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The Japanese Left: An Interview with William Andrews

Chris Mansour

Platypus Review 114 | March 2019

In the spirit of the 50-year anniversary of 1968, Chris Mansour of the Platypus Affiliated Society interviewed William Andrews about the legacy of the New Left in Japan. William Andrews is a writer, translator, editor, and independent researcher based in Tokyo. He is originally from London and currently a graduate student at Sophia University. He published a book in 2016 entitled Dissenting Japan: A History of Japanese Radicals and Counterculture, From 1945 to Fukushima, followed in 2018 by The Japanese Red Army: A Short History, which was published in German. Andrews also runs a blog called Throw Out Your Books, which chronicles and documents some of the left movements that are currently on the ground in Japan. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview that took place in Shinjuku, Tokyo on October 24, 2018.

Chris Mansour: Before we begin our discussion about the history of the 1960s, it might be a good idea to go over what got you interested in the Left. How did you became a participant in some of these movements, and what ultimately brought you to Japan to focus on the Left in this country?

William Andrews: I’m originally from the UK. My background is not in politics, but in literature, especially in theater. When I first came to Japan in late 2004, I became interested in Japanese arts, particularly the avant-garde theater from the 1960s and 70s. And as I started digging a little more into this, I very quickly came across names like Shūji Terayama and Jūrō Kara. Of course these figures, who are very important in theater, are also general counterculture pioneers or leading participants at the time. That very quickly intersects with a lot of the protest and social movements from that moment, too. You can’t really look at aspects of avant-garde art or avant-garde cultural movements throughout that period without encountering their intersection with the actual political movements. Hence, they dovetailed quite neatly with my theater interests.

From there, I began writing articles for newspapers and things like that. That’s also when I started crossing the line as well between being a so-called neutral observer and actually getting involved in marching for certain causes that I personally believed in.

CM: So your engagement with the theater and the arts is what ultimately got you interested in the political history?

WA: It was always there, kind of, in the background nebulously, because although I come from a literature background, my second love is history. I was born in the early 1980s, this neoliberal era, so for my generation there was not a clear-cut, concrete political party to aspire to, or at least one that had any chance of getting into power. In some ways, I had to look to history for that side of things. It was always still there, as a hobbyhorse or kind of side project. When I was in Japan as well, I was also curious about Japanese leftism and the Japanese far left as well as the Japanese far right, who are very prominent in society even today.

CM: It does appear that there was a major socio-political shift in the postwar period of Japan’s history, so perhaps you could contextualize for our readers why it is important to start in that moment for your research. Why not earlier, for instance? From the vantage point of the present, what is significant about the postwar period for the history of the Left in Japan?

WA: Yes, in some ways the book itself covers my own actual journey of researching and studying things in the post-Fukushima aftermath. I hope for readers it is also a useful journey, and a logical chronology. I was also thinking about the prewar and fascist period of Japan (the Taishō and early Shōwa periods), which also experienced a lot of movements. But the problem is they were repressed movements, and there was also something called tenkō. This was where many Communists were imprisoned and a large number of them renounced their commitment to Communism while serving time. Some of this was done in name only, as they quickly went back to being Communists when they were released after the war. But there is a certain element of powerlessness in the prewar period because they were so heavily repressed by the draconian state. There wasn’t much they could do in actuality.

Things really only start to develop into mass movements during the postwar period. In 1945, at the end of the War, the United States and its allies have defeated Japan, and you now have all those issues around the emperor and his responsibility. That is actually a debate that has not been resolved even today. But at least at a practical level, the Allies dismantled the state almost completely. The aristocracy goes and the emperor stops being a living god and becomes purely a symbol of the state. This is an incredibly important, and for some a very traumatic, experience.

What the occupation overseers also do is things like give Japan a new constitution, which renounces war and also gives people proper civil rights. And they say that every political prisoner should be released from prison, labor unions should be allowed, and equal education provided for all. All those things we take for granted today were quickly given to the people of Japan after the War. And this led to a huge surge suddenly for people on the Left, worker movements, and the Communist movement. Quite quickly you have factories forming syndicates, workers organizing themselves, and the Communist Party making very big leaps. This is before the party actually renounced a militant revolution, which it did in the 1950s.

As anyone who has studied the Cold War in Asia knows, China and North Korea emerged as new Communist powers in the region and very quickly the United States, which occupied Japan until 1952, realized it needed to clamp down on the growing leftist currents in the country. This led to a fresh wave of purges against Communists. The surge in the immediate postwar years was stopped, just at the point where it was building towards something significant: a general strike. For many looking back later, this meant that the revolution had failed to materialize under the Japanese Communist Party.

CM: Around what years was this when the surge began?

WA: This is the beginning of the postwar years, the very late 1940s. It was still during the American Occupation, which stopped in 1952. The American Occupation ends at a very significant point because the Left has suddenly surged with big grassroots support. The overall infrastructures had been purged but you had all this grassroots energy still lingering. And then America signs a peace treaty and security treaty with Japan.

Officially the War and Occupation are over, and Japan takes over the government of its own country, except for Okinawa in the south which remains American territory until 1972. But then all these issues come to bear about the American military bases in Japan, many close to major cities. All this grassroots energy that had been building suddenly had a very clear target. So you had a very, very large anti-base movement during the 1950s, which was quite successful in that it led, in the long run, to a greatly reduced number of bases and military facilities, especially near major population centers.

You also had parliamentary parties like the Communist Party and Socialist Party doing well. In power there was the Liberal Democratic Party, which was basically the conservative party; the name is a bit of a misnomer. The LDP was toeing the American line during the Cold War. There is quite a sense of vying forces throughout the 50s. Again, the anti-base movement was successful in certainly mobilizing large numbers. On the other hand, you have the institutions, the establishment, which are just trying to get back to a status quo and get Japan back on track economically. The conflict between these two sides basically exploded in the 1950s.

CM: Was the Left in Japan primarily influenced by the history of Marxism during the prewar period, then?

WA: There had been some small but significant anarchists in the prewar period, but the Japanese Communist Party was the dominant force on the Left. It was banned and suppressed, though, so its impact was minimal. But then its status as a victim boosted its legitimacy after the War. But its Stalinism became an increasing problem for leftists after the war, as opposition to the Soviet Union grew and people looked around for other options on the Left. There was a Trotskyist movement that had started developing in the 1940s. That was very instrumental in forming the New Left as an alternative to the Communist Party, but was originally quite small. So generally speaking, the Communist Party was the mainstream.

Even still today actually. If you’re left wing in Japan, you are quite possibly a member, or your organization is broadly aligned with them. The Communist Party, though, is not really what you might regard as Communist anymore, at least not in terms of how it presents itself. They come across as much more like a general liberal party with social democratic leanings. But at the time they were still very much a radical party in terms of the ultimate goal, and it wasn’t until the mid-50s that they really changed, and that was really because of the purge conducted by the State.

When there was this big purge, a kind of reality check happened. The party said, “Okay, we’re going to fundamentally change our approach towards achieving our aspirations.” The real lodestone was the Emperor and dismantling the Emperor System, refusing to acknowledge the Emperor as the leader of the country. But they were obviously anti-war, anti-nuclear arms, and pro-worker party. They fundamentally shifted towards peaceful means, committing to parliamentary democratic means of achieving power rather than “revolution” through violence or general strikes.

But this seemed too much like a cop-out for a lot of the young people at the time. The Communist Party, still so today but particularly at the time, had a strong student movement. The students in Japan were entirely Communist, basically speaking. So when the JCP made this big change in the 50s after the purge and after a few fumbling attempts at guerrilla militant actions in the countryside, there was a very large group of the young activists who said, “No, we’re not having this at all.” And that was the traumatic schism within the party that led to the New Left.

CM: When the factions started organizing in the 50s, were these students in the younger sectors of the movement still organizing under the rubric of the Communist Party or did they start branching out as totally independent? Because in the late 40s, Zengakuren, which is the term for the umbrella student movements that played such a large role in the 60s Left, was founded around then. So, were a lot of them still active Communist Party members, or did they start branching out and forming other organizations?

WA: Zengakuren was this league of student groups that was dominated by the Communist Party. They were affiliated with the Communist Party’s youth wing. But then when the student groups began to split away, within Zengakuren there were some groups who were still affiliated with the Communist Party and some who were not. This was the situation during the 50s. It all became a bit complicated. It was not really until the 60s when you could see the non-Japanese Communist party factions becoming more prominent. And then that of course means Zengakuren itself splits and is no longer one single league. It becomes this very fragmented movement, but nonetheless, it could still unite over certain key issues.

CM: What were some of these key issues? Could you also discuss the key political issues that separate the history from the Old Left to the New Left in Japan? What actually led to a qualitative change in the Left during the span of just a generation?

WA: I personally locate the birth of the New Left as being born from this schism in the 50s. The phrase itself is not really used until the late 60s. Some scholars, for example, do not talk about the “New Left” until after Anpo, which is the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, a pinnacle issue. When the Treaty was up for renewal in 1960, there was this massive protest movement in 1959–60. It involved unions, political parties, the JCP, the Socialist Party, and all kinds of people. Hundreds of thousands of people out on the streets over a very sustained period of time. The movement was successful as a landmark event—the prime minister resigned afterwards, although the treaty itself was still renewed and ratified. Nonetheless, it seemed very much a fundamental game changer in politics and mass movements in Japan.

But then afterwards the student movement began to fracture and you see more of these other far left groups emerging from the splinters. Some of them had already existed before from the earlier schisms, but they became much more prominent and much more bold. Something that became obvious during the 1960 Anpo movement was that bold street actions can get results. You can clash with police, which leads to actual headlines and spectacle.

After Anpo was renewed in 1960, things quiet down for a while. There were other movements over the next few years but none had as much impact as Anpo. For example, you have the treaty that normalized relations between South Korea and Japan, which was heavily protested for various reasons. The shift then occurs a little later, in the second half of the 60s, when the campus movements start and the generation born just after the war was reaching adulthood. We start to see students protesting poor campus conditions, rising fees, and so on. The New Left factions had strong bases at the campuses, fueling the student anger with Marxist ideologies of imperialism and capitalism. Off-campus, we see large protests against U.S.-Japan relations, as the Anpo treaty was up for renewal again in 1970.

And then, of course, we have the Vietnam War starting. Where are United States soldiers based? They are based in Japan before they fly off to Vietnam. Several movements began dovetailing at the end of the 60s. The composition of the movement gets a little chaotic in the ideologies and the causes, and certain groups and rallies were a mishmash in some way. But fundamentally they are all still very much aligned behind an anti-government, anti-U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, anti-war message.

After all, you have Okinawa in south Japan, which is originally a separate culture, a different country. But either way it was Japanese for a long time. The island was still occupied by the United States; it was still United States territory. You could not just go there easily as a Japanese person. It was part of the war machine at this point. So demanding the return of Okinawa was a very important part of almost all the left-wing groups demands actually. These things all began to build up in the 60s until they exploded.

CM: A lot of these discontents you speak of, such as imperialism, militarization, problems at the university, and so on, seem to be in tandem with political impulses that were happening internationally. With the rise of the New Left in other countries such as in Italy, Britain, France, Germany, the United States, and Latin America, how informed were some of the Japanese leftists by these other movements? Was there cross-pollination or communication globally? Did leftists in Japan seek to expand their influence beyond the shores of their country?

WA: They were very informed and there were attempts at a trans-national and trans-regional, global movement. Of course this was a long time before the internet. Communication was much slower than it is today. But you can see communication through different groups. Famous people from around the world like Jane Fonda to hardcore activists were being invited to give talks to study groups and to local activists at rallies and things like that. How effective these gestures were is a whole other conversation. But there is definitely a consciousness among people that this is part of a global movement.

When the people in 1968 were trying to close down the streets of Tokyo, they were very conscious that they were doing it in imitation—or emulation, let’s say—of what had already happened in May in Paris, for example. Their use of language often clearly referenced that moment. There was a lot of awareness that they were part of a broad international anti-war, anti-imperialist, left-wing movement. Some of the non-militant groups, for example Beheiren, were mainly anti-war, anti-Vietnam War civil society groups. Beheiren had chapters around the world and was using that network, quite cleverly, to get American deserters out of Japan and into neutral countries. But some of the more ambitious international inspirations come a little bit later from groups like the Red Army Faction, who believed in an idea of a world revolution, a world Red Army. That they would have to force that by fomenting a revolution in Japan which would ignite revolutions around the world. And as part of that, they believed in dispatching members to other parts of the globe.

CM: As the 60s carried on and the New Left gained more influence and recognition, and became more active on the political scene, how much of their influence by the Communist, Socialist, and Marxist parties sticks around? Because I understand that Zengakuren did not necessarily consider itself in line with the Communist and the Socialist parties—they wanted to be autonomous from “party lines” and characteristics like that.

WA: Oh yes, for sure. There are all kind of labels you can use. Post-Marxist, neo-Marxist, whatever you want to say. They are obviously still Marxists to some extent. But then I think they—and it still is the case now with most of the New Left groups that are still around—considered the Japanese Communist Party as an enemy as much so, if not more so, than the state. Likewise, they would accuse some of the other New Left factions of being the enemy as much so, if not more so, than the Communist Party, in this collective name-calling. They saw the mainstream Communists as Stalinists, as fascists, as allowing the imperialists to remain in power by accepting the status quo, and committed to this fraudulent democratic system that happened in Japan. You can see aspects of Trotskyism a lot in the Left in Japan, although its name is not used so much. It was rather often used as an insult.

CM: Perhaps you could expand on how these in-fights led to the ultimate downfall of the Left throughout the 1970s. Additionally, the Left in Japan took part in terrorist activities similar to the Red Army Faction in Germany and the Weather Underground in the United States. Is there a path that leads from these in-fights to these terrorist groups?

WA: There is a lot to say on the rise of left-wing terrorism — a whole book is yet to be written just comparing these three different countries actually.

There had been in-fighting and name-calling beforehand but it did not really become violent until right at the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s. One of the main causes was a showdown at the University of Tokyo. The campus movement at the University of Tokyo is probably the most important in the Japanese student movement, not least because it is the most prestigious university in Japan and associated with the nation-state. It used to be called Imperial University, which should indicate something of its status. It was one of the largest movements and most violent, especially the showdown in 1969 when the police were besieging the students occupying the main campus. One of the groups, Kakumaru-ha, left just before the main showdown. Obviously this was felt as a great betrayal to the other students on campus. That one isolated incident became a powerful driving force for the in-fighting between Kakumaru-ha and Chūkaku-ha. A lot of the disputes early on were between these two groups. There are different numbers, but something like a hundred deaths were caused by this strife continuing up until the 2000s. It was a fight over ideology and for resources. Because every time a faction breaks away, they take control of a student council and some of the campus. These councils mean automatic income. So this was much a fight for survival. The more you fragment, the less money you have, the less you can work towards your goals in terms of producing newspapers and organizing people.

In the background, the state was really ramping up pressure. This was in terms of the way they dealt with the radicals in court but also the way the police developed a powerful and effective riot police brigade. They could really control the people at the rallies. There was also the security police who were searching for members, raiding places, getting arrests, putting up wanted posters, and so on. So this pressure all adds to the urgency for the activists. It is one of the reasons some people considered it a fight to the death. Because “if you’re not with me, you’re against me” — that kind of mentality.

For example, the Red Army Faction in Japan, or at least a section of it, merged with another left-wing group in the early 70s. It was a very, very different group—a Maoist group—and this is a very, very strange story. They went off to the countryside to train together and to “work” on their ideology. Basically what happened was that the United Red Army, as it was called, was not united at all. The leadership started to purge their members and they all started to kill each other. It was a horrific purge. They had already killed two other members, but they killed a dozen more in the mountains. The members who survived were chased by police and besieged in a villa in the mountains for several days. It was this big spectacle on live television. Everyone who was left wing or even liberal watched this on tenterhooks for several days, kind of on the side with the students—the besieged radicals—thinking they were the good guys. “Can they ever get out of this? The situation is impossible. What's going to happen here?” And of course they didn’t get out of it; they were captured.

Then after the siege was over, the purge was exposed to the public. It was a horrendous and traumatic experience and a sensational news story all at once. But extremely traumatic for people on the Left. It suddenly exposed their heroes, the most militant radicals in Japan who are taking on the might of the State, as actually murderers. And they killed each other, rather than the enemy. Though it is over simplified sometimes, it was not only this event that played into the Left’s disintegration into terrorism. Nonetheless this United Red Army purge, and the trauma from it, was very, very influential in affecting how students felt about politics, particularly far-left politics in the years to come.

CM: You spoke a little bit about the police repression that led to the splintering and the disintegration of these Left organizations to the ultimate situation where they are killing each other. But what are some of the reasons internally that led to this?

WA: Well, I think fundamentally it comes down to ideological refusal to working together. And there are extreme examples of that, for example, the fight between Chūkaku-ha and Kakumaru-ha. Even though actually you could argue, as an outsider, they are basically more or less in the same zone, right? But for them, they are not. These two movements are incredibly different and not only that, there were these personal issues about how they abandoned and betrayed each other. Likewise you think that they should work with the Communist Party, which has seats in parliament, where they would have hope of effecting institutional change. But that was never on the cards. There was this refusal to institutionalize. There was a refusal to become part of the mainstream. That was perhaps a fatal flaw because many people in other countries, after a period of radical militancy, found a way to somehow negotiate with the mainstream institution and not completely abandon their politics.

I struggle to describe this sometimes, but it was almost a religious zeal and commitment to staying true to the cause. If you wavered, like a Communist in the 50s, you were betraying the people. It became very difficult for groups to work together in that respect. In the 60s there were some examples where the student councils, different factions, and activists did unite for specific causes, such as to protest the docking of a U.S. submarine or to prevent the prime minister from leaving the country to travel to America. But that became much harder and harder as the 70s wore on, driven by a very personal sense of betrayal.

CM: How would you say the legacy of the New Left in Japan speaks to generations of leftist activists and historians today? You mention that it was a traumatic experience for a lot. Is that trauma still palpably felt?

WA: I think a lot of people look to, for example, the 1960 Anpo security treaty movement as positive, which is problematic in its own right. They often hold it up as some sort of aspirational movement that social movements today should somehow try to emulate. The late 60s though, tends to be remembered in a hazy way. Lots of different movements, lots of different events, lots of different riots, and they all get bundled together.

People remember this history through pop culture now, as a series of sensational events. This is not healthy and certainly not conducive towards really understanding what happened and what can be learned from it. It is 50 years now and there has obviously been a fair bit of historical distance. You see a resurgence in not just left-wing youth movements, but also some people who are happy to engage in a subculture of Japanese geeks obsessed with the New Left. They seem to obsess about trying to find information and drawing pictures and sharing them online. That is an extreme minority, for sure, but for me it is also an interesting sign that things have gotten so far from the trauma of the 70s.

One of the groups that was often talked about as the savior of student politics in Japan was SEALDs, a centralist liberal organization that emerged in 2015 to protest the state security bills that were being forced through the parliament by Shinzo Abe’s government. SEALDs was one of the most prominent groups protesting outside of the National Diet at that time. For example, I have seen an interview with former members where they talked about how they do not like the word “left wing.” They would not call themselves left wing, and that is not necessarily because they do not like the ideology of the Left; it is just the word itself for them that is tainted. They prefer the word “liberal,” which they pronounce as riberaru, a coined word from English. That shows we still have quite some way to go before we can really deal with the legacy of 68 and the years afterwards as a positive or negative influence. The moment is still very much opaque to us.

CM: So are you saying that the contemporary Left doesn't really take the history of this radical segment of the New Left very seriously, or is that they have just been segmented off?

WA: Yes, I think “segmented” is a nice way of putting it. People take the radicals seriously for bad and good reasons. Maybe as a threat, perhaps originally it was a violent threat, but they take it seriously as people know how serious the radicals are. But nonetheless, people see the radical movements as completely isolated now, on the whole.

CM: This may be too broad of a question, but what do you think the international Left in general can learn about the specific history of the Left in Japan? Is there anything that could inform the wider left for future generations?

WA: I think they could learn plenty. Don’t obsess about the same issue for decades. There has to be a point where you have to move on. You will have to accept that you’re not going to get the Emperor to resign as head of state, you’re not going to get the national railways to be renationalized just by holding small strikes in one city outside Tokyo. You have to figure out a way of preserving your ideology without necessarily obsessing with these unrealistic aspirations, even though it is also obviously incredibly admirable that they can remain committed to these ideals. You have to look towards something that is actually tenable. Be careful about where dogma and ideology descend into something that is much more frightening and inhumane. | P

One comment

  • Posted 1 month ago

    William Andrews repeats the common narrative of “the ultimate downfall of the Left throughout the 1970s” following the devastating Asama Sansō incident. I am here to make the nitpicky remark that things are not so simple. As a simple, memorable rebuttal, please enjoy this video of Japanese far-left students forming a huge mob in 1985 near Narita airport, and successfully driving back riot police there.

    The decline of the Japanese left is a very complex story. Asama Sansō is part of it, but another part was the general feeling not only among elite academics but also among the broader reading public that Marxism had failed as an ideology, leading to a surprisingly large interest in post-structuralist literature among general audiences in the 1980s. This period was memorably represented by Asada Akira, as well as Nishibe Susumu et al. The new book Zenkyōtō igo by Toyama Kōichi (a real YouTube viral star, who Andrews has documented on his blog) provides a much deeper look at the decline of the Japanese left which contains many possible lessons for the 21st century left. The reasons for these intellectual developments have also been theorized in great detail by the Žižek of Japan Hideo Azuma, as well as Suga Hidemi, Oguma Eiji and others. In my opinion the ineffectiveness of the present-day Chūkaku-ha and republican protesters is only one of the many opportunities for learning.

    by Avery M. on March 27, 2019 2:42 am

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