In sweltering central Tokyo, activists protest 2020 Olympics with march through Shibuya

While Japan combats a record-breaking and deadly heat wave, many are looking ahead to the 2020 Olympics, which will open in Tokyo in exactly two years’ time. The safety of athletes, not to mention the staff, volunteers and spectators, is of paramount concern if temperatures hit 40 degrees as they have done recently.

As such, the poignancy of both the timing and the location for the Okotowa Link rally and march on 22 July protesting the 2020 Olympics cannot be overstated. Gathering in the Sunday afternoon heat on the bridge connecting Omotesandō with Meiji Shrine were around 100 participants. Behind the demonstrators was Harajuku Station, itself undergoing redevelopment ahead of 2020, and in the distance were the cranes towering over Shibuya that are hard at work transforming the district, including the project to turn Miyashita Park into a commercial hotel facility. And in the foreground, the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, an icon of the 1964 Games, loomed large.

Calling for the upcoming Games to be scrapped, the rally saw a number of speeches from activists and partner groups denouncing the 2020 Olympics for such reasons as the evictions of residents, its promotion of nationalism, the immense financial and environmental waste, the dangers posed by radiation from Fukushima and the stalled post-disaster reconstruction in north-east Japan, and fears of increasing surveillance and oppressive tactics by the state and police.

anti 2020 tokyo olympics harajuku rally protest

The subsequent one-hour march, tightly marshalled by a disproportionate number of police with riot shields and a contingent of security police documenting the participants from the sidelines, followed a route significantly passing Kishi Memorial Hall, which houses the Japanese Olympic Committee, as well as through the heart of Shibuya thronging with shoppers and then finishing up near the boarded-up Miyashita Park, which is one of the sites at the core of the anti-2020 movement.

anti 2020 tokyo olympics harajuku rally protest shibuya

I attended primarily as part of my on-going fieldwork on the anti-2020 Tokyo Olympics protest movement, which should come to scholarly fruition in summer 2019, though other non-Japanese researchers were also present. However, the event appeared to attract no mainstream press attention. The alternative media outlet Our Planet shot a video of the march and there seemed to be at least one other journalist covering the rally, but the anti-2020 movement continues to garner surprisingly little interest from the Japanese media.


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Japanese Red Army activist Tsutomu Shirosaki appeals conviction over terrorist attack in Jakarta

The former Japanese Red Army activist Tsutomu Shirosaki has launched an appeal against his conviction for attempted murder.

He was found guilty in a trial at Tokyo District Court related to a May 1986 attack in Jakarta that saw a series of mortars hit the Japanese and United States embassies, though none caused injury or significant damage.

Now aged 70, Shirosaki was given a 12-year sentence in November 2016 at the conclusion of the trial, the first of a far-left activist in Japan for terrorism-related crimes for many years and the first to involve lay judges. Witnesses included the film director and former Japanese Red Army member Masao Adachi.

tsutomu shirosaki deported japan 2015

Notwithstanding the high-profile nature of the trial, the prosecution was undermined by its poor handling of Indonesian witness testimony. As reported in the media at the time, the court translation contained notable errors. These are a key part of Shirosaki’s appeal, which had its hearing on July 18th. Shirosaki’s legal team argues that the approximately 200 mistakes, which were then later corrected, meant the witness could not be adequately questioned. In the hearing, the defence continued to profess Shirosaki’s innocence in the Jakarta incident, while the prosecution asked for the appeal to be thrown out. The appeal ruling is scheduled for September 26th.

Originally a member of Sekigun-ha (Red Army Faction), Shirosaki was serving a prison sentence for the robberies the radical group performed in the early 1970s. He was freed in 1977 in response to the demands of JRA airline hijackers and joined the Japanese based in the Middle East. While police assert he then became an active member of the JRA, supporters claim that he acted independently of Fusako Shigenobu’s group.

He was deported to Japan in February 2015 after his prison term in the United States finished. He had served 18 years for the attack on the US embassy in the Jakarta incident, after his arrest in Nepal and extradition in 1996. In Japan, he was then apprehended upon arrival at Narita Airport and put on trial for the attack on the Japanese embassy.

Incidentally, July 18th also saw the trial of Yōichi Yamada conclude at Kōbe District Court. Yamada is the editor-in-chief of the veteran left-wing newspaper Jimmin Shimbun, which has historical links to the JRA and published its statements for many years. Police raided the newspaper’s office and arrested Yamada in connection to his involvement with Orion no Kai, a support group for Kōzō Okamoto, a former JRA member now living in Beirut. The supporters would regularly circulate funds to Okamoto for his living costs by placing them in a bank account in Japan, which a Lebanon-based supporter then accessed locally by using the account’s ATM card. Police arrested Yamada on fraud charges over a technicality related to the use of a bank account by a third party, though in effect they were penalising him for helping a man still wanted by the Japanese authorities.

Okamoto is most famous as the surviving member of the three-man Japanese commando team that attacked Lod Airport (now Ben Gurion Airport) in 1972 as part of an operation planned by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. He was later freed from prison in Israel and joined the JRA. He has legal asylum in Lebanon, where he is regarded as a hero by many. However, the years he spent in solitary confinement in Israel gravely affected his mental state and the 70-year-old is unable to care for himself. Okamoto’s treatment in captivity inspired Adachi’s film Prisoner/Terrorist (2007).

Yamada received a one-year sentence (half what the prosecution had called for) and three-year suspended sentence. In the ruling, the judge noted that opening a bank account for the purposes of third party use does fall within the ambit of fraud but in this case the intent cannot be deemed malicious. Yamada and his supporters protested the verdict outside the court. It seems likely that Yamada will appeal.

While the chances of Shirosaki (or Yamada) winning an appeal may seem slim, given the pressure from the state to secure harsh sentences for far-left radicals, it is not unknown for JRA associates to succeed in the courts. Last year, former JRA member Hiroshi Sensui won a lawsuit over the restrictions on his visitation rights in prison.


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Activists alarmed by Shinjuku ward move to restrict parks for protests

Shinjuku ward in Tokyo revealed a plan on 27 June to reduce the number of parks that demonstrations can use from the current four to just one. The move was initiated as a move to combat hate speech rallies, which have been prominent in Shinjuku of late and which legislation in 2016 failed to prove completely effective against.

Shinjuku ward is surely concerned about the damage such small racist marches, which are always met with robust and even sometimes aggressive antifa counter-protests, do to the image of the area around the main station, which always throngs with tourists and shoppers. (The hate groups target Shinjuku because it is home to Tokyo’s largest population of ethnic Koreans.) Local neighbourhood and shopping street associations are also no doubt bothered by the traffic disruption and noise these rowdy rallies and marches entail.

The plan, which comes into effect from August, will see a new provision added to the rules regarding the use of parks as start points for marches and rallies. Such events will no longer be able to use parks that are located close to schools, educational facilities and shopping districts, which will ban use of Kashiwagi, Hanazononishi and Nishitoyama parks. It means that only Shinjuku Chuo Park, which is tucked away in the quiet skyscraper district very near the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, is left. Though march routes could still presumably then take a protest through the more crowded parts of Shinjuku, the main rallies would be kept far from public gaze.

Coming after the controversial revision to the Tokyo Anti-Nuisance Ordinance in the spring, those in the Left in Japan are increasingly worried that civil rights are under threat. Antifa activists and liberals have, of course, long campaigned for the prohibition of hate speech rallies but such an indiscriminate countermeasure as this would affect others more severely, given that racist protests account for only a minority of demonstrations at the four parks. (Rallies categorised as involving hate speech had been on the decline, though Shinjuku witnessed a sudden surge up to thirteen in the 2017 fiscal year.)

antiracist placard parks shinjuku

Placard design recently issued by the Anti-Racism Project group calling for restrictions on hate protests, rather than demonstrations in general

Since several parks in Shinjuku are popular choices for all kinds of rallies, this latest development has quickly attracted anger from activists and opposition parties, who argue that limitations should be placed on hate speech alone. A online petition was launched, receiving over 2,500 signatures so far.

In the run-up to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, many also expect further restrictions on the use of certain sites for protest activities, while the coronation of the new emperor in spring 2019 — an event that will trigger a flurry of anti-emperor demonstrations and then the prerequisite aggressive counter-protests by ultra-nationalists — will possibly prove another pretext for limiting freedom of speech and assembly, as it did when the current emperor took the throne nearly 30 years ago.

With decently sized plazas are few and far between, parks are commonly used in Japan as the location for the start (and end) points of protest marches, which typically begin with a rally. Certain parks have become associated with particular movements. Kashiwagi Park has recently become a regular site for racist groups to hold events. A few years ago, Yoyogi Park hosted the most iconic rallies from the height of the post-Fukushima anti-nuclear power movement.

As protests and rallies in Japan have to be approved beforehand by the Tokyo Metropolitan Public Safety Commission, it is not unknown for the right to use parks to be withdrawn sometimes by police and local government authorities. An anti-nuclear rally scheduled for Yoyogi in 2014 had to relocate to the much less accessible Kameido Chuo Park in the east of the city after the authorities retracted permission, ostensibly due to an outbreak of dengue fever.

Parks are coveted areas of rare public space in the city, which is more famous for its neon and concrete towers that green lungs. Something like 3.4% of Tokyo comprises public parks and gardens, compared to 38.4% in London and 14% in New York. In fact, parks in the Western sense did not even exist in Tokyo until the late nineteenth century. As such, when these spaces are endangered, people often react due to the immediate impact not just on protestors but also families and the homeless (who often stay or store their belongings in parks). One of the most vibrant and much-studied examples of this was the movement that emerged between around 2008 and 2010 to protect Miyashita Park from privatisation. It succeeded, though the park has since been closed and subsumed within the large-scale commercial redevelopment of Shibuya in conjunction with the Olympics. My current research related to the anti-Olympics movement in Tokyo actually focuses on Miyashita as well as Meiji, another park in the centre of the city where homeless residents lived, as contested sites in a fight against gentrification but also as emblematic of how 2020 is a flashpoint in the struggle for the right to the city.


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Zengakuren reaches milestone (and new viewers) with tongue-in-cheek and self-aware political YouTube video series

Zengakuren is not only an organisation of left-wing student activists; it is also a group of YouTubers.

Perhaps the most unlikely Japanese Internet hit of recent months, Zenshin Channel is named after the main newspaper of the Zengakuren parent organisation, the far-left group known commonly as Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction). The channel was launched in late May 2017 at a time of intense attention on the activists following the arrest of long-time fugitive Masaaki Ōsaka, which generated headlines around the world. Counter-narrative lies at the essence of the channel’s content: the key message of the inaugural video was that “comrade Ōsaka is innocent”.

The channel has grown from its rather unassuming start to have, as of writing, over 2,000 subscribers and regular attract 1-2,000 views for its short videos that are released once or twice a week.

The 100th “anniversary” video, however, released on June 10th, broke new ground in that it was long (over ten minutes) and became something of a viral hit, clocking up over 13,000 views. It is presented by the Zengakuren leader Ikuma Saitō and Tomoko Horaguchi, a young female activist so popular that she has inspired her own meme and fan website in the past.

zenshin channel zengakuren youtube student activists japan

The format of Zenshin Channel’s videos have varied and evolved in ambition over the months, though usually introduce the main articles and issues raised in the latest edition of Zenshin. In response to requests made online, Zengakuren designed the 100th instalment as a guided video tour of Zenshinsha, the headquarters of Chūkaku-ha in east Tokyo housing the printing presses that produce the group’s vast volumes of literature as well as dorms where many members reside.

How do truly committed left-wing activists live in contemporary Japan? This is a subject that others have taken an interest in before, including the mainstream Japanese press. It should also be noted that, while Chūkaku-ha generally gets negative coverage from the press, Zengakuren is treated more generously and the weekly tabloids and other outlets like to interview the young activists (motivated perhaps by curiosity as much as empathy) about their causes.

Guided by Horaguchi, the tour covers such highlights as the unmarked police vehicle that maintains 24-hour surveillance on the entrance to Zenshinsha, the different rooms and facilities in the building (and even the computer where the activists edit and prepare the episodes of Zenshin Channel), and the exterior of the fortified site that features current issues of its newspaper and a box for people to insert coins (mujin-hanbai — self-service retail — is quite common in Japan, particularly unmanned stalls in local neighbourhoods selling vegetables and fruit).

This is not simply a tactic to attract new recruits. There is something quite sophisticated going on here. A full five decades on since ’68, Zenshin Channel speaks to the trend I have noted before whereby “retro” student activism has now become a commodity suitable for cutifying and consumption. This can take the form of protest pastiche that is nonetheless a performative identity politics, cosplay costumes and moe tribute art related to kyōsanshumi (the name given by fans to their interest in communist or New Left content), or even a music video. This unfolds casually and unashamedly in spite of the apparent taboo that the Left’s dogma and problematic history represents for liberal and mainstream young activists such as SEALDs. That latter group, however, while shunning this baggage, was nonetheless a clear manifestation of the feminisation of protest, with its clean, media-friendly image that placed female members front and centre.

Zengakuren’s main activists have embraced this new state of affairs, growing out of the zestful and costumed style of protest championed earlier by NAZEN, a Chūkaku-ha youth group that developed post-3.11 with a focus on the nuclear power struggle, and the general 1990s and 2000s prefigurative culture wave of freeter activist movements.

Eschewing any attempt to fashion overly slick or professional output, Zenshin Channel is in fact highly self-aware and ironic — so much so that it sometimes might surprise outsiders that the makers’ “elders” allow them to jest so much (indicating the freedom that the activists are given). A jingle from The International opens each episode but is a decidedly untraditional recital of the workers’ hymn. Titles, captions and various visual effects are used copiously, yet without any masking of their rather callow level. Bloopers and “behind-the-scenes” shots are incorporated into the final version of the video. In addition to encompassing police surveillance as part of the tour — a fact that one might assume they would wish not to emphasise, given that it suggests they are “dangerous” people to avoid — Horaguchi notes that viewers will be familiar with the door to Zenshinsha from the (partially staged) news footage of police dramatically cutting into it at the start of the raids on the site — and there’s even then a clip of example footage inserted to illustrate the point. And the video ends with a special “viewer giveaway”: genuine Chūkaku-ha helmets that are likely to set the hearts of kyōsanshumi geeks aflutter.

While a far cry from the militancy and ideology for which Zengakuren is most famous, the activists have not abandoned their politics by any means. When presenting these videos, they are able to switch tones from the jokey and parodic to poker-faced quotations from their newspaper’s denunciation of a government policy or an announcement of a rally. In other words, for all the pranks, Zengakuren remains as sincere as ever.


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The Japanese Red Army: A Short History out now in German

The Japanese Red Army: A Short History has been published in paperback by the Austria-based Bahoe Books.

Though originally broached as a partial German translation of my first book, Dissenting Japan, we eventually shaped the project into a kind of spin-off book based on two of the chapters. The relevant sections on the Red Army were updated and heavily expanded so as to work as a standalone book with a majority of new material.

japanese red army short history

Across around 150 pages, The Japanese Red Army: A Short History charts the interrelated stories of the Red Army Faction (Sekigun-ha), United Red Army (Rengō Sekigun) and Japanese Red Army (Nihon Sekigun), with a particular focus on the latter. The book sets out to explain the contexts and events of the groups for the general reader as well as rectify many of the misconceptions about them that have arisen in the mainstream discourse.

For local marketing purposes, the German title was clarified to Die japanische Rote Armee Fraktion (literally, The Japanese Red Army Faction), since Germany already has its own well-known Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion). The book, which is translated by Rudi Gradnitzer, also features an introduction by Gregor Wakounig.

There are currently no confirmed plans for publishing the English edition.

Bahoe Books website


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