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Send In The Clowns - Absurdity and Japanese Radicals

Send In The Clowns – Absurdity and Japanese Radicals

New Revolt

Since the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11th, 2011 and the resulting Fukushima maelstrom, the western media has frequently reported a spectacle that appears to surprise them: Japanese people, the “quiet people”, are taking part in demos. Seemingly for the first time, petitions are being signed online and off, angry protests are being voiced on the streets of Tokyo, and even respected celebrities are occasionally wading waist-deep into the debate.

All cultures attract canards. Every nation has its glut of stereotypes. Japan is no exception and even in these multi-media, multi-perspective times the rather unpleasant notions linger that all local woman are submissive, all men stoic. The Japanese are perennially characterized as a modest, subservient race, a fallacy spread by both western novices and veteran observers – and even the Japanese themselves. And yet history is written by those in power; stereotypes are born out of imagined truths more than complex cultural memory. The peasants who revolt but fail are never the shapers and stylists of national identity.

As far as the Baby Boomer generation should be concerned, the anti-nuclear power protests that Tokyo has been witnessing of late are old hat. They should remember and perhaps some even participated in the protests of 1960 against the renewal of Anpo, the security treaty with America first signed as the Occupation ended. As much opposition to the pact and what it stood for as fury against then-Prime Minister Kishi’s flippant disregard for parliamentary processes – notoriously calling in police into the Diet to have rival politicians removed like burdocks ripped out of the muddy field – the movement peaked in the summer in an orgy of nationwide demos, hundreds of thousands strong. Millions participated overall in the movement. It saw an invasion of the Diet grounds and the death of a young female university student that remains controversial to this day.

Those too young to join in the melee of Anpo could then make up for lost time in the later Sixties. While Soviet tanks rolled into Prague and American bombs rained down in the Tet Offensive, thousands of Japanese students joined French and American counterparts in campus strikes, protests and anti-Vietnam War clashes. The streets of Tokyo were turned into a battlefield. In 1968 over 6,000 students were arrested for protest activities. The number of political participants doubled in the following year, with 152 of Japan’s nearly 400 four-year universities locked down by disputes. Things got worse after the united campus movement (Zenkyōtō) itself dissipated, with radical groups turning on each other. Or they attacked Japanese society as a whole; there were 192 incidents involving explosives between 1969 and 1972.

Send In The Clowns - Absurdity and Japanese Radicals

Japan-US Treaty of Mutual Security and Cooperation Signed January 19, 1960

The construction of Narita Airport, one of the crowning achievements of the economic growth of post-war Japan, was also marred by the long and drawn-out protests against it by local farmers and student radicals, who battled police for years in a futile effort to stop the relentless destruction of Japanese rural communities in the name of “progress”. Now long-haul international flights are coming into Haneda again and it is tempting to conclude that the new airport was never even needed in the first place.

Radicalism and revolt are not novel to Japan by any means. Even during the feudal era, like any civilization, the oppressed rose up in local and larger scale rebellions. There were some 3,000 peasant uprisings in the Tokugawa period and around 500 urban disturbances. Major outbreaks include the Shimabara Rebellion in Kyushu in 1637-1638, which centered around a messianic young boy leader. Likewise Anpo was an unusually large mass movement but it was not isolated even in the post-war years; in many ways it was the culmination of nearly 1,000 other much smaller but nonetheless incendiary incidents between 1952 and 1960.

Send In The Clowns – Absurdity and Japanese Radicals

“The real face of our time shows in Samuel Beckett’s novels,” said Herbert Marcuse, the favourite thinker of the 1968 generation. Beckett of course was the master of the absurd. His Japanese comrade is Minoru Betsuyaku, whose dozens of plays include The Move. It depicts an anonymous family ever in motion, always pushing their tottering tower of junk piled onto a cart: Japan’s Economic Miracle in the Sisyphean mode.

The great Japan scholar Ivan Morris argued that failure was integral to the existence and nature of Japanese rebellion, that a love of the underdog (so-called hōganbiiki) maintains the popularity of “heroes” who were actually rebels. The English instead celebrate the spectacular failure of Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators every year on November 5th with firework displays and macabre effigies that are thrown into a bonfire, like a weird national pagan rite. On the other side of the world in Tokyo’s Ueno Park, an innocuous statute of Saigō Takamori pays tribute to the samurai without mentioning that he died rebelling against the modern Japan he helped to establish. His quixotic demise is central to his enduring appeal. Underdogs are popular in the western imagination as well – but by and large, mostly if they win against the odds. If the Bible had had a Japanese author, perhaps Goliath would have squashed David, but the boy’s glamour would have been none the lesser for it.

In July that same year a Japanese university student tried to attack the American Secretary of State William Rogers on a visit to Tokyo. The choice of arms? A sharpened pencil. Writers have long boasted the pen is mightier than the… Click To Tweet

To Morris’s concept of the underdog we could add that absurdity and farce also always plays a reoccurring part, like a running gag that just won’t go away. The absurd creeps up on us unawares. It is most unsettling but unforgettable precisely because it is incongruous. It is uncanny in the Freudian sense. This is not to say that it was all fun and games in the Japanese student movement. Far from being frivolous, many of the radicals were deadly serious and hundreds ended up losing their lives – or taking others’.

The most famous incident in the Japanese student movement was what happened at the University of Tokyo. A seemingly minor episode, where medical students protesting with tutors about the internship system turned into a scuffle, ultimately engulfed the whole university and multiple campuses in strikes and barricades. The unified campus organizations (Zenkyōtō) mustered students across departments in rallies and demos, and kick-started large-scale, stubborn strikes. Along the way there was fierce internecine fighting between factions of the Zengakuren student council organizations and the pro-Communist Party wings. The students wore iconic coloured helmets according to their respective sect, like signs of the arcane guild to which they swore allegiance. They carried large wooden staves to battle riot police, right-wing students trying to break up the blockade, or rival factions. It all ended in an inevitable last stand at Yasuda Hall, which held out for two days in the face of over eight thousand riot police. Eventually the cops smashed through and reached the top. The dispute had lasted a year and became the exemplum for Zenkyōtō groups at other universities and colleges all over Japan.

So far, so very passionate. But the loose organizational structure of Zenkyōto all-campus movements and the umbrella-like nature of the individual Zengakuren sects and the student councils meant that students were often unaware of the causes for which they were fighting. They might be told just to muster at a certain place in their gear – and to do battle. It is frequently remarked upon that the original controversy from which the University of Tokyo strike originated became harder to extricate and resolve as the dispute escalated. Many of the people fighting inside Yasuda Hall at the bitter end were not even students from the university.

Send In The Clowns - Absurdity and Japanese Radicals

東大全共闘 1968-1969, Todai Zenkyoto 68-69 © 渡辺 眸 Watanabe Hitomi

The Yasuda Alamo reached its finale in January 1969. In July that same year a Japanese university student tried to attack the American Secretary of State William Rogers on a visit to Tokyo. Before we debate the merits of such an attack, let us look at the choice of arms here. Writers have long boasted the pen is mightier than the sword, but it would take a very precise assassin to do damage with a pencil. The would-be assailant’s disadvantages were not merely matériel. When he launched his attack he managed to go for the wrong man and Rogers was left not only unscathed, but completely untouched.

Yet more than foreign dignitaries, the student radicals were attacking each other in brutal dogfights that peaked in the Seventies but continued for years after. Particularly violent was the fighting between the Kakumaru and Chūkaku groups. Some forty people were killed in the years immediately after the main student movement dissipated, including the infamous 1970 case of Toshio Ebihara, who was tortured and murdered by Chūkaku radicals on the campus of Hosei University.

This in-fighting was curiously christened uchi-geba, an intriguing portmanteau partly Japanese (uchi – or “inner”) and married with an abbreviated German loanword (Gewalt, or “force”). Nearly 2,000 violent internal disputes arose between the dozens of factions that split off from the original Zengakuren Bund. Uchi-geba was a perpetual, ingrained problem but actually predated the Zenkyōtō campus movement. The original split in Zengakuren over a decade before 1968 was another example of uchi-geba, where the student councils were permanently rendered between those supporting the JCP and those against it. Though the later factions would prove more adept and brutal at killing each other, the pro- and anti-JCP sides also still managed several memorable scraps during the Sixties. Once at a 1966 assembly of the federation of student dormitories the arch enemies fought with staves, pipes and stones, but the most eye-catching element of the skirmish must surely have been the massive tree trunk that was used to invade the hall, so big that it required five people to carry it.

However, the 1968-1969 campus strikes added fuel to the fire, especially at Yasuda, where Kakumaru was accused of abandoning the citadel to the police. Before things degenerated into totally unpleasant depths, there was still time for absurdity. The graduation ceremony at Waseda University in 1969 was interrupted by non-sect radicals, who burst into the auditorium throwing firecrackers, smoke bombs, eggs and even live, flapping chickens into the air. Not so much revolution, it was bedlam.

3 – Ashita No …?

Send In The Clowns - Absurdity and Japanese Radicals

As we now know, though, the antics became something much graver and strange over the coming years, with dozens of notorious lynching incidents as the New Left self-destructed. Were the Sekigun-Ha reading “Ashita no Joe” while hijacking Flight 351?

The hard-core were sincerely attempting to ignite a revolution as had happened from the grass roots in China and Cuba. The Sekigun-ha, or Red Army Faction, in particular launched an infamous series of small-scale bombings around Japan in 1969, before a police dragnet arrested many of their foot soldiers while training in the countryside. Later their leader was also caught but that did not stop other members from pulling off their most dramatic stunt: Japan’s first hijacking, that of JAL flight 351 in March 1970.

No one was hurt. No planes blew up. The hijackers were even complimented for their courtesy by the passengers after they were released. The band of Sekigun-ha members, armed with Japanese katana swords and the occasional pipe bomb, directed the Fukuoka-bound plane to be flown to North Korea, where they hoped to fly onto Cuba. It was intended as a highly symbolic act that would kick-start a revolution in Japan in the Cuban mode and it was genuinely shocking at the time. The hijackers expected then to be able to return to their homeland one day and assist in the uprising. Their plans were optimistic to say the least.

Getting to Cuba by hijacking is a novel way to travel and had actually been suggested in jest by a young Cuba Embassy staffer when the Sekigun-ha approached him. The Japanese took him at face value. Of course, the North Koreans did not let them fly onto Cuba, despite being “comrades” in the struggle – in fact, they wanted them to stay and help train spies in their missions to abduct Japanese citizens. The Sekigun-ha had unwittingly bought their own one-way ticket to the most closed state in the world.

They left a “departure announcement” that they published in their paper. In between a few banzai-s for the world proletariat it ended famously with their rally cry: “We are Ashita no jō!” Ashita no jō (Tomorrow’s Joe) was a comic about young boxers popular at the time; the Sekigun-ha hijackers were trying to tell people how “normal” they were. And yet the only impression it springs to mind is that, in between their large doses of Marx, Takaaki Yoshimoto et al, the radicals were reading manga. The critic Hiroki Azuma also once in Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals made a teasing comparison between New Left extremists and the ardour we see in fans of Japanese subcultures. Were the Sekigun-ha merely the otaku of their day?


This is Part 1 of Send in the Clowns: Absurdity and the Japanese Radical. Read Part 2, by William Andrews, a writer and translator based in Tokyo. He is currently working on a book about postwar Japanese radicalism and counterculture.


Japan’s Coming of Age – Long Journey


Send In The Clowns – Absurdity and the Japanese Radical – Part 2


  1. Damon Coulter

    Interesting read. Will have to wait for more and the book I suppose for the in depth analysis of a oft overlooked, even ignored, part of Japanese political life. The radicalism here is at time absurd but as the author lists is at other times brutally damaging to life and society. When mainstream politics is such a farce is it surprising that the fringes act any differently? I do hope that the silliness is not reported as an entertainment though and the more serious calls for an improvement in Japan’s political maturity and the passions that some Japanese people have for those changes (passions that have created heroically inept, yet heroic nonetheless, actions like pencil assignation attempts and at other times, kamikaze pilots) is equally reported. I have been following the extreme left’s story here, on and off, for many years. True they may have little hope of achieving their aims in the current climate of disinterest and conservatism and the constant coat-tailing of any issues in a desperate search for relevancy is easy to ridicule. But the pragmatics aside their determination is laudable and worthy of serious reporting especially as the usual leitmotif regarding Japanese political participation is infantile apathy.

  2. William Andrews


    Thank you for the insights.

    Fear not, the silliness is in no way reported as an entertainment — and certainly not intended as ridicule — as I hope the second part of the article will clarify.

  3. Damon Coulter

    Thanks William. Didn’t think it was. Have thought about doing this sort of story or book myself sometimes but never seem to get around to compiling all the info and working out a narrative. Will be interested in seeing all the hard work you must have done to even start working doing this. Well done.

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