Japanese Red Army activist Yukiko Ekita released from prison

The former Japanese Red Army activist Yukiko Ekita (also commonly spelled Ekida) has been released from prison after completing her 20-year sentence. Now aged 66, Ekita walked free on March 23rd from Tokyo Detention House, where she was met by supporters. She was convicted of attempted murder and violating the explosives law during the campaign that the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front waged against major Japanese corporations from 1974 to 1975. Her sentence was confirmed in 2004 and she served much of it at Tochigi Prison.

Prior to joining the Japanese Red Army, Ekita was originally a member of a cell within the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front, which is most famous for carrying out the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries bombing in 1974 that left eight dead. Ekita was part of the Daichi no Kiba (Fangs of the Earth) cell, along with her common-law husband, Nodoka Saitō (also known as Kazu Saitō). Their cell organised bombings of five facilities in Tokyo, including the headquarters of Mitsui & Co. and Taisei Corporation, which left 20 people injured but no fatalities. When almost all of the members of the three cells were arrested in May 1975, Saitō committed suicide.

yukiko ekita ekida

Ekita’s initial trial and detention was interrupted by an extralegal release. In 1977, the Japanese Red Army carried out a hijacking of a JAL flight and forced it to land in Dhaka. The JRA demanded the liberty of several prisoners and Ekita was among those released. She later joined the JRA and had a child during her time overseas. She was arrested in Romania in 1995 on passport forgery charges and deported to Japan, where her trial resumed.

It is probably the most prominent release of a far-left activist since Masao Adachi and Mariko Yamamoto in the 2000s. Ekita’s fellow JRA activists Fusako Shigenobu, Tsutomu Shirosaki and Haruo Wakō still languish in prison. Wakō is serving a full-life sentence while Shirosaki — who had also been released in the Dhaka Incident — was recently sentenced to 12 years following his deportation from the United States in 2015. Shigenobu is said to be suffering from poor health but may potentially be released in the near future.

Other members of the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front remain at large, including Ayako Daidōji and Norio Sasaki, who also both joined the JRA after being freed, and Satoshi Kirishima.


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Remembering the Asama-sansō Incident, 45 years on

One of my ongoing concerns when researching Japanese radicalism is the question of what happens to activists the morning after the night before: how do they move on, assuming they can? Do they transition to other movements? Or just give up? Some languish in prison. Some turn mainstream. Some kill themselves. Many just disappear, slipping between the gaps of a society where they no longer have a place.

I included many examples that I came across when writing my book, Dissenting Japan, though I could have easily filled the entire text with such case studies. In fact, that would surely be a great book for a dedicated soul to write in the future: the afterlives of activists. (There are already several publications of this ilk available in Japanese.)

This is an issue that frequently comes to mind during anniversaries and a major one was marked recently: 45 years since the Asama-sansō (Mt Asama villa) siege began on February 28th, 1972, when a small group of far-left militants held a woman hostage in a rural part of Nagano. Besieged by police, they were eventually captured and the hostage freed unharmed, though not before two police officers had lost their lives along with a civilian bystander.

They were, of course, members of Rengō Sekigun (United Red Army) — formed a merger of Sekigun-ha (Red Army Faction) and Kakumei Saha (Revolutionary Left) — and the incident is one of the most famous media events of post-war Japan, continuing to retain its place in the public imagination due to multiple reincarnations in popular culture through film, manga and literature.

One of the most respected is Kōji Wakamatsu’s film version, United Red Army (2007), which has been adapted for the stage and currently running in Shinjuku until March 22nd. It is part of a series of events marking 80 years since the late director’s birth, though it also times perfectly with the anniversary. The tiny theatre, Space Zatsuyu, is an ideal venue for conveying the claustrophobia of the radicals as they passed the winter of 1971 and 1972 in a mountain lodge. After the nine-day siege was over, it was revealed that Rengō Sekigun had engaged in a horrific purge that resulted in the brutal deaths of twelve of its own members. The exposure of this self-destructive turn of events is generally viewed as a turning point for the Left in Japan in delegitimising student activism for the next generation.

michinori kato united red army asamasanso

Michinori Katō, a former member of Rengō Sekigun (United Red Army) and a teenager at the time when he took part in the Asama-sansō Incident in 1972.

The online TV broadcaster Abema TV recently interviewed Michinori Katō, a one-time member of Rengō Sekigun who is now 64 years old. He was one of two brothers in the villa at Mt Asama — both were under the legal age at the time so could not be officially named. Their older brother died in the purge. Katō’s sentence of 13 years’ imprisonment was confirmed in 1983 and he was released in 1987, after which he devoted himself to farming.

Toothless and showing apparent signs of the toll his prison term inflicted on his health, Katō maintains that he does not regret taking part in radical activism, though admits that his belief in armed struggle was “fundamentally mistaken”. Tellingly, he says that “now ‘left’ or ‘right’ don’t mean anything”. “If someone asked me now which I am, I would say neither. Theories like communism and socialism do not exist in reality in today’s society and just end up as idealism.”

Katō’s interview concludes with a segment at the end where the show asks young women (strangely only women) in Shibuya what they think about the “left wing”. Responses range from “don’t know” to “unapproachable” and “scary”. Some people literally did not understand what the word meant. Kanji nerds may find the sources of their confusion funny.

The TV show also had a studio discussion, including a couple of former members of the now disbanded student group SEALDs, who were keen to emphasise that they were not “left wing” since the word is still tainted by its association with (strictly speaking, far-left) violent groups like Rengō Sekigun. Instead, they embrace the label of “liberal”.

sealds united red army

Yasumasa Chiba, a former member of SEALDs. The caption reads: “Were SEALDs ‘left wing’?”


Further Reading

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

Yoshikuni Igarashi, ‘Dead Bodies and Living Guns: The United Red Army and Its Deadly Pursuit of Revolution, 1971-1972’, Japanese Studies 27, No.2 (2007).

Chris Perkins, The United Red Army on Screen: Cinema, Aesthetics and the Politics of Memory, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Patricia G. Steinhoff, ‘Memories of New Left Protest’, Contemporary Japan, 25, 2 (2013).

Patricia G. Steinhoff, Gilda Zwerman, ‘Differential Outcomes of Prosecutions for Political Violence’, Political Violence in Context: Time, Space and Milieu, Lorenzo Bosi, Niall Ó Dochartaigh, Daniela Pisoiu (eds.), Colchester: ECPR Press, 2015.

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Yokohama court upholds civil right to hold political flash mobs in Japan

Welcome to Kanagawa,
Music and food for twenty yen
Music and food


Welcome to Kanagawa!
Music and food and company!
Music and food


Stephen Sondheim, Pacific Overtures

Rejoice, because it’s now legal to mob in Kanagawa. In a rare victory for campaigners against a backdrop of increasing perceived assaults on civil rights in Japan, the Yokohama District Court ruled on March 8th that a ban on politicised flash mobs by Ebina City was illegal.

The court made the decision in a suit brought by a group of activists after the mayor passed an ordinance that prohibited flash mob activities in the Kanagawa city. The activists successfully argued that the embargo was unconstitutional and an infringement on freedom of expression and assembly. The court agreed, calling the ban a misinterpretation and misapplication of municipal ordinances.

japan political protest flash mob dissent

I previously wrote about the case in an article for Jacobin last year. Mannequin Flash Mob Kanagawa was formed in February 2016 as an anti-war group. It seems to be a spin-off from Mothers’ Action for Peace and Democracy, which was founded in 2015 as the Kanagawa chapter of Mothers Against War, one of several civil bodies that emerged to protest the LDP’s state security legislation.

Those bills passed in 2015 but not all the activists have quietly packed up their placards. The flash mobs were a new venture, small in scale and ignored by the mainstream media until, that is, the mayor of Ebina decided to ban them and in the process sparked a wider debate about freedom of assembly in Japan.

In late February 2016, Mannequin Flash Mob Kanagawa held an event on the walkway around Ebina Station silently holding signs with messages protesting what they called the warmongering agenda of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. Dressed in a uniform black and denim attire and wearing sunglasses despite the winter weather, they moved around, striking mannequin poses for a short time and then dispersing to repeat the sequence at another spot. The aim was clearly to create an air of mystery and attract attention, but without contravening laws against obstruction of public spaces (which is often the ostensible excuse for why protestors get arrested in Japan). A video of the mob was uploaded to YouTube.

All this passed without much fanfare but somehow the mayor found out and decided to overreact by passing an ordinance last March explicitly banning such gatherings. Activists responded with a law suit and continued defiantly to stage flash mobs, such as during the upper house election in July. Their tenacity and posturing has now been vindicated.

Political flash mobs in Japan are not a new phenomenon per se. There have been previous flash mob-style interventions such as staged die-ins and other stunts, even if they did not use the flash mob label. In 2012, a small group of foreigner-led demonstrators also protested the ban on dancing at nightclubs with flash mobs.

That being said, flash mobs in Japan have until now remained largely anodyne gimmicks employed in brand advertising campaigns or as part of wedding parties. Examples of flash mobs have also appeared at arts festivals, notably Festival/Tokyo’s series of mobs in the Ikebukuro area in 2012 and 2013, though arguably the publicised and orchestrated manner these are organised denies their spontaneity and, thus, viability as genuine flash mobs.

Much more interesting to note in this context has been the growth of events like Halloween and Christmas in Japan, which have effectively developed in mass street parties where young people dress up (often in costumes that have very little to do with the original theme of the festival) and congregate in major urban areas. Over the past few years this has become particularly prominent in Shibuya, which is also regularly a destination for people to gather and celebrate after large sporting events. The police attempted to control this reclaiming of the streets — a de facto flash mob indeed since the movement grew organically — but would seem to have given up. Instead, last year Shibuya was temporarily pedestrianised to allow Halloween revellers to occupy the stretches of land around the station. After all, the gatherings in the weekends leading up to Halloween had ballooned to such an extent that it was actually dangerous not to permit them to spill out into the roads. The popularity of public celebrations of Halloween, in particular, was pioneered by foreign residents, certain numbers of whom would storm the Yamanote Line that loops around Tokyo and transform it into a venue for a party. This entailed not inconsiderable controversy, attracting ultra-nationalists and causing quite serious inconvenience to other passengers and the railway company. Rowdy and unsophisticated as it was, this unofficial “gaijin train” event was in some ways the precursor to the mass cosplay gatherings in Shibuya and also a kind of flash mob in its own right: mobilising people for a common purpose in the public sphere, thus denying its bourgeois legitimacy and forming a temporary autonomous zone (TAZ).

As thinkers like Habermas and Lefebvre have contended, the civil right to the city and occupation of social space is essential to keep authority in check. However, in Japan public space is regulated quite heavily, a legacy of the mass riots and street protests from the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, this period saw what was probably the most impressive flash mobs in Japan, the impromptu anti-war folk music rallies at Shinjuku Station in 1969. These became so popular that riot police broke them up and the musicians were arrested and put on trial. The underground plaza at the station was then renamed a passageway in order to prevent people from daring to stop moving and assemble.

From the authorities’ point of view, assembly is the crux of the problem. You may legally be fine if you are not causing an obstruction — as the Ebina flash mobbers asserted — but in theory all street protest gatherings and marches have to be registered in advance, and the police then turn up to marshal (read: control) the demonstrators. Perhaps almost anyone who has ever witnessed a march in Japan will have noticed how corralled and enclosed they often seem, with numerous riot police officers supervising the participants and police vehicles accompanying the procession. Surrounding traffic lanes are kept open and marchers are often broken up into smaller groups by being made to wait at traffic lights. Public displays of dissent are escorted and boxed, while nonetheless paying lip service to the Constitution’s protection of free assemble.

As I have previously suggested, even the so-called “pedestrian paradises” in areas of Tokyo such as Shinjuku are far from the idyll its name suggests. There are strict rules against performing, vending and protesting, as indicating by large bilingual signs. The 2008 Akihabara massacre was used as a excuse to close the pedestrianised zone there until 2011. The ward had allegedly been looking for such a pretext as the cosplay that attracted crowds had almost got out of control, with some people virtually performing stripteases. Though the weekend pedestrianisation has re-started, it is more subdued and new restrictions are in place.

There has been some relaxation of late, tolerating performers in family-friendly parks like Inokashira and Ueno and buskers outside certain stations. However, these are likely checked and registered by the relevant authority, so it is once again still monitored: what I call the quarantine of zest.

As 2020’s Summer Olympics rapidly approach, we can expect to see further examples of the police and various levels of government attempting to enforce control of the streets. In Kanagawa, at least, activists can for now celebrate a small victory.


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Street protests and publications form growing anti-Olympic movement in Tokyo

The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is … one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.
David Harvey

On the afternoon of January 22nd, a small protest of some 80 people set off from Harajuku in central Tokyo. The marchers were demonstrating against the upcoming Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games, which will be held in Tokyo in 2020. Shortly after departing, a protester allegedly got into a scuffle with one of the police officers regulating the march (protests in Japan are often heavily policed) and was arrested for obstructing the performance of official duties. Though the activist was released without charge two days later, it was reported by the right-leaning Sankei Shimbun newspaper as an “assault on a police officer” while campaigners called the arrest “unjust.”

Rio is over and the Tokyo Games are fast approaching. However, the initial fanfare in Japan has been far from positive and the preparations criticised by many sections of society. Part of this has been spearheaded by a growing anti-Olympic movement in Tokyo, best represented by the publication last year of a Japanese book, The Anti-Olympic Manifesto, which quickly sold out its first print runs.

Troubled Preparations, Troubling Nationalism

There is a curiously wistful wind surrounding the upcoming Olympics. The movers and shakers of the 2020 Games are baby boomers nostalgic for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, which heralded Japan’s emergence from post-war hardship and helped usher in the start of a period of high economic growth. The slogan for the upcoming Olympiad is “Discover Tomorrow” but perhaps it should be “Remember Yesterday.” Those halcyon days are long gone and will never be reclaimed, given the demographic reality of Japan and the world economy. But that does little to deter the dogged seniors, who are determined to hijack the event for nationalist agendas.

Almost every major corporation or public project now name-checks “2020” while the government simultaneously pursues a big push to increase inbound tourist numbers, all shrouded in the mantra of “omotenashi.” Essentially meaning “hospitality,” this word was used effectively in Tokyo’s final bid presentation for the 2020 Olympics and has since become the go-to phrase for tourist services against a backdrop of heightened nationalism in television broadcasting and a government intent on railroading right-wing bills through parliament. In addition, areas of Tokyo are currently undergoing massive levels of redevelopment, especially Shinjuku, Shibuya and Marunouchi, with the result that every few months witnesses the opening of yet another large commercial complex or glass tower.

This buoyancy is at odds with much of the concrete build-up for the Olympics, which has been tainted by scandals and setbacks. In May 2016, The Guardian published allegations of bribery during the bid process. The original logo was withdrawn when the designer was accused of plagiarism. The new national stadium proposal by the late Zaha Hadid was scrapped after an outcry over budget overruns. And the plan to relocate the world-famous Tsukiji Market to Toyosu on the other side of Tokyo Bay, in part to make way for Olympic facilities, but this immensely expensive project is currently on hold due to contamination at the new site. This threatens not only the reputation of the world’s largest wholesale fish market but also the entire construction countdown until the opening.

And then there is the problematic promise by Prime Minister Shinzō Abe that the situation at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant is “under control,” made during the omotenashi-painted presentation in Buenos Aires in 2013. For many anti-nuclear power campaigners, this is not the case at all and holding the celebratory Games in the capital is anathema when so much of the northeast of the country remains in need of reconstruction and assistance after the 2011 tsunami.

In addition to the albatross that is Fukushima, the main complaints against the 2020 Games centre on the spiralling costs and waste of funds. The constantly ballooning budget for the Games was recently projected to be 3 trillion yen ($29 billion), which is more than four times the original estimate provided when Tokyo was awarded the Olympics. The controversy has prompted organisers to relocate events out of Tokyo — even Fukushima is being considered as a host for some. Campaigners are also angry that construction firms are being handed big contracts while the homeless and poor are “cleansed” from certain areas.

That said, the Rio Games were a great boost for the Olympic team’s morale. Japan’s record medal haul has helped shift public opinion. According to press reports, some 800,000 people attended a homecoming parade in central Tokyo for the athletes on October 7th, 2016, which, if accurate, would be dwarf any street protest in Japanese history. (The media also said 500,000 attended the 2012 parade.) The handover ceremony, featuring the prime minister dressed as Mario, was generally well received.

anti olympic games tokyo 2020 book

The Anti-Olympic Manifesto

The Anti-Olympic Manifesto is a 269-page paperback back that joins a growing body of texts about anti-Olympic movements, including Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games, Activism and the Olympics: Dissent at the Games in Vancouver and London and Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics by Jules Boykoff, Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague by Marc Perelman, Five Ring Circus: Money, Power and Politics at the Olympic Games, edited by Alan Tomlinson and Garry Whannel, and Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games by Christopher A Shaw. It is also possible to find examples of discourse in Japanese going back to 1980s due to the bid for Nagoya to host 1988 Summer Games, not least a similarly titled “anti-Olympic manifesto” published in 1981.

Edited by Hiroki Ogasawara and Atsuhisa Yamamoto, several of the essays in the book are translations of articles by the likes of Terje Haakonsen (the snowboarder who boycotted the Nagano Olympics in 1998) and the prolific Boykoff. Likewise many of the case studies are drawn from international examples. This gives the book not only an overtly ideological tone against neoliberal gentrification in general but also puts the discourse against the Tokyo Olympics in a global context. The publication is significant for documenting aspects of the arguments against the 2020 Games and its side effects on overlooked elements of society, but also showing how the movement against 2020 fits into a history of similar campaigns. That being said, much of the content is quite dense and academic, which may well limit its readership.

It may well find itself running against the zeitgeist. The publisher was actually unable to advertise the release of The Anti-Olympic Manifesto properly at some universities, even though many of the contributors are academics.

Opposition to the Tokyo Olympics and Redevelopment

So far the street-level movement has centred on the homeless and the impact of preparations for them, though there is a disconnect between this and the parliamentary discourse. The large opposition parties like the JCP are not very vocal except on issues such as the rising costs and Toyosu problems, while far-left groups have focused on how these cost overruns expose the iniquity of capitalism and the health risks to workers posed by the Toyosu relocation. They say that Governor Yuriko Koike is trying to force the blame onto other bureaucrats while pursuing her own agenda of privatisation and union-busting.

The 2020 bid actually highlighted how these would be a “green” and compact Games with little need for construction or development, since 1964 Games facilities and other infrastructure could be utilised. In reality, the bay area has seen massive redevelopment, in part commercial land that real estate companies hope will sell as condo units for greatly inflated prices with the prestige and better transport links brought to the area by the Games.

Other development focuses on the Meiji Park and Sendagaya area, where there are several public sports facilities. The old National Stadium has now been knocked down and the new one (sans the Zaha Hadid design) is being built, and the development work has subsumed neighbouring Meiji Park. This affected the dozens of homeless who lived in the park (in Japan, homeless people frequently live in self-made shacks in public parks), and long-term residents in a government housing project, Kasumigaoka Apartments, who were mostly elderly and did not want to leave.

Emerging from protest groups opposed to the (failed) 2016 and (successful) 2020 Olympic bids, there are now two main groups in the anti-Olympic campaign that are interconnected: Hangorin no Kai (literally, Anti-Olympic Group) and Supporters for the Park Residents around the National Olympic Stadium.

Hangorin was formed in January 2013. Temporary evictions and expulsions of the homeless from Meiji Park started in 2013 during the IOC inspection tour. Tokyo government employees reportedly came to tell some of the homeless mere days after Tokyo won the bid that construction would start in late 2013 and that they should leave as soon as possible.

Japan Sport Council, borrowing land from the city at no cost, began intensifying the eviction process along with Tokyo Metropolitan Government from January 2016, when around 200 JSC employees, police and security personnel descended on the park to forcibly remove the homeless. In March, Japan Sport Council put up cameras and one person was arrested. In April, more evictions led to another arrest.

For now, a handful of homeless remain in tents in a patch of grass opposite the development site. Though divided by a road, this is technically part of Meiji Park and the land is earmarked for a hall. Signs and rope around the entrance warn that entry is forbidden, but people were free to walk in when this writer visited in late 2016. Nearby, the fabulously dilapidated Kasumigaoka Apartments — government housing that dates back the 1960s — are being torn down and all residents evicted. According to an NHK report in 2015, there were 200 residents in the apartments. It is a somewhat sad irony that some of the people living there had actually moved into the area after their original homes were knocked down to make way for construction during the preparations for the 1964 Games in Tokyo.

By July 2016, Hangorin had already organised seven protests in Shinjuku and Shibuya. They have few allies in mainstream media or politics, with the notable exception of anti-nuclear power lawmaker Tarō Yamamoto. They have been attempting to learn from the anti-Games movement in Rio and one campaigner went to observe the protests first-hand.

Opposition to Gentrification

These activities overlap with the general anti-homeless, anti-gentrification movement in Tokyo. The government has already been trying to cut down the numbers of homeless for some time with a new housing scheme. One of the most despised endeavours in recent times was the Miyashita Park project in 2009, when Shibuya ward attempted to privatise a public park and sell its naming rights to Nike. The small park borders the main shopping and commercial area in Shibuya, and as such there was a conscious decision to shut out the unsightly homeless residents spoiling the atmosphere of the district.

Though the fight against the renaming won, the park was nonetheless turned into a sports facility, and the Shibuya ward government continues to shut the park at night in order to keep out the homeless. The fencing around Miyashita Park is often “artjacked” with posters, leaflets and pictures protesting the Olympics and the treatment of local homeless community.

Significantly, Shibuya is run by a former ad man who is determined to brand the ward in a certain way. Part of this was the decision by the ward to give tacit legal recognition to same-sex couples, which was rightly applauded and attracted much positive press. However, the voices of less appealing marginalised groups such as the homeless are ignored. There are even new plans for Miyashita Park as part of a massive redevelopment scheme for Shibuya unfolding over several years. It will soon be overshadowed by the opening of a complex called Shibuya Cast.

Looking Back to 1964

As we can see from turning back to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, massive development projects and attempts to “clean” the city are perhaps shared elements of any Games.

The Shinkansen bullet train link between Tokyo and Osaka was rushed through to be ready in time for the opening, so much so that the project ended up costing twice its original proposal. The botched planning of a monorail line led to the loss of fishing jobs, as Robert Whiting, who lived in Tokyo at the time, recalled in The Japan Times in October 2014. He also noted the use of cheap foreign labor, the bid-rigging and corruption as well as the environmental damage when rivers were concreted over. The city attempted to mobilise the population in the grandiose project, to some success: 1.6 million residents helped clean streets in January 1964. The avant-garde art unit Hi-Red Center, though, organised a stunt where they dressed up in white lab coats and cleaned the streets of Ginza, central Tokyo, to mock these attempts by the capital to spruce up its image for the world. The acclaimed Kon Ichikawa documentary film about the Games, Tokyo Olympiad, starts ominously with buildings being pulled down. This was somewhat subversive since it was actually the official film, and as such was disliked by the organisers.

Similarly, the 1970 World Expo in Osaka was the trigger for a mammoth infrastructure development program. A protest event called the Hanpaku (Anti-Expo) was held in Osaka Castle Park. However, little is remembered of opposition to the 1972 and 1998 Winter Olympics held in, respectively, Sapporo and Nagano.

hi red center cleaning streets ginza 1964

2020: A Call to Arms

Given the example of Hi-Red Center, the arts may provide fertile examples of interesting dissent against the upcoming Games. So far, however, there have been almost no major interventions. The playwright and director Hideki Noda’s Egg (2012) was a prescient satire on “mega-events,” though it was ironically produced at the Tokyo-funded public theatre he runs and also with an extremely commercial cast. It was then revived in Paris in 2015. However, before Noda can be categorised as a genuine critic of the state and Olympics, we should keep in mind that he is ostensibly supervising the anodyne “preview” event of the Cultural Olympiad planned by Arts Council Tokyo. We can hope for some kind of robust response from the arts regarding the Olympics and its attendant issues, though many in the industry are likely first waiting to see what lucrative opportunities may arise to participate in the Cultural Olympiad.

So rather than the arts, we would be wise to focus on the Thin Blue Line: what will the police do, and whom will they be watching? Authorities have already beefed up security and surveillance measures at the Tokyo Marathon, including use of facial recognition technology, police runners with cameras and drones in the air. Such tactics will be honed and expanded for 2020. As we saw in the run-up to the G7 summit in 2016, we can expect a crackdown on far-left groups prior to the Games, though it is doubtful that these veteran radicals would mount an attack like they have at previous international summits in Tokyo (e.g. 1979, 1986) since the Olympics are not a political enough an event in and of themselves, notwithstanding the arrival of a few heads of state. In addition, police and the state will certainly want to enhance the surveillance of the population and various dissenting elements as well as the Muslim community, which is already under significant scrutiny. Quite how seriously it takes Hangorin and its ilk is yet to be seen. Already legal changes are quietly taking effect that greatly increase powers for wiretapping, not to mention the implications of the proposed conspiracy bill that will arguably give the state carte blanche to arrest people suspected planning certain crimes. And most importantly, we should not expect these surveillance or judicial measures to recede once the sporting events are done and dusted. It is very likely that the systems and tools will stay in place.

Up to this point, the presence on the streets has been relatively tame but actions are likely to escalate as we draw closer to 2020. (The next Hangorin no Kai protest is scheduled to take place in Shinjuku on February 24th.) We will also surely witness counter-spaces in areas like Shinjuku and Kōenji thrive as citizens dissenting from the collective boondoggle come together for events. You can even now get an anti-Olympic tote bag and such items will certainly multiply, providing a fitting antithesis to the coming flood of official merchandise.

anti-olympics tokyo tote bag

There is also speculative talk of an “alternative Olympics”, as discussed in a book in 2015. The Olympics are, after all, a festival and like all festivals manifest a period of liminality, a time when social norms are upturned and citizens can reassert their right to the city. As such, the Games represent a golden opportunity for a 2020 Anti-Olympics event, a Hangorin — featuring, say, unconventional sports, music, dance and discourse — held in glorious disorder somewhere like Kōenji, which could come alive with Situationist-inspired détournement of street theatre, dérive and pranks, while the rest of the city and the nation (and the world) consumes the spectacle of the authorised games through television. The event would be overlooked, naturally, but it would fulfil a function that all healthy cities should allow: a space for ludic subversion from within.

The Olympics are an insurmountable behemoth, and one that cannot be stopped barring a major catastrophe, which protestors naturally do not desire. One thing is certain, though: not everyone in Tokyo will be celebrating when the Games open in July 2020. And they are sounding a clarion for dissent.


Further Reading in Japanese (Selective List)

反東京オリンピック宣言 (2016)
小笠原 博毅 (著, 編集), 山本 敦久 (著, 編集)

東京オリンピック「問題」の核心は何か (2016)
小川 勝 (著)

東京2025 ポスト五輪の都市戦略 (2015)
市川 宏雄 (著)

PLANETS vol.9 東京2020 オルタナティブ・オリンピック・プロジェクト (2015)
宇野 常寛 (著, 編集)

東京五輪で日本はどこまで復活するのか (2013)
市川 宏雄 (著)

オリンピックと商業主義 (2012)
小川 勝 (著)

反オリンピック宣言―その神話と犯罪性をつく (1981)
影山 健 (著)

Groups and Organisations

Hangorin no Kai (literally, Anti-Olympic Group)

Supporters for the Park Residents around the National Olympic Stadium

Planetary No Olympics Network

Irregular Rhythm Asylum

Café Lavandería

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Police arrest two members of far-left Kakurōkyō faction suspected of involvement in mortar attacks

While the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department may seem to have something of an obsession with veteran far-left group Chūkaku-ha and arresting its members, from the young to the old, on trivial charges, that is not to suggest it is only interested in the one faction alone.

Despite the cynical neoliberal circumstances of the present, or perhaps precisely because of them, Chūkaku-ha remains quite buoyant and proactively involved with a wide range of political and labour campaigns to which it devotes a lot of energy in terms of street protests, small strikes, petitions, disseminating information online and in print, and launching legal challenges. The other major far-left groups are comparatively less in the public eye, but that doesn’t mean the police are willing to let them be. As we saw from the recent Kakumaru-ha searches, they still carry out regular raids and arrests of the rapidly ageing membership of these groups.

The third main far-left group is Kakurōkyō (originally Kaihō-ha) and its twin factions: the “non-mainstream faction”, also known as the Kimoto-ha, Yamashige-ha or Sekisaisha-ha; and the “mainstream faction”, or Hazama-ha or Gendaisha-ha.

kakurokyo rally far left group japan

Official image of Kakurōkyō (Sekigaisha/Kimoto-ha) Central Politics Rally, February 2011

The latter attracted fresh police attention in 2015 during the height of the protests against the security bills. But it is the Kimoto-ha faction that is seen as the genuinely dangerous of the two today, since it is essentially the only far-left organisation of its kind in Japan that remains militant. While Chūkaku-ha has officially given up militant tactics, the non-mainstream faction of Kakurōkyō has continued throughout the Heisei period to launch attacks, sporadic and ineffective as they are, against government and US military targets.

In 2015 it allegedly launched a mortar attack against Camp Zama, a US army base in Kanagawa Prefecture. It is suspected of a similar incident in 2014 aimed at a construction contractor involved in the controversial relocation of Futenma Base to Henoko.

Responsibility for the attacks was claimed by a cell calling itself the Revolutionary Army, though police believe this is simply an unofficial paramilitary wing of Kimoto-ha (indeed, the group openly published the Revolutionary Army’s communiques). Police have naturally been trying to thwart this pesky reminder of the nation’s radical not-so-distant past. On January 24th, Tokyo police arrested two male construction workers on suspicion of counterfeiting documents, though this will likely only be the initial charge while they gather evidence for more serious indictments. Kinsaku Mutō and Toyotsuna Numata — both aged 65 and residing in, respectively, Saitama Prefecture and Chiba City — are alleged by the Public Security Bureau of making contracts with a construction company under false names between 2012 and 2013. They had been wanted by police after raids on supposed covert bases in February 2016.

Police believe the pair were involved in making the mortar-launched projectiles that were used in recent “guerrilla” attacks, such as the 2013 Yokota Air Base incident that resulted in six arrests a year ago. (Four were later released without charge and the other two charged with counterfeiting documents — a typical minor offence that can be deployed against far-left radicals, who often live under various aliases.) According to the public security police, the sites raided in 2016 turned up evidence of Mutō and Numata’s involvement, such as a video taken by Numata of the area around JGSDF Camp Asaka (the target of an abortive mortar attack in 2016) and notes on water-soluble paper showing where Mutō had concealed six explosives.

Kakurōkyō actually has its main annual rally planned for February 26th in Tokyo, where we can expect the police presence to be significant.

Ideologically, the Kimoto-ha faction of Kakurōkyō is roughly aligned with the likes of Chūkaku-ha — they even appear at the same rallies sometimes, such as ones related to opposition to Narita Airport — and campaigns against the US-Japan alliance, the Abe government and its perceived militarisation, and the emperor system. It calls for a national class-based revolutionary movement that can initiate general strikes as well as a communist workers’ party and the destruction of its rival, Kakumaru-ha, who is also an old enemy of Chūkaku-ha. It has a Zengakuren student wing, though this is less prominent than Chūkaku-ha’s.

The state is anxious to clamp down on these senior radicals as Tokyo draws closer to the 2020 Olympics. As unlikely as their tactics are to cause actual fatalities or even serious injuries, any breach of security during the Games or in the changeover of emperor, which is likely to happen between now and 2020, would be humiliating. The G7 summit in Tokyo in 1986 was affected by several embarrassing guerrilla incidents, while the period marking the changeover to the current emperor nearly 30 years ago also saw a spike in small bombings and other incidents carried out by far-left radicals.


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