The post-war Left in Japan

by Yamabe Yoshiyuki

Submitted by Spartacus on February 2, 2011

Looking back over the past ten years or so of the left wing movement in Japan, it becomes clear that a great change has taken place. As soon as the Left, at the time of the 1960 anti-Ampo struggle,1 abandoned the "if it ain't the CP, it ain't Left" sort of "common sense" of the previous decade, the focus of political activities - both practical and theoretical - became the government's foreign policy. Attention rarely turned to broader issues, and what few lessons the Movement learned at this time were confined to some new insights into the nature of this policy. The favorite activity of the time was street demonstrations, followed by propaganda-leafletting. Compared with the state of things today, it was a very feeble movement indeed.

At the same time, thanks to the policies of the American occupation regime [1945-1952], "democracy" was still a word with strong popular appeal. For the Left, therefore, the call to struggle against the government's attempts to turn the clock back was a highly effective weapon in their appeals to the masses. The "democratic constitution,2 still weighed heavily as a factor in the Left's consideration of revolutionary possibilities.

At the beginning of 1965, the war in Vietnam escalated with the commencement of American bombing of the north. In April, a group of Japanese citizens demonstrated in the Ginza, [Tokyo's most fashionable boulevard], carrying banners and placards denouncing the war. This was the humble beginning of "Beheiren" ["Citizens' League for Peace in Vietnam"].

Politically, I suppose, Beheiren was less sophisticated than the student movement [Zenkyõtõ], whose biggest drawback was its members' doctrinal habit of employing complex conceptual and philosophical abstractions incomprehensible to the outsider. Beheiren, however, did not depend on any organization for its vocabulary. It was a new-style movement, in which individuals thought for themselves, then did whatever they could. Beheiren's membership stretched from middleschool pupils to old folks with sticks, a multi-layered movement with a rare richness of variety that gave it peculiar tenaciousness. In its organization, too, it broke away from the essentially exclusive, pyramidal Leninist pattern adopted by the CP and the student sects. Emphasis was on the self-discipline and spontaneity of each individual in the movement, with whom all responsibility lay.

Beheiren's three guiding principles were:

  • "Peace in Vietnam!"
  • "American Hands Off Vietnam!"
  • "Oppose the Japanese Government's Complicity!"

    In the beginning its activities consisted of no more than a moderate, verbal demonstrations of solidarity with Vietnam - a foreign country - from a "peaceful" Japan. In other words, at that time the emphasis was on principles (1) and (2), while the meaning of (3) had yet to become apparent. As the movement developed, however, people gradually began to see for the first time that it was the third point in fact that was the most crucial for Japanese. They became aware of the sacrifices forced upon the people of both southeast Asia and Japan itself over the past 10 years of high Japanese economic growth geared to the American aggression in Vietnam.

    Instances of a movement with humble beginnings growing, like Beheiren, into something far deeper and broader, are not difficult to find. The nationwide campus struggles which flared up after 1968, too, were at their outset nothing out of the ordinary, making only the usual petit-bourgeois demands for student autonomy, etc. It would be only fair to say, however, that neither the extent of the movement, nor the level of student consciousness, have changed much since 1968. Imprisoned, like most such movements, by fixed concepts of organization and ideology, the students were forced to choose direct confrontation with the authorities as the most radical form of struggle. This, together with the transformation of violent state repression into an everyday experience, is the stage reached by the student movement over the past ten years.

    Today, "radical activities" have been monopolized by: (1) the fratricidal infighting of the various Trotskyite sects, (2) the world-wide "crimes" of the Japanese Red Army, and (3) the underground bombing campaign of the East Asia AntiJapanese Armed Front. As yet, the authorities have been unable to run any of these completely to ground.3 While such activities have no public support at present, I myself would not deny their part in the preparations for the coming revolution. Though such activities may be sneered at, in the long run their success in exposing the real nature of the government and its characteristically Japanese authoritarianism, by challenging it to a direct confrontation, will not be so easily dismissed. Nor will the direct and concrete injuries inflicted upon the enemy be so lightly appraised.

    However, it is not only in terms of violence that the pressure on the authorities should be understood. Whereas in the past the Movement had simply taken a conceptual stand opposing the general line of the Japanese government and of the Japanese bourgeoisie, during the past 10 years, particularly from 1968 to 1970, it has broadened its attacks to include almost all aspects of the system. During this time, the piecemeal struggles of local residents and oppressed minorities have developed a new meaning, and taken on a truly dynamic image. These movements, hitherto isolated and ineffectual, have found a new kind of unity and solidarity, and a new means of communication, by studying the issues raised by the Zenkyoto and Beheiren movements.

    Today, therefore, all over Japan, there are at least 300 groups with names like "Society to Oppose X," "Society to Protect Y," "Society to Demand Z." Although Small, they are waging fierce struggles against the authorities. They include the Burakumin Liberation Movement4 , the Ainu Liberation and Independence Movements,5 the anti-U.S. base movements, the soldiers' trials6 , the anti-pollution movement, the anti-nuclear weapon movement, 7 the cooperative movement, etc. Each of them, although an independent, concrete struggle, is helping to throw light on the common nature of class contradictions in Japanese capitalism, and the ugliness of the power structure itself. One important thing to note about this development is, while no one of these struggles is big or strong enough alone to pose a direct threat to the authorities, each of them has come to understand their relationship to the other struggles taking place, and the role which they play in the Movement as a whole. A second, related point, is that each independent struggle movement in turn recognizes the independence of other struggles, so that, by entrusting activities in certain sectors to those movements specifically concerned, solidarity is achieved as the movement develops.

    Looking at it another way, I suppose you could say that the struggle has been brought down to the level of people's everyday lives - inconceivable in 1968, when the "Movement" meant either the student movement or the trade union movement. Putting it crudely, these two comprised the political movement, represented by street-fighting, and the economic movement, represented by strikes for higher wages. Today, however, every aspect of daily life has been taken up by a series of interdependent but united struggles - kindergartens, education, prices, pollution (in foods, medicines, the environment, etc.), working conditions... Some problems are restricted to certain areas, while others re-occur time and time again. From all this we can see that the nature of the power structure in Japan is really coming to be understood by the common people, both through its physical extent and over time.

    Again, in the past no struggle was separable from communism or some other left-wing ideology. To put it another way, popular movements were always organized by communists or leftists of some sort, and directed at the kind of revolution which they prescribed. Today, though, in almost all cases this relationship has been reversed. Not infrequently, movements at first aided and supported by the political parties or student sects, only to be deserted by them later, have continued and even grown without them. The Sanrizuka struggle8 is the perfect example. Following the early departure of the Communist and Socialist parties, disgruntled at the rejection of the party line, now almost all the left-wing [student] groups have abandoned the peasants' cause. Yet the struggle goes on.9 To put it briefly, the anti-establishment struggles of today are no longer fought "for the people!", but are "for us, the People!"

    The old Japanese climate in which a person could shrug off political involvement because s/he was not a party member, or because his/her student days were over, now seems exotic. The times when the political movement meant for the majority of its participants a temporary flaring-up of the fires of youth are fast disappearing. The fact that political involvement - for some people at least - has become an essential part of daily life marks a definite advance. So, too, does the new tendency to place equal value on one's daily life, family and political activities, instead of accepting that activists must sacrifice all else for "The Movement".

    Unfortunately I do not have space here to sum up these political trends from a more global aspect. However, one can say that the fact that these local movements have concentrated on the individual contradictions nearest them proves the felt inadequacy of the old idea that the root of all evil was the state structure, whose overthrow would solve all problems at one swoop. In conceptual terms, it convinces me that the political revolution cannot march at the head of the social revolution - that the former will , only be achieved in intimate connection with the latter. I would also add that the ideal of a world revolution, of ties of international solidarity, are no longer a wild vision for us, thanks to this new kind of movement.

    One of the factors primarily responsible for the reaching of this turning-point has been none other than - the Japanese Red Army. The days when "abroad" meant America seem far away to us now. Of course, when one thinks about it, the expansion of Japanese imperialism into southeast Asia has been a great impetus, [but the credit is undeniably due to the former]. Meanwhile, young Japanese are gradually beginning to take up the Korean language, to visit southeast Asia, and to express greater and greater interest in the countries of that area.

    Compared with five years ago, the political movement today would seem to be at an unbelievably low ebb. As for me, however, I'm sure that the flood-waters are building up, soon to burst forth.

    • 1AMPO is short for the "US-Japan Joint Security Treaty," designed to tie the two countries in a tight military partnership dominated by the U.S. nuclear umbrella. First signed in 1960, it is renewable every 10 years.
    • 2The "democratic constitution" was written by U.S. occupation lawyers in 1947. In it, Japan renounces the right to maintain armed forces or to use force as an instrument of national policy: it transfers sovereign power to the people, and strips the emperor of his divine authority.
    • 3Eight members of the Armed Front were arrested in May 1975. One committed suicide (according to the police) immediately, another was sprung by the Japanese Red Army in the Kuala Lumpur Incident of August 1975. Two other members remain at large.
    • 4'Burakumin' are the untouchables of Japan, unable to get 'respectable' jobs, or even to associate with people not of their caste. (see RONIN No. 16.)
    • 5The Ainu were the original inhabitants, the 'Red Indians', of Japan. Now only a few remain, living mostly in model villages in the far North as a result of expansion by the present race known as "Japanese".
    • 6Konishi Makoto, a sergeant in the Air Self Defense Force (ASDF - i.e., the Japanese Air Force; see note 2), was arrested in 1969 for denouncing the AMPO treaty and calling for a boycott of "civil order training" then being conducted on all SDF bases. During the 5-year series of court hearings which followed, the first political prosectuion of an SDF member, a Support Konishi Committee was formed to help in his defense and gather public support. He was acquitted in February 1975. (See AMPO Magazine, No. 6 [Summer 1970] and Vol. 7 No. 2 [April-June 1975]).
    • 7Japan's government subscribes to the "three non-nuclear principles": non-production of, non-possession of, and non-transit of nuclear weapons in Japan. Recent events, however, have exposed its secret collusion with the American military in allowing U.S. Navy ships to call at Japanese ports while carrying nuclear weapons, and the U.S. Army to store its warheads in Okinawa.
    • 8The 10-year struggle of local farmers against construction of a new international airport at Narita, outside Tokyo. (See AMPO Nos. 9-10, 11 & 15.)
    • 9In the latest stage of the Sanrizuka struggle, the farmers have launched a movement to sell shares in an iron tower they have constructed to prevent the use of the airport runway. (See "SANRIZUKA" on pp.37-42 of this issue.)