Japan’s student protest movement around 1970 made American anti-war demonstrations look like picnics in the park.
1. THE SNOW MURDERER
2. SOLUTION = REVOLUTION
3. UNIVERSITY BLUES
4. THE RULES OF THE GAME
5. THE TOWER
6. TIME WAITS FOR NO ONE
1. THE SNOW MURDERER
One look at Hiroko Nagata and you know there’s trouble.
She wasn’t your average murderer. When the Japanese police finally caught her in February 1972 she’d participated in 14 homicides. All but two of her victims – including a heavily pregnant woman – were fellow members of the terrorist group Rengo Sekigun, “the United Red Army” (URA). It had a particularly ambitious revolutionary agenda for a group with barely 30 members, all sleeping on the floor of a single-stove alpine cabin.
Japan’s media branded Hiroko Nagata a she-devil. In the aftermath of “the snow murders” every Japanese criminologist, psychologist and talking head dissected her psyche. She’d led the group alongside the glib, dictatorial Tsuneo Mori. During police interrogation both were secretive about their relationship. They had every right to be.
This is the story of how the tumultuous student protest movement in the 1960’s-early 1970’s turned Japanese universities and cities into war zones. We’ll see how the protest movement’s attempts to foment a class war:
alienated the very people it claimed to champion, and
unwittingly started a chain of events leading to one of its main group’s – the United Red Army‘s – self-destructive homicides and
how a snowball effect led to the URA’s final traumatic shoot-out with 1,000 police.
We’ll also see how the group was indirectly responsible for a terrorist outrage which even rocked the Middle East.
2. SOLUTION = REVOLUTION
Japan’s postwar generation grew up in a vastly different society from the one their parents knew. Democracy filled the air. The emperor was a living god no more. The old militaristic ethos was dead. And at long last Japan’s parliament had an actual political spectrum. In fact – who would have imagined it? – some parliamentarians even belonged to the Japan Communist Party, the JCP.
Few Japanese aspired to live in a Soviet-style dictatorship, but only the communists had resisted Japan’s rampant militarism. They’d rotted in military prisons for that resistance. When the 2nd World War ended thousands of half-starved JCP comrades emerged from their dungeons, blinking in the sunlight and scratching their lice.
They saw the pendulum had swung and they got straight to work. And as Japan’s dispirited troops returned to their devastated country, these newly freed communists grabbed every chance to ram home the message: Why didn’t you all listen to us when you had the chance?
The prewar leadership was now discredited. The Left had the momentum. America’s supremo in Occupied Japan, General Douglas MacArthur, was no friend of the Lefties, but he was committed to warts-and-all democracy. So the communists were free to organize and evangelize.
While waving the red flag in factories remained important, universities became the JCP’s happy hunting grounds. Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders, they declared, and the young have fertile minds. Universities – dilapidated and bomb damaged – hummed with leftist activity. Students with vivid memories of the war flocked to on-campus Marxist study groups to make a brighter world. And they learned to sing the communist anthem The Internationale in Japanese.
The JCP was there every step of the way. Wasting no time, the Communists cultivated the newly formed “All-Japan Federation of Student Self-Governing Associations“. Its abbreviated Japanese name was Zengakuren. Soon young communists dominated Zengakuren‘s leadership.
As the Cold War intensified the Zengakuren-JCP bond tightened. Angered by the government’s crackdowns on the Communist Menace, 20,000 members stormed the emperor’s palace, precipitating the 1952 protest campaign. Zengakuren used molotov-cocktails and threw ammonia into the riot cops’ faces.
But in 1958 the hitherto solid JCP-Zengakuren alliance cracked over doctrinal differences. The students severed the bond. The old-school JCP communists and the young university firebrands became bitter rivals.
By 1960 Japan’s booming economy needed more university graduates. But how could intellectual life flourish in decrepit little lecture halls and inadequate labs? The general air of intellectual sterility came as a shock. Q: Why do so many professors view teaching with such disdain? A: Because teaching interferes with their real priorities: getting published and waging faculty power struggles.
Soon the undergraduates’ frustration reached boiling point.
Their frustration wasn’t merely about abysmal campus infrastructure, professorial indifference, exorbitant tuition fees, administrative inertia and corruption. Japan’s servile attitude to America during the recent security treaty negotiations was on everyone’s mind. The prime minister’s willingness to negotiate away Japan’s rights as a sovereign nation enraged both leftists and nationalists. Now, in 1960, their fury took a dramatic turn.
In June Zengakuren students and their allies stormed the parliament. One of the 5,000 riot police killed a 22-year-old female student, Zengakuren‘s first martyr. 300,000 protesters then surrounded the parliament building.
Now came a momentous shift. Zengakuren‘s radicals had long expressed outrage that their compatriots tolerated such political leadership. Now they asked how people could tolerate such a corrupt political system. Every radical (“rad”) agreed: revolution was the only solution. But then the movement splintered into a bewildering forest of factions. Everybody proclaimed the need for revolution. The big question was What kind of revolution? From the 1960’s into the early 1970’s this question fueled countless impassioned debates. And lots of violence.
3. UNIVERSITY BLUES
The summer of 1969.
Just over a year earlier the streets of Paris heaved with students and workers, teachers and truckers, plumbers and poets waving banners and chanting revolutionary slogans. 11,000,000 workers went on strike. France was on its knees. But the flame of the May ’68 Revolution spluttered. In June’s election the conservatives gained a solid mandate, and when the dust settled it was like May had never happened.
Doubtless there were lessons in this, but whatever they were they bounced off the minds of radical Japanese students. Meanwhile, their universities remained woefully unhappy, overcrowded institutions whose professors remained uncontaminated by concern for their students.
With a few praiseworthy exceptions a typical Japanese university was administered by President Under-the-table and Dean Kickback. You were “taught” by Professor Ivory-tower and his assistant, Professor Thinking-about-ways-to-improve-my-lectures-would-just-be-a-waste-of-precious-milliseconds.
Desperately needed student housing was still being demolished and the land sold to real estate pirates. But…what differentiated 1960 from 1969 were (a) the Vietnam War and (b) all the left-wing factions.
The May ’68 demonstrators protested the Vietnam War – as if Washington gave a hoot what the Frenchies thought – but they also protested underfunded universities, outdated teaching methods, government arrogance and bureaucratic sloth. This resonated with Japan’s students. Even so, France was a world away from Indochina. The Vietnam War was on Japan’s doorstep. American air and naval units in Japan and Okinawa routinely launched attacks on Vietnam.
Students nationwide condemned their craven government’s willingness to make Japan a cog in Uncle Sam’s war machine. The Japanese Left was divided on everything except Vietnam. On that it stood firmly united.
Visit any major Japanese university in 1969 and you couldn’t miss the wild disagreements – except on the Vietnam issue – everywhere. The campus would be a veritable jungle of political consciousness groups, revolutionary brigades, revolutionary fronts, revolutionary armies, revolutionary corps, revolutionary alliances, revolutionary councils, solidarity committees and action cells. Everybody was anti-this and pro-that. Everybody was an -ist or an -ite.
Some preached worldwide revolution. Some wanted to smash Japan’s imperialist alliance with America (like Hiroko Nagata’s group, emerging that same year). Others said the real enemy was capitalism itself. Or the consumer culture. The list was endless.
If the factions ever considered setting aside doctrinal differences for the benefit of a greater cause, they never acted on it. Quite the opposite. This brigade denounced that council as capitalist stooges. This front scorned that alliance for being imperialist lackeys. This solidarity committee had utter contempt for the fascist tools in that corps.
When they weren’t demonstrating against the Vietnam War, the U.S-Japan alliance, America’s occupation of Okinawa or the constipated university system, on-campus radical leftist groups could usually be found drowning out rival factions’ rallies with megaphones, erasing their rivals’ graffiti and storming their offices. And much worse.
Demonstration. What images come to mind?
21st-century demonstrations usually involve chants like:
WADDA WE WANT?
BLAH BLAH BLAH!
WHEN DO WE WANNIT?
Whereas we imagine Japan – especially in bygone decades – as a constrained, polite and modest society producing protest chants like:
WHAT DO WE RESPECTFULLY REQUEST?
BLAH BLAH BLAH!
WHEN DO WE RESPECTFULLY REQUEST IT?
AT THE APPROPRIATE JUNCTURE!!!
However, a typical Japanese student protest around 1970 was like this 1-minute-and-16 -second video (no sound):
And like this 2-minute video (also no sound):
Incidentally, the woman under arrest in the second video’s 1 minute 27 second mark was Fusako (The Red Queen) Shigenobu. She’ll figure prominently in part 2.
How did these radicals organize themselves? What were all those helmets, towels and sticks about? And those weird conga lines of protesters snaking through the streets? And how did the police deal with all this?
4. THE RULES OF THE GAME
White helmets, red helmets, white helmets with a red stripe, yellow helmets. Each signified something. Yellow helmeted protesters were with
- the JCP (Communist Party). They had big numbers and were lavishly funded. But they avoided heavy violence, and so lacked the oomph of:
- the Kakumaru (Revolutionary Marxists): white helmets with a red stripe and big Z. They were the ex-partners of, and therefore the implacably bitter enemies of:
- the Marugakudo Chûkaku-ha (Marxist Student League Central Core Faction): white helmets with 中核 (Chûkaku “Central Core”) emblazoned on them. This was the radical fringe’s radical fringe. Chûkaku-ha wanted to make every other group look about as revolutionary as boiled cabbage and about as violent as the Vienna Boys’ Choir. Or:
- the Shagakudo: red helmets with 社学同 (Socialist Student League) on the front. They adored the May ’68 French protesters, and were respected for the sheer professionalism of their street barricades, if nothing else. Or the group which we’ll get to know well in part 2:
- Sekigun-ha, or the Red Army Faction (red helmets emblazoned with 赤軍派 [“Red Army Faction”]). Originating in western Japan it started bombing police stations and robbing banks and carried out Japan’s first airplane hijacking. Their mission? To “Escalate the Present Struggle into Armed Revolution”. They claimed to be soldiers in a war to the death.
The doctrinal conflicts among rival factions – uchigeba – didn’t merely manifest in shouting matches and erasing each others’ graffiti. Like the Germanic tribes engulfing the Late Roman Empire, the various on-campus factions would just as soon fight each other as fight their common enemy. Convinced of both their own ideological purity and the other factions’ criminal betrayal of revolutionary ideals, each faction felt duty bound to obliterate the others.
Uchigeba took several forms. The factions conducted midnight “liberation” raids on rival groups’ on-campus offices, brawled and hurled bricks through windows. They kidnapped “enemies of the Revolution” (other factions’ members), slapped them around and released them. But from 1970 the Kakumaru vs Chûkaku-ha enmity escalated into torture and murder. More on this in Part 2.
The police rarely intervened unless a university requested. They were happy to see the “rads” at each others’ throats instead of turning the streets into warzones.
Demonstrators wore wet towels over their noses for protection against teargas. They wielded sticks called gebabô. That name combined gebaruto, the Japanese pronunciation of the German noun Gewalt (“force”) and bô (stick). Some gebabô had iron tips or nails.
At street demonstrations they linked arms, forming long lines several protesters abreast. Chanting slogans, they zig-zagged towards the police lines.
Each “snake line” followed its line master, a guy at the front. Like a traffic cop he blew a whistle to direct the line. He set the rhythm. He watched out for TV cameras and newspaper photographers, directing the line for optimum media exposure.
The hypnotic chanting and rhythmic movements mesmerized the protesters. As if to break the spell, the line master sounded a signal and the protesters immediately formed a phalanx. Everyone raised their gebabô and charged full-speed at the riot cops. The police reaction varied. Occasionally they’d suddenly open their ranks and let the students through. The cops would then close ranks, sandwiching the protesters before letting them have it with their truncheons.
The police preferred meeting massed charges with water cannons, but the narrow streets of typical Japanese cities sometimes prevented that. Their water cannons sprayed dyed water so the “rads” at the forefront of the charges became clearly identifiable and arrestable.
These massed charges traditionally put the youngest students in the vanguard. Teenagers were mostly inexperienced, so readily accepted the risks that experienced protesters had learned to avoid. They’d be more aggressive in order prove themselves. Plus – and this was the clincher – they weren’t yet 20 years old. Under Japanese law they were minors, meaning they’d receive more leniency from the courts. They might be let off with having to issue an apology (Ha!) or with a warning (Ha ha!). Or a small fine, paid by the group’s emergency funds.
Political protest was testosterone driven. Even the most ardent female radicals were stuck with support roles away from the main action. When there were no protests, “the girls” brewed the tea, solicited donations at subway exits, rolled bandages, emptied the ashtrays, made posters, distributed pamphlets, emptied more ashtrays……
Older, more experienced protesters usually got molotov-cocktail or rock-throwing duties. Once the police had absorbed some gebabô charges the radicals’ rear-guard maintained a furious barrage of missiles. Having dealt with massed charges and hand-to-hand fighting, the cops now faced fire and rocks. Teargas was the normal response if water cannons weren’t available. On good days they could combine both.
Demonstrations occasionally targeted individuals. President Eisenhower’s Press Secretary’s visit in 1960 met such violent protests that he feared for his life. A military helicopter whisked him to safety. However, some “attacks” were laughable. In Tokyo in 1969 a student radical penetrated the police cordon and tried to stab U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers with a sharp pencil. Rogers was unharmed. The attacker targeted the wrong guy.
The riot police were Japanese law-enforcement’s elite, numbering 29,000 by 1969. Applicants passed rigorous psychological and physical tests before training intensively for urban warfare. Most were officially limited to only a few years as riot cops before reassignments to safer duties. This was to prevent burnout from the stress, the injuries and all the adrenaline.
It was an exciting, prestigious and well-paid part of their career, despite the constant criticism. The police always over-react, one media outlet or politician would declare. No, they’re far too lenient insisted another. The students are merely exercising their democratic rights, you fascist thugs, cried the Left. Smash more heads and make more arrests! demanded the Right.
In any case, the riot police were not above raiding hospital wards after a street battle and beating injured radicals in their beds.
5. THE TOWER
Ask any Japanese person who remembers the Tokyo University (TôDai) Siege of 1968-69 and you’ll get a reaction. The final assault by thousands of riot police on Japan’s most prestigious university was televised nationwide. Many old-timers can recall where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. It was the turning point in Japanese society and the student protest movement.
It started in 1968 when senior medical students politely protested unwelcome changes to their training regimen. The administration was outraged, and its heavy-handed response made things worse. Both sides dug in. The lukewarm support they’d received until then – these were medical students, after all – now intensified. By July most of TôDai was on strike.
Tokyo University’s administrators were trapped. The med students’ demands weren’t unreasonable, but Tôdai couldn’t lose face by backing down. The campus was now in virtual paralysis. That year’s students couldn’t be promoted. The entrance exams for the Spring 1969 intake were scrapped. By October every department had shut down. And about 20 other universities had “solidarity rebellions” supporting TôDai’s protesters.
Meanwhile, “rads” occupied Yasuda Auditorium, the 9-story edifice dominating Tokyo University’s campus. Riot police evicted them. The students then coordinated their resistance. And before you could say The Revolution starts here they’d retaken Yasuda Auditorium.
By the end of 1968 a partial accommodation was within reach. But the factions occupying Yasuda Auditorium started fighting each other as well as the police. They also “arrested” professors, publicly interrogating them over blaring loudspeakers, like the Red Guards in China’s Cultural Revolution. One professor endured nine straight days of this.
The police were also in a bind. TôDai needed them to restore order. Yet unresolved legal questions about police jurisdiction and university autonomy muddied the waters. The administration faced censure for involving the cops in the first place. But by now this had dragged on long enough, and something had to give. Tokyo University had become Tokyo Jungle.
In mid-January 1969 the media reported the police were preparing an all-out assault to dislodge the rads from Yasuda Auditorium. 8,500 police assembled. Students on nearby campuses tried to divert the police with impromptu riots. The cops ignored them and zeroed in on Tôdai.
All the various factions in the auditorium put their doctrinal differences on temporary hold and coalesced against the common enemy. All except Kakumaru (white helmets with red stripes). Kakumaru made a complete withdrawal so it could live to fight another day. (This added immeasurably to the hatred Chûkaku-ha – white helmets with the characters for “Central Core” – already bore its bitter rival.)
Allies on the ground helped the holdouts stockpile molotov-cocktails, rocks, bottles of acid, bricks and whatever they could scrounge at short notice. They’d long ago rained all the desks, tables, bookshelves and doorknobs down on whoever was blaring demands that they put an end to this nonsense, stop this fiasco and come down this instant. This would surely be the final showdown.
The police had shields, clubs and 10,000 teargas grenades. They cut off the auditorium’s water, gas and electricity. Helicopters dumped freezing water onto the students while enormous water cannons blasted the auditorium from below. Evening news reports televised ghostly images of the students hurling flaming bottles over the ramparts, creating arcs of sparks in the night sky.
On the second day red, waterlogged flags still adorned the tower. The police continued the water attacks from above and below. The students maintained their avalanche of bricks and molotov-cocktails. But the cops made headway, advancing floor by floor, squeezing the radicals into the building’s top floor where escape was impossible.
By Day 3, as the non-stop nationwide TV coverage transfixed Japan, the students were out of options and missiles. A few made catapults to fling their own shit at the police. But despite their hopeless position they resolved to go down fighting. They grabbed their gebabô, soaked their anti-teargas towels in water – there was no shortage of that – and set themselves for the final onslaught.
Wave after overwhelming wave of elite cops raided the top floor. Vicious hand-to-hand fighting ensued. The police prevailed. What remained of Yasuda Auditorium reverted to university control.
The police commander then made an astonishing gesture.
He later admitted he was not without sympathy for their grievances, but he’d had a job to do. He acknowledged the students displayed admirable physical courage and spirited determination.
That was why, when the last gebabo hit the floor and the last “rad” surrendered, the police commandant told his men to stand back.
Stand back, he ordered, and let them get cleaned up and sort themselves out. His panting, sweating, bleeding front-line cops obeyed. Those students who were still ambulatory assembled and linked arms. They then stood erect, linked arms and belted out a rousing rendition of The Internationale. Hands on their heads, they marched proudly down the stairs – each according to his faction – to be handcuffed and stuffed into paddy wagons. About 800 people altogether.
6. TIME WAITS FOR NO ONE
But things changed through 1969. Public support waned. People muttered: Sure we oppose the Vietnam War. And sure we wish for Okinawa’s rightful return. And sure we want Japan and Okinawa out from under Uncle Sam’s thumb. But why all this chaos? All this disruption to everyday life for us ordinary folks? So much teargas and violence on the streets? Over 500 arrests a month in 1968! Anyway, aren’t students sometimes supposed to, you know, study?
The more perceptive radicals sensed the decline. Apart from America agreeing to return Okinawa on absurdly lopsided terms, there was nothing to show for all their efforts. The Yankee war machine still attacked Vietnam from bases in Japan/Okinawa and capitalism was still firmly entrenched. The Revolution seemed as remote as ever. The movement had degenerated into a ritualistic slugfest between two boxers on autopilot. Greater public support was needed.
Public support? Perhaps the unions… Sorry, kids. This isn’t the 1950’s.
Stirring newsreel images of French students and workers marching arm-in-arm just reinforced the message: Japan’s protest movement was stuck. Most unions stayed aloof. Their interests no longer overlapped with those of the radicals. The urban proletariat showed little enthusiasm. The farmers cared more about soy beans than social issues. A few high school kids were keen, but so what?
More bad news: the police had informants in the movement. They weren’t undercover cops. The nagging question was: Who knew what really went down when the cops secretly interrogated some rads then very kindly released them back into the movement?
The obvious answer was recruitment by blackmail.
Police raids on radical hideouts were sharpening up. Five simultaneous raids from Tokyo to Osaka on one September night in 1969! And 21 arrests! At the October 21st Anti-War Day protest the cops knew where some leaders would be even before members of their own organizations knew.
More key arrests made, more dark suspicions raised.
But the police had their own looming problem. Those September raids netted not only key radicals, but chemicals. Chemicals for making explosives, said the lab reports. A collective groan filled the National Police Agency.
A new development had emerged. The recent increase in molotov-cocktail attacks on police stations signified a major change in tactics. Some radicals were evolving from battling the riot police to hit-and-run fire-bomb attacks on selected targets. They were old hands with those molotov-cocktails. But were the rads now planning to bomb their way to victory?