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.

japanese communist party poster equality

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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Local and international activists mark one year until Tokyo 2020 Olympics with week-long protests

To protest the Olympic Games is to protest a global system of corporate sponsorship and capital that takes precedence over the needs of the locals who actually pay in the end for the bonanza. As such, anti-Olympics groups are increasingly transnational, whereby protest movements in host cities join up with peers and allies around the world to work together.

Tokyo is no exception and the main grassroots groups leading the anti-2020 campaign — Hangorin no Kai and Okotowa Link — are enthusiastically partnering with a wide range of activists scattered all over the planet: the NOlympics Anywhere movement.

Marking one year to go until the 2020 Games kick off, this transnational grassroots movement is descending on the Japanese capital for an unprecedented one-week series of events from 20 July to 27 July, attended by organisers from eight recent and future Olympic cities.

tokyo 2020 olympics protests transnational events

The first day will see locals guide visitors around the immensely controversial New National Stadium site, whose construction resulted in expulsions of a homeless community from Meiji Park and residents from Kasumigaoka Apartments. (And this is putting aside the not insignificant matter of the stadium itself, whose original design by the late Zaha Hadid was famously detested by many Japanese architects and was eventually scrapped in favour of a native-born designer’s effort when the construction costs soared.) The tour will then continue around the bay area, which is transforming courtesy of a raft of taxpayer-funded buildings that will host the Olympic Village, accompanied, of course, by a clutch of condos so that the private sector can cash in on the boost to the real estate value of the area. (Something similar is happening around the stadium, too, where an expensive apartment block and hotel are appearing in a district formerly noted, and protected, for its scenic beauty.)

This inaugural fieldwork event is followed by another tour — outside “dystopia Tokyo” this time, to Fukushima on 22 July. Local activists have organised various such tours in the past, most strikingly last year when the Anti-Olympic Torch arrived from South Korea for the handover to Japanese campaigner.

On 21 July, a major symposium will be held at Waseda University with the prominent anti-Olympics scholar Jules Boykoff as the keynote speaker. His lecture will focus on his frequently cited framing of the Olympics as “celebration capitalism” (itself an extension of Naomi Klein’s idea of “disaster capitalism”), whereby usually unacceptable levels of state intervention into civil society and the militarisation of the city are permitted for the sake of the Olympics spectacle, or where the public purse is raided to allow the private sector to profit from the Games.

jules boykoff symposium tokyo 2020 olympics

A press conference will be held (tentatively) at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on 23 July, followed by a solidarity action on the evening of 24 July that is being billed as the Hottest Shinjuku Street Protest. This is a provocative reference to the very real danger that athletes, staff, volunteers, and spectators will face at Tokyo 2020: the Games are being held at the peak of the city’s hot and humid summer, which may well result in fatalities if recent summers are anything to go by. (The 1964 Summer Olympics, to which the forthcoming Games almost obsessively looks back, actually took place in the cooler, autumnal month of October.)

shinjuku protest tokyo 2020 olympics

Other events during the week include an evening “picnic” for activists held in a park in Tokyo — a type of public space increasingly under threat as 2020 looms — as well as a teach-in for invited academics and a seminar on housing and environmental issues. The week culminates in a panel discussion at Sophia University called “Make Olympic History” where grassroots groups Comitê Popular Rio Copa e Olimpíadas, Anti-PyeongChang Olympics Alliance Action, NON aux JO 2024 à Paris, NOlympics LA, and Hangorin no Kai will share their know-how and resources to build strategies for protesting the upcoming iterations of the Olympics.


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Anti-Olympic Poster Committee issues open call for anti-2020 poster designs

Calling all designers and artists! The Anti-Olympic Poster Committee is a new initiative by the Institute of Barbarian Books, an independent print workspace in Fukushima, which has issued an open call for participants.

People are encouraged to “join” the committee by creating a poster “based on the idea of being against the Olympic spectacle” and sending the design to the organisers, who will print and display it at the Institute of Barbarian Books. If you have only a vague idea for a poster or require design help, the organisers welcome sketches of unfinished ideas that can be collaboratively refined with contributors. Posters will be exhibited at the Institute of Barbarian Books for at least a week each and also archived digitally on the AOPOC tumblr page.

anti-olympic poster committee 2020 design

anti-olympic poster committee 2020 design

Further information can be found on the project website, at the Shinjuku infoshop Irregular Rhythm Asylum or by contacting the Institute of Barbarian Books.

It is especially apt that a site in Fukushima should launch this project, given that 2020 is overtly framed as the “reconstruction Games” that will bring hope and infrastructure back to the Tōhoku region. This mantra is vehemently rejected by both anti-nuclear and anti-Olympics campaigners, who see it as an attempt to gloss over the remaining problems in the district and the on-going Fukushima crisis.

Few stridently anti-2020 voices have emerged in the mainstream art and design field in Japan, though architects were initially some of the most prominent critics of the original stadium by the late Zaha Hadid, and the choice of design for the venues has attracted disparagement as uninspired and safe. With some notable exceptions, only a relatively small number of anti-Olympics works have appeared in public at major art museums (the Mori Art Museum, being privately funded, has enjoyed freedom in this respect). The situation is, of course, quite different on the independent or fringe scenes, where anti-government and anti-2020 voices are very common.

The Anti-Olympic Poster Committee recalls the Anti-Olympic Arts Council, an earlier project launched by Hangorin no Kai (No Olympics 2020) members as a call for support and a platform to share information on culture-related Olympics issues.

Two of the leading figures in Hangorin no Kai are Misako Ichimura and Tetsuo Ogawa, who both have art backgrounds. The anti-2020 activism has a strikingly artistic, and parodic, quality, as discussed here before, and Hangorin no Kai even once organised an anti-Olympics poster workshop event in February 2013. The Anti-Olympic Design Project was a deliberate counter-version of an exhibition showcasing the design achievements of the 1964 Olympic Games at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. Instead of celebrating and facilitating the Games through art and design, Hangorin no Kai asked people to make anti-2020 posters and placards that they could then display near the museum one afternoon shortly after the exhibition started. The items participants created were consciously crude and polemical, since the activists’ sentiments did not require the sheen that Dentsu so expensively coats onto the pro-2020 publicity that currently surrounds our lives.

hangorin no kai anti-2020 olympics tokyo poster protest

The guerrilla event was also timed to protest the mounting pressure on homeless people ahead of a visit to Tokyo by the International Olympic Committee in March 2013, which would eventually culminate in controversial evictions from public parks in the city after Tokyo won the bid.


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