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 Sōhyō 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 Ōsawa Masamichi who had joined the movement after the war and who argued in the pages of Jiyū-Rengō (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.” Ōsawa’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 Sōhyō 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 Tōdai-Zenkyōtō, the Zenkyōtō, 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 Gorō 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 Zenkyōtō 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 Undō (Anarchist Movement) until 1980.
* And for some visual ideas of what the Japanese varsity occupations looked like back then (makes the South African ones of recent years seem tame): https://vimeo.com/235615382