Protests in Tokyo against President Donald Trump’s first state visit to Japan

Between the round of golf, the much-mocked koi carp fish feeding session, and the meeting with the families of Japanese abductees, President Donald Trump’s presence in Tokyo during his first official state visit also resulted in heightened security measures that affected the general public, anxiety over his audience with the emperor, and anger from certain sections of society that manifested as several protests.

These were not coordinated and, as such, no single event stood out or managed to mobilise impressive numbers, as might have been the case had the JCP or the anti-war umbrella group Sōgakari planned something. (In fact, Sōgakari held a large protest attended by some 40,000 people around the National Diet on November 3rd, demonstrating against the re-election of Shinzō Abe’s LDP and the prime minister’s pledge to revise the Constitution.) The discontent against Trump’s visit seemed spread out over a handful of smaller street marches and rallies in Tokyo. I have summarised below the main examples in the city that I followed, though was unable to attend any in person.

November 4th

On the day prior to Trump’s arrival, a march in Shinjuku by Zainichi Koreans (ethnic Koreans permanently resident in Japan) objected to his visit to Japan and South Korea as tensions with Pyongyang continue to escalate.

November 5th

On the day of the president’s arrival, the Vote Out the Scandal rally was held at the very visible location of Hachiko in Shibuya by members of a local chapter of Democrats Abroad. It was attended by a modest but boisterous group of non-Japanese residents, particularly US citizens.

Meanwhile, the far-left labour union Dōrō-Chiba held its annual international workers solidarity rally in Hibiya, followed by a march through central Tokyo during the afternoon. This is usually attended by several thousand people, bringing together a range of different activists and labour groups. Naturally this year the event took on an anti-Trump tone and the rally included performers dressed up as Abe and Trump, who were subsequently “arrested” on the stage. Somewhat provocatively, the marchers also carried effigies of the two leaders (see a video at Police presence at the rally venue and along the march is always very high.

In the evening of the Sunday, a colourful march in Shinjuku was organised by several established left-wing and anti-war groups, including Kyūen Renraku Sentā (Relief Liaison Centre, or Kyuen Renraku Centre) and Tachikawa Self-Defence Forces Monitoring Tent Village.

anti donald trump protests march tokyo japan

Photo via @mkimpo_kid

November 6th

On Trump’s final full day in the capital, a lone protestor was spotted with a placard at Yotsuya. However, as this was a Monday, there was an understandable lack of notable street actions.

The response to Trump’s sojourn was not only one-sided. These protests by liberal and left-wing groups were also met by small pro-Trump and pro-Anpo counter-protests, who held up Japanese and American flags as well as pro-Trump banners (see examples here and here). Trump’s rhetoric against North Korea and decision to meet the families of abductees as well as his perceived tougher stance towards China has made him popular with Japanese ultra-nationalists, who generally view the US-Japanese alliance as preferrable to improved relations with Japan’s neighbours.

pro trump counter protest japan tokyo

Photo via @jinmin1991

On November 7th, Trump departed Japan for South Korea without incident, almost certainly unaware of the protests during his stay. In all, the most serious disturbance was the series of bomb threats received at locations outside Tokyo and also at Waseda University, which closed the campus for much of November 7th. No bombs were found, however, and the threats were most likely the handiwork of merely opportunistic pranksters.

Although there was a striking increase in the numbers of officers on duty at stations around Tokyo, the police crackdown was relatively restrained. That being said, on November 2nd police raided sites linked to a far-left group that it suspects of carrying out previous attacks against United States military facilities.


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Police raid far-left group Kakurōkyō sites ahead of Trump visit to Japan

Japanese media reported that the police conducted raids on November 2nd at five sites linked to one of the factions of the far-left radical group Kakurōkyō (Revolutionary Workers).

Deliberately timed as a crackdown just ahead of the arrival of President Trump in Japan on November 5th, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department as well as Saitama and Kanagawa police searched the sites, including Sekisaisha, the official headquarters of the group located in Taito ward in Tokyo, in connection with their investigation over the homemade rocket launched at a condominium in Kawaguchi City in October 2014. That incident targeted a corporate contractor involved with the controversial US base relocation in Henoko, Okinawa. Police seized 51 items, including computers, SD cards and mobile phones, but no arrests were made.

kakurokyo police raid trump visit

The group is alleged to have set up a rocket-launching timer device near Yokota Air Base in 2009 immediately prior to the visit of President Obama. As such, police raided Sekisaisha and other locations as part of its increased security efforts in preparation for Trump’s arrival, which Kakurōkyō had openly denounced in its organ. Such raids are heavily orchestrated, however, with the press informed in advance so that they can be present to capture the police entering the buildings. This helps create a media image of the remnants of Japan’s New Left movement as dangerous and anti-social.

The “non-mainstream” (Kimoto-ha or Yamashige-ha) faction of Kakurōkyō is arguably the only far-left group in Japan still committed to armed struggle, at least to some degree, and is suspected of carrying out previous projectile attacks on Yokota Air Base in 2013 and Camp Zama in 2015. The incidents resulted in no casualties or serious damage. Responsibility was claimed by a group calling itself the Revolutionary Army, though police have identified this as a paramilitary cell within the non-mainstream Kakurōkyō. The Kimoto-ha faction is alleged of several such small mortar attacks against United States military facilities over the past two decades. The struggle against the US-Japan security alliance and the presence of American military bases in Japan, especially in Okinawa, remains a key campaign for the group. In an effort to prevent it from carrying out further attacks, police maintain pressure, including regular searches and arrests, including the arrest of a prominent activist earlier this year over the 2013 Yokota Air Base incident.


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Two Zengakuren activists at Kyoto University arrested as police increase pressure on student politics

Police have arrested two activists at Kyoto University linked to far-left group Chūkaku-ha’s student organisation, Zengakuren, after security guards were allegedly touched and kicked during scuffles with activists on campus earlier this year.

On October 31st, a 21-year-old fourth-year literature student at Kyoto University and a 27-year-old activist who is a former graduate student at the college were arrested on charges of interfering with duties. This is typical of the kind of minor offence exploited to arrest left-wing activists in Japan, hold them in detention punitively for weeks without indictment, and then more often than not release them without charge. Police also carried out raids on October 31st at five locations, including the university’s Kumano Dormitory while in full riot gear.

The charges relate to two incidents in August in which the men made physical contact with security personnel on campus. One is alleged to have pressed down on the neck of a security guard who was trying to stop him from handing out leaflets, while the other is said to have kicked a security guard who was removing a wooden sign made by the activists. (A video shared on Twitter by the Hōsei University Bunka Renmei group appears to show one of the incidents.) This is a standard practice: police hold onto evidence of a minor crime and then wait until a seemingly opportune moment to arrest the suspect. Activists, however, merely see this as further proof of their victimisation by the police, state and university. The usual tactic they employ is to maintain complete silence during the entire period of detention.

The Kyoto University branch of Zengakuren — not officially recognised by the college — is Dōgakukai and strives to re-politicise the campus through a series of protests and even a short strike. These activities have been effectively prohibited by the university and the students arrested and expelled.

A particular site of contention has been the large signboards with political messages that student activists erect around the campus, a practice with a long precedent at Kyoto and other colleges but which is being quashed in an effort to sanitise universities. Students in Japan will certainly be confronted by an array of signs about clubs and various campus activities, but rarely political slogans. The same thing happened at Hōsei in the late 2000s, which sparked an ongoing tit for tat in the struggle over the signboards and the right to disseminate political messages.

zengakuren kyoto university arrests students

Kumano Dormitory has become a site of frequent police raids in recent years due to its links to Dōgakukai. Just this year, for example, the arrest of a Zengakuren activist in Kyoto sparked a raid on the student facility. This is commonly done with an exaggerated show of manpower in an apparent attempt to signify activism and student leftist politics as “illegal”, “dangerous” and “anti-social”.

In general, police and university pressure has increased in Kyoto in an effort to stamp out the boisterous fringe group, just as Hōsei University has spent years fighting its own Zengakuren cell. (Hōsei, however, is a private university and thus able to impose harsher controls over the campus than Kyoto University, which is one of the oldest and most respected public higher education institutions.) Dōgakukai has responded energetically (and with parody) to the oppression, regularly holding small protests in which the activists are outnumbered by the police officers and administrators in attendance.

This week’s tidings come just days after the head of Zengakuren campaigned, unsuccessfully, in last month’s lower house election for a seat in Tokyo and prior to a major annual rally in Hibiya this weekend by Dōrō-Chiba, a labour union associated with Chūkaku-ha and Zengakuren. It was after this rally in 2014 that the current conflict at Kyoto University intensified when activists were arrested during the march and then a police officer was rumbled on the campus.

Police also continue to take an interest in nabbing the senior generation of Chūkaku-ha activists for trivial reasons. A 54-year-old man from Matsusaka City in Mie Prefecture was arrested on October 26th on suspicion of fraud and violating traffic laws. He is accused of driving without a licence and not paying for a train ticket. The allegations relate to an incident on August 30th when the man bought a train ticket for ¥150 and rode from Nagoya Station to Matsusaka Station on the Kintetsu Line. He failed to pay the required difference of ¥670 when he left the station. He is also accused of driving a truck in Mie Prefecture on August 17th and September 13th without the correct licence. All of this was ominously reported in a short article in the Sankei without any mention of the insignificance of the crime, but rather due emphasis placed on the perpetrator’s links to a political group and how his movements were related to his radicalism.


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The curious disappearance of Kōichi Kishi, leading activist in the Sanrizuka protests

Speak no ill of the dead, as the philosophers say.

Haruhiko Daijima’s documentary The Fall of Icarus: Narita Stories about the Sanrizuka protest movement against Narita Airport was released in September. I had rather mixed feelings about the predecessor, The Wages of Resistance: Narita Stories, primarily because it completely ignored the contribution of the student movement and New Left factions to the protests, and the follow-up has largely rectified this imbalance. One issue I have with documentaries like this is that they seem to promise comprehensiveness and then fail to deliver it. Even after watching both films, the average viewer will still need to read and research more to understand the basics of the Sanrizuka movement. But this is the longest-running protest movement in Japan, so it may be churlish to expect such an exhaustive account of something so complex.

One of the main interviewees in the film is Kōichi Kishi, a former member Chūkaku-ha, the Central Core Faction of Kakukyōdō (the Revolutionary Communist League). In the film Kishi criticises himself and Chukaku-ha, and, in perhaps the documentary’s biggest coup, appears to end by admitting his own ultimate failure after 25 years of participation in the protest and, in possibly the most contentious statement in the film, the failure of the movement as a whole.

koichi kishi chukakuha sanrizuka

Former high-ranking Chūkaku-ha activist Kōichi Kishi

What is not made fully explicit in the film is that he is so open about his actions and, though somewhat allusively, critical of Chūkaku-ha’s involvement in the Sanrizuka struggle, because he left the organisation. The circumstances surrounding this are disputed by the two parties, but it dates back to the fourth Kakukyōdō split, a conflict in 2006 within Chūkaku-ha and the eventual expulsion or departure of the Shiokawa and Yoda factions for ideological reasons. The problems centred on activists in Kansai and accusations of confinement and violence have been made.

Critical of what he saw as a purge, Kishi left his role on the frontline of the Sanrizuka struggle in 2006 and was officially removed from the league the following year. Also expelled were two other prominent activists in Suginami, a key Chūkaku-ha area, who also served in the ward assembly. (Subsequent attempts by Chūkaku-ha activists to win election in the district have so far failed.) In November 2007, a Kansai splinter group formed its own regional faction that evolved into Kakumeiteki Kyōsanshugisha Dōmei Saiken Kyōgikai, the Revolutionary Communist League Reconstruction Council the following year.

In May 2015, Kishi published a book with another ex-Chūkaku-ha activist, Yasutaka Mizutani. The 450-page The Failure of the Revolutionary Communist League Politburo 1975–2014 (or the Collapse of Chūkaku-ha) came out around the same time as several other books, all competing to portray the history of organisation in a certain way. As the title makes clear, Kishi and Mizutani’s was a highly critical book that was inevitably denounced by Chūkaku-ha.

chukaku-ha history book

“The Failure of the Revolutionary Communist League Politburo 1975-2014 (or the Collapse of Chūkaku-ha)”, which was co-written by Kishi and published in spring 2015

Putting aside the particulars of these contrasting books, the case of the 69-year-old Kishi is made more curious by recent events that happened after the documentary wrapped. While this year the news about Chūkaku-ha has been understandably dominated by the apprehension of Masaaki Ōsaka after over four decades on the run, another tiding was also reported: Kishi mysteriously disappeared in March while on a skiing trip in Niigata. Leaving his accommodation early in the morning of March 26th, Kishi telephoned in the mid-afternoon to say that he had got lost, after which he was never seen or heard from again. Searches have revealed his backpack but nothing else.

At the time, the police announced that Kishi, a native of Gunma Prefecture, was a company employee living in the West Waseda area of Tokyo. He studied at Keiō University and was a veteran of the struggle against the United States field hospital at Ōji in 1968 as well as the protest against Prime Minister Eisaku Sato’s visit to America, where he was arrested. He was promoted to lead the Chūkaku-ha struggle at Sanrizuka in 1981, after Narita Airport had opened but at a key juncture when the protest movement was splitting and the construction of the second runway got underway. Kishi oversaw a period in the campaign which saw fighting directed against activists from another faction as well as the airport authority. In The Fall of Icarus, while not overly pressed by the director, Kishi calmly defends the targeting of the airport authority employee Nobuo Maeda, given what Maeda was doing to disunite the movement, and justifies the group’s tactics as legitimate during such a conflict.

The days of internal and inter-factional violence, known as uchi-geba (literally, “inner Gewalt“), are supposedly long gone, not least because most of the surviving members of the New Left in Japan are surely too old for that sort of thing, and there is no evidence or suggestion that Kishi met a sticky end at the hands of former colleagues. In which case, what happened to him? He may have faked his death for some reason. He may have committed suicide, as viewers of the film might be tempted to think, though he was apparently quite active at the time of his disappearance. He may have simply vanished. Every year people go missing in the treacherous Japanese countryside when skiing or hiking. No one can say with certainty, but one thing is for sure: it makes for a disquieting end to an already controversial activist’s life.


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Zengakuren goes pop on the election campaign trail in Tokyo

Strange, confusing days in Japanese parliamentary politics. Plus ça change. A snap general election. A new challenger and her impromptu party. The de facto dissolution of the main opposition party, and a breakaway rump party. An op-ed pining, or warning, of the “death of liberalism”. But the real story is surely the nearly 40 per cent of voters, by some polls, who concede to supporting no party.

The canvassing has been hampered by several days of rain, though the sonic attacks of the election vans have continued regardless, blasting out candidates’ names to residents who go about their daily business, or foisting unwanted pamphlets on to unsuspecting commuters at a local station. For all the talk of Koike’s perceived popularism, and such wild-card policies as “exterminating hay fever” do smack of it (or otherwise, sheer lunacy), the Corbyn or Sanders effect, this ain’t.

The far left is not silent either and, despite ostensibly opposing the entire system of Japanese capitalism, participating in the election. Ikuma Saitō, the head of the Chūkaku-ha iteration of the student league Zengakuren, is standing for a seat in Tokyo 8th district, facing up against Nobuteru Ishihara, who hails from an established political clan and has eight victories in a row under his belt. To Ishihara’s LDP conservatism, Saitō is advocating a number of radical policies, not least abolishing the irregular employment that is now the bread and butter of neoliberal Japan, doing away with consumption tax, cancelling the 2020 Olympics, repealing the 2015 state security legislation and dismantling the public security police. His list of ten policies concludes with a call to form a workers’ party in Japan and, almost as a finale, to throw Prime Minister Abe and Governor Koike in prison. These proposals are striking enough in their own right, but let’s focus rather on the identity signals being emphasised in his campaign.

Born in 1988, Saitō is a veteran of the long-running Zengakuren dispute with Hōsei University. Given the credentials, the mediation of his campaign through the official Zengakuren and Chūkaku-ha channels is intriguing. Whereas in the past his parent organisation has put forward older activists in the same Suginami ward area such as the lawyer Tatsuo Suzuki and unionist Kunihiko Kitajima, Saitō represents the younger generation of Marxists in Japan. There is a sense here of both fresh blood and fresh approaches, though elements have been ongoing since, for example, the formation of the youth-led anti-nuclear power group NAZEN (Nonukes Zenkoku Network).

ikuma saito zengakuren election campaign

Image via Zengakuren

Even predating the current one, the election campaigns have gradually become more feminised, unfolding with a more overtly friendly and “pop” character via social media, pamphlets, organ newspapers and the other means of dissemination at the group’s disposal. Dressed often in a smart suit, Saitō’s publicity has leant him a kakkoi (cool) or ikemen (hot guy) look in the Tarō Yamamoto vein that potential voters might not typically associate with a far-left revolutionary group. The campaign’s sound truck is also an affable little vehicle plastered with slogans of “revolution” in bright fonts. From the pink sash and light blue uniforms to the shots of the campaign team greeting the public with smiles, the impression here is of a fun and accessible group of young citizens — and with no Molotov cocktails in sight, notwithstanding the blitz of sensationalist news earlier this year following the arrest of Masaaki Ōsaka. That being said, the slogans and politics are not watered down in any way, shape or form despite the shift in tacks. In this way, the spectator (and prospective voter) consumes a fascinating, yet problematic, oxymoron of soft visuals and hard dogma.

ikuma saito zengakuren election campaign japan student activism

Image via Zengakuren

ikuma saito zengakuren election japan

Image via Zengakuren

It was relayed to me anecdotally by an insider that Zengakuren has seen some relative growth this year and the police pressure has backed off somewhat after officers’ ham-fisted attempt to engage activists at a rally that resulted in a current lawsuit.

In the wake of Ōsaka and an onslaught of negative press, Zengakuren launched a savvy counterattack: an online charm offensive. It has attempted to build on buzz, expanding on the popularity of certain activists like Tomoko Horaguchi. In particular, its regular YouTube series Zenshin Channel has developed a cult following for its semi-parodic style and sheer eccentricity (surely no one else is making videos like this in Japan!). The online broadcaster Abema TV has often interviewed the activists and recently covered the Saitō campaign. Now the challenge is to go beyond Internet niche or retro novelty to something more sustainable. Voters of Tokyo 8th district, polling day is October 22nd.


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