New academic year begins with student activists and Hōsei University staff clashing at campus entrance

In Japan, April is far from the cruellest month and perhaps rather the most optimistic, not least because it heralds the cherry blossom and the start of the new fiscal and academic year.

I recently had the somewhat unnerving experience of ploughing through a scrum of undergraduates on a crowded campus in central Tokyo that had transformed into a temporary bazaar: it was the first week of the spring semester at Sophia University and everywhere one turned, tables were vying for freshers’ attention, competing to sign students up for their respective clubs. Many were dressed in a certain “costume”, be it the appropriate gear or uniform for a sports or outdoor activities club, or something more outlandish and incongruous if the club simply wanted to pique interest.

But something was missing amidst all this jingle-jangle of the stalls: politics. At almost all universities in Japan, especially the private colleges, one effectively cannot find student clubs linked to major political parties, nor, as was once standard, officially permitted student organisations associated with the New Left factions.

Let’s travel from Sophia’s campus at Yotsuya to nearby Ichigaya, where another major private university, Hōsei, has its main campus. Hōsei has been locked in a conflict with left-wing student activists for over ten years. A traditional stronghold for the group commonly known as Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction) and its student wing, Zengakuren, the dispute started in 2006 when students’ signboards with political messages were removed from campus. That might seem minor enough but it exemplified a widespread attempt, especially since the 1990s, to cleanse campuses of far-left groups and remove the student clubs that would disseminate ideology and recruit new activists from bases on the grounds and at dormitories. Similar efforts took place at Waseda, Meiji and other universities. What was at stake here was the politicisation of students: the administrators want students to take part in extracurricular activities, but heaven forfend that those are political in nature.

In Hōsei’s case, the clash centres on Bunka Renmei (Culture League), a student circle that is a de facto branch of Zengakuren but is no longer given official recognition by Hōsei. Students who protested what the university was doing, such as by tearing down notices, were suspended or arrested. The Hōsei dispute has, over the course of its meandering history, seen well over 100 arrests (sometimes the same students detained multiple times) and regular protests near its main campus. At its peak between 2006 and 2009, and again around 2012, a series of boisterous protests both on and around the main campus led to physical fights between activists and police or university security staff. Students were forcibly dragged off the campus. The TV news captured scenes of scores of police officers charging into the university. The non-student wings of Chūkaku-ha even joined in the fray, resulting in packed rallies featuring hundreds of people along the banks of the Outer Moat. Some of the footage is quite startling, given the anaemic reputation of Japanese universities.

Though more serious charges were brought against a handful of students, the arrests in more recent years have often been for quite trivial offences and often did not result in indictments. Nonetheless, the situation remains tense and even now activists are sometimes taken into police custody, largely as a deterrent or way of asserting the university’s authority.

This video charts a basic yet relatively lucid chronology of the Hōsei conflict, from the Zengakuren perspective. Naturally, the university will have quite different footage in its own archive, but regardless of a viewer’s political leaning, the shots of staff hitting and pulling students are pretty damning. The university hates the militancy and “bad image” the activists present, and previously engaged in a public war of words with them. These days, however, it keeps silent in the face of activists’ taunts online and in print. In response to the spats, however, security measures intensified, including new guards and surveillance cameras. This merely served as further proof for Zengakuren that the university is emblematic of a neoliberal paradigm whereby education is privatised, commercialised and authoritarian.

Left-wing activism is part of Hōsei’s culture and heritage, as any glance at the 1960s and 1970s will reveal. Arguably what is happening today is only a fresh strain of this legacy, albeit curbed by the overall poverty of the student movement in Japan and the direct policies of the university. Hōsei has become an interstitial space of radical activism: neither its former glory, nor phased out completely, it occupies a kind of rowdy yet ghostly limbo.

Whenever the Zengakuren activists — usually led by ex-students from Hōsei — now appear, they are certainly not allowed on campus. Just one step over the entrance might well be enough to merit an arrest. University staff monitor the activists doggedly with cameras, while the activists likewise film their surveyors. Somewhere in between this barrage of lenses, ordinary students come and go, perhaps bemused by the spectacle.

hosei university bunka renmei left-wing activists conflict zengakuren

Activists from the Bunka Renmei wing of Zengakuren clash with staff at Hōsei University. The former denounced the latter’s actions as a “red purge”. Image via @jinmin1991 (Bunka Renmei’s Twitter account)

What transpired on 7 April demonstrates the current situation. An activist was removed from the campus grounds at the entrance to the university. This brief confrontation climaxed with a member of staff seizing and throwing down a Bunka Renmei flag. The student who took the flag onto the campus is not, apparently, one of the activists who has been suspended or expelled, and thus within his rights to enter the grounds. Nonetheless, the activists knew full well that they were testing a new boundary here and no doubt also hoped to provoke a response that would give them the moral high ground when the student was inevitably ejected (“Look! The oppressors of student activism strike again!”). The video’s captions, at any rate, indicate that fellow students were clapping and calling out encouragement. Of course, whether this is genuine sympathy, caustic mocking or amusement at the diversion is a matter of debate.

What I find most intriguing about this, though, is the video itself, which veers from denunciation to jest — and almost self-parody — through its use of a soundtrack, intertitles, speeding-up and image inserts. We might suggest that Zengakuren and Bunka Renmei accepts and plays up to its role as part of the campus entertainment: a disruptive yet tacitly enjoyed and even permitted force.

This is not an exclusive occurrence. Much of the way that Zengakuren presents itself now, particularly its activism at Kyoto University and the Zenshin Channel series of YouTube videos, is similarly tongue-in-cheek and playful while nonetheless utterly sincere. Driven by activists born in the late 1980s and 1990s, it reveals the impact of a generation of looser freeter activism in the Heisei period; it is dogma without the customary poker face. Interestingly, while the likes of SEALDs bespoke a post-Fukuyama mode, not least in its ideology (or lack thereof), it was by and large “serious”. These “cute” affectations of Zengakuren would surely be, to SEALDs’ digitally savvy eyes, dasai (uncool), but they actually seem to concur with the broader idiosyncrasies of Heisei-era activism in Japan on the left (or far left). Earlier this month, for instance, I noted a comparable trait in a quite different section of the radial spectrum, where activists linked to the Sanya slum area of Tokyo mixed images of cats with condemnation of the police for an unlawful arrest.

Despite all the fanfare and deserved attention, SEALDs, which drew much of its core membership from affluent private colleges like Sophia and Meiji Gakuin, lasted little more than a year. The exact circumstances behind its disbanding are quite sensible and practical, so the length of its life should not be the only yardstick we use to judge it. After all, its influence on subsequent youth and even established activist groups is evident, and some of the most prominent SEALDs activists have returned to the fore at the recent National Diet rallies against the government as the Moritomo cronyism scandal continues to unfold. Aki Okuda’s notable presence at the big rally at the Diet on 14 April, which organisers claim drew 50,000 people and saw demonstrators overrun police barriers, is a case in point.

On the other hand, the campus remains a neglected site. In this vein, under the leadership of former Hōsei student Ikuma Saitō, Zengakuren is almost alone in diligently pursuing efforts to rebuild the student movement in Japan, cultivating engagement with politics at such universities as Hōsei, Kyoto, Okinawa and Tōhoku.


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Japanese activists denounce increased police oppression after arrest for refusing stop and frisk

Although Japan can appear very safe and there is undeniably little petty crime, the calm exterior masks two key conditions: that Yakuza control over sections of society is rampant and it is likely in part this network of organised crime that keeps street crime low; and that the police maintain a close watch on citizens for signs of aberration.

Indeed, when someone “suspicious” is encountered in public, police may overreact and swarm the suspect, making their power known — performing the might of the law — and perhaps implicitly warning passersby that they should always comply with what the boys in blue say.

Activists in Japan have denounced the recent arrest of a peer for refusing to assent to a stop and frisk. Late at night on 25 March, a person identified only as “A-san” (Mr. or Ms. A) was apparently on his or her way home when two police officers appeared and began an interrogation on the street.

This is called shokumu shitsumon in Japanese, translating more literally as “questioning in duties” but effectively meaning a spot check or stop and frisk. Police may deploy the tactic on anyone they deem “suspicious” enough to merit attention. The criteria is hazy and the cause to question someone might be very trivial. It’s late a night. Your bicycle looks too old or too new. You are foreign (particularly if you are South American, black or Chinese). If you resist, officers will make it harder and harder on you, and you may then find yourself arrested and in detention for 23 days.

This was seemingly the situation on 25 March. What is crucially different, however, and why it features on this blog, is that A-san is associated with activists working in Sanya, a slum area in Tokyo for day labourers, and anti-Olympic protest groups. (It is not clear as of writing if A-san is himself or herself a known activist. He or she is described as nakama, a “friend” or “associate”.) Police wanted to conduct a shokumu shitsumon stop but A-san refused, as is the right of any citizen. A-san asked to see the police officers’ IDs and their grounds for the stop, but was apparently ignored. The police instead demanded A-san show them what was in his or her bag. What happened next is where the details become subjective but by the end, A-san had been arrested on a charge of obstructing public officials in carrying out their duties. Supporters claim that A-san was injured and belt broken in the resulting scuffle that ultimately involved over ten officers. They say A-san was then taken away to the nearby Minami-Senjū police station and allegedly interrogated until 5 a.m.

This video was a different case entirely from 23 February but shows an example of shokumu shitsumon on a man refusing to comply. Note how several police officers surround the man and prevent him from moving. Any attempt to leave will entail physical contact with the police, which might then be grounds for arrest for obstructing a public official.

Activists have joined together to form a support network. As I have written about elsewhere, these kyūenkai support groups play a vital role in helping arrested activists (and non-activists) on remand or serving sentences, and represent a robust, committed yet obscure section of the civil society in Japan.

In addition to protesting at Minami-Senjū police station on 2 April, they have publicised the case online on the Sanya Labour Welfare Hall Action Committee website and on social media, and among their network. (An appeal was made at the end of a symposium I attended about Fukushima and the anti-2020 Olympics movement.) Incidentally, while it might seem counterproductive for supporters not to identify their detained peer and provide a name to personalise an otherwise abstract cause, this is very typical of left-wing social movements in Japan, which protect the privacy of the suspect/victim (not least because sometimes he or she may not be responding to police officers during interrogations, even to acknowledge their name). During the crackdown on the veteran newspaper Jimmin Shimbun last year, for example, though it was well known that Yōichi Yamada was the editor-in-chief, he was never named in campaigners’ publicity materials when he was arrested.

The publicity materials here are striking for another reason. While the tone of the statements and denunciation is tough, activists have also made use of “cute” touches in images and banners as well as cardboard signs (a kind of Lumpenproletariat version of the usual handwritten large white scrolls activists unfurl to tell the waiting press pack the result of a court case). This would seem to constitute a familiar approach from freeter precariat activism that can mix the cute and the disorderly with more dogmatic or forceful elements.

arrested sanya activist protest

A cardboard sign with a handwritten protest denouncing the extension of detention for A-san for refusing to comply with the police questioning on the street. It says the police are trying to use A-san to set an example. Image via @ReclaimMpark.

arrested sanya activist banner

A banner, saying “Release quickly!”, with a “cute” cat for decoration. Image via @ReclaimMpark.

sanya arrested activist protest

Publicity materials for the case made by supporters, curiously mixing “cute” and serious elements. Image from the Sanya Labour Welfare Hall Action Committee website

sanya arrested activist protest

The image of the shocked cats has a disclaimer saying it is “not directly related to the case” but “includes photography by people who have suffered from stop and frisk”. Image from the Sanya Labour Welfare Hall Action Committee website

sanya arrested activist protest

Another cat decorates messages decrying the 2020 Olympics as a pretext for stop and frisk tactics, and alleged police brutality and infringement on human rights. Image from the Sanya Labour Welfare Hall Action Committee website

A-san is linked to groups operating outside the major New Left sphere but that have been instrumental in the more recent wave of social movements in Japan pursuing causes on behalf of the homeless, freeter and day labourer class. These were arguably pioneered by far-left radicals in the 1970s, but are more prominent today as Japan’s civil society and left-wing movements have emerged from the period of militant activism. The happy-go-lucky and creative style of this Heisei-era Lumpenproletariat and precariat activism was perhaps best exemplified by the vibrant Miyashita Park movement almost ten years ago that successively fought against privatisation.

After an initial ten-day detention was confirmed on 27 March, A-san had his or her period of detention without indictment extended again at a hearing on 3 April at Tokyo District Court on the basis that A-san resisted police violently and struck an officer in the chest. Supporters say it is a frame-up. The charge of hindering or interfering with the duties of a public official (kōmushikkōbōgai, 公務執行妨害) is a convenient catch-all frequently turned to as a pretext for arresting left-wing activists. The latter often accuse police officers of faking a stumble or physical collision in order to manufacture cause for arrest during a stop and frisk or search of a property.

This is, of course, just a single isolated case — and, some might say, a minor one at that. But activists have pointed to the broader context and I’m inclined to agree. When contacted, the Sanya Labour Welfare Hall Action Committee remarked that the arrest is “merely the tip of the iceberg”.

It points to a troubling trend where activists predict “police oppression” to rise in the lead-up to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. There are certainly signs of increased surveillance already, such as the introduction of more security cameras. The A-san support group also writes in its official statement that the police presence has increased in the area around Minami-Senjū Station, which is used for people travelling to and from the Sanya district.

Moreover, the passing of the Conspiracy Law by the national government last year and the recent revisions to the Tokyo Anti-Nuisance Ordinance by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government all extend the powers of police and authorities over Japan’s citizens, and have particular implications for social and protest movements. And about which, I plan to write soon.

Update (13 April)

A-san was released today from police custody, according to announcements by the Sanya Labour Welfare Hall Action Committee.

While I found the case noteworthy for its connections to activists against a backdrop of assiduously growing pressure on civil rights, it may seem even more startling when raised as an example of what can happen to any ordinary member of the public regardless of political affiliations. Citizens are not wholly powerless, however. In the past, victims have launched lawsuits seeking compensation over perceived illegitimate stop-and-frisk stops. As Japan gears up for the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, further instances of controversy will inevitably arise as the state comes increasingly into conflict with the citizenry. And therein lies the rub, since the onus is on the civil society to monitor, engage and, if necessary, protest.


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Masaaki Ōsaka breaks silence (and Japanese New Left convention) and admits identity in court

The man identified by police as Masaaki Ōsaka and standing trial for his alleged part in the death of a police officer during the Shibuya Riot Incident in 1971 has broken his silence.

Since his apprehension last year after over four decades on the run, Ōsaka — or the man presumed to be him, identified only by somewhat questionable DNA testing — had refused to speak to police during interrogations or respond during trial proceedings. Known as kanzen mokuhi (or kanmoku), this “total silence” has been a signature tactic of left-wing activists in Japan from the late 1960s and continues to be championed by Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction), the common name for Kakukyōdō (Revolutionary Communist League) and the group to which Ōsaka belongs. It is both a practical convention, in that stoic silence is effectively the only weapon available to a suspect after arrest during the long periods of detention before they are formally indicted — interrogations conducted without a lawyer present and only partially recorded — as well as a form of protest, in that the activist is wordlessly declaring his or her refusal to accept the bourgeois state apparatus that has taken them into custody.

masaaki osaka

Masaaki Ōsaka as he appeared in his wanted poster (left) and when he was paraded on his perp walk in 2017.

At the pretrial arrangement procedures for his first hearing at Tokyo District Court for 26 March, however, Ōsaka confirmed his name with a simple verbal response. His legal team also commented to the press that he now admits his identity. The mainstream Japanese media has quickly pounced on this development, reporting it as a sign that the 68-year-old is co-operating with his trial for the killing of 21-year-old Tsuneo Nakamura during violent protests against the military presence in Okinawa at the height of the Vietnam War. This is surely something of an exaggeration, since the chances of Ōsaka abandoning such a fundamental practice of the New Left, especially for Chūkaku-ha, are practically zero, given his ability to survive decades of an underground existence whereby he could hardly ever go outside (at the risk of belittling the situation, it was surely a life not all that dissimilar to his current fate behind bars in some respects).

Moreover, the Chūkaku-ha organ, Zenshin, tacitly acknowledges that the man on trial is Ōsaka in its regular articles denouncing the charges against him. His identity is not so much the issue as his innocence and the inability of the prosecutors to provide real proof of his guilt, as it does with Fumiaki Hoshino, another veteran Chūkaku-ha activist tried for his alleged role in the death of Nakamura. Hoshino’s case is the subject of an on-going campaign for a retrial and acquittal, given the flimsy evidence that was responsible for his receiving a full-life sentence. His supporters argue that his is an example of wrongful conviction (enzai), recognition of which is growing in Japan following several high-profile instances and recent documentaries on the subject. Given the precedent for convictions in Japan, particularly in political cases, it is very likely that Ōsaka will also to be found guilty of murdering the police officer during the Shibuya riot and, thus, another enzai campaign will begin, calling for a retrial. (My personal stance has always been that I do not know if Hoshino — or, for that matter, Ōsaka — was responsible for the death of Nakamura, since I was not there and am no legal expert, but I do feel strongly that the evidence is highly suspect and that Hoshino’s conviction was politically motivated.)

Chūkaku-ha is a formerly militant far-left group that is today predominantly engaged in peaceful labour activism and student politics. It is the most prominent and energetic of the groups that remain from Japan’s New Left movement, and has mobilised activists many times at rallies and protests in the present wave of demonstrations sparked by the Moritomo cronyism scandal.


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Anti-2020 Tokyo Olympics activists launch lawsuit over eviction of homeless due to New National Stadium construction

Leading figures in the anti-2020 Tokyo Olympics protest movement have launched a lawsuit seeking ¥3.5 million from the Japan Sport Council, Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the state over the forced eviction of homeless people from Meiji Park in April 2016 due to the construction of the New National Stadium in Kasumigaoka.

The stadium is the most prominent and expensive architecture project related to the Summer Olympics scheduled to be open in Tokyo in July 2020. Following the demolition of the original National Stadium, the construction of Kengo Kuma’s much-trumpeted replacement has deprived the people staying in neighbouring Meiji Park as well as residents in government housing in the vicinity of their homes.

The homeless people and their supporters serving as the plaintiffs held a protest in front of Tokyo District Court and press conference on 14 March to publicise the start of their legal action. They argue that the rights of the people living in the park were not respected and that they should be compensated for the forced eviction and loss of their place of residence resulting from the closure of Meiji Park and the loan of the land by Tokyo Metropolitan Government free of charge to the JSC.

anti-2020 olympics games tokyo evictions meiji park homeless lawsuit protest

anti-2020 olympics games tokyo evictions meiji park homeless lawsuit protest

anti-2020 olympics games tokyo evictions meiji park homeless lawsuit protest

Images via @galbraithian999

The evictions in April 2016 happened the day after Tokyo District Court accepted the JSC’s request to remove people from the park and led, activists claim, to the loss of important documents and possessions when belongings were forcibly taken away. In addition to violating Article 25 of the Japanese Constitution, which guarantees the “right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living”, and that “in all spheres of life, the State shall use its endeavours for the promotion and extension of social welfare and security, and of public health”, the activists allege that there was wilful negligence on the part of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and JSC, while the national government has also failed to take corrective measures despite acknowledging the problems.

The lawsuit is organised by key groups and individuals in the opposition to the 2020 Games, including Hangorin no Kai, Nojiren, and Supporters for the Park Residents around the National Olympic Stadium. Notwithstanding the obvious financial and logistical challenges it poses for campaigns, the litigation is a calculated choice of action, embarked upon for both its symbolic value as protest and its practical potential as well as its alignment with similar legal struggles against Olympic-related evictions overseas. The anti-2020 campaigners very much see themselves as part of the growing global NOlympics movement.

That being said, it remains difficult to inspire interest domestically. Although the activists and their legal team organised a formal press conference, the case has yet to attract mainstream media coverage. Indeed, while the major setbacks and controversies over the 2020 Olympics are widely reported — not least the ballooning budget issues, withdrawn logo and replaced costly stadium design — the evictions and effects of the Games on certain overlooked sections of society are almost entirely ignored by the local press. As such, seemingly only alternative media and sympathetic left-wing media have covered the lawsuit so far. (26 March Update: it was picked up in a small piece for the 23 March edition of weekly magazine Shūkan Kinyōbi.)

Here is footage of the evictions from Meiji Park in April 2016.

On 24 March, activists will formally present their case to Tokyo District Court and also plan a rally at Mitake Park, which is close to Shibuya’s Miyashita Park, another flashpoint for opponents of the gentrification and redevelopment stemming from the 2020 Olympics.


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Revival of Blind Touch, Yōji Sakate play inspired by Fumiaki and Akiko Hoshino

Yōji Sakate’s Blind Touch, the play inspired by the real-life story of Fumiaki and Akiko Hoshino, will be revived in a production directed by the author at The Suzunari, a leading fringe theatre in Shimokitazawa, from 19 March to 1 April.

Best known for such plays as The Attic and Epitaph for the Whales , Sakate first wrote Blind Touch for Theatrical Company EN in 2002. Though not a didactic dramatist, his award-winning work is nonetheless often socially and politically engaged.

blind touch hoshino play sakate yoji

Fumiaki Hoshino was a prominent Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction) student activist who took part in protests in Sanrizuka against the construction of Narita Airport and in an major anti-war demonstration in November 1971 against the Vietnam War and the terms of the reversion of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty. Known as the Shibuya Riot Incident, this protest turned violent and a young police officer, Tsuneo Nakamura, was killed. Many people were arrested on charges related to the incident, including Nakamura’s murder, and Hoshino was eventually detained in 1975. He was found guilty and, after a retrial, his full-life sentence was confirmed in 1987, though the evidence for his involvement with the death is primarily confession statements by other activists that were later withdrawn.

In Japan, police interrogations are notorious for their protracted nature, in which detainees are subjected to many hours of questioning without breaks or even a lawyer (and only limited recording, introduced recently). To maintain its 99% conviction rate, only very strong cases are prosecuted and results are normally ensured by extracting confessions from suspects. Numerous miscarriages of justice have been exposed, including when “confessions” were apparently supplied. Detainees often feel pressured to make a confession as their only means of ending the interrogations, since the period suspects can be held in custody without charge is long and easily extendable by re-arrests.

Hoshino has a team of supporters, the Hoshino Defence Committee, who have continued to campaign for his retrial and demand that police release concealed evidence in the case. Hoshino would marry a supporter, Akiko, from behind bars in 1986. Akiko visits him regularly, though they are only able to make contact through a transparent plastic wall — the “blind touch” that gives Sakate’s play its title.

Sakate does not name the couple in Blind Touch; they are simply referred to as “Male” and “Female”. He also takes some dramatic licence with the Hoshinos’ actual situation. In his two-hander, the activist has left prison after many years to live with his wife, who has always believed in his innocence. Blind Touch is the story of their learning to adjust to this new life together.

Hoshino is just one of many Chūkaku-ha activists tried in connection with the Shibuya Riot Incident and Tsuneo Nakamura’s killing. Yukio Okumiyama’s trial proceedings were halted in 1981 due to mental illness, and he passed away earlier this year at the age of 68. Hiroya Arakawa served his sentence and was released in 2000, but later expelled from Chūkaku-ha after he was accused of spying for police. A final activist wanted for the murder was Masaaki Ōsaka, who was arrested in Hiroshima last year after over four decades on the run. On 23 February, the deadline for Ōsaka’s pretrial arrangement procedures for his first hearing was set by Tokyo District Court for 26 March. His legal team maintains his innocence and the 68-year-old Ōsaka — who has been officially identified by a somewhat suspect DNA test — refused to give his name or address in court at the detention reasons disclosure proceedings in June last year. Tetsuya Suzuki, an alleged covert Chūkaku-ha activist arrested with Ōsaka and accused of harbouring a fugitive from 26 February to 18 May 2017, faces a two-year sentence, but his defence lawyers say that the man he was living with in Hiroshima cannot even be confirmed to have been Masaaki Ōsaka. The Osaka District Court will hand down its verdict on 27 April.


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