperialism. Hayashi rather wanted to reclaim the “co-operative” stance of certain Japanese Pan-Asianists so as to initiate a spiritual recovery of post-war Japan.

On the left, Eguchi Bokurō (1953) also proposed a new version of Pan-Asianism not based on the pre-war version. Eguchi was interested in the relationship between Marxism, Asia and modern world history, and hoped for a new international system that could stop the victimisation of Asia, yet avoid a colonial empire (be it capitalist or socialist). Writing in the 1950s, Eguchi was quite advanced in presenting minzoku (ethnicity or race) as positive if progressive cultural nationalism could work in partnership with a new model of Asian co-operation that avoided domination by one power.

At the state level, the Bandung Conference of 1955 was a landmark event in the efforts to build a non-aligned movement in Asia. The newly independent nations of Asia and those still struggling for independence looked for alternative paths to allying with the global superpowers. This transnational movement was a revival, of sorts, of aspects of Pan-Asianism in that it tied the anti-colonial struggles of Asian peoples to solidarity across the arbitrary borders of nation-states. It emphasised the participants’ commonalities as people of the same race (and one superior to, for example, Africa) and as having suffered from Western subjection (Dennehy 2011).

Protests Against Anpo and the Korea Treaty
Japan’s participation in Bandung belied the realities: Japan was categorically not part of the non-aligned movement but anchored firmly to the United States’ side in the Cold War, as the mutual security treaty (Anpo) amply demonstrated. A wave of protests in the 1950s against the US military bases in Japan culminated in the mass movement opposed to the renewal of Anpo in 1960. While this ostensibly concerned Japan and America, it in fact called into question Japan’s geopolitical status in the region. The Anpo movement involved many intellectuals, including Takeuchi, who was inspired by the Chinese writer Lu Xun’s style of “Asian” protest (Olson 1981). Even the students, who made up a large and at times sensational part of the Anpo protests, were stirred by the success of South Korean students, who had helped to overthrow their government in April 1960.

The solidarity with Japan’s neighbour was more overt in the next major protest movement after Anpo: the opposition to the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea, which normalised relations between the two nations when it was signed in 1965. Though it failed to gain anything like the momentum of the Anpo protests, which attracted hundreds of thousands at its peak in 1960, mass demonstrations criticised the treaty as a dishonest attempt to tidy up the wartime legacy by paying off Korea with economic aid, and this in spite of the fact that the South Korean leadership was a dictatorship and that Japan had been involved in the Korean War in defiance of its supposedly pacifist Constitution.

The protests also inspired a very early example of the radical left in Tokyo Action Front (Tōkyō Kōdō Sensen), a small anarchist cell whose cache of weapons was found by police in a raid before it could be put to use. Already at this stage, we can discern inklings of an explosive mix of anti-establishment, militant movements and Asian concerns.

The Vietnam War and Beheiren
Japan was implicated in the Vietnam War by its position as an ally of the United States, which in concrete terms meant that American bases played a vital role in the conflict, especially the ones in Okinawa. The numbers of servicemen in Japan greatly increased, as did the economic benefits to Japan in terms of supplying munitions parts, food, and so on. The anti-war movement picked up pace during the later half of the 1960s, intersecting with the protests against the 1970 renewal of Anpo, the opposition to the continued American occupation of Okinawa, and the construction of Narita Airport, which the left presumed would be used in the transport infrastructure of the United States (as Haneda Airport was during this time).

The opposition in Japan to the Vietnam War attracted a wide range of participants, though the leading force in the movement was arguably Beheiren, a federation of citizens’ groups up and down the country that was founded in 1965 and continued activities until the mid-1970s.[4] The loose nature of Beheiren’s organisation makes it hard to define exact membership and size, though it succeeded in attracting tens of thousands to the rallies it directly organised, while its jointly organised actions might involve hundreds of thousands. Over the course of its history, it mobilised regular demonstrations alongside publishing copiously, holding teach-ins and tours of guest speakers from abroad, and also operating a clandestine network that helped American deserters. It was a transnational and transpacific movement, inviting visitors from across the globe and placing advertisements in newspapers in America. But this was not just a natural result of its practices; its transnationalism was also conceptual in that it was campaigning on the behalf of and in solidarity with Asia against American imperialism. Its leading figure, the novelist Oda Makoto, was a charismatic spokesman with anti-American and pro-Asian views. Beheiren’s central organisers actually comprised many of the leading intellectuals of the time, including those who had taken part in the Anpo campaign.[5] In this context, we should particularly highlight the involvement of Tsurumi Yoshiyuki, who wrote extensively and perceptively about Asia and the movement’s relationship with it.[6]

The idea of the “inner Vietnam” or “Vietnam within” (uchi-naru betonamu) was a common refrain – a reflection of the general existentialism of the period, in which individuals (most symbolically student activists) sought out a sense of responsibility beyond the nation.[7] To try to understand Beheiren, Tsurumi once said, entails confronting the question of “What is Vietnam to us?”, though Tsurumi is tellingly unable to provide an answer (Oda 1969: 69). He notes the decline in the frequency of “Vietnam” in the Beheiren newspaper; the movement was changing into a general anti-war one. As such, for all its achievements, Beheiren’s engagement with Vietnam itself was only partly fulfilled, as will be assessed in the conclusion.

Beheiren’s anti-imperialism, Koda has argued (2017: 185), “was grounded on unresolved feelings about the Japanese imperial past, rather than theoretical analyses of wars and imperialism”. Indeed, it was the legacy of the war and past Japanese aggression in Asia that prompted soul-searching and the emotional fuel for the anti-war movement. The journalist Honda Katsuichi famously reported on American atrocities in Vietnam in the late 1960s. In the following decade, inspired by what had taken place in Vietnam, his writing helped make his own nation’s wartime atrocities in China more widely known (Oguma 2006: 210). As such, the Vietnam War period led the Japanese to rediscover and re-remember their nation’s presence in Asia, including the negative aspects in the past and present. The movement deliberately countered the dominant Japan-as-victim paradigm. Indeed, Oda was one of the most prominent figures championing the counter-narrative on the left that argued for a Japan-as-perpetrator consciousness (kagaisha ishiki). Far from Japan being the one that has suffered, the Vietnamese and other Asians were the true victims. And unless the Japanese accepted and understood the neglected legacy of aggression, activists would not be able to challenge Japan and America’s current complicity in Vietnam (Tanaka 2007; Orr 2001: 3–4). It should be stressed, though, that this solidarity with and sympathy for the Vietnamese was not an urging for “union”. Tsurumi, for instance, wrote that South-east Asia and Japan were heterogeneous spheres; the linkage here was a universal one (Tsurumi 2002: 58; Oda 1969: 80).

One of Beheiren’s most intriguing activities came almost at the end of the movement, when it organised the Asian People’s Conference in 1974 and 1975. (If we are consciously searching for Asianist echoes, perhaps even the event name has an uncanny 1940s ring to it, like the Assembly of Greater East Asiatic Nations.) With the conflict in Vietnam winding down, the focus for this conference was on fighting the encroachment of Japanese capitalism in South-east Asia: by this point, the Japanese left’s concerns for Asia were closely intertwined with not only anti-war sentiments but also environmentalism and opposition to neo-colonialism (the economic investment and aid often meant, in reality, an exploitative cycle of “exporting” pollution and importing cheap materials).[8] In August 1974, some 40 guests were invited from South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam, joined by local Japanese participants and observers from Europe and America, where they spent several days together touring factories and the protests against Narita Airport. A final rally in Tokyo was attended by around 1,000, where joint actions were proposed. This was reciprocated with a follow-up conference in 1975 in Thailand.[9]

Apart from its covert operations to help deserters, Beheiren’s activities were legal and strictly non-violent. The radical student sects, however, were anything but, and directly engaged with riot police in street clashes on a grand scale on “International Anti-War Day” in October of both 1968 and 1969, where hundreds were arrested and whole areas of Tokyo trashed. These were just two of the most dramatic riots and clashes during an extraordinary cycle of large-scale protests from around 1967 to 1971. The New Left groups were becoming more militant. One of the first instances was the Vietnam Anti-War Direct Action Committee (Betonamu Hansen Chokusetsu Kōdō Iinkai, or Behani), which developed out of the abortive Tokyo Action Front and carried out a brief campaign of sabotage against factories. In its 1966 statement, it directly linked the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere with Japanese capitalism and the oppression of the Vietnamese (Betonamu Hansen Chokusetsu Kōdō Iinkai 2014: 27–28).

An Asian Turn
During this period, the left was engaging with issues related to Asians and ethnicity, though with mixed results. Immigrants on hunger strike could be found at the iconic Shinjuku Station West Gate “folk guerrilla” rallies in spring and summer 1969, which were started by Beheiren activist-musicians. Similarly, Beheiren helped South Korean army deserters as well as supported South Vietnamese exchange students in Japan who were refusing to go home. Other migrants, such as the visa woes of Taiwan-born Liu Caipin (劉彩品), became cause célèbre. Individual Asians seeking wartime reparations were also assisted in Japan by leftist activists.

More sustained was the zainichi ethnic Korean question during the 1960s and 1970s, which attracted a broad spectrum of cultural figures, intellectuals, progressives and ethnic Koreans campaigning against discrimination.[10] The period witnessed several effective movements in support of the democratisation of South Korea in 1970s and 1980s, with ethnic Koreans in the lead (Lee 2014). One notable intersection was with the Women’s Lib movement. The Asian Women’s Association was formed to protest exploitation and economic invasion against a backdrop of sex tourism by Japanese men, particularly to South Korea. In another example of how contemporary issues related to Japan and Asia reflected the wartime legacy, the association’s bulletin later focused on historical war crimes against women, such as the comfort women.[11]

However, minzoku was still largely a taboo for the left, which wanted to move away from such “racialist” ideas, and the New Left’s interventions were sometimes clumsy in this regard. In 1970, one Chinese migrant group had a notorious clash with one of the main New Left factions, greatly damaging the reputation of the radicals, who were accused of habouring nationalism underneath a veneer of revolutionary slogans (Andrews 2016: 192). This conflict has been framed as a major turning point in the New Left, whereby the movement began to shift towards embracing and encompassing the causes of minorities (Suga 2006: 157 passim). Parts of the New Left began increasingly concerned with minorities as further instances of the “inner” (uchi-naru) revolutionary subject, be it other Asians, Okinawans, slum workers, resident Koreans, Buraku or Ainu.[12] Ignoring Eguchi’s warning (1953: 8) that it is “reckless” for Japan to claim to speak on behalf of Asians, some of the activists, as we shall see, subsequently presumed their role in these movements was one of meishu-style leadership.

The campus strikes and occupations having mostly petered out by 1970, radical groups turned to more ambitious visions and tactics, and this often entailed greater internationalism (and greater violence). Founded in 1969, the Red Army Faction (Sekigun-ha) agitated for an armed uprising that would see Japan join a series of revolutions around the world. Though its early efforts in attacking police stations failed and a crackdown by the authorities soon forced it underground, the group’s faltering endeavours nonetheless achieved striking levels of transnationalism: Japan’s first airline hijacking in 1970, intended to reach Cuba, but eventually finishing in North Korea; interchange with Cuba, Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panther Party; and publications disseminating information about the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and other global movements.

However, any such pioneering aspirations were derailed by a highly traumatic event, when the RAF’s paramilitary division merged with another New Left group to form the United Red Army (Rengō Sekigun), resulting in a horrific internal purge that came to light in 1972. This marked a major shift for the entire left but particularly led to intense debate within the surviving remnants of the RAF. One of the fruits of this was an extraordinary intervention by RAF member Umenai Tsuneo, published in 1972 shortly after the purge was exposed, proposing a radical departure for the group and the entire New Left. Rather than the conventional Marxist dialectic tracing the class struggle, Umenai examines history through the framework of colonialism and highlights oppressed groups neglected by traditional leftist thought as the worthy conveyors of revolution. As opposed to minzoku, he stresses the importance of politicising the kyūmin (the wretched, the destitute): namely, the Ainu (an indigenous people in northern Japan), slum workers, Buraku (a type of historical lower caste), Okinawans, developing world and so on. As Umenai asserts, the imperialist seizure of assets and enslavement of people continues today in the form of neo-colonialism, including Japan’s, which must be the target of the struggle.[13]

Umenai’s tract did not come out of nowhere and he explicitly references his influence: Ōta Ryū’s kyūmin kakumei, or revolution of the dispossessed. Ōta was rejecting the Western radicalism of Leninism and Marxism, and even the internationalism of Trotsky (with which Ōta had started his political career in the early post-war period). Instead, he proposed a Lumpenproletariat revolution led by the lower orders of society, typically scorned by the Marxist left as disorganised and apolitical.[14] This sprawling kyūmin kakumei discourse engendered, from around 1967 to the mid-1970s, a long paper trail of writings by Ōta as well as Takenaka Rō/Tsutomu (who also wrote under the name Yumeno Kyōtarō), Hiraoka Masaaki, Funamoto Shūji, Ōta Masakuni (no relation) and Wakamiya Masanori. With clear Fanonist influences, the kyūmin kakumei is a postcolonial theory in that it frames capitalism and the struggle against it around colonies (Ōta 1971: 7).[15] Ōta advocated a concept of the “world revolution rōnin” (sekai kakumei rōnin) or nomadic “Guevarista”. Travel and migration was central to his vision, though, like many pan-nationalist movements, this encompassed a contradiction: minzoku is no longer a taboo in this decolonialist movement and its promotion of peoples, races and ethnicities could well lead to chauvinism. As opposed to Leninist approaches, Ōta wrote of the need to build a nation first, before a party and army.

Concretely, this movement manifested as discourse (especially in the journals Eiga hihyō [Film Criticism] and Sekai kakumei undō jōhō [World Revolutionary Movement News]) and some limited activism, such as the efforts of Funamoto and Wakamiya in urban slums. The prolific Takenaka wrote a series of “Asia is One” articles (a title, of course, consciously referencing Okakura Tenshin) in Eiga hihyō from August 1972 onwards, before departing on a trip around Asia to seek out solidarity with local activists. It seems significant that he now felt able to use the term “Pan-Asia” freely.

But is this actually Asianist? Ōta, Umenai and the others in the movement place a large focus on the “inner colony” of minority groups within Japan, which includes both non-Japanese and Japanese. These are linked by their Asian identity as much as their kyūmin status. The movement’s associates were linked to independence movements (Micronesia, Taiwan, Okinawa), recalling the support for Asian independence movements by various Pan-Asianists in the pre-war period. Likewise, the slums Kamagasaki and Sanya were a multi-ethnic melting pot of Asians from the Japanese archipelago and its former colonies. While Ōta certainly used Asian examples in his writing, the discourse did not, however, limit itself to the region but looked further afield, too (Ōta Masakuni, in particular, to Latin America).

Mobilising and liberating the Ainu in Hokkaidō was a key cause for Ōta Ryū, who was born on Sakhalin, but it also attracted a host of other figures as locals began to organise themselves more assertively. During the 1970s, the Ainu rights movement developed into a series of terrorist and extremist incidents, almost entirely carried out by wajin (Yamato Japanese) on behalf of the Ainu. The Japanese had effectively hijacked the movement to liberate the Ainu, seizing the meishu leadership role in the name of the actual victims.[16] This was most destructively manifest in the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front (Higashi Ajia Hannichi Busō Sensen), which, notwithstanding its name, comprised only wajin. It launched several bombings against targets related to the colonisation of Hokkaidō as well as wartime imperialism. This culminated in a deadly campaign of bombings between 1974 and 1975 against corporations that had been complicit in forced labour during the period of Japanese colonialism in Asia, and continued their iniquity through neo-colonial industrial investment. This was kagaisha ishiki, and the ideas of Ōta, taken to an extreme.[17] In its provocative tract Hara Hara Tokei (The Ticking Clock), the group specifically cites Taiwan, China, South-east Asia, South Korea and the inner colonies (zainichi, Ainu, Okinawans), as well as such causes as sex tourism in South Korea and solidarity with Thai boycotts of Japanese products. It reputes the historicisation of Japan’s wartime aggression and imperialism; its “urban guerrilla” campaign was an attempt to exact retribution. But the group (and the subsequent copycat terrorism later in the 1970s) reveals the problems of an Asianist interpretation, since it was simultaneously domestic – targets included the emperor and Shintō – while looking outward at Japan’s Asian neighbours. Perhaps unsurprisingly for such a problematic “anti-Japanese” movement, its undertakings proved explosive yet short-lived.[18]

asia is one film documentary ndu jpan

Asia is On (Nihon Documentarist Union) (1973)

Going Beyond Asia
The Asianist tendencies of the left in Japan were not limited to activists; artists also engaged in these idea through their practices, and perhaps none more representatively than film-makers. During the 1960s and 1970s, cine-activism (or ciné-activism) forged a significant presence in Japanese underground and independent cinema, seeking political solidarity through the process of making and screening films.[19] Much of this took place in Japan but several notable examples went beyond its shores to explore Asia and even further afield.

Asia is One is the title of a 1973 documentary made by the collective Nihon Documentarist Union (NDU). Despite the parallel with Okakura Tenshin’s classic Asianist text from 1903, the group claimed not to have been aware of the original when it was making the documentary, which investigates the legacy of Japanese colonialism by asking Asian migrants to recount their experiences of coming to Okinawa to work in coal mines. While the ignorance of Okakura might seem surprising now, it reveals much about the distance of NDU’s generation from the pre-war Pan-Asianism; in a sense, NDU reclaims and echoes Okakura’s discredited vision in its reflection on migration and colonialism that builds a portrait of Okinawa as an unstable and fluid place pooling various peoples and cultures. As the film scholar Alexander Zahlten (2018: 115) has argued, NDU’s practice embodies “archipelagic” approaches “emphasising flows, interactions, and hybridity over fixed personal and national boundaries”. Asia is One traces the migrants back to Taiwan, closing with a sequence showing Japanese-speaking Atayal villagers whose relationship to the Japanese “civilisation” that the empire bestowed upon them is highly ambivalent.[20]

Like other activists outlined above, NDU was engaging with minzoku and proposing a new variation that prioritises regionalism and liminality. In this, NDU was influenced by the novelist Shimao Toshio’s concept of “Yaponesia”, which reframed Japan not as connected to Asia but to the Pacific. And yet, this was not the promotion of another homogenous bloc in the same monolithic mode of the nation-state, but a web of interconnected cultural differences extending across the region. The main NDU film-maker would later expand his “region” out to Micronesia and then west to the fringes of Asia in Lebanon, Iran and Palestine.

Another presence in the Middle East was the director and screenwriter Adachi Masao, who was a central figure in Eiga hihyō, where NDU published many texts. With one foot in pink cinema sexploitation and another in underground cinema, Adachi, like NDU, saw the screening and accompanying discussions as central to a vision of revolutionary cinema, one where the distinction between art and politics was erased (Adachi 2003). In 1971, he travelled to the Middle East with the intention of making a film about the Palestinian liberation struggle. This resulted in The Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War, which was ostensibly a co-production between the RAF and the PFLP for propaganda purposes that juxtaposed the Red Army’s efforts in Japan against the Palestinian frontline guerrilla camps, though was actually an experiment in applying the creator’s concept of “landscape theory” to the everyday life of the guerrillas. It was screened around Japan from October 1971 at university campuses and other locations, led by Adachi himself driving a red bus filled with young volunteers. He continued his screening movement in the following year and also launched a gazette disseminating information about the Palestinian struggle for Japanese activists.

Repeating the leitmotifs of archipelagic, migratory or rōnin practices, a covert pipeline had by now opened up between Japan and Asia and the Arab world.[21] Adachi returned to the Middle East several times in the following years, hoping to make a follow-up film in which he would document the guerrilla movements everywhere from Palestine to the North African desert and Guinea-Bissau. During this time, various Japanese activists were arriving in the Middle East, in particular an overlapping network of young men and women from the RAF, a Kyoto University radical group and Adachi’s screening movement team. During the 1970s, the Middle East, especially the Palestinian cause, was a kind of melting pot of global revolutionaries, drawing far-left activists from across the world. The Japanese, who organised into the Arab Red Army (Arabu Sekigun), later known as the Japanese Red Army (Nihon Sekigun), swiftly became an important member of this international brigade, carrying out various missions and hijackings on behalf of or in partnership with the PFLP, before eventually becoming an independent entity while remaining based in the Lebanon. The JRA was the most ambitious iteration of the Japanese left’s internationalism, though one that, I argue, can also be framed in an Asianist context, since its early solidarity actions focused on the Palestinians and Vietnam. It would participate in incidents in Europe and the Middle East but also Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Dhaka, though the airliner and embassy hijackings that have made it notorious were always carried out to secure the release of imprisoned peers. (In this way, three members of the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front were released and joined up with the JRA.) While it is far beyond the scope of this essay to examine the full extent of JRA’s complex ideological shifts over its roughly two-and-half-decade existence, a guerrilla-based solidarity lay at the core of its practices, rooted in Neo-Marxist beliefs in a struggle against imperialism and colonialism. The JRA’s leading figure, Shigenobu Fusako, wanted to build a network of “stations” around the world linking up revolutionary movements.[22] Adachi claimed the group even once planned to build a broadcasting station that would spread information on revolutions in Asia (Adachi 2017: 121).

It serves to highlight one example here, the attack on a Shell oil facility in Singapore carried out by Japanese and Palestinian activists in 1974. The official statement explicitly links the Palestinian struggle to the Vietnam War and a raid on oil tanks in South Vietnam in 1973, almost as if these were co-ordinated missions. “It is an action of solidarity with [the] people who fight [the] revolutionary war in Vietnam. It is an organically united action with [the] Vietnamese people. [. . .] It is a struggle of justice to destroy [the] common visible enemy of [the] Palestinian and Vietnamese revolutionary forces.”[23]

The JRA later spread out further around the world, joining up with groups in such places as the Philippines but also in South America, Europe, and, ultimately, back in Japan as its internationalism returned to a domestic strategy after the Cold War was over. The arrest of almost all the main members overseas or back in Japan from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, however, meant that its new efforts on the home front largely came to naught.

Tentative Conclusions
This essay has attempted to trace a path through various instances of Asian solidarity among Japanese radical left movements in 1960s and 1970s. It is evident that there were indeed Asianist tendencies in the form of an engagement with Asia and a turning away from the West, despite the obvious popularity of radical ideas that originated in Europe. Among the New Left and post-war intellectuals, we can discern urges for “Asian” solidarity, whether that meant a revolution led by Asians or assisting fellow Asians in their struggle against capitalist imperialism. These urges were often driven by more general anti-colonial ideologies, which developed into an original, albeit esoteric, concept of the Lumpenproletariat and dispossessed as the progenitors of revolution. This was broad enough to encompass Japan’s “inner colonies” and ethnic minorities as well as people around Asia – and beyond. In fact, it was perhaps ultimately a spin-off from wider ideas of transnational solidarity, Trotskyist ambitions for an international Marxist revolution and the Maoism-Third Worldism that saw activists gathering in many hot spots across the globe during this period.

The comparison with Pan-Asianism is only beneficial to a certain extent. Such an analogy is hard to justify since the evidence that the activists and thinkers were referencing pre-war discourse directly is slim, and at times they were even ignorant of it. To claim these tendencies as elements of a project to “reclaim” Asianism for the post-war left requires a leap of logic that is only partially convincing. In addition, many of the examples I have outlined were minority streams, if not extremist fringes, within the New Left.[24] That is not to say they are unworthy of study, but that we should be cautious of overly assigning significance to their output. While Beheiren led directly to the Pacific Asia Resource Center, founded by Tsurumi Yoshiyuki and others in 1973, and a rise in Japanese volunteers in South-east Asia (Havens 1987: 240), the Asian People’s Conference was a relatively minor event within the rich history of the movement. Moreover, Tsurumi Yoshiyuki is much less regarded than his brother, Shunsuke, and his writings on Asia not particularly well known. It would be inaccurate to focus a discussion on Beheiren solely on his Asianist leanings. Ōta, for all his copious discourse, was not involved in actually implementing his clarion calls for revolution, and there was basically little or no reciprocation from Asians in the period to his and his cohorts’ ideologies. Only the JRA could achieve genuine transnational results, but largely in the Middle East, and today its legacy is regrettably as a group of terrorists, not Asianists. Finally, NDU was, for all its early impact, practically forgotten about until recently (Zahlten 2018: 115).

Even putting such provisos aside, it would still be disingenuous to ascribe the aforementioned case studies to Asianism without further caveats, foremost being the almost complete absence of “Pan-Asianism” itself from the discourse, though this need not discredit a comparison or surprise us, given the baggage of that term for post-war movements. The examples discussed here do not talk about a “shared race” or racial alliance in the same manner that the pre-war Asianists frequently did, though we can find similar framings of shared enemies (capitalism, imperialism, the United States) in the way that, say, Ōkawa hoped for an Asia united in its opposition to Western values (Szpilman 1998: 56–7).

While Oda Makoto was influenced by the Chinese thinker Wang Yangming, he was more an existentialist in the European mode (Havens 1987: 61). Likewise, for all its gestures of solidarity with Vietnam, Beheiren’s guests and visitors were mostly Europeans or Americans, and its connections to overseas anti-war movements were less in Asia than the West, especially America, where several prominent members had experience living and studying. It primarily published in Japanese and English, and its leading members acknowledged their understanding of South-east Asia was initially lacking. Arguably, the anti-war movement in Japan had more to do with Japan and its imperial past as well as its relationship to Okinawa than a concern with Asia on its own terms, which was more like a mirror for self-reflection than sustained exchange. The Asianism that emerged, thus, possibly stemmed from a sense of guilt as much as genuine solidarity. Likewise, the “inner colony” issues (Okinawa, Buraku, resident Korean, Ainu, slums) fit more comfortably into a framing of the Other within Japan than of Japanese-Asian interchange. These concerns are arguably emblematic of a broader reflexive turn in the leftist movements than an Asianist turn. The attempt to include the Middle East connections within this discussion is also suspect, even if it technically can qualify as part of Asia. Though the pre-war Asianists were inconsistent in their definitions of “Asia”, most limited their scope to East Asia. (Ōkawa, though, did take his as far west as Egypt and the Muslim Balkans.)

Such shortcomings complicate our discussion of “Asia” and Asianism among the radical left in the period. As any straight comparison with pre-war Pan-Asianism is bound to be problematic and unsatisfactory, it is surely more useful to think of these tendencies as a kind of loose “pan” movement with a strong interest in Asia, and as a manifestation of a broader internationalist or transnational project by sections of the New Left (and the left in general) in Japan, and which continued and blossomed later, such as in environment movements (Avenell 2017). Internationalism and Maoism-Third Worldism with a focus on Asia, or “real” Asianism? Either way, Asianism or Pan-Asianism remains a framework we should certainly consider when investigating these post-war left-wing movements, though it is by no means comprehensive or definitive as a label. After all, Takeuchi (1963) said that Asianism is something that arises in association with other concepts and that “Asia” is a method for understanding things.

Notwithstanding its length and own “archipelagic” qualities, this essay leaves behind substantial questions and tasks. It has incorporated a rather indulgent number of examples, albeit many of them interlinked, and while this may serve to convey a sense of the overall tendencies of the radical left during the period, there is not yet enough detail or analytical focus on the individual cases.[25] More thorough study of the discussed leftist discourse is required, drawing from the wealth of texts produced in the 1960s and 1970s by mainstream left-wing thinkers as well as the various radical factions. After undertaking this task, it may be possible to make a more sophisticated comparison with pre-war Pan-Asianist discourse than has been attempted here, including closer textual parallels as necessary. And then the object of inquiry should shift to the post-1970s leftist movements in Japan and their attitudes toward Asia, and the influence, if any, of pre-war and post-war Asianism.


[1] For examples in Japanese contexts, see Avenell 2017 and 2018 for discussion of the civil society and environmental movement; the special issue of “The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture” (2017, Vol. 10, No. 2), especially Naoko Koda’s paper on Beheiren and Kei Takata’s on the Beheiren deserter network; and Oguma 2018. More generally, transnational discourses of “1968” have been pioneered in English by the likes of Jeremy Suri and George Katsiaficas. Japan’s role within this has recently been cemented by the likes of Voices of 1968: Documents from the Global North, London: Pluto Press, 2018.
[2] For further examples, see Saaler and Szpilman 2011: 13, 40. Another interesting case is the Asiatic Humanitarian Brotherhood, which was founded in Tokyo in 1907 by socialists and anarchists.
[3] For the attraction of Pan-Asianism for Marxists, see Hotta 2007: 66. Hotta also discusses demonstrates affinity between the ideas of Kita Ikki and the anarchist Kōtoku Sūsui, and the interaction of Ōkawa’s ideas and the agrarianism of the anarchist Ishikawa Sanshirō.
[4] Its name in full was Betonamu ni Heiwa o! Shimin Rengō, which translates as the Citizens’ Federation for Peace in Vietnam. The official English name was the Peace in Vietnam Committee. For much more on Beheiren and the anti-war movement, see Havens 1987.
[5] Takeuchi also supported Beheiren, though his vision was criticised by Oda (Olson 1981: 345).
[6] For relevant examples of Tsurumi’s writings, see the third volume of his collected works (Tsurumi 2002: not least 49, 50, 54 passim, 58, 59, 62 passim, 88 passim).
[7] This is not unique to Japan. There were similar aspirations in, for example, France, where people identified with the Algerian Revolution and the Other ushered a new political subjectivity for the middle class (“Vietnam is in our factories”) (Ross 2002: 80 passim). For the students in Japan, an iconic example is the slogan of uchi-naru tōdai (“the University of Tokyo within”). For more on the existentialist “self-transformation” of the student movement, see Ando 2014: 68 passim.
[8] Ando argues that this is one of several ways the Japanese New Left saw “Asian people as a mirror of personal transformation” (Ando 2014: 125 passim). Also see Avenell 2017: 112 passim.
[9] For more in English on the conference, see Ando 2014: 127–8.
[10] For a discussion of this in cinema, see Dew 2016.
[11] Also see Shigematsu (2012: 16, 48, 93–4) for the intersection between Japanese Women’s Lib and zainichi movements, including how Women’s Lib articulated a position in relation to colonised Asian women.
[12] Some members of the New Left attempted to connect these “inner” elements to “outer” partners. Koda (2017: 191), for instance, describes a striking intersection between the Black Panther Party and a confluence of such revolutionary elements (including the Chinese immigrants, Buraku and Kamagasaki slum workers).
[13] For more on Umenai (and the transnational efforts of the RAF), see Knaudt 2016 and 2020.
[14] Runpen (Lumpen) was a common insult among leftists at the time. Coined by Lumpenproletariat roughly means “the ragged Proletriat”. For an overview of the original Marxist term, see
[15] Kyūmin kakumei has several related terms, including hiyokuatsu-kakumeiron (“oppressed peoples revolution theory”).
[16] Umenai, however, explicitly rejected the meishu model (1972: 142).
[17] The most destructive bombing took place at the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries headquarters in Tokyo in August 1974, which left several dead. It remained the most deadly domestic terrorism incident in Japan until the sarin attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.
[18] Police arrested all the main members in 1975. There were various links between the bombers and the earlier kyūmin kakumei circle of thinkers, which has problematised the legacy of the discourse.
[19] In addition to the examples of NDU and Adachi Masao discussed briefly in this article, another prominent cine-activist collective was Ogawa Pro, whose most famous output dealt with the Sanrizuka farmers’ protests against Narita Airport. For more on Ogawa Pro in English, see Mark Nornes Abé, Forest of Pressure: Ogawa Shinsuke and Postwar Japanese Documentary, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
[20] For more on Asia is One, see the article by Matteo Boscarlo on Asia Docs.
[21] Echoing Zahlten on NDU, Sabu Kohso has also discussed Adachi in relation to Édouard Glissant’s mode of archipelagic thinking. See his essay, “Ciné-activism in an Archipelagic World”, available online at Bordersphere.
[22] The nascent JRA had close connections with several Beheiren activists in Europe.
[23] See Japanese Red Army, “Statement 9 Feb. 1974.” In his essay, Umenai also called for the Japanese radicals to attack oil assets, though there is no evidence that he influenced the choice of target. Most likely it was the Palestinian side that directed the mission.
[24] Umenai and others like Funamoto were minority presences within the New Left and are now almost ghost-like figures, especially Umenai, who disappeared without trace. This writer finds their personal trajectories and searches for new revolutionary agency continually compelling but is also cautious about ascribing too much influence to them. While others have positioned their interventions as a paradigm shift, or even marking a “farewell to class” (Knaudt 2020), some of the most-parsed texts of late may arguably be just curios or ephemera from the 1970s, albeit extraordinary ones, rather than something truly symptomatic or emblematic of major trends in New Left thought and practice. This essay, for what it is worth, has attempted to set out some of the Asianist and archipelagic (nomadic, wayfaring) tendencies, though without the suggestion that this was a mass sea change in discourse.
[25] One example not discussed here, and one worthy of an essay in its own right, is the link to The Water Margin (Outlaws of the Marsh), the classic 14th-century Chinese novel that was immensely popular in Japan – and a common refrain for the thinkers associated with the kyūmin kakumei discourse (namely, Ōta, Takenaka and Hiraoka). Dealing as it does with outlaws who form an army at Mount Liang and successfully resist the imperial forces, was an inspiring analogue and trope.

Adachi, Masao, Eiga/kakumei (Cinema/Revolution), Tokyo: Kawade Shobō Shinsha, 2003.
——“Naze nihon sekigun wa higashi ajia hannichi busō sensen no menbā o dakkan shita no ka” (Why did the Japanese Red Army Rescue Members of the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front?), Jōkyō (Situation), autumn 2017.

Ando, Takemasa, Japan’s New Left Movements: Legacies for Civil Society, London: Routledge, 2014.

Andrews, William, Dissenting Japan: A History of Japanese Radicalism and Counterculture, from 1945 to Fukushima, London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 2016.

Avenell, Simon, Transnational Japan in the Global Environmental Movement, Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2017.
——“Asia and the Development of Civic Activism in Post-War Japan”, in Social Movements and Political Activism in Contemporary Japan: Re-emerging from Invisibility, eds. David Chiavacci and‎ Julia Obinger, New York: Routledge, 51–70.

Betonamu Hansen Chokusetsu Kōdō Iinkai, Shi no shōnin e no chōsen – 1966 / Betonamu Hansen Chokusetsu Kōdō Iinkai no tatakai (Challenging the Merchant of Death: 1966 and the Vietnam Anti-War Direct Action Committee), Tokyo: Anakizumu Sōsho Kankōkai, 2014.

Eguchi, Bokurō, “Asia in World History” (1953), in Pan-Asianism: A Documentary History, eds. Sven Saaler and Christopher W.A. Szpilman, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011.

Dennehy, Kristine, “The Bandung Conference” (1955), in Pan-Asianism: A Documentary History.

Dew, Oliver, Zainichi Cinema: Korean-in-Japan Film Culture, London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Havens, Thomas R.H., Fire Across the Sea: The Vietnam War and Japan 1965–1975, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Hayashi, Fusao, “Affirmation of the Greater East Asian War” (1963), trans. Kristine Dennehy, in Pan-Asianism: A Documentary History.

Hotta, Eri, Pan-Asianism and Japan’s War 1931–1945, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Japanese Red Army, “Statement 9 Feb. 1974”.

Knaudt, Till, Von Revolution zu Befreiung: Studentenbewegung, Antiimperialismus und Terrorismus in Japan (1968–1975), Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag, 2016.
——“A Farewell to Class: The Japanese New Left, the Colonial Landscape of Kamagasaki, and the Anti-Japanese Front (1970–75)” (forthcoming), Journal of Japanese Studies, 46:2, 2020, 395-422.

Koda, Naoko, “Challenging the empires from within: the transpacific anti-Vietnam War movement in Japan,” The Sixties, 10:2, 2017, 182–195.

Lee, Misook, “The Japan-Korea Solidarity Movement in the 1970s and 1980s: From Solidarity to Reflexive Democracy”, The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 12, Issue 38, No. 1, 22 September 2014.

Oda, Makoto (ed.), Beheiren kyōdai na hansen no uzu o! (Beheiren, Giant Anti-War Whirlpool!), Tokyo: Sanichi Shobō, 1969.

Oguma, Eiji, “What Was and Is ‘1968’?: Japanese Experience in Global Perspective”, The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 16, Issue 11, No. 6, 21 May 2018.
——“Postwar Japanese Intellectuals’ Changing Perspectives on ‘Asia’”, trans. Roger Brown, in Pan-Asianism in Modern Japanese History: Colonialism, Regionalism and Borders, eds. Sven Saaler and J. Victor Koschmann, London: Routledge, 2006.

Olson, Lawrence, “Takeuchi Yoshimi and the Vision of a Protest Society in Japan,” The Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 7, No. 2, Summer 1981, 319–48.

Orr, James J., The Victim as Hero: Ideologies of Peace and National Identity in Postwar Japan, Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2001.

Ōta, Ryū, Henkyōsaishinbu ni mukatte taikyaku seyo! Nijūichi seiki e no daichōsei (Retreat Towards the Remotest Frontier! The Longest March to the Twenty-First Century), Tokyo: Sanichi Shobō, 1971.

Ross, Kristin, May ’68 and Its Afterlives, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Saaler, Sven and Christopher W.A. Szpilman, “The Emergence of Pan-Asianism as an Ideal of Asian Identity and Solidarity, 1850–2008”, in Pan-Asianism: A Documentary History.

Shigematsu, Setsu, Scream from the Shadows: The Women’s Liberation Movement in Japan, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Suga, Hidemi, 1968-nen (1968), Tokyo: Chikuma Shinsho, 2006.

Szpilman, Christopher W.A., “The Dream of One Asia: Ōkawa Shūmei and Japanese Pan-Asianism”, in The Japanese Empire in East Asia and its Postwar Legacy, ed. Harald Fuess, Munich: Iudicium-Verlag, 1998.

Takata, Kei, “Escaping through the networks of trust: the US deserter support movement in the Japanese Global Sixties”, in The Sixties, 10:2, 2017, 165–181.

Takeuchi, Yoshimi, “Japan’s Asianism” (1963), in Pan-Asianism: A Documentary History.

Tanaka, Yuki, “Oda Makoto, Beheiren and 14 August 1945: Humanitarian Wrath against Indiscriminate Bombing”, The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 5, Issue 9, No. 3, 3 September 2007.

Tsurumi, Yoshiyuki, Chosakushū 3 Ajia no deai (Collected Works 3: Encounters with Asia), Tokyo: Misuzu Shobō, 2002.

Umenai, Tsuneo, “Kyōsandō sekigun-ha yori nittei datō o kokorozasu subete no hitobito e” (From the Red Army Faction, to All Those Who Aspire for the Overthrow of the Japanese Empire) (1972), Eiga hihyō (Film Criticism), July 1972, 120–56.

Zahlten, Alexander, “The archipelagic thought of Asia is One (1973) and the documentary film collective NDU” Journal of Japanese and Korean Cinema, 10:2, 2018, 115–129.

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Post-trauma sexploitation: Salvation and women in Wakamatsu Kōji’s Eros Eterna

This essay will discuss Eros Eterna (1977), one of the lesser-known films of the Japanese director Wakamatsu Kōji, arguing that it is a neglected yet layered work that demands reassessment within not only Wakamatsu’s career and oeuvre but also the entire canon of the New Wave and 1970s counterculture.

I will assert that the film should be interpreted less on its own merits, which are artistically mixed, and rather through certain sociocultural contexts: the woman-as-salvation trope and general fixation on maternal figures in traditional Japanese Buddhist iconography as well as in post-war Japan; the 1970s in Japan, particularly the trauma of failed radical social movements; and the depiction and role women in “pink film” (softcore pornography) and underground or independent cinema as part of a discourse of anti-state subversion.

koji wakamatsu eros eterna kannon

Wakamatsu is today regarded as a major artist of Japanese post-war cinema and the New Wave. His work is the subject of several books in English and Japanese, and regular retrospectives. Pink film is likewise garnering serious critical attention from scholars at home and abroad. That being said, Eros Eterna is an overlooked work from Wakamatsu’s liminal mid-career that nonetheless reveals many things about its maker and period. This is in spite of its availability on DVD in Japan since 2016, which suggests that Wakamatsu Productions wants it cemented as part of the late director’s legacy. The online streaming service Mubi, known for its cineaste programming, describes it as “one of his [Wakamatsu’s] most critically esteemed films”.(1) However, it merits only the briefest of entries in the two most comprehensive surveys of pink cinema in English (Abé 2014, Sharp 2008). Indeed, aside from two 1977 texts by Hiraoka Masaaki (reprinted in Hiraoka 2007, 2008), one of which was originally included in a pamphlet about the film put out by its distributor at the time of release, it has engendered relatively scant criticism or scholarship even in Japanese, and hardly receives a mention in the major Japanese-language volume published on Wakamatsu (Yomota and Hirasawa 2013).

Eros Eterna was a co-production between Wakamatsu’s own production company and Art Theatre Guild of Japan (ATG), which was a formidable presence in the independent and underground cinema scene in the 1960s and 1970s. Though, as discussed later, Eros Eterna is generally classified as a pink film, the 90-minute colour feature loosely crosses the borders between sexploitation and art-house auteur cinema, much like Wakamatsu’s previous collaboration with ATG, Ecstasy of the Angels (1972). The film centres on a female protagonist, identified in the screenplay only as a “nun” (bikuni), who appears to be immortal and forever youthful. Played by Matsuda Eiko, the nun is a kind of saviour and mother figure for the other characters, especially the men, though her background and status are left ambiguous. Is she really a nun? How old is she? Is she, as is rumoured, a modern-day Yao Bikuni?

This latter figure is a well-known folk legend in Japan, the “eight-hundred-year-old Buddhist nun” (yao bikuni or happyaku-bikuni), and particularly associated with the Wakasa region in Fukui, where the film was shot. In fact, the shrines and temples shown in the film are those linked to the story of this old tale, which involves a fisherman who finds a mermaid and serves the meat to his dinner guests. They are warned not to eat their portions, though one man accidentally lets his young daughter eat it when he returns home. As a result, she remains forever white-faced and young, and lives for eight centuries as a nun.

Wakamatsu’s film is ostensibly set in the contemporary period, but other than a few glimpses of vehicles and, as discussed later, the presence of a nuclear power plant in the background, the setting could almost be timeless, not least because the two main female characters wear religious robes for most of their scenes. (Moreover, none of the characters are named in the film or script.)

The nun begins with a prayer pledging to suffer and repay the debt of her crime of eating the flesh of the mermaid and betraying the sea god Ryūjin as well as the god Hoori, who is an ancestor of the legendary first emperor Jimmu, who stole the mermaid from Ryūjin. “Unless the masses are led to enlightenment, this crime of eating the mermaid will not disappear.” She has an almost mystical power over a series of men, experiencing sexual encounters with them in turn: an elderly Okinawan hibakusha atom bomb victim; an Ainu criminal; a radical leftist bomber; a rich middle-aged man with money and influence in the area, who preys on vulnerable women. She “saves” the men through sex – twice, however, as rape – and gives her body and finally her life when killed by the rich man.

koji wakamatsu eros eterna kannon

koji wakamatsu eros eterna kannon

A parallel subplot involves a shrine maiden and her boyfriend. The former is a virgin and frightened of sex and her future, as she confides to the nun, surrounded by male lust and her weakness as a woman. In between trying to seduce the girl, the boy is determined to go to a good university and then get a job at a leading company: in other words, become an exemplary member of the middle-class, white-collar male society that became so prominent in the 1970s. But he instead becomes obsessed with the nun, peeping on her sex sessions with other men. She seems to tempt him away from the bourgeois and conventional path of life towards something pure and erotic. The boy has sex with the maiden in the nun’s hut on the beach, in lieu of intercourse with the nun herself. His girlfriend submits but feels defiled and asks him to kill her during their lovemaking.

The nun, meanwhile, has been murdered on a boat by the middle-aged rich man, who wants rid of her because she knows he tried to rape a young woman. He then leads a mob in tearing down the shack where she lived. The boy puts the body of the maiden into a pyre boat and faces the sunset. He calls out into the majestic red light, summoning the nun back from the dead. In a spectacular final sequence, the sacrifices of the two women’s deaths seems to merge into a resurrection as the nun appears out of the water and slowly embraces the boy, disrobing in a flood of red light.

Contexts of Buddhism

Episodically structured, Eros Eterna is not merely a modern-day retelling of the Yao Bikuni legend. It employs a deliberately syncretic approach to its source materials, conflating a number of supernatural tropes and myths in its imagery and opening epigraphs: mermaids; Ryūjin and his daughter, Toyotama-hime; the Yao Bikuni; and Kannon. This latter is particularly emphatic in the original Japanese title, Seibo Kannon Daibosatsu, which literally translates as “Holy Mother Kannon Bodhisattva”.(2) Kannon (Avalokiteśvara or Guanyin) is a goddess of mercy in the Buddhist pantheon and a type of Bodhisattva – someone who can reach nirvana but delays their arrival in order to help relieve the suffering of others. In Japan, Kannon, or Kannon-sama, is “a compassionate saviour who is one of the most beloved deities in Buddhism” (Fowler 2016: 1). Worshippers would petition Kannon to annul their sins and those of others (Ibid.: 229). Though regarded as male in canonical Buddhist literature, Kannon became gendered as female in China and then Japan (Ibid.: 253). This process is ambiguous, however, since, for example, Shōtoku Taishi was also regarded as a manifestation of Kannon (Faure 1998: 261). Over time, Kannon merged in Japan with Tara, an explicitly female and powerful Bodhisattva (Fowler 2016: 257). However, the maternal nature of Kannon also allowed her to serve as a substitute for “hidden Christians” in feudal Japan, who could disguise their icons of the Virgin Mary as a Kannon statue.

The film’s mixture of the profane (sexploitation, rape, nudity) with the sacred (salvation, reincarnation, places of worship) is hard to stomach in a Christian culture but less so in Japan, where the native Shintō faith integrated elements of the erotic (such as the Ama-no-Iwato myth). In this regard, there is a tradition in Japanese Buddhism for monks (that is, men) to believe in salvation by courtesans (that is, Kannon or Bodhisattva) (Faure 1998: 123). Buddhists were fond of stories in which Bodhisattva appear as a prostitutes or courtesan, perhaps as a way for monks to justify their own transgressions. Sex imbued the men with enlightenment and could transmute desire into deliverance (Ibid.: 43, 136, 261).(3)

The association with female promiscuity and Kannon or Bodhisattva extended to actual women, too, both at cultic centres and red-light districts (Faure 2003: 237, 385). Similarly, bikuni nuns were linked with a fertility cult and motherhood, paradoxically as they were women and meant to be symbols of purity and, thus, sexless and without maternity (like Gautama’s mother).(4) The nuns were hybrid figures, mediating between local Shintō or folk culture and Buddhism. Famously the nuns of Kumano travelled Japan during the Middle Ages as proselytising prostitutes. Whereas historically nuns were often widows, bikuni also became known as entertainers, as “singing nuns” – and another type of wandering woman like courtesans (yūjo), mediums (miko) and puppeteers, and, ultimately, bikuni came to designate a type of prostitute in the Edo period (Ibid.: 250, 251). As Faure notes specifically of the Yao Bikuni legend, “despite the Buddhist connotations of her name, [Yao Bikuni] seems to be a typical shamanistic figure, and her image must have influenced that of the Kumano bikuni” (Ibid.: 254). Wakamatsu’s film is deftly tapping into this heritage – that the courtesan, shamaness and Bodhisattva were often interrelated.

Wakamatsu is building on not only an established tradition of the compassionate Kannon in Japanese culture that Japanese viewers would know and understand implicitly, but also a precedent within Japanese cinema. As Linda C. Ehrlich writes, “the figure of the Kannon-sama, and scenes of compassion, in a select group of Japanese films are indications that chaos will be transformed into a higher integration of spirit” (2018: 13). But in Wakamatsu’s work, is the Kannon another such portrayal of compassion as a “guiding light” and a “return to one’s full humanity”? In some respects, this holds true but, as shall will be argued, the Kannon figure this time is erotic and sex is central to the process of healing in the face of social persecution and oppression.(5)

The water and coastal setting in the film is another Buddhist reference. The choice of Fukui is determined by the nuclear power industry, as will be discussed, and the Yao Bikuni legend, but this gains another layer of nuance when we consider religion. Here the ocean is the Sea of Japan along the rugged northern coast known for its proximity to the Korean Peninsula and suicides. But the Pure Land in Buddhism is conventionally regarded as lying in the west.(6) The film’s portrayal of a life-giving force in the Sea of Japan is novel and suggests an urge towards a new, undiscovered energy. (In general, coasts and shorelines are important in Buddhism as liminal places between worlds, such as the Higan rites that reference the Sanzu River separating the living and the dead.)

The ocean is, of course, feminine and another symbol of motherhood – one that provides both life and death in the film. Other images of water abound, including a scene in which the nun performs the waterfall purification rite of misogi. In Japanese culture, water is a cleansing element but also sexual – as apparent in the word nureba (“wet place”), meaning a sex scene. The finale, with the resurrected nun emerging from the sea, cements the water imagery as both positive and erotic, possibly the sunlight also alluding to Amaterasu, the sun goddess of Shintō. In this way, the film builds up a web of primitive tropes related to women and mothers in religion, nature, and legends.

koji wakamatsu eros eterna kannon

Post-War Maternity

This engagement with primitivist, maternal tropes is not unique, however, and was part of a post-war lineage that dealt with imagery of the mother as a nation-state analogue (after all, nations are generally anthropomorphised as feminine). This unfolded across literature and the underground arts, developed by the likes of literary critic Etō Jun and, perhaps most notably, the playwright and film-maker Terayama Shūji. The latter had a problematic relationship with his own mother, which seemed to manifest in his work, craving the mutual dependence (amae) that would customarily come from a mother while his had been absent. As Sorgenfrei has argued, Terayama is part of a matricentric genealogy in Japanese literature that harks back to a pre-Meiji time when women and female sexuality had not yet been divorced from their roles as wives and mothers. Likewise, Terayama’s films and plays ran almost parallel with an obsession in the yellow press with mother-son incest in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Sorgenfrei 2005: 59, 60, 65, 66).

In 1974, Shinoda Masahiro had made a surreal and erotic film for ATG called Himiko, dealing with the semi-mythical shamaness-queen of ancient Japan. Perhaps most overtly relevant in the context of Eros Eterna is the book that Hiraoka Masaaki, a critic with links to Wakamatsu’s circle, wrote in 1979 (and then subsequently revised and expanded in later editions), explaining the appeal of music idol Yamaguchi Momoe by likening her to a Bodhisattva. (Hiraoka also borrowed the Bodhisattva trope, as playfully as always, to discuss Adachi’s Schoolgirl Guerrillas in a text published in the pamphlet for the ATG venue, Scorpio, where it was screened.) Naturally the modest length of this essay precludes a detailed discussion of this diverse discourse, but it is important to realise that Wakamatsu’s film forms part of an established thematic precedent in this regard.

1970s Topicality

All this might suggest a certain “Japanese timelessness” about the film, but that is very much not the case. Rather, it is thoroughly rooted in the 1970s through topical references that are both direct and oblique. The frequent sightings of the nuclear power plant are particularly conspicuous and place the film very much in its decade. Atomic power had only just arrived in Japan; Fukui was the site of the Mihama plant, the country’s first commercially working reactor that went into operation in 1970. The plot device of the doomed leftist bomber who intends to sabotage the plant before he is stopped by locals and his family is especially prescient, since there was little anti-nuclear rhetoric at the time from the Left (unlike today, when the issue dominates the discourse). But these plants lurked in the background of the 1970s, a symbol of Japan’s modernisation but also its exploitation of rural regions for the growth of the urban centres.

The themes of salvation and healing are even more apt if we consider that Wakamatsu made the film in the wake of the traumas of 1972, when the Left in Japan was still reeling from the United Red Army (Rengō Sekigun) purge that became known in February and then the Lod Airport massacre carried out by three Japanese men in May. Wakamatsu had personal connections to both incidents, knowing one of the victims of the URA killings and also having met and advised Okamoto Kōzō, the sole survivor of the commandos who attacked the Israeli airport, before his departure. Wakamatsu was by now involved with the Palestinian movement, albeit not as heavily as his colleague Adachi Masao, and had made trips to the Middle East.

Even the inclusion of an Ainu (indigenous Japanese) character is not a casual choice; he is positioned as a kind of political figure, intent on raping the nun at first because she is a wajin (Japanese). The 1970s was a decade that witnessed several violent incidents related to Ainu causes in the north of Japan, though almost entirely carried out by sympathetic left-wing Japanese activists. Adachi had connections to this discourse – and later a warrant was issued for his arrest over a minor sabotage incident – and Ainu discourse was published in the monthly journal Film Criticism (Eiga Hihyō), which was started by Adachi, Hiraoka, Matsuda Masao, Sasaki Mamoru and others in the early 1970s. Finally, one of the minor characters is apparently a member of the Buraku caste, whose rights movement picked up pace in the 1970s with occasional violent incidents from militant activists and supporters.

Indeed, Hirasawa frames the film as part of a lineage of “extremist cinema” from the late 1960s onwards, including films about the United Red Army (Hirasawa 2001: 190–91). The savvy topicality, which is probably the influence of screenwriter of Sasaki Mamoru, is present to such an extent that ATG even highlighted it in a manga page in a magazine-style pamphlet accompanying the release (Art Theatre Guild of Japan 1977: 20).(7) While some of the engagement with timely social issues is crude and superficial, or even exploitative, the film clearly forms an extension of what Furuhata calls Wakamatsu’s “cinema of actuality” that is associated with his late 1960s and early 1970s output (Furuhata 2013).

At the time, though, that aspect of his work seemed finished. This late 1970s period was a transitional one for the director. Eros Eterna was the first Wakamatsu Productions film for several years, as Wakamatsu had increasingly been taking paid gigs for other production companies. He was an incredibly prolific filmmaker – Eros Eterna was his 75th feature – but had made his best work with certain collaborators like Adachi, Okishima Isao and Yamatoya Atsushi. By the mid-1970s, all these key partners had moved onto fresh pastures for various reasons, hence Wakamatsu’s use of Sasaki for a script for the first time. However, this also affects the result. Unlike his edgier, politically ambivalent films, especially the sequence of sexploitation works made with Adachi about revolutionary activism from 1969 to 1972, the film is more abstract and fable-like. The absence of black humour that was a staple of an Adachi screenplay is notable.(8) As such, Eros Eterna is the last important film, I argue, Wakamatsu directed for some time. Without his screenwriters, he was all at sea and his output declined. He even abandoned pink cinema in the 1980s, though would return to it in the 2000s when his career revived, most notably following his mammoth docudrama about the URA.

As Pink Cinema

It is important to frame any discussion of Eros Eterna within its ostensible genre: pink film. It is arguably not a conventional pink film, despite the gratuitous nudity and sex scenes, not least because ATG gave it a budget far greater than most “eroductions” and its themes and style are more like an art film. Pink cinema emerged in the 1960s as the major studio system went into decline, swiftly proving a runaway commercial success. Artistically, too, the pink genre allowed a lot more freedom and attracted some of the best talent from student, underground, and independent cinema. According to the critic and filmmaker Donald Richie, who was one of the first westerners to write seriously about sexploitation, a typical pink film was 70 minutes long and with some sort of sex scene at regular intervals (Richie 1973: 335). There were commonly used motifs and plot devices, such as bar hostesses or female hikers. Richie also identified sexual violence as a central trope. Indeed, this has proven repellent for many non-Japanese critics in the past (and still today), including even Wakamatsu’s feted entries in the genre (Desser 1988: 101; Burch 1979: 351–2). In fact, most of the early scholarship or writing about Wakamatsu’s films is unconvinced, if not downright condemnatory of its torture and bourgeois politics. Today, however, his work is championed, including by female critics and taken seriously as part of a subversive blurring of sexploitation and art in the best of pink film – and Eros Eterna is emblematic in this regard.

Wakamatsu is both artist and pornographer. Which role takes precedence likely depends on the position of an audience. In addition, the filtering of his legacy by only releasing a small fraction of his output on DVD or at screenings presents an unbalanced view that conveniently ignores a lot of the more conventional pink films he made. (Personally I do not think this distracts from his merits per se; rather the quality becomes even more impressive when we consider the flotsam and jetsam the director was making to keep his company afloat economically.)

Nonetheless, no matter how respected a director today, the choice to continue making pink films is problematic for us when it was a genre so generally demeaning to its female characters. Wakamatsu and Adachi have claimed that they are rather empowering women because these characters always win in the end, even though they suffer rape and degradation along the way (Adachi 2003: 304). Female scholars have also supported this kind of assertion to a certain extent, that violence and sex are portrayed as intricately connected (Hayashi 2013: 92–3).(9) Indeed, Hayashi specifically cites Eros Eterna in regard to the misogyny of Wakamatsu’s work, suggesting that “rape is used as a process of purification for the rapist” (Hayashi 2014: 271). Bringing us back to our initial framing of the film, Saitō argues that the demeaned women represented “unclean” Buddhist female ideals who are the saviours of men, though she is discussing the earlier Adachi-Wakamatsu collaborations (Saitō 2003: 164–5).

Apologists might attempt to defend the depiction of women in pink film with the excuse that it is simply “dated” or obeying the trappings of its genre. That may well be true in part, though the depiction of rape and salvation through sex troubles in our #MeToo age. After all, why can’t the men just save themselves? Eros Eterna is arguably presenting women as a very positive life force: the woman’s body is here a medium for resurrection and healing of men. The question, then, is whether or not this allows us to get beyond the hindrances of pink cinema that still weigh it down and whether this also helps audiences overcome the traumas of the 1970s fallout from the end of the period of politics. This is much harder to answer. Like the monks who justified their own sins with tales of deliverance through Bodhisattva encounters, is Wakamatsu a male artist who here simply draws on a sexist metaphor to deal with his own problems?

The Erotic as Counterculture

This idea of woman as a “medium” speaks to a broader tendency to use women and nudity for the purposes of subversion in the 1960s and 1970s. The choice of “eros” in the title is quite deliberate, indicating that this is a film that is not simply pink and erotic, but associated with rebellion and counterculture, and the transgression of moral codes. Starting his career in the Yakuza before he became a director, Wakamatsu was famously anti-authoritarian and driven by his hatred of the police (Wakamatsu 1968: 32–4; Yomota, Hirasawa, Wakamatsu 2013: 235). The female body, in this respect, served as a bridge for addressing actuality and rebellion (Hiraoka 1977a: 150).

As such, Eros Eterna feels very much part of this continuing strain of cinema and counterculture that employed the erotic to challenge the mainstream and authority. However, given the imminent decline in both Wakamatsu and ATG’s trajectories, it feels almost like the “last gasp” of the counterculture movement. The movement is troublingly misogynistic, though. The subsequent career of the star of Eros Eterna, Matsuda Eiko, is a case in point. She also famously played Abe Sada in Ōshima Nagisa’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976), which Wakamatsu produced – a film much praised for its political message, despite the controversy over its unsimulated sex scenes. Hailing from Terayama’s prestigious theatre troupe, Matsuda found herself unable to escape the reputation of the Ōshima film and her career dried up while her male co-star’s was unaffected. She went into exile in Europe, where Richie met her and ruefully noted the waste of her talents that almost parallels Abe’s own final retreat to a nunnery (Richie 1996: 36–8). Hiraoka, too, in both his essays on the film published at the time makes throwaway references to Matsuda’s nudity and “sex appeal” (Hiraoka 1977a: 153; Hiraoka 1977b: 197).

ATG produced several such erotic art films during this time, not least Wakamatsu’s Ecstasy of the Angels and Mandala (1971) by Akio Jissōji (part of a trilogy of Buddhist-influenced erotic films). The dominance of men in the industry, though putatively outside the mainstream, is evident, which problematises the use of women (and their bodies) to make a culturally or socially subversive point politically or artistically in pink and underground cinema.(10)

In post-war Japan, the boundaries of obscenity were continually tested, not only in cinema but also in photography (such as the book The Red Balloon, or Night of the She-Wolf, which involved Hiraoka, in the early 1960s) and literature (not least the trials resulting from the publications of writings by D.H. Lawrence, de Sade, and Takahashi Tetsu). In cinema, pink films were already subject to prosecution in the 1960s, but the issue became particularly salient in the 1970s with the obscenity trial related to several pink films in the Roman Porno series, which was produced by Nikkatsu – one of the major studios, which had turned to pink cinema to survive. The extraordinary case also included among the defendants officials from the Japanese film regulator Eirin (Cather 2014: 131–5).


Though it has none of the verve of the Adachi collaborations, Eros Eterna should ultimately be seen as another example of Wakamatsu’s inherently anti-authoritarian approach: women and sex as defying the state, the rich and powerful, and oppression, while also providing succour for the poor and weak (Hirasawa 2013: 185–6). Such a reading makes it easy to pair with the near-contemporary In the Realm of the Senses (the scene in Eros Eterna of a strangling during sex almost feels like a conscious reference to how Abe Sada killed her lover). Though not as complex or sophisticated as the Ōshima work, which offsets a self-destructive sexual relationship between a male master and female servant against Japan’s rising pre-war militarism, Eros Eterna should also be seen as similarly opposed to the Establishment and channelling aspects of counterculture and actuality – while simultaneously managing to feel, in part, timeless.

As I have argued, it exists within a mesh of sociocultural contexts related to Wakamatsu’s career, the situation in the 1970s, pink film, women in Buddhism, motherhood in post-war Japanese culture, and the sometimes contentious use of women and nudity to challenge social mores and authority through counterculture and the avant-garde.

The final reincarnation scene is a profession of faith in the cyclical return of healing through carnal embrace with the next generation of men at a time when salvation was much needed in Japan: as the nun’s opening prayer declares, she takes on the suffering of those who had betrayed Ryūjin – by implication, all of the Japanese, given the mythological link of Hoori to the imperial line. The slow embrace of the boy and the resurrected nun in the transcendental glow of the setting sun suggests hope and an alternative future for the boy (and Japan) through their sexual union.


Bibliography and References

Adachi, Masao, Eiga/kakumei (Cinema/Revolution), Tokyo: Kawade Shobō Shinsha, 2003.

Art Theatre Guild of Japan, Āto Shiatā 126 (Art Theatre #126), 1977.

Cather, Kirsten, “Policing the Pinks”, in Abé Mark Nornes (ed.), The Pink Book: The Japanese Eroduction and its Contexts, Kinema Club, 2014.

Burch, Noël, To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in Japanese Cinema, Annette Michelson (ed.), Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

Desser, David, Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Ehrlich, Linda C., “Kannon-sama and the Spirit of Compassion in Japanese Cinema”, in Lorenzo J. Torres Hortelano (ed.), Dialectics of the Goddess in Japanese Audiovisual Culture, Lanham: Lexington Books, 2018, 1–16.

Faure, Bernard, The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.
—————The Power of Denial: Buddhism, Purity, and Gender, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Fowler, Sherry D., Accounts and Images of Six Kannon in Japan, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2016.

Furuhata, Yuriko, Cinema of Actuality: Japanese Avant-Garde Filmmaking in the Season of Image Politics, Durham: Duke University Press, 2013.

Hayashi, Sharon, “Shikyū e no kaiki: Rokujū-nendai-chūki Wakamatsu Puro sakuhin ni okeru seiji to sei” (Return to the Womb: Politics and Sexuality in Mid-1960s Wakamatsu Productions Films), in Yomota Inuhiko and Hirasawa Gō (eds.), Wakamatsu Kōji: Hankenryoku no shōzō (Kōji Wakamatsu: An Anti-Authoritarian Portrait), Tokyo: Sakuhinsha, 2013 (expanded edition, first published in 2007), 86–101.
—————“Marquis de Sade Goes to Tokyo”, in The Pink Book, 269–94.

Hiraoka, Masaaki, “Yae bikuni no saisei – Shōnen ga fushūsha ni kaeru koto no anji de aru – Wakamatsu Kōji ‘Seibo Kannon Daibosatsu’” (Resurrection of the Yao Bikuni: Implications of a Young Man Turning into an Avenger, Wakamatsu Kōji’s Eros Eterna) (1977), in Angura kikansetsu: Yami no hyōgensha retsuden (Theses on the Institution of the Underground: Biographies of Artists of the Dark), Tokyo: Magazine Five, 2007, 149–52.
—————“Wakamatsu Kōji futatabi – ‘Seibo Kannon Daibosatsu’” (Once Again Wakamatsu Kōji: Eros Eterna) (1977), in Wakamatsu Puro, yoru no sanjūshi (Wakamatsu Productions: Three Musketeers of the Night), Tokyo: Aiikusha, 2008, 188–99.

Hirasawa, Gō, “Radikarizumu no keizoku: 1970-nendai ikō ni okeru Wakamatsu Kōji-ron” (A Continuation of Radicalism: Wakamatsu Kōji Theory Post-1970s), in Wakamatsu Kōji: Hankenryoku no shōzō, 180–94.
—————“‘Kagekiha’ eiga no keifu: Nihon sekigun to eiga o megutte” (The Genealogy of ‘Extremist’ Cinema: The Japanese Red Army and Film), in Abe Harumasa (ed.), Sekigun RED ARMY 1969–2001 (Red Army 1969–2001), Tokyo: Kawade Shobō Shinsha, 2001, 190–3.

Mubi, “Eros Eternal”, (accessed 18 July 2018).

Richie, Donald, “The Japanese Eroduction” (1973), in The Pink Book, 331–62.
—————Public People, Private People: Portraits of Some Japanese, Tokyo, New York, London: Kodansha International, 1996.

Saitō, Ayako, “Adachi eiga to feminizumu” (The Cinema of Adachi and Feminism), Jōkyō, June 2003, 164–7.

Sharp, Jasper, Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, Godalming: Fab Press, 2008.
—————Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema, Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2011.

Sorgenfrei, Carol Fisher, Unspeakable Acts: The Avant-Garde Theatre of Terayama Shuji and Postwar Japan, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005.

Yomota, Inuhiko, Hirasawa Gō and Wakamatsu Kōji, “Wakamatsu Kōji intabyū” (Interview with Kōji Wakamatsu), in Wakamatsu Kōji: Hankenryoku no shōzō, 234–65.

Wakamatsu, Kōji, “Yomihitoshirazu no uta o utau” (Singing a Song of Unknown Authorship) (1968), in Zenhatsugen (All Statements), Hirasawa Gō (ed.), Tokyo: Kawade Shobō Shinsha, 2010, 32–3.


(1) (accessed 14 October 2019).
(2) I have unfortunately not been able to determine accurately when Eros Eterna was fixed as the film’s English title. It almost seems like a deliberate gesture towards Yoshida’s Eros + Massacre (1970), another ATG film, though there are alternate titles, it seems: Eros Eternal (Mubi) or The Emperor’s Mother, the Goddess of Mercy and the Great Bodhisattva (Sharp 2011: 338).
(3) Faure notes that this “sacred prostitute” trope may also have Shintō roots (Faure 2003: 252)
(4) Japanese Buddhist tradition has it that Gautama’s religious quest was motivated by his desire to save his mother and be reunited with her. Thus, the mother’s absence led to his aspiration for enlightenment (Faure 2003: 150). Likewise, though monks were associated with abandoning of their mothers and family ties, there are cases of mothers glorified as local deities. Mothers became objects of a female cult, such as the worship of Kūkai’s mother (Ibid.: 160). Faure notes that though Buddhism in medieval Japan seems to show respect for women, this does not mean their status was improved: quite the contrary, their value in society was gradually limited to procreative functions (Ibid.: 162).
(5) See Ehrlich’s chapter for a longer discussion of Kannon and Japanese cinema, though it is perhaps a further indication of the neglected status of Wakamatsu’s film that it does not merit a mention.
(6) I thank Professor Michio Hayashi for illuminating this for me. While the suicides at Tōjinbō are recently well known, the coast does have a mystical precedent, however, such as the striking Sanbutsu-ji Temple in Tottori Prefecture.
(7) The page shows caricatures of Wakamatsu and Sasaki standing behind Matsuda, all knee-deep in seawater, while above them float pieces of paper with images from the film all titled “1977 problems of Japan”; in the background lurks the power plant.
(8) Hiraoka says the film shows Sasaki’s “conceptualism” (Hiraoka 1977a: 150). He also notes, in an essay originally published in the official ATG magazine for the film, the difference in style between Sasaki and Adachi’s scripts (Hiraoka 1977b: 196). Sasaki actually produced a very interesting output, dabbling in experimental and art house cinema alongside a successful career as a writer for mainstream TV shows.
(9) The interrelation of the erotic and violence was also noted by male commentators (Hiraoka 1977b: 194).
(10) To be fair, In the Realm of the Senses also included male nudity and it was the inclusion of an erect phallus that was probably most controversial when it was released, not only in Japan – where showing pubic hair is prohibited – but around the world.

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Arrests and raids during police crackdown on New Left radicals ahead of Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement ceremony

Ahead of Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement ceremony on 22 October, Japanese police have raided sites connected with two major left-wing groups and made arrests.

On 2 October, Tokyo Metropolitan Police and Saitama Prefectural Police carried out a raid on Zenshinsha, the headquarters in east Tokyo of Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction), or Kakukyōdō (Revolutionary Communist League), on suspicion of a violation of the Explosives Control Act. The search was ostensibly prompted by the discovery of eight mortar shells similar to ones allegedly employed by Chūkaku-ha in incidents 30 years prior, though media reports overtly quoted police sources as saying the raid was a security measure in the run-up to the enthronement ceremony and parade.

As is standard practice at these raids, large numbers of police officers gathered outside the Zenshinsha doors and then spent some 40 minutes using a heavy-duty metal cutting saw to gain entry. According to press articles, the mortar shells were found at the warehouse of a house in Kazo, Saitama. Measuring 61 centimetres and weighing 6.2 kilograms, the metal shells are designed to be propelled as far as a kilometre and blow up on impact with a target if loaded with explosives. Known as hakugekidan (迫撃弾) or hishōdan (飛翔弾) in Japanese, translating as a mortar shell or rocket/missile-like projectile, they were typical forms of homemade explosives utilised by left-wing radical groups in the past.

japan new left mortar shell bomb

The person, whose identity remains anonymous, apparently went to Saitama police in mid-January, when it was determined the eight shells were probably made by Chūkaku-ha. The man claims that he was asked by an “activist acquaintance” knew to store something in his warehouse.

On 8 October, officers of the Public Security Bureau of Tokyo Metropolitan Police and colleagues from Kanagawa and Saitama prefectural police raided a putative secret base (ajito) in Yokohama of the “non-mainstream faction” of Kakurōkyō (Revolutionary Workers), arresting two activists: a 57-year-old female activist on suspicion of fraud; and a 71-year-old male, the alleged senior member of the group, on charges of counterfeiting private documents — an offence that may well involve merely putting a different address or name on paperwork, but which police frequently exploit as grounds to arrest left-wing activists. In this case, the male activist is accused of claiming a false name and address on a registration form at a dentist’s appointment in March last year, while the woman reportedly rented an apartment in April this year to hide her comrade.

Chūkaku-ha has denounced the police shakedown as oppressive and unjust. It points to the time that has elapsed since the projectiles were first shown to police, the unsubstantiated connection to Zenshinsha, which is primarily a printing facility for the organisation’s vast output of organs and materials, as well as the suspicious convenience of an unnamed “acquaintance” coming forward with such an stash. Rather, this is the latest instance of police and state oppression following the alleged assault of Zengakuren student activists and unreasonable punishment of Kyoto University students as well as the sustained campaign against the Kannama labour union, where nearly 80 have been arrested since July last year.

This is an interpretation with which I have much sympathy, though which detractors might understandably accuse of bias. The raids and arrests are nonetheless certainly a reminder of Japan’s troubled and unresolved relationship with its New Left, a movement that still continues and yet is largely ignored by mainstream society and politics, and treated as dangerous by the police in the same category that it deals with organised crime, religious cults and the Japanese Community Party.

The Japanese police has launched similar crackdowns ahead of major events, such as ahead of President Trump’s visit in 2017 and the G7 summit in 2016. It naturally does not want a repeat of the violent and sensational series of incidents by New Left groups during the previous changeover of emperor 20 years prior, and will go to lengths to ensure the ceremony this month proceeds smoothly.

Behind these pre-emptive tactics seems to lie several motivations. They are, firstly, punitive: “We can and we will punish you.” (This is ongoing and perennial. For example, former Chair of Zengakuren, Ikuma Saitō, was released in late September after nearly five months in uncharged detention for going on to a university campus the previous summer to distribute flyers. Another young Chūkaku-ha activist was arrested in Hokkaidō on 11 September for trespassing after entering a high school in May to give out flyers for a local exhibition of the late Fumiaki Hoshino’s art, only to be released without charge on 2 October. The arrest allowed police to raid five locations, including a labour union site in Sapporo and the activist’s home, and seize over 160 items related to the exhibition and the Hoshino support campaign.) Secondly, it serves as a deterrent and warning: “Don’t even think about trying anything.” It is also pragmatic: the searches may turn up resources and information about other cases and investigations. And finally, it is a media spectacle, orchestrated for the benefit of the news cameras in order to tell the public: “Look, we are doing something about these scary left-wing radicals.”

During the 1980s and 1990s, New Left groups were behind an array of violent attacks on locations linked to Narita Airport, the LDP, police, state and emperor system. Perhaps most notorious among them was the attack on the LDP headquarters with a homemade flamethrower and the abortive mortar attack on Akasaka Palace in 1986, which was hosting a ceremony for the G7 summit that year in Tokyo. In police and mass media parlance, these are often called “guerrilla” incidents. During the imperial transition culminating with Emperor Akihito’s enthronement, there were also numerous other militant incidents, commonly involving small timed bombs or mortars intended to cause damage and disruption rather than loss of life.

Chūkaku-ha gave up such militant tactics many years ago — the last such instance was allegedly an attack on a house in Chiba in 2003 misidentified as the home of a senior prefectural police official — and is today focused on labour activism, international solidarity and fighting neoliberalism. Kakurōkyō, on the other hand, has not formally renounced violence.

Originally known as Shaseidō Kaihō-ha (Socialist Youth Union Liberation Faction) and previously based at Meiji University among other places, Kakurōkyō is the third main New Left group in Japan (after Chūkaku-ha and Kakumaru-ha). It is similarly a Marxist group committed to the struggle against capitalism and the US-Japan security alliance, and has been an instrumental part of the Sanrizuka struggle and Buraku activism for many decades. Aside from another group, the Rōtai-ha or Takiguchi-ha, that broke away in the early 1980s, Kakurōkyō now comprises two factions: the “non-mainstream faction” known as Kimoto-ha, Yamashige-ha or Sekisaisha-ha; and the “mainstream faction” of Hazama-ha or Gendaisha-ha. Whereas the better-known period of uchi-geba intra-factional violence peaked in the mid-1970s, the highly acrimonious Kakurōkyō split led to in-fighting between members until relatively recently. In part as a result of this, activists were eventually expelled from the Meiji campus as part of a wave of “cleansing” campaigns in the 1990s and 2000s at private universities.

In the past few years, the Kimoto-ha was allegedly responsible for attacks on Yokota Air Base (in 2009 and 2013) and Camp Zama (in 2015) as well as (in 2014) a subcontractor connected to the Henoko base relocation in Okinawa. This has provoked police pressure regularly on both factions in the form of raids and arrests. In summer 2017, a member of a Kakurōkyō faction was arrested for the 2013 Yokota attack.

naruhito emperor enthronement protest

The surviving New Left groups are united in their committed anti-emperor stance. The JCP, on the other hand, has softened its opposition in the last few years. That being said, the most prominent protests and activities have come from the marginal pro-republican section of the civil society that is specifically focused on abolishing the Imperial Household. Since Akihito’s abdication was announced, campaigners have mobilised in a vibrant series of rallies, street demonstrations and petition. As the formal process of the imperial transition now draws to a close, the next major intervention is on 22 October, the day of the enthronement ceremony, when activists will march in Shimbashi, central Tokyo. While the general public may well express indifference or even shock at such a protest, the participants will undoubtedly attract a very strong police presence and aggressive counter-protest from ultra-nationalists.

Update (27 October 2019): Arrests and Protests

The police campaign against Kakurōkyō — this time, the Hazama-ha/Gendaisha-ha “mainstream” faction — continued with another set of raids on five locations in Fukuoka and Tokyo on the morning of 18 October, arresting a 69-year-old man on suspicion of running a loan business without a licence. According to police, the man, who is reported to be the former head of a union for day labourers in Fukuoka, had loaned a total of ¥12,000 to a local acquaintance over four separate occasions between May and August 2019.

Needless to say, this is a negligible sum and should hardly constitute any sort of real crime: the accusation genuinely is that the man added an extra ¥1,000 to a ¥3,000 loan. In which case, the police would be potentially locking up thousands more people across the land who have ever loaned a few notes to a friend. However, this time it gave the police the pretext to raid Gendaisha, the far-left faction’s base in Tokyo’s Suginami ward. The police claim the loan was actually related to securing local support for the faction and are apparently looking to corroborate this from the items seized in the raids.

On the day of Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement on 22 October, it rained for much of the day. Since the parade was postponed, the inclement weather had little effect on the formalities, which took place indoors for the cameras and hundreds of dignitaries. It was a less commodious experience for those protesting the enthronement outside — for reasons of not only the wet weather but also the police.

A Zengakuren march in Shimbashi, comprising younger activists, went off without incident, though the march by the Owaten Netto, a network of established anti-emperor activists that has been central to the recent wave of protests, saw three of the roughly 500 attendees arrested by police after jostling with officers during the protest. Another was briefly held but soon released, according to a report from the scene. The three activists, nominally arrested for obstructing public officials in carrying out their duty (in this case, tightly policing the march), were sent for detention at different police stations, where fellow activists and supporters soon gathered to demonstrate. One was released without charge on 25 October, while the other two remain in custody at the time of writing. They will probably stay there until at least 2 November after prosecutors sought and received a ten-day detention from Tokyo District Court on 25 October.

There also other similar rallies on 22 October elsewhere in Tokyo and in places like Osaka and Kyoto.


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The Shinjuku West Gate Underground Plaza protest movement, 1969 and today: Japan’s invisible civil society and phatic silence in urban space

Shinjuku Station in Tokyo is commonly described as the busiest train station in the world, used by millions of passengers daily.(1) A key component of the station is the West Gate (or West Exit) area, which comprises a long street aboveground where the Odakyu and Keio department stores mark the start of a shopping and business district sprawling out from the station.(2) Below ground, the JR Station’s ticket gates lead passengers into a plaza space, taking them though the underground passageways to the Metropolitan Government Building district or off towards the Odakyu or Keio lines. It is always busy. The streets above throng with pedestrians and buses. The plaza underneath is a major thoroughfare, complemented by an almost perpetual stream of taxis coming down the ramps to pick up waiting customers.

The plaza area is especially bustling on Saturday evenings, when, from out of the crowd, they come: they come a few at a time, individually or perhaps in pairs, to stop at the West Gate, stand silently and hold up placards demonstrating against a range of causes. This is the Shinjuku West Gate protest movement.

This essay will discuss the revival since the 2000s of the Shinjuku West Gate Underground Plaza (Shinjuku Nishiguchi Chika Hiroba) as a site for protest, following its initial manifestation in 1969. The movement will be considered in the contexts of urban space and sociality, and will argue that the significance of the movement belies a simple narrative of numbers or obvious interaction with the public. Its import must be seen in the historical context of Tokyo, especially Shinjuku, and particularly the legacy of the New Left in Japan.

The West Gate Underground Plaza today is more or less the same structurally as it was in the late 1960s. There are advertising screens, pillars, shops, announcements, cars, ticket gates, and an incessant flow of people. There is relatively little open space, but it is also evidently a “public” space in that it is in continuous use by citizens.

Scholars concerned with the political implications of urban space often talk of the “right to the city” (Harvey 2013). The plaza, in particular, has long been associated with civic aspirations in this vein. As Jordan Sand has discussed, however, Tokyo did not originally have “monumental” open spaces like Western cities, nor traditionally a concept of space akin to the agora or piazza. Indeed, parks only appeared in Japan in the early 1900s and these instead became common sites for public demonstrations (Sand 2013: 25–31). In turn, the ekimae hiroba (station-front plaza) model developed, of which the Shinjuku West Gate is an ambitious example.

The initial development of a station plaza in Shinjuku dates back to the 1930s as part of changes to the city after the 1923 earthquake (Hein 2010: 459–460). The 1960s then saw the full redevelopment of the west of Shinjuku. The Yodobashi Water Purification Plant was relocated in 1965, freeing up much space in the district. One of the most iconic early signs of the redevelopment was the West Gate Underground Plaza, which was completed in 1965. Its innovative layered structure and ramps were designed to facilitate the flow of traffic through the west of the station, already accessed by around a million people daily in 1969 (Sand 2013: 36).

At this time, Japan was experiencing the height of the New Left protests, especially on university campuses and the streets of cities. Shinjuku was the stage for various incidents — most notoriously major riots on 21 October in both 1968 and 1969. It was also a centre for counterculture, perhaps most famously the fūten-zoku hippies who would hang out around the station. It was against this backdrop that the “folk guerrilla” gatherings started in February 1969, when musicians associated with the anti-Vietnam War network Beheiren started playing music on Saturday evenings in the West Gate Underground Plaza. The concerts became rallies, bringing together a range of other campaigns: Okinawa, Vietnam, campus strikes, immigration and protests against Expo ’70. The rallies had a buoyant and festive if chaotic atmosphere. People did fundraising, petitioning and leafleting for their respective causes. There was singing, speeches, sit-ins and debates. The West Gate became a counter-space, similar to the “liberated quarters” appearing in areas of Tokyo or Paris at the tim, and, to adopt the terminology of later thinkers, a confrontational “temporary autonomous zone” (Bey 1991).(3) The authorities, though, were less than pleased by the rallies, which grew to 5,000 by May and then even an estimated 7,000 by June. The police cracked down on the illegal gatherings in July, arresting the main musicians and charging them with violations of the traffic and railway commerce laws. Riot officers blocked the space and forcibly blocked the weekend assemblies. The plaza was renamed a “passageway” to prevent people from stopping there, and subsequent attempts to revive it failed to recapture its momentum (Ōki, Suzuki 2014: 214–216).

folk guerrilla shinjuku west exit underground plaza nishiguchi chika hiroba rally anti-war vietnam tokyo music event 1969

folk guerrilla shinjuku west exit underground plaza nishiguchi chika hiroba rally anti-war vietnam tokyo music event 1969

folk guerrilla shinjuku west exit underground plaza nishiguchi chika hiroba rally anti-war vietnam tokyo music event 1969

It attracted much press coverage at the time and led to debate on the meaning of a public plaza (Sand 2013: 41–6). The nominal change from a “plaza” to “passageway” indicates an attempt to control space through regulation and naming.(4) The shift happened within a broader project to regulate space in Shinjuku and Tokyo, reflecting Lefebvre’s argument that city planning and space is intrinsically linked to hegemony (Lefebvre 1991: 11, 45, 321). Skyscrapers and hotels appeared in west Shinjuku throughout the 1970s. By the time the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s headquarters moved there in 1991, it was already well established as a business district. Likewise, where there had previously been riots in Shinjuku and Ginza there were now weekend “pedestrian paradise” zones. The ekimae also continued to develop as a promotional space, to be fully exploited for commercial purposes rather than public benefits. In this sense, Tokyo evolved a certain phlegmatic iteration of Habermas’s “bourgeois public sphere”: citizens were empowered as consumers with agency, subsuming the previously state-owned public sphere in the name of capital (Habermas 1992). What was missing was the “public opinion” that had been so fundamental to the rise of the social sphere.

There followed a parallel decline in social movements, which generally became more localised and smaller in scale in the wake of the 1972 Asama Lodge Incident, when the United Red Army’s horrific purge was exposed, and also the violent infighting (uchi-geba) between far-left factions (Andō 2014) during the early and mid-1970s. Large-scale movements did continue, not least in opposition to the construction of Narita Airport, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but the public perception of left-wing politics was irreversibly damaged and, regardless of the truth, it came to be believed that the Long Sixties was over by 1972 — an interpretation reinforced by subsequent media and scholarly chronicles of the period. Young people did indeed drift away from politics and activism, to the extent that just a couple hundred students protesting in 2015 generated headlines.(5) The activists had not disappeared, of course, but rather formed what Steinhoff calls Japan’s “invisible civil society”: a vibrant if almost entirely unnoticed and overlooked part of society in Japan (Steinhoff 2017). To be an activist was now to be a trace in the ether and most people inevitably left politics behind to pursue careers and families.

The Shinjuku West Gate Underground Plaza movement was revived in February 2003 when Ōki Seiko, who was one of the original folk guerrilla musicians, went to the area to protest the Iraq War (Ōki, Suzuki 2014: 224). Soon others joined her: forming what we might today class a “flash mob”, Ōki and her fellow protesters assemble at the plaza (passageway) every Saturday evening to hold silent vigils with placards. They are reclaiming the West Gate as an agora that brings together unaffiliated and diverse activists.

Sand notes that a wave of nostalgia hit Tokyo in the 1990s and 2000s through buildings, projects, film, and even the naming of a new subway line (2013: 2). It is possible to view the revival of the West Gate movement, too, as regressive nostalgia, which is arguably borne out most of all by the publication of a book in 2014 co-edited by Ōki looking back at the 1969 movement and which also included a rare documentary of the original gatherings. In the 2000s, the 1969 movement was frequently positioned as a crucial and iconic event by the likes of Oguma Eiji and Suga Hidemi within the overall reassessment of the 1960s at this time (Oguma 2009, Suga 2006).(6)

In December 2017, I conducted fieldwork on the revived version of the West Gate Underground Plaza movement, which has continued to this day. Due to the sensitive nature of engaging in fieldwork with activists in Japan, I took a cue from Steinhoff and decided to adopt an informal approach when meeting them, rather than recording interviews or circulating questionnaires (Steinhoff 2003: 38). I conducted further fieldwork several times in 2018 but the following analysis is based largely on my first session.

The protest was attended by just under 20 demonstrators, which participants told me was a fairly typical number. In the same way as the original folk guerrillas played music from 6pm to 8pm, so too does the revived movement stick to a basic structure or timetable, even if there are no musical instruments this time. They first gather at 5pm above ground outside the entrance to the Odakyu Department Store, under one of the pedestrian footbridges. Some will stand near the flow of people to hand out flyers. The others line up to one side, holding signs. From 6pm, they then descend to the underground plaza, where they spread out and stand around alone or in small groups by the pillars, continuing to hold up their signs. At 7pm, they come together to say their farewells, and then disperse. There are no speeches, no slogans. It is a silent, vigil-like protest—what the participants call a “standing demonstration”. The structure is loose and decentralised. There are no leaders or rigid rules. It simply unfolds in the urban space as regularly and stoically as the trains that shuttle into the station.

The protesters are there to demonstrate about a wide range of issues, though all can be categorised as within the left or liberal spectrum. Anti-war placards are not surprisingly the most consistent element, along with protests against the Abe Shinzō government, proposed revision of Article 9 of the Constitution (which states Japan’s renunciation of war), the US military bases in Okinawa (especially the base relocation to Henoko Bay), the deployment of Osprey aircraft, Japanese re-militarisation, nuclear power and the Conspiracy Law. Many of the campaigns are on-going ones; others are responses to recent occurrences in the news in Japan and overseas.

shinjuku west gate nishiguchi protest plaza

Of the participants, many are from Tokyo but some travel in from outside the capital, and there are occasional visitors from similar movements around Japan. While Ōki was a folk guerrilla, the others are not necessarily connected to the original movement. The ages range, though most attendees are above retirement age — as is typical of left-wing protest movements in Japan. One woman looked like she was in her eighties. The youngest attendee I saw was a man who seemed to be around 30. People come from a mix of political avenues and said that they did not consider themselves to be hard-core “activists” (undōka) per se.

A woman I met was 75 and lived in Shinjuku ward. She was inspired by the Fukushima incident to become political and started attending events. She happened to see the West Gate vigil one week in 2012 and decided to join. She now comes every week.

One man was in his seventies. He had been a regular “salaryman”, in many ways, but a liberal. He had passed by and witnessed the 1969 rallies but had not participated because, he said, he was working at that time, rather than a student — and the demarcation between shakaijin (literally, “person of society”) and gakusei (student) had already set in. The implication is he felt, as a non-student, that he could not join in, either because he was excluded from the New Left movement somehow or that there might be repercussions professionally if he did.

Attendees mentioned the difficulty of voicing their opinions in Japan publicly, which is hard to do in public due to historical, social and legal pressures. The West Gate movement has solved this problem for them.

It is also a social event: people know each other from coming regularly and welcome newcomers; they move around a little and make small talk, complimenting each other on their placards. That being said, there is essentially no internal communication or planning in terms who is coming and what placards they will bring.

We should not underestimate the level of commitment shown by participants. On the session I attended, Ōki came straight from another event quite far from Tokyo, as she had from Haneda Airport the week before. Some people come every week. Despite their ages, they stand for two hours straight in all weathers, holding up signs and placards. One man told me he has even come on New Year’s Day, simply because it was a Saturday.

When Ōki restarted the movement, it attracted some press attention. However, it has largely built momentum since through word of mouth. Ōki is active on Facebook and Twitter, and always posts images of the weekly vigils.(7)

The materiality of the protest pivots around the placards, but there are also clothes, badges, flyers and postcards. For the slogans on their placards, the demonstrators use certain tropes and motifs familiar from other protests, but many placards are homemade, individual and idiosyncratic.(8) As such, the results are sometimes shoddy and highly heterogeneous. It is personalised rather than collectively ceremonial (i.e., all participants assume the same or fixed modes of behaviour and presentation), but still ritualistic in the sense that everyone will invariably bring along some kind of placard, which becomes a trait in its own right.

shinjuku west gate nishiguchi protest placards

shinjuku west gate nishiguchi protest placards

Adopting the terminology of James M. Jasper, the communication methods represent a switch from “naughty” to “nice” tactics (Jasper 2014: 101). The anodyne, cautious movement of today stands in stark contrast to the 1969 one, which was vilified as rebellious and dangerous. While there are flyers aplenty, there are no “organs” or newspapers like you find at other rallies by established left-wing groups in Japan, where every faction or group has its own gazette that it wants to distribute or sell to passers-by.

The space is divided between the rail companies and Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Legally, the movement occupies a convenient loophole. In a law that goes back to 1910, protesters need a permit to demonstrate or hold an event on the street, but none is required here because they are not moving or blocking the traffic. This is important when we consider how the space was manipulated by the authorities to exert control over the use of Shinjuku and the right to the city. There is actually a police substation right in the underground plaza and, according to activists, officers were initially curious about the protests but have subsequently left them alone.

If the authorities tacitly condone them, what about the general public? The relentless deluge of people passing through the West Gate on a Saturday evening simultaneously guarantees the protesters an audience while also making them invisible. The public almost entirely ignores them, a fact to which they are not unaware. Only the occasional intrigued passer-by takes a flyer or a closer look. “I’m happy even if just one person sees us and notices,” a participant told me. The protest forms part of the sociality of the West Gate and its “hubbub”. This enhances the strength of the movement, which hinges on anonymity: anyone can participate at the West Gate plaza and many do precisely because the audience comprises strangers. It takes “bravery” to do it at first, as one man said, but less so than at a local area where you might be recognised. Again, the model of the movement makes it accessible for even the non-activist. It is, they said, “democracy”.

We might connect this to Horgan’s discussion of “strangership” and copresence as a spatial and social relationship. Strangership is a positive, equalising force that can be linked to democratic public spheres. “Where relations of strangership do not go awry, where conflict does not animate relations between strangers, where strangership does not drift towards enmity, then we can observe that the possibility of an associative life between strangers rests on an unarticulated but nonetheless present solidarity, or what I call soft solidarity.” (Horgan 2012: 612, 617, 619). For the West Gate, I might suggest another term here, drawing on Roquet and Horgan: ambient solidarity.

Roquet has emphasised the “ambience” of Tokyo, and certainly the West Gate movement melts into the background noise of Shinjuku (the shoppers, cars, buskers, vendors and so on). For Roquet, video screens create an ambient soundscape in Tokyo. Video forms an “atmosphere”, composed of looped visuals everywhere the consumer looks. From the 1970s, he notes, rail conglomerates started to use video advertising screens, which became familiar features of the city. He links this to the development of background music and Muzak in post-war Japan in parallel with consumer trends that pushed towards comfortable environments (kaitekisa) (Roquet 2016: 32, 86, 101). The West Gate is the outcome of this, within which the protest finds a new format in its old home.

It is, admittedly, a peculiar sort of Muzak, given its lack of volume. “I cannot stay silent when so much is happening in Japan,” one activist told me. But, literally speaking, they are “silent”. This muteness rejects the usual phatic modus operandi of the New Left in Japan, which is associated with boisterous, dogmatic and disruptive (and even militant) activism. But it is also quite different to the curated noise of “sound demos” that became prevalent in the Heisei period (Manabe 2013).

As with all protests, it is ritualistic and performative — aspects accentuated by the inaudible, posed nature of the protest whereby the participants almost become like static mime artists. Normally a protest wants to be heard, to be seen; it aims for the spectacular, to attract attention (positively or negatively). Here it is ambiguous. Participants want to be noticed, but also do not. Not being noticed is a safety mechanism and a strategy. It conforms to aspects of what Lefebvre calls (borrowing from Noam Chomsky) “spatial practice”, whereby the cohesion and continuity in a space “implies a guaranteed level of competence and a special level of performance”, though it is not necessarily “coherent” (Lefebvre 1991: 33, 38). However, the spatial practice of this event runs counter to the kind of commonly perceived or constructed “spatial code” normally associated with a train station, a thoroughfare or Shinjuku (Lefebvre 1991: 16).

We might also consider the cyclical and repeated weekly nature of the event, as opposed to the gesture toward “revolution” (a linear, one-off event) of the previous gatherings. Here, the loose yet predictable rhythm of the event requires our attention. It is the kind of rhythm that only works in a city. For Lefebvre, rhythm was one of the major ways to understand urban space: the layering and interaction of rhythm links with the social production of space. The West Gate movement manifests one of Lefebvre’s classifications of rhythm: eurhythmia, when various rhythms interlock in a healthy syncopation (Lefebvre 2004: 67; Roquet 2016: 80).

Sand has traced the Japanese discourse around urban space and public space in the late 1960s and beyond, in parallel with and stemming from the 1969 movement. He pinpoints the emergence of the concept of kaiwai (vicinity, district) as an alternative to the Western hiroba (plaza). The kaiwai is an activity space, comprising a kind of “mist” or atmosphere that triggers a set of activities. It was identified at the time as distinctly Japanese (Sand 2013: 31–3). While that latter assertion is debatable, the image of a “mist” in a space connects with Heidegger’s categorisation of Stimmung (attunement, climate) that was developed by Watsuji Tetsurō into the Japanese notion of kūki, an “air” or mood that exerts hegemony and homogenises people in an atmosphere or identity (Roquet 2016: 6–8). The West Gate can be regarded as a space for a certain degree of spontaneous, non-permitted (but not proscribed) activities: a ma (interstitial space) or kaiwai allowing ambiguous margins for testing the relationship between citizens and society in this “air”, which is rooted in the history of the space and city. And this quality has now been truly realised in a way that keeps it safe from crackdown. Through this, the city is re-appropriated and retrieved from purely capitalist and economic control. In the heart of one of Japan’s major shopping districts, the West Gate forms an example of what Lefebvre calls “contradictory space” in the city that eschews dualism (Lefebvre 1991: 292, 386). Lefebvre also cites an example from an unnamed Japanese philosopher referring to the concept of shin-gyō-sō, denoting three levels of spatial, temporal, mental and social areas (Lefebvre 1991: 152–5). The concept originated in calligraphy but was influential in Japanese spatial design to allow for different degrees of rigidness in planning a city. The West Gate is such a “contradictory space” that facilitates multiple “levels” simultaneously.

A comparison with Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park in London was actually made by participants. We might also draw an analogy with free speech zones (First Amendment Areas) in the USA, though the vocality of the movement is radically different. Such celebrated platforms for democratic expression are lucid whereas the effects of the West Gate protest are evanescent. But the participants are not merely ghosts or relics from the past haunting a favourite old spot: the protests evolve, joined by newcomers and fresh causes. It realises an implicit temporary autonomous zone, and the subdued, surreptitious guerrilla occupation of a prominent example of privately owned public space (POPS), which is heavily regulated in Tokyo. Returning to Steinhoff’s image of the “invisible civil society” in Japan, it is worth noting that the West Gate movement is just one of several such regular vigils or protests that form a TAZ or temporary plaza.(9)

In conclusion, we must consider: Is the West Gate movement a success or failure? Is it effective as a social movement? I argue that it transcends reliance on participant numbers or general notions of “democracy in action” and instrumentally “effective protest” (e.g., impact on political policy, public response). Although small and little known, it is one of the longest on-going movements of its kind in Japan. It is an exemplum for future movements going beyond conventions of “rally” or “protest”, and succeeds in shaking off the legacy of the past while nonetheless also embracing it. Tokyo continues to enjoy a tourism boom and gear up for the 2020 Olympic Games. The city is changing as new buildings rise and old ones vanish — not least in Shinjuku. Against this accelerated process of gentrification and “cleansing”, the significance of the West Gate protests will surely only grow further.

Here I have described the revival of one of the most iconic movements of the New Left in Japan, arguing that its resurrection surpasses nostalgia and represents a genuinely positive and sustainable development within the contexts of Japanese post-war history and urban space. The subject awaits further attention, however, not least a full ethnographic study of the participants, more detailed analysis of the materiality and tactics of the movement, comparisons with similar vigils in Japan, and deeper consideration of such issues as silence in protest as a phatic modus operandi.



Andō, Takemasa, Japan’s New Left Movements: Legacies for Civil Society, London: Routledge, 2014.
Andrews, William, Dissenting Japan: A History of Japanese Radicalism and Counterculture, from 1945 to Fukushima, London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 2016.
Bey, Hakim, T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism, New York: Automedia, 2003.
Eckersall, Peter, Performativity and Event in 1960s Japan: City, Body, Memory, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Habermas, Jürgen, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. by Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick Lawrence, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992.
Harvey, David, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, London: Verso, 2013.
Havens, Thomas R.H., Fire Across the Sea: The Vietnam War and Japan 1965–1975, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.
Hein, Carola, “Shaping Tokyo: Land Development and Planning Practice in the Early Modern Japanese Metropolis,” Journal of Urban History, 36 (4), 447–484.
Horgan, Mervyn, “Strangers and Strangership,” Journal of Intercultural Studies, 33:6, 2012, 607–622.
Jasper, James M., Protest: A Cultural Introduction to Social Movements, Malden, Massachusetts: Polity, 2014.
Lefebvre, Henri, The Production of Space, trans. by Donald Nicholson-Smith, Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.
—————–Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life, trans. by Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore, London: Continuum, 2004.
Manabe, Noriko, “Music in Japanese Antinuclear Demonstrations: The Evolution of a Contentious Performance Model,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 42, No. 3, 21 October, 2013.
Oguma, Eiji, 1968: Hanran no shūen to sono isan, vol. 2 (1968: The End of the Revolt and Its Legacy), Tokyo: Shinyōsha, 2009.
Ōki, Seiko, Suzuki Hitoshi (eds.), 1969: Shinjuku Nishiguchi Chika Hiroba (1969: Shinjuku West Gate Underground Plaza), Tokyo: Shinjuku Shobō, 2014.
Roquet, Paul, Ambient Media: Japanese Atmospheres of Self, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
Sand, Jordan, Tokyo Vernacular: Common Spaces, Local Histories, Found Objects, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.
Shūkan Anpo, 0, 15 June, 1969.
Steinhoff, Patricia G., “Makers and doers: Using actor-network theory to explore happiness in Japan’s invisible civil society,” in Wolfram Manzenreiter and Barbara Holthus (eds.), Happiness and the Good Life in Japan, Abingdon: Routledge 2017.
—————–“New Notes from the Underground: Doing Fieldwork without a Site,” in Theodore C. Bestor, Patricia G. Steinhoff, Victoria Lyon Bestor (eds.), Doing Fieldwork in Japan, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2003.
Suga, Hidemi, 1968-nen, Tokyo: Chikuma Shinsho, 2006.


(1) A typical example can be found on the Guinness World Records website, which notes that “an average of 3.64 million passengers per day pass through the station, which has over 200 exits and serves the city’s western suburbs via a range of intercity, commuter rail and metro services”. (Accessed 23 January, 2018).
(2) There are varying English names for Shinjuku Nishiguchi, including on official signage (West Gate and West Exit, West Entrance, etc.). This essay will stick with “West Gate”.
(3) An example (uncredited) of the immediate response to the police crackdown and how the original movement regarded itself can be found in the inaugural issue of the Beheiren magazine Shūkan Anpo (Weekly Anpo), declaring the underground plaza as “our plaza” and denouncing the authorities for “disrupting” it. Shūkan Anpo, 0, 15 June, 1969, 14–15, 24.
(4) The efforts were only partly successful: some signs in the station continue to say “West Gate Plaza”.
(5) The student group SEALDs generated headlines around the world in spite of only numbering a few dozen members and professing very non-radical ideas. Notably, they did not refer to themselves as “left wing”.
(6) For assessment of the movement in English, see Havens 1987, Eckersall 2013, Sand 2013, and Andrews 2016.
(7) Her Twitter account is Images and updates can also be found by searching 新宿西口反戦意思表示 on Twitter.
(8) The famous Beheiren slogan “Korosu na” (Don’t Kill) is a common sight on their placards. In general, it was revived from the 2000s during anti-Iraq War protests and continues to be used by the current anti-Abe movement.
(9) Others include the Friday gatherings outside the Prime Minister’s official residence, which started in 2012, as well as an anti-war protest in Umeda, Osaka, since 2017, and the monthly JKS47 “monks” outside METI since 2015. None of these, though, are silent or rigidly stationary. It is also significant that anti-war flash mobs in Ebina City led to a legal battle when the mayor tried to ban them in 2016, even though they were stationary and did not block pedestrian traffic. Additionally, the attempt to form a permanent “plaza” with the anti-nuclear power tents erected outside METI in September 2011 ended with their removal in 2016 after a long court struggle. It seems that models of a temporarily occupied plaza are more likely to succeed in Japan.

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Lovable communism: Japanese Communist Party creates anime idol character election songs and music videos

The Japanese Communist Party has launched its campaign for the upcoming House of Councillors election this month with the customary tactics of speeches in public places and canvassing, but has also created surely the most original videos by any of the parties competing for votes.

Released online on 7 July, the “WE ARE Kyōsantō!” (We are the Communist Party!) video features an animated idol, Koyō no Yōko, who sings a rousing anthem with the message that the JCP is fair to workers. Dressed in a trench coat and sunglasses, the idol character’s name is a play on koyō, or employment, and her music video comes a time when sexual and power harassment in the workplace as well as death by overwork and other employment issues are looming large in Japan.

we are kyosanto japanese community party music video idol

The catchy lyrics include such gems as “We are Kyōsantō! Seifu o KNOCK OUT! We are Kyōsantō! Seifu o knock out-o! Nihon o UPDATE! We are Kyosantō! Mirai o LET’S START!” (We are the Communist Party! Knock out the government! We are the Communist Party! Update Japan! We are the Communist Party! Let’s start the future!).

The video was preceded by a more subdued debut called “YA!YA!YA! Yatō Kyōtō” (Ya! Ya! Ya! Opposition Parties Fight Together).

These were followed, on 14 July, by “Senkyō de WOW WOW!” (very roughly, “Wow it at the election!”), starring the same idol.

It lies far beyond my expertise or comfort zone to analyse the subcultural terrain these videos are navigating, though the visceral impact is obvious. It is certainly taking various cues from Akihabara subcultures and established anime idols, and is also a curious inverse of something done by AKB48, the archetypal idol group popular with otaku which turned back to (historical) far-left political activism for inspiration for a music video in 2016. More importantly, though, is to avoid dismissing these JCP videos as wacky or incomprehensible, as a total outsider might understandably do. Context is everything.

The JCP has traditionally had a very strong youth wing, which formed a major part of the student movement in the post-war years (leading to many serious clashes with the New Left students). Its youth movement also famously was always very musical. In fact, this was one of the many reasons that the New Left factions lambasted the JCP: that it had not only abandoned the cause of a true revolutionary movement, but was focused only on fun singing and dancing in its activism, when the radicals believed the stakes were so high they justified and even required direct physical conflict with the police. (For a rough comparison, imagine if the main left-wing opposition party in Hong Kong had a youth wing that held peaceful concerts and camping outings while all the other young people were out on the streets clashing with the riot police.)

The legacy of this all-singing, all-dancing JCP remains today in the Akahata Festival that it holds typically every November for several days (though not since 2014), featuring plenty of music, sports and other activities.

While this series of videos may well represent fresh ground for the JCP and its hardworking publicity team, it is far from an entirely new development. The party has had mascots for several years now, causing something of a sensation when the characters appeared with the aim of making communism cute and disseminating a unique kind of kawaii kyōsanshugi. In fact, the idol Koyō no Yōko in the music videos is ostensibly a member of the “Kakusan-bu” (Proliferation Bureau) mascots and has been around ever since they launched in June 2013.

koyo no yoko mascot japanese communist party

We can also see apparent manga influences in one of its most prominent recent posters, which features a shōjo-like young female figure holding up a flag.

japanese communist party poster manga shojo girl

There might be a hint of Delacroix’s iconic Liberty Leading the People there but it also seems to suggest a reference to Aida Makoto’s 1995 pastiche painting Utsukushii hata (Beautiful Flag), from the War Picture Returns series, and which was used for the cover of Ōtsuka Eiji’s 1996 book “Kanojotachi” no Rengō Sekigun (Her/Their United Red Army), a key text in the development of kyōsanshumi New Left fandom discourse.

eiji otsuka kanojotachi rengo sekigun

The JCP also reacted well to the surge initiated by SEALDs (a group that was, not always accurately, associated with the JCP) by mimicking the students’ superb presentation skills in its own subsequent posters, which echoed both the message of SEALDs and the demographic of fashionable yet “normal” youngsters that group so effectively seemed to embody.

japanese communist party poster sealds

As such, the new videos by the JCP are not a one-off attempt to target a small coterie of netizens or an otaku subculture, but part of a general trend by the JCP and others to speak to millennials.

Faced with an ageing population and declining voter turnout rate, Japan took a bold step and enfranchised 18- and 19-year-olds in the summer of 2016. Unlike other nations, where millennials have mustered around visionary left-wing figures such as Sanders or Corbyn, the novice voters are often choosing to vote LDP thus far, possibly because they do not know enough about the other parties, which are sometimes quite new themselves. This is not to say that the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan or JCP do not attract any interest among voters in their late teens or twenties — far from it — but it also suggests that the impact of heavily, sometimes breathlessly discussed youth movements like SEALDs, Public for Future and Aequitas may be more limited when it comes to elections.

The JCP is also not the only political party looking to pick up new votes with new tactics. Even the dusty Liberal Democratic Party is active in this regard, recently trying a fashion magazine and social media tie-up that backfired and stoked controversy. For the current election campaign, the LDP also produced a manga booklet and hired a famous manga artist to make a poster. The CDP is focussing on social media, a choice necessitated by its modest war chest but which also helps it reach millennials quickly. Another of JCP’s approaches for this campaign has included using hip hop music at an event, while another minor party has resorted to cosplay.

For the JCP, its tactics are not just about this one election but rather consolidating its position in the long term as the party of the have-nots. In additional to traditional Japanese left-wing issues like protecting Article 9 and the Constitution as well as the anti-war and anti-base movement, the JCP is competing with the relatively young CDP to be the voice of the precariat and under-represented. For some time now, the JCP has presented itself as the party of the working poor, of minorities, of gender equality, of the young — and of optimism. This is especially emphasised by the current campaign, whose main election motto is “Hope for tomorrow” and the lyrics to the music videos also make very plain.

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Though its parliamentary presence is modest, the JCP has a strong grassroots base and decent representation in local politics. Like all the parties, it is vital to attract a new generation of support in order to remain a viable political force, acutely so in the JCP’s case because it relies on subscriptions to the Akahata (Red Flag) newspaper as a primarily source of income. Purchasing a print newspaper, yet alone subscribing to one, is a foreign concept for probably most millennials.

Based on the policies it presents first and foremost to the public, the JCP no longer seems a communist party but more like a labour party. Indeed, the shifts we can denote in its presentation style are not merely cosmetic changes but reflect a gradual softening of ideology whose trajectory arguably traces back to the Sixth Japanese Communist Party Congress in July 1955 and the formal, final renunciation of revolution through armed struggle. The most significant recent directional adjustment affects the JCP’s long-held opposition to the Imperial House, even to the extent of agreeing to attend the opening session of parliament when the reigning emperor always gives a speech from a position higher than the lawmakers present in the chamber.

There is an even older precedent to this, though. In the late 1940s, the JCP famously launched a campaign to make itself seem more electable and moderate: its new brand of leftism, it said, was aisareru kyōsantō, a “loveable communist party”. Internal machinations and manoeuvres over the years notwithstanding, these mascots and videos are perhaps only the latest manifestations of an outwardly adaptable and savvy party.


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