Police arrest two Zengakuren activists for entering university campus in Tokyo to distribute political materials

Tokyo Metropolitan Police officers arrested two activists from the left-wing student group Zengakuren on 4 November on suspicion of entering a university campus to distribute political publications without permission.

The activists were nabbed in central Tokyo as they made their way to the annual Dōrō-Chiba “international solidarity” labour union rally in Hibiya, which is the largest far-left labour gathering in Japan, attracting up to 10,000 participants from a wide range of groups and visiting overseas delegates.

Though the alleged trespassing took place in late July, the timing of the arrests was both a practical one, since the police knew that the event was an ideal opportunity to serve open arrest warrants on the activists guaranteed to attend, but also deliberately scheduled in order to send a symbolic message to the rally organisers.

The two activists — Yōhei Sakube (27, of Dōgakukai, the de facto Kyoto University branch of Zengakuren) and Yūichi Utsumi (38) — are accused of entering the campus of Tōyō University, a private college located in Bunkyō ward in Tokyo, and distributing political publications to students for over an hour. They are alleged to have visited various student club rooms and handed out organs and flyers with information on an upcoming rally. Sakube is one of the central figures in the on-going Zengakuren lawsuit against police brutality, while Utsumi is a veteran originally affiliated with activism at Hōsei University in the 2000s (I actually interviewed him a few years ago for a piece in The Japan Times).

The incident raises issues regarding the restrictions on student activism in Japan. For all the fanfare and gushing about SEALDs in 2015, the grim reality is that holding a campus strike is rewarded with arrests and expulsions, and, as we see, entering a campus to distribute flyers is a newsworthy offence that merits police action. A way around the trespassing problem is to be a student actually enrolled at the university, of course, but then you might be punished for promoting an unauthorised organisation. The entrances to Kyoto and Hōsei universities are these days regularly the scenes of amusing standoffs between university staff and Zengakuren activists. The former hold up signs telling the activists not to use bullhorns as well as film the intruders’ every move with cameras. The latter, though, merely pounce on the administrators’ zealous response as proof of the oppression they are fighting — and happily shout this to the rooftops for every passing student to hear. But if one of them enters the campus, it’s game over and possible grounds for arrest.

So how can student activists agitate and politicise, regardless of their causes, if they cannot enter the campus? Should the university be a sacred ground, a temenos cleansed of politics and struggles? Zengakuren continues to challenge this mindset.

zengakuren activist japan arrested trespassing left wing student

zengakuren activist japan arrested trespassing left wing student

The media reaction to the arrests has been reliably telling. Despite the relative insignificance of this development, it was treated as a news story and dutifully reported by such press outlets as the Sankei accompanied by dramatic images of the two “criminals” being escorted solemnly away. (See above images for examples.) The implication, of course, is that Zengakuren and, by extension, student activism is mediated as a form of antisocial behaviour, alongside the wrongdoing of other rouges paraded routinely in front of the cameras of the Japanese news media. This stands in stark contrast with the “lighter” public image Zengakuren has been at pains to stress of late, particularly through social media.

What the mainstream media does not report in almost all cases is that many of these arrests often end with no charges being pursued, as I suspect will happen here. Quite frequently the activists are released after the 23 days of detention is up or even sooner, though this period can be extended by re-arresting them. Far-left activists adhere to a policy of maintaining total silence during detention, known as kanzen mokuhi or kanmoku, which is quite a stoic undertaking, given that the days in detention unfold in complete isolation from the outside world and interrogations take place without full recording or lawyers present. Chūkaku-ha, which is the parent organisation of Zengakuren, has particularly upheld this strategy as the best strategy, simultaneously denying the imperialist and bourgeois capitalist state its authority as well as functioning as the effective defence mechanism that has allowed it to survive decades of police aggression, inner ruptures and attacks from other left-wing groups. Police know this, of course, so can only hold slight hope that they can break committed activists. Arrests for such trivial offences, then, are as much punitive as pragmatic. They are a warning, an attempt to remind the activists that the police continue to monitor them and restrict their resources.

Zengakuren has denounced the arrests, sharing video footage of the apprehensions almost real-time on Twitter and decrying the police actions as a thinly veiled application of the new conspiracy law in the wake of another activist’s arrest in Kyoto. That case involved the arrest of senior Dōgakukai member Akinori Takada on the campus of Kyoto University on 18 October, ostensibly for refusing to leave the premises, though this was later changed to a more straightforward trespassing charge when he was formally indicated on 29 October. Once again, the timing of this ahead of the rally is surely not coincidental, though it is also merely the latest in a litany of tit-for-tat conflicts between the student movement and Kyoto University, beginning in roughly 2014.

Modest in size yet feisty and ambitious, Zengakuren recently appointed a new chair from the University of Tokyo. It is the only far-left student organisation still operating at any real scale in the student movement in Japan. It has built up a cult following through videos posted on the highly original Zenshin Channel on YouTube, where activists like Sakube are a frequent presence in front of the camera and Utsumi plays a key role behind the scenes. Needless to say, the group was quick to respond to the arrests with this video message.

Update: 22 November 2018

The two Zengakuren activists were released from police custody on 22 November without charge. Unusually, and perhaps in a sign of the impact Zengakuren’s recent tactics are having, this merited press attention, such as a report on TBS News.


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Ittoku 2018 protest music festival makes noise on the streets around the National Diet

Ascending from the barren bowels of Kokkai-gijidomae Station in the early afternoon of Sunday 7 October to an Indian summer bout of unexpected sunshine, the empty streets of Japan’s parliament district were disturbed by throbbing. As I skirted around the west side of the National Diet, I could hear that Ittoku 2018, the second edition of the annual music protest festival, was already well underway.

Coming to the front facade of the Diet, the first of the nine staging areas became visible at last: musicians and bands belting out tunes in the open air. Buskers are relatively rare in Tokyo, generally only permitted at a handful of stations, but this was more than just street musicians: it was explicitly organised as a middle-finger-raising series of sets aimed squarely at the monolithic vessel of power that is the Diet. The songs I heard were often directly anti-government and anti-authoritarian in tone, all watched over by phlegmatic cops in the 30-degree heat. Even when the music was not overtly politicised, the mere act of playing music in this part of the city was now a political act, as the constant presence of musicians at the weekly Kanteimae or Kokkaimae rallies has demonstrated.

ittoku 2018 music protest tokyo diet

The roads carried few taxis or other vehicles. This was the weekend in Tokyo’s government district. Nothing is open. It is, as the Ittoku publicity warned with telling language, a “wilderness” with few shops or facilities. The tree-lined pavements were mostly empty of pedestrians, except the riot police officers scattered around the various sites of the festival, and the audience members, of which there were plenty, though modestly distributed across the points.

ittoku festival music protest tokyo diet national

ittoku festival music protest tokyo diet national

Led by the musician Chikara Urabe, who is a common face to spot at protests around Tokyo, Ittoku launched last year, specifically to protest the new state secrets, wiretapping and conspiracy laws. This year’s event had a focus on the recently revised Tokyo Anti-Nuisance Ordinance, though the “Declaration of Resistance” that it published also mentioned the resurgent crackdown on dancing in clubs, such as the arrests at Aoyama Hachi in January. Its name is an abbreviated version of ittoku kedo, ore no jiyū wa yatsura nya yaranee! Rokku fesutibaru (言っとくけど、俺の自由はヤツラにゃやらねえ!ロック・フェスティバル), a combative chunk of slang that translates roughly as the “I’ll just say this, my freedom won’t be screwed by that lot! Rock Festival”.

This year featured nine performance “stages” (two more than last year) spread around two sides of the Diet in addition to two other spots that served, respectively, as a kind of casual speaker’s corner in a park — not insignificantly, in front of Constitution Memorial Hall — and an open mic event. This is not dissimilar to the regular protests at the Diet, particularly since 2015, where different spots and corners around the pavements take on different functions, each hosting certain groups, campaigns and activists with varying tones and practices. The stage names were also pertinently chosen. There was the “culture yard”, occupied by a DJ booth. Other names exhibited a certain style and attitude: “roar stage”, “howl stage”, “raging fire”, “storm”, “angry waves”, “thunderclap”, and “singing Gumisaka” (named after the street near the Diet).

There was an overarching rock theme, but the actual lineup and “stages” encompassed reggae, folk and other genres. Sets of between 30 and 60 minutes ran throughout the festival at the different stages, including by the likes of Rankin Taxi, Peace Winds, and The Tokyo Blue Mountains.

ittoku 2018 music protest tokyo diet

ittoku 2018 music protest tokyo diet

ittoku 2018 music protest tokyo diet

Both performers and audiences inclined a little older; most seemed over forty, but this is the reality of counterculture in Tokyo — and it still felt like a “younger” event than most others cut from the same political cloth. If you were to conjure up an image of hippie middle-aged musicians descending on central Tokyo to play songs, you might be forgiven for imagining plenty of long hair and beards, and these were indeed present in abundance, alongside the expected t-shirts adorned with peacenik symbols. If it all sounds like an esoteric cliche, though, rest assured that the festival vibe was fresh, fun and accessible, especially compared to the quarter’s concrete and greenery that is so lifeless. Prominent activists who took part included Tetsu Makuro (aka Kaebin Tetsu). It was very much the typical anti-nuclear power and Kanteimae crowd. There were veterans from the Henoko base relocation protests and also someone from the Michibata Kōgyō roadside music protest movement.

When I attended in the early and mid-afternoon, the static attendees per stage were not vast in number, but many spectators were shuffling between the stages. Naturally, different bands had stronger followings, and the bigger names were scheduled for the evening. Running from 11 am to 8 pm, the set-up was impressive by the sheer dint of it being lots of musicians playing on the streets around the Diet. But the basic concept does not do justice to the practicalities. An event like this takes some serious organisation. Every space had loudspeakers, mics, and other equipment, not to mention the heavy instruments that each performer seemed to bring along — as well as generators to power it all. This is not a cheap undertaking and audiences were encouraged to donate or buy the official t-shirts to help cover the costs.

ittoku 2018 music protest tokyo diet

ittoku 2018 music protest tokyo diet

The “stages”, of course, did not have an actual stage. Rather, they were quite confined spaces, hemmed in by police barriers that ensured no one stepped out of the allotted space for the performances and that the pavements were not blocked for passing pedestrians (of whom, they were basically only a handful of tourists). Around four police officers kept watch over each stage. Movement is always very restricted in Tokyo for demonstrations, especially in this high-security area that has experienced several sensational protests that escalated beyond police control.

ittoku festival music protest tokyo diet national

It is tempting to see the event in simplistic terms of “hijacking” the sacred sector of parliamentary democracy in Japan, but the conditions of the festival were carefully negotiated with the authorities. Naturally, like all protests and street events in Japan, a permit was required and dutifully applied for, which gave the organisers official sanction but at a price: police guards. If you were to try to breech these regulations in such a sensitive location, it would probably result in immediate arrest for disturbing the peace. That is not to say the performers held back, just that they knew the rules of the game. Speeches were made. Musicians bantered with the cops. The atmosphere was jovial, helped by the sunny weather and jiving attendees, but there was an unspoken tension in the air. Epitomising the irreverent and parodic spirit of the festival, the Ittoku publicity uses a logo-cum-mascot that is a modified image of the Diet, transformed into a wall of speakers and brandishing a mic. It’s a bit punk, yet also cute. For so many, however, the parliament truly is a hollow place that does not hear what they say. So then it’s up to people, musicians or otherwise, to mutate into anthropomorphic Diets like the logo suggests and make their own noise.


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Changing of the guard for Zengakuren as University of Tokyo student activist becomes chair

It was the end of an era and the beginning of a new one, as Ikuma Saitō handed over the reigns of the left-wing student activist group Zengakuren to Kyōhei Takahara in early September at the 79th Zengakuren National Congress.

A 21-year-old second-year University of Tokyo student, Takahara first crossed paths with Zengakuren two years ago when he was contacted by the group via social media after he distributed flyers on campus criticising the university’s co-operation with the Olympics. As such, this represents not only a changing of the guard in terms of generation, indicating that Zengakuren, far from dying out, is gaining fresh blood, but also a significant coup for the group in securing a new leader from Japan’s most elite college. While Zengakuren — that is, the Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction) national student organisation, formally Marugakudō (Marxist Students League) — is traditionally known for its strongholds at the likes of Hōsei University or Tōhoku University, the group is extending its influence to other institutions, including Okinawa and Kyoto universities. This is borne out by the myriad attendance at the congress, featuring around 65 activists from twelve colleges around Japan. Alongside Takahara as the new chair, a secretary general was appointed from Kyoto University, joining what is now a diverse committee of delegates from student movements at Hōsei, Hiroshima University and Okinawa University. Small yet feisty, Zengakuren is nonetheless truly a national league again.

kyohei takahara zengakuren

The new chair of Zengakuren, Kyōhei Takahara. Photo: Aera

The novelty of a Tōdai sophomore taking on the mantle of Zengakuren — apparently the first time a Tōdai student has been honcho in some four decades — has meant that mainstream media outlets took an interest in the development. After all, here is someone with no arrest record, a greenhorn yet to be expelled for political activities, landing the top job in Japanese student activism. The University of Tokyo student struggle in 1968 and 1969 was probably the most iconic episode in the entire protest cycle of the period, especially the epic showdown between thousands of police officers and students in Yasuda Auditorium in January 1969. However, Tokyo soon reasserted its position as the most prestigious college in the country and even the veterans of the campus movement were relatively taciturn compared to activists from other universities. History has come full circle, in a sense.

Though it has ostensibly renounced militant means and is today largely a labour union movement, Chūkaku-ha (and by extension, Zengakuren) remains associated with a kind of spectral past of 1960s and 1970s violence. It is a vague series of images: street riots, helmets, sticks, stones, bombs, hijackings. Who actually did what and why is less important that the sensational kaleidoscope. This has served the police and media well over the decades, and is one of the reasons young people have spurred far-left politics. Upon matriculation, students are warned by their universities against “cults” recruiting members; political clubs are banned from the campuses. The autonomous student councils that were so formerly instrumental in mobilising the student movement in 1960s are almost entirely extinct.

Zengakuren has undergone a major facelift in recent years, the latest iteration of which is this new chair. Following on from the achievements of Saitō and the female activist Tomoko Horaguchi, in particular, in presenting the membership as ordinary youth who can be passionate and ideological yet also self-deprecating and funny, Takahara seems to have the kind of appearance that can attract recruits. He, too, at first was wary of Zengakuren when its members contacted him but says he swiftly realised the limitations of his solo attempts at activism. He saw how Chūkaku-ha’s criticism of the Olympics as something that “stirs up xenophobia” was close to his own views, and last year joined the organisation.

While SEALDs received intense levels of media attention in 2015 as fashionable liberal youth activists engaging with politics (albeit not ideology), and were commended for their savvy marketing skills, it seemed to stand in stark contrast to the more sprawling, at times haphazard, use of analogue and digital tools by the likes of Zengakuren. Things have changed. The activists now deploy an arsenal of social media, blogs and YouTube videos, disseminating content at a formidable rate. The relaunched Zengakuren website is comparatively clean and accessible, and filled with an archive of materials and information. It should be noted that the tide was shifting before — aspects of the “cute” Zengakuren could already be seen in NAZEN, a youth wing focused on the nuclear power issue with a penchant for colourful clothes — but it has now surged and expanded beyond expectations.

Zengakuren’s leading figures spotted a “gap” in the market and cleverly exploited it. No one else, so far, has been able to balance appealing directly to digital natives with genuinely far-left politics. Zenshin Channel, its industrious YouTube channel, has attracted a cult following for its amateur and outlandish charms. In offline actions, too, activists happily wear costumes and play up to their pariah status, not unlike other post-Heisei groups such as Kakuhidō, whose members embrace their standing as men unable to get the girls with parodic marches protesting Valentine’s Day. Moreover, Zengakuren’s online posts also practically pander to the eager desires of kyōsanshumi otaku who love everything to do with far-left radical groups from the past.

This has all unfolded in the shadow of renewed pressure from the university authorities and police to squeeze the group’s resources and activities as well as maintain a public image of it as dangerous, resulting in dramatic raids on Kumano Dormitory and the Chūkaku-ha HQ in Tokyo, and regular arrests for minor infractions — all dutifully reported by the press (though almost never when the activists are released without charge, as is often the case).

zengakuren membership japan student activists

The leading faces of Zengakuren, as presented on the group’s website

It seems, however, that Zengakuren’s causes are striking a chord with some students. Its lawsuit against police officers for alleged assault involves merely an extreme version of what students see at the entrances of campuses at Hōsei and Kyoto, where police and administrators grossly outnumber the activists, aggressively document their every move with cameras, and physically prevent them from stepping on the premises. Likewise, while not championed by Zengakuren exclusively, the on-going issues at Kyoto regarding the threatened Yoshida Dormitory eviction and standing signboard censorship speaks to youngsters slowly waking up to the neoliberal realities of the age. (In June, a symposium on the Kyoto University signboard issue was held on campus by a University of Tokyo study group. Speakers included a representative from Dōgakkai, the Kyoto University chapter of the Chūkaku-ha Zengakuren.) While SEALDs was (rightly) praised for making liberal activism cool again, and its campaigning has evidently influenced several other subsequent groups, a lesser-remarked development is that more hard-core and dogmatic left-wing activism — the New Left undōka to the SEALDs akutibisuto — is increasingly no longer a dirty word to some.

Meanwhile, the new academic semester has begun, bringing fresh politicking at Kyoto. Next up for Zengakuren is the nationwide series of demonstrations scheduled for 21 October, known as International Anti-War Day — a date in the late 1960s when several notorious mass riots took place, primarily in protest at the role of the United States (and Japan as a silent partner) in the Vietnam War. From Akita in the north down to Okinawa in the far south, Zengakuren and its associates will organise protests and rallies in one of its most ambitious actions in years.

As Takahara assumes command, the existing talent continues to take on fresh challenges. After seven years spend leading Zengakuren, whither Saitō? Presumably he can look forward to no longer being addressed as -kun in the part organ Zenshin. He will also surely progress up the ranks of Chūkaku-ha as a “regular” activist. (Even if he wanted it, an ordinary career is probably out of the question for someone of his repute.) He has already stood for election before and is set to do the same again in the House of Councillors election in July next year. The popular Tomoko Horaguchi will also stand in April’s Suginami ward election. Dressed in smart suits and transformed into mainstream political candidates, their portraits currently adorn posters plastered all across the local area. As these former student activists enter their thirties, it is less tenable for them to be the faces of Zengakuren — or at least, the most prominent faces. They are, after all, not actually students anymore or even “young” by some standards (outside Japan). Takahara’s arrival is perfectly timed for him to ride a new wave for Zengakuren. “I want to rebuild the student movement,” he told Aera in a largely sympathetic interview. “And in order to do that, I want to develop activism together with various other kinds of activists from many universities.”


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Residents and activists protest proposed Kōenji gentrification plan

On 23 September, locals and activists gathered in Kōenji, west Tokyo, to protest plans to redevelop the area that opponents denounce as commercially motivated gentrification.

Mustering supporters with the English slogans of “gentrification is not progress” and “Kōenji against gentrification”, the rally in a park was followed by a march taking a leisurely two-hour route around Kōenji and finishing with an after-party at TKA4, a newly opened counter-space in the neighbourhood.

Kōenji, located in Suginami ward a few stops west of Shinjuku on the JR Chūō Line, is renowned as a somewhat chaotic den of counterculture and the offbeat, particularly street fashion and music. I attended the rally, which had a vibe more festive than denunciatory, though was unable to go on the march itself. I estimated approximately 300 people at the rally, most of whom then joined the two sound cars for the parade. The shambolic and easy-come-easy-go atmosphere of the event attracted a broad church of participants. Among the attendees were plenty of veteran freeter activists and Kōenji types of all ages, ranging from families to middle-aged hippies, musicians and a smattering of foreigners and hipsters. Perhaps serving as an indicator of the breadth of this laid-back demographic, even the fascist-anarchist and cult activist Kōichi Toyama was to be found in the crowd giving away copies of his latest book.

The protest was organised by Hajime Matsumoto, a leading figure in Heisei-era counterculture and famous for co-founding Shirōto no Ran (Amateurs’ Riot or Amateurs’ Revolt), a much-celebrated network of thrift shops and spaces in the area. It is regarded as instrumental in the growth of freeter culture and slacker activism in the 1990s and 2000s promoting alternative living that rejected the mainstream corporate lifestyle, as many did (willingly or otherwise) in the wake of the economic bubble’s collapse. Lesser known is that it kickstarted the anti-nuclear power movement protests very soon after the Fukushima crisis began with a successful march in Kōenji in April 2011. Only later, especially in 2012, did the movement build into the massive rallies in Yoyogi Park and the weekly vigils at the Kantei for which it became iconic — but by then the beatniks of Kōenji had already been pushed out by the harsh tactics of the police.

koenji redevelopment gentrification protest shiroto no ran hajime matsumoto

koenji redevelopment gentrification protest shiroto no ran hajime matsumoto

The redevelopment plan itself, which has attracted little publicity so far but awareness of which was boosted by an article Matsumoto published on Magazine9 in June, pivots on a major new road that would essentially split Kōenji in two, ostensibly on such pretexts as the restricted access for emergency vehicles into the maze of small alleys where many eateries and shops are located. Locals fear the disappearance of the charming disorder and diversity of the neighbourhood, to be replaced by cookie-cutter condos and chain shops. Matsumoto illustrated his article with the following comic strip in English, cleverly highlighting how such “redevelopment” also has the adverse effect of lowering the cultural value of a community that acts as soft power appealing to tourists.

koenji redevelopment gentrification protest

If this all sounds familiar, you’re right: a similar thing already happened to Shimokitazawa in Setagaya ward a few years. That district has survived but is notably different these days. One of the speakers at the rally particularly cited Shimokitazawa, whose redevelopment sparked local opposition and much discourse. All was in vain as the railway companies still went ahead with their plans, but the hope is that Kōenji can be saved from the same fate. There is no exact timeline on the project, it seems, though Suginami could theoretically start it at any point now.

As such, this is a fight to protect the pandemonium that makes Kōenji what it is as well as a struggle to main the public’s right to these streets. Among the speakers at the rally, a lawyer referenced the contentious decision by Shinjuku in central Tokyo to reduce the number of parks in the ward that protests can use for march departure rallies to just one. Another speaker was a young activist from the self-governing Yoshida Dormitory at Kyoto University, whose residents face imminent eviction. Other speakers included Karin Amamiya, a well-known precariat activist and writer, and Kōjin Karatani, the acclaimed thinker and literary critic. Representatives from related movements in Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea also gave short speeches.

The rally then morphed into a clamorous and vibrant “sound demo”, where marchers trailed behind two sound trucks blasting out music: one with a rotating roster of live bands, another with a succession of DJs playing sets. The videos below should provide some insight into the rowdy mood these floats conjured up on the streets.

Perhaps due to Shirōto no Ran’s well-established “troublemaker” reputation, the confined nature of the march route, and the increasingly oppressive attitude by the state towards political protest in the run-up to the 2020 Olympics, the event came with a very heavy police presence, including dozens of public security bureau officers monitoring attendees and then riot cops escorting and strictly cordoning the proceedings. The marchers were kept fully separated into two groups and at times progress was completely halted. The musicians, however, were unfazed by all the fuss and continued to mosh and jive. Two arrests were made during the scrum of the march. This video shows the moment when one of the singers, the red-haired Gō Murakami, was taken away by police, though Matsumoto, who was driving one of the trucks, has since reported that both participants arrested were released without charge tonight.

koenji redevelopment gentrification protest shiroto no ran hajime matsumoto

高円寺に再開発は不要! 第一回高円寺超巨大パレード Facebook event page

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Images via @galbraithian999


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Sweden, a new novel by Matthew Turner about the fascinating history of American Vietnam War deserters in Japan

I uncovered many things during my brief and, so far, sole trip to Hawaii, though probably none that the regular visitor would expect. I was there to browse materials in the Kōji Takazawa Collection of Japanese Social Movement Materials at the University of Hawai’i. As such, far from the busy beaches and sun-drenched tourist destinations, I sequestered myself in a chilly archive room sifting through old documents, cuttings, letters and so on. The collection is a veritable Aladdin’s Cave and enough for a lifetime of research sessions. I resigned myself only to looking at a random sampling of materials from various topics I was studying for my book, Dissenting Japan. These included Beheiren, the loose and non-partisan citizens’ group that organised large protests against the Vietnam War in Japan during the 1960s and 1970s. One of the most provocative activities that fell within the Beheiren ambit was helping servicemen deserting from the numerous United States military bases around Japan.

Within one unassuming folder in the archive at Hawaii I remember finding a single sheet of typewritten English text — I believe the only item not in Japanese I encountered during my sessions in the archive. This was an original copy of a statement issued by deserters from the USS Intrepid at a press conference in Tokyo in 1967, though the deserters themselves were not present and instead shown to attendees on a 16mm film. I ended up using a quote in my book and including some of the details of the deserters’ tale. It was, however, just one of several such cases of Beheiren’s Japan Technical Committee for Assistance to Anti-War US Deserters (JATEC) helping AWOL Americans hide from the authorities, escape Japan and then make their way to refuge in Europe.

sweden matthew turner

That press conference for the USS Intrepid deserters provides the opening scene for a new novel by the New Zealander writer Matthew Turner, Sweden. The titular nation offered sanctuary to hundreds of deserters and draft resisters during the Vietnam War, though Turner’s book is set in Japan except for some flashbacks. Published earlier this year by The Mantle, Sweden promises to be “your passport to discover a part of American history you never knew”. In fact, Turner’s debut is, as far as I am aware, the first novel about this topic in English, despite its seemingly rich potential for fiction. In 1971, Terry Whitmore’s published a memoir Memphis, Nam, Sweden: The Story of a Black Deserter. There was also previously a film, Summer Soldiers (1972), directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara and written by John Nathan, also recounting the experiences of deserters and their (not always easy) relationship with Japanese “host families” and the local anti-war movement. In addition, Sweden forms part of a canon of “Zenkyōtō literature”, encompassing rite-of-passage novels about youth behind the barricades on campuses and more sensational stories dealing with the terrorist groups that later conducted bombing campaigns and hijackings.

Turner says he first heard about the Japanese peaceniks in the 1990s while he was living in Mishima and working as a translator. Fast-forward to the 2010s and Turner, now in his fifties and living in Christchurch, was finally writing his novel. Like all the best historical fiction, Sweden is long and well researched while managing to feel lively and pacy. Turner has done his homework, drawing on largely Japanese-language sources such as Kaiya Yamada’s famed Ai amu hippī: Nihon no hippī mūbumento ’60–’90 (I Am a Hippie: Japan’s Hippie Movement, 1960–90), which details the hippie commune on Suwanosejima where deserters stayed. He also travelled extensively around Japan to scout locations used by the clandestine JATEC network, including Hokkaido.

While the novel is a work of fiction, structured around three narratives told from different perspectives, it integrates real-life figures such as poet Gary Snyder, who spent time in Japan during the period, and one of the founders of Beheiren, Shunsuke Tsurumi. Across its 300-plus pages, the novel encompasses a wide range of characters and settings. Along the way we encounter activists, hippies, servicemen, girlfriends and culture clashes aplenty. It portrays a vibrant, exciting time at the end of the 1960s, packed with the passion of personal entanglements, street riots and ideologies. But through it all pulses a timeless, poignant urge. As one character remarks early on, “Some of [the activists] are communists. Some are Buddhists. Some are even Christians. They’re just normal people who want the Vietnam War to end.”


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