The long and winding May of 1968 (5): Japanese Anarchism 1960s

To share, a brief account of the anarchist movement in the 1960s of japan, by Michael Schmidt, followed by the third chapter of John Crump’s essay, The Anarchist Movement in Japan, 1906–1996.

Sixties Japanese Anarchism (02/10/2017)

The anarchist movement was established in Japan in 1906 during the late Meiji Restoration, the political, social, military and economic modernisation period. Initial dramas such as the 1911 treason trial in which anarchists were executed for plotting against the “god-emperor” gave way in 1926 to the formation of an anarcho-syndicalist trade union movement, the Zenkoku Jiren, at 8,400 members, the country’s third largest labour federation. The movement narrowly survived the rise of ultra-nationalism and fascism in the 1930s and world war in the 1940s, establishing a tiny 200-member Japanese Anarchist Federation in 1946. The following is a synopsis I have just finished writing of the movement in the 1960s.

In Japan, 1960 proved a hot year of struggle with miners arming themselves in a doomed bid to prevent the pit closures at Miike, while post-war parliamentary democracy endured its severest crisis of confidence so far when the ruling Liberal Democrats backed by a strong police presence, rushed the unpopular Security Treaty, or military alliance with the USA, though the Diet in which they held two-thirds of the seats. By then, the formerly communist student Zengakuren was dominated by anarchists and Trotskyists according to Edwin O. Reischauer, but by Trotskyists, Maoists, independent Marxists and non-sect radicals and only a small current of anarchists according to Tsuzuki Chushichi. In revolt against the Security Treaty, the Socialist Party-allied Sohyo worker’s federation  and other unions staged mass protests which brought 4 to 6-million out on strike; the Japanese Anarchist Federation (NAR) journal Kurohata (Black Flag) urged a general strike and, in synch with the Zengakuren, a shift from peaceful protest to open violence against the state. The movement faltered and failed, but as Tsuzuki notes, “belief in parliamentary democracy was now seriously shaken, and the gap between the militants and the existing left-wing parties was now unbridgeably widened…”

Tsuzuki writes that from among the anarchist ranks at this time emerged the theorist Osawa Masamichi who had joined the movement after the war and who argued in the pages of Jiyu-Rengo(Libertarian Federation) which had taken over as the NAR paper, that, in Tsuzuki’s words “the upper rather than the lower, strata of the proletariat would fight for the control, rather than the ownership, of the means of production; multiplication of free associations communes rather than the seizure of political power would be the form of revolution… revolution would be cultural rather than political, and arts and education would play an important role in it.” Osawa’s gradualist and evolutionary approach was rightly attacked as reformist within the movement. But although the failure of the general strike sowed confusion in the Zengakuren, the outbreak of the second phase of the Vietnam War in 1965 proved electrifying to the radicalised Japanese students as it was seen as a harbinger of a coming total war, with Japan being drawn into supporting South Korea which in turn directly sent troops to fight the communists in Vietnam; anti-war sentiment fed powerfully in Japan on anti-militarist and anti-nuclear radicalism.

A new working class organisation, the Hansenseinin-i, or Anti-War Youth Committee, drew together young trade unionists and Zengakuren students in a series of direct actions against the war; despite being founded by the Socialist Party, the Hansenseinin-i developed into a movement that took a stance against the formal politics of the Socialist Party and its Sohyo union federation; but though it was prepared to fight in the streets, “Direct action in the factories was left in the hands of more professional revolutionaries, the anarchists,” Tsuzuki writes, in particular of the Anti-Vietnam War Direct Action Committee, or Behan-i, which consisted mostly of anarchists and which raided munitions factories in Tokyo and Nagoya, publishing details of the Japanese munitions industry as “Merchants of Death”.

Although the Behan-i was criticised by some anarchists for offering a “prelude to terrorism” and it soon folded, it had at least raised the militant profile of the movement among the Zengakuren. By 1967, the Zengakuren had somewhat stabilised into four main blocs – the Kakumaru which was dominated by Trotskyists, the Sanpa which blended Trotskyists, expelled communists and socialists, the remnant communist Minsei, and the non-sect bloc lead by the physics graduate Yamamoto Yoshitaka whose politics were described as “self-negation”, “a subspecies of anarchism,” according to Tsuzuki, quoting Shingo Shibata. Yamamoto came from the Todai-Zenkyoto, the Zenkyoto, short for All-University Council for United Struggle, being a loose network of anti-communist radical groups that “sprang up in each storm centre” of the emergent student struggles against authoritarian university and hostel management, and other ills of a system seen by students as being a mere mass-production plant for capitalist ideology.

By this stage, Tsazuki argues, the revolutionary student movement was influenced by the likes of the “anarchist intellectual” and Behan-i supporter Yoshimoto Takaashi, the son of a shipwright who theorised the political state as both the apex of the “evolution of religious alienation” and a pure expression of ultra-nationalism; against this, Yoshimoto proposed a classless solution in which intellectuals expressed the desires of the silent masses. Another key figure was the dissident Marxist Hani Goro who argued for a network of autonomous socialist cities to replace the state. But, as Tsazuki cautions, despite many anarchistic calls for direct democracy and direct action, the student movement was so ideologically eclectic that it was “more nihilist than anarchist”; in fact, its unbounded extremism saw outgrowths of both terrorism like that of the Japanese Red Army, and even of neo-fascism.

In 1968, the Zengakuren was able to mobilise mass demonstrations against a proposed visit to Japan by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, against the dispossession of peasants for the construction of the new Narita airport, and against the docking at Sasebo of the US nuclear submarine Enterprise. Zengakuren radicals wearing helmets painted with their sect’s colours and wielding staves regularly clashed with heavily armed riot police, the demonstrations peaking in June with hundreds of thousands of students, workers, housewives and shopkeepers out on the streets, and about 55 universities occupied by their students. Despite the demonstrations being very orderly, with only one death reported (an accidental trampling of a female student), a nervous US government cancelled Eisenhower’s visit.

In 1969, the Zenkyoto in various “storm centres” united into a national federation – but the Japanese Anarchist Federation dissolved itself: Tsuzuki says it would seem curious to an outsider for the NAR to disband “at a time when militant students were determined to defend their ‘fortress,’ the Yasuda Auditorium at Tokyo University, against an attack by the riot police. The anarchists themselves called the dissolution ‘a deployments in the face of the enemy.’ Yet they had to admit at the same time that they had reached a deadlock in their attempts within the Federation to formulate new theories of anarchism and to hit upon new forms of organisation for the new era of direct action which they believed had begun.” Although the NAR failed, anarchism remained a persistent minority current on the Japanese ultra-left: in 1970, the Black Front Society (KSS) was founded, followed by a Libertarian Socialist Council (LSC), while the old “pure anarchist” Japanese Anarchist Club (NAK) which had been founded in its split from the NAR in 1950 continued publishing its journal Museifushugi Und? (Anarchist Movement) until 1980.

The Anarchist Movement in Japan, 1906–1996 (1996)

John Crump

Chapter 3: 1945 to the Present

In the postwar years, anarchism has existed in Japan on a much reduced scale compared to earlier periods. This can be explained by the major changes which have affected postwar Japan and which have deprived anarchism of the substantial support it previously attracted from tenant farmers and unionised workers. Nevertheless, anarchism has survived, despite the often difficult conditions which have confronted it over the past fifty years, and it may be that recent developments are now producing a more promising set of circumstances for anarchists to work in.

Between 1945 and 1952 Japan was occupied by a nominally “Allied”, but in reality American, military force. One of the most important measures which the Occupation Headquarters pushed through was a sweeping land reform, which abolished the old divisions between landlords and tenants, and created instead a new class of landowning small farmers. These farmers then became a bastion of political conservatism, using their votes mainly to support the corrupt Liberal Democratic Party (Jiyû Minshutô), which continually formed the government during 38 long years from 1955 to 1993. In exchange for the farmers’ votes, the Liberal Democratic Party kept the prices of agricultural produce high behind trade barriers which excluded rival products from abroad. In this way, the price of Japanese rice, for example, has been artificially maintained at a level at least six times higher than that found on the world market generally.

As for the union movement, the Occupation Headquarters first encouraged the formation of unions, since the unreconstructed Right wing was initially seen as the major threat to American interests, and then moved against the unions (and reached an accommodation with the rehabilitated Right) with the onset of the Cold War. One of the clearest examples of this reversal of American policy was that the so-called “purge” regulations, which the Occupation Headquarters first used to remove Rightists from public office, were subsequently redirected against the Left around 1950 in what became known as the “red purge”. This see-saw in American policy led to a situation in which Japanese society was politically polarised between the Right and the Left, with the anarchists targeted from both sides. On the one hand, even under the conditions of much-vaunted “democracy”, the anarchists were discriminated against on account of the policy of “anti-communism” which both the American Occupation authorities and the Japanese government pursued. For example, not a few anarchists were victims of the “red purge”.[45] The fact that neither the American nor the Japanese states had the faintest inkling of what constituted communism did not make their “anti-communism” any less repressive. On the other hand, in the unions and elsewhere anarchists were frequently obstructed and all but silenced by the control exercised by Left-leaning officials, who often used confrontation with the state and the siege mentality it induced as an excuse for expelling critics. It was not that anarchists disappeared from the unions entirely, but more that the scope for acting openly as anarchists virtually disappeared.

The biggest problem of all for the anarchists has been the frame of mind that has prevailed among a majority of working men and women. In the years following defeat, mass unemployment and destitution were the order of the day and “the politics of hunger” predominated. Ambitious politicians dangled illusory promises of full rice bowls under the noses of electors whose gullibility was proportional to their privation. Then, with the outbreak of the Korean War (1950–3), Japan’s economic circumstances improved dramatically. War was good business for Japanese industry as it started to work flat out in order to supply the American war machine in adjacent Korea (and later Vietnam). In addition, following the Communist Party’s taking power in China in 1949, the USA needed a showcase in East Asia to demonstrate the superiority of “capitalism” over “communism”. Japan was selected to fulfil this role and, such was the strategic importance of Japan for the USA, America put up with Japan’s discriminatory trade practices without too much complaint for as long as the Cold War lasted. Against the background of this trade-off between capitalist states in (albeit temporary) alliance, where Japan served the USA’s strategic interests and gained economic advantages in return, Japanese capitalism enjoyed boom conditions for many years. Worried by the Left-Right polarisation of Japanese politics in the early postwar years, from the 1960s Japan’s leaders followed a conscious policy of depoliticising the population by ensuring that crumbs from capitalism’s feast fell onto the previously well nigh empty plates of the workforce in the factories and offices. Crass consumerism was promoted like a new religion and, as long as there were scraps and left-overs from the feast, it had the desired effect. Given the qualitative poverty of people’s lives, however, the spectre has always haunted Japanese capitalism of what would happen if the feast ever came to an end.

Obviously, this thumbnail sketch of Japan’s postwar history is written with the benefit of hindsight. None of this was discernible to the anarchists as they attempted from 1945 to rebuild their movement. The Anarchist Federation of Japan (Nihon Anakisuto Renmei) was formed amid great enthusiasm in May 1946 and care was taken at that stage not to allow the old antagonism between anarchist communists and anarchist syndicalists to re-emerge and jeopardise the effectiveness of the new organisation. Older men and women who had belonged to one wing of the anarchist movement or the other now readily cooperated and were joined by younger comrades to whom the prewar divisions meant little. For a time, anything seemed possible. The hated militarist state lay shattered, such police forces as survived lacked confidence and were unsure of themselves in the new “democratic” climate, and overseeing everything was an apparently benign Occupation force which initially encouraged all expressions of opposition to the old regime. The Anarchist Federation launched its journal in June 1946 and emphasised its links with the struggles of the past by resurrecting Kôtoku’s old masthead, the Common People’s Newspaper (Heimin Shinbun). Enormous effort was poured into distributing the journal nationwide, with novel sales methods (such as anarchists travelling back and forth on the rail network to sell it on long-distance trains) being used to boost sales. Yet the fact that such methods had to be employed illustrated the extent to which anarchism had lost what had hitherto appeared to be its “natural constituencies” on the farms and in the factories.

As frustration mounted due to the lack of headway achieved (the result of the obstacles outlined in the paragraphs above) so the old tensions between anarchists of different persuasions started to resurface. In May 1950 the Anarchist Federation held its fifth conference in Kyôto and this proved to be the occasion when antagonism between anarchist syndicalists and anarchist communists boiled over once more. In the same month a distinct Anarcho-Syndicalist Group (Anaruko Sanjikarisuto Gurûpu) was formed. By October 1950 the Anarchist Federation had split and, in effect, had ceased to funtion. It is true that the Anarchist Federation was reconstituted in June 1951, but the organisation which continued under this name was largely composed of those sympathetic to syndicalism. In the same month the anarchist communists set up the Japan Anarchist Club (Nihon Anakisuto Kurabu), with the result that the Japanese anarchist movement was once more back to the divided condition it had been in between 1928 and 1934.[46] To a large extent, this was a re-run of previous history and even some of the principal figures involved were the same. Hatta Shûzô might have died in 1934, but Iwasa Sakutarô was still very much the key personality on the anarchist communist side, while Ishikawa Sanshirô once more supported the anarchist syndicalists.

The Anarchist Federation limped on until 1968, but recognised the inevitable in November of that year when it decided “creatively to dissolve” itself.[47]Although for many years after that there was no federated network covering the whole of the country claiming to be the Anarchist Federation, 1968 by no means marked the end of anarchism in Japan. Indeed, the Anarchist Club long outlived its anarchist syndicalist rival and continued to publish the journal Anarchist Movement (Museifushugi Undô) until March 1980. Besides this body, composed mainly of old anarchist communists from the prewar days, numerous other anarchist groups and publications have existed at any one time. Although many have survived for only a few years, or even a few months, they have continually been replaced by others. In other words, anarchist publishing and propaganda activity has continued unabated, even if on a limited scale, and isolated cases of direct action have erupted periodically.

A new Anarchist Federation was formed in October 1988 and has continued to publish its journal Free Will (Jiyû Ishi) up till the present time. Although this new Anarchist Federation has a nationwide network of contacts, the scale of its support is much smaller than its namesake of the 1940s, let alone the prewar federations, such as Kokuren or Zenkoku Jiren. Anarchist syndicalism is represented by the small group called the Workers’ Solidarity Movement (Rôdôsha Rentai Undô) which has existed in its present form since 1983. The Workers’ Solidarity Movement is affiliated to the IWA/AIT (the Syndicalist International) and since 1989 has published the journal Libertarian Communism (Zettai Jiyû Kyôsanshugi). As for anarchist communism, its most visible manifestation today is the small but active publishing house called the Black Battlefront Company (Kokushoku Sensen Sha) which is grouped round the old militant, Ôshima Eizaburô. Among recent Black Battlefront publications, the multivolume Materials on the Nôseisha Incident(Nôson Seinen Sha Jiken Shiryô, 1991 onwards) reflects the belief of many postwar anarchists that there are important lessons to be learnt from studying the theories and practice of earlier generations of anarchists.

One point which has often been made regarding postwar anarchism is that, while the self-declared anarchist movement is smaller than previously, unconsciously “anarchist” organisation and activity have been noticeable among various groups engaged in struggle. This argument was frequently heard at the height of the student movement during the 1960s and 1970s, and more recently similar claims have been made regarding the “citizens’ movements” (grass roots campaigns, generally directed towards a single issue).[48] Those who have used this type of argument have mainly pointed to the decentralised methods of organisation favoured by the groups in question and their emphasis on autonomy and (sometimes) spontaneity. Yet, while there may be something “anarchist” about these attributes, surely it is appropriate to insist that by themselves they fall short of anarchism. Opposed though the students’ groups were to the existing state, few doubted the need for a political state of some sort. As for the citizens’ movements, most focus on a single problem, which they seek to solve in isolation from the “big questions”, such as the nature of the state, because they feel (probably rightly) that these wider issues would divide them politically and therefore undermine their campaigns. In the light of this, to refer to the students’ groups or citizens’ movements as “anarchist” would be to stretch the meaning of the term way beyond that employed in this study.

What is remarkable about the present juncture is that so many of the factors which have acted in combination to frustrate anarchism during the postwar years are currently being undermined. As was mentioned previously, from 1955 politics in Japan was set in a mould of perpetual Liberal Democratic Party domination. The second largest political party, the social democratic Japan Socialist Party (Nihon Shakaitô), was permanently excluded from power and could thus engage in the politics of moral postures from the lofty remoteness of opposition. For 38 years these two parties were in effect the foundation stones of the moribund political system. The Liberal Democratic Party used its position in government to distribute the spoils which maintained the status quo, while the holier-than-thou Japan Socialist Party struck postures for the sake of those who failed to benefit from the largesse or who found it morally unacceptable, The system cracked when the Liberal Democratic Party failed to secure its customary majority in the general election of 1993. Then in 1994 the Liberal Democratic Party saw its chance to re-enter the government, providing it was prepared to make common cause with its supposed arch-enemy, the Japan Socialist Party. Without so much as a blush, both parties hastened to embrace one another, so that at the time of writing there is a government headed by the leader of the Japan Socialist Party with a majority of Cabinet Ministers drawn from the Liberal Democratic Party. Needless to say, in his enthusiasm for gaining power, Prime Minister Murayama has found no difficulty in embracing all those capitalist policies which were supposedly unacceptable as long as the Japan Socialist Party was in opposition. The whole sordid business has been an object-lesson in the opportunism of politicians and the nonsense of parliamentary shadow boxing. Hence it is no wonder that cynicism and disillusionment are now the prevailing political attitudes among most working men and women.

Associated with these political shenanigans have been the changes in Japan’s economic fortunes. The economy is presently passing through the longest and deepest economic downturn since the war. Crumbs from the capitalist feast are in decidedly short supply, so much so that 1993 saw the first decline in average wage rates since 1950. Pressed by rival capitalist states (above all, the USA) Japan is being forced to open its agricultural markets, which in turn is leading to political disaffection on the part of the farmers.

Given Japan’s position as one of the most powerful economic forces within world capitalism, its importance as a linchpin of the present international system can scarcely be exaggerated. This is why it is by no means insignificant, even for those of us living on the other side of the world, that the opportunities for spreading anti-state and anti-capitalist ideas in Japan are better now than they have been for many a long year. Whether Japanese anarchists can rise to the challenge is something which concerns us all.

(The full essay can be found at the Anarchist Library)

Video by Azsacra Zarathustra … Anarchism …

For a more recent and excellent article on Japan’s “long 68”, see: “Life of Militancy: Japan’s Long ’68”, by Sabu Kohso and published with Ill Will, January 12th, 2024.

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