You are here

Zengakuren: a Forgotten Student Movement Re-emerges

The history of student activism in post-war Japan has created an atmosphere in which leftist student groups are either dismissed as outdated and inconsequential, or vilified as violent and out of touch with reality.

by Robert Hamilton

It is Friday morning and, once again, and I need to enter through the rear doors of the university because the main entrance has been cordoned off. On one side of the barricade stand three distinct groups of men: university officials who wear dark suits and calmly observe the day’s events; uniformed security guards who man the gates and hold signs that inform confused students of which entrances are still unobstructed; and large men in tracksuits who stand with arms folded, occasionally lending their muscle to the task of removing unruly students who have broken the perimeter. The exact nature and qualifications of this last group is unclear, but they have been a constant presence on campus since trouble began between leftist student groups and university officials four years ago. On the other side of the barrier stand the demonstrators. Most of these young people are members of Zengakuren (The All-Japan Federation of Student Self-Government Associations), an umbrella group which represents a variety of leftist student groups across Japan. They hold placards which variously denounce the university administration, demand the release of their comrades from jail, call for the end of capitalism, and encourage students and workers of the world to unite. A tight line of police in riot gear secure the perimeter just beyond the demonstrators. They wait patiently for a call from the university. If the call comes, they will swoop in and arrest the protestors for violating a court injunction which prohibits the making of speeches or distribution of literature within 200 meters of the campus. At the time of writing, 118 demonstrators have been arrested in this conflict. Of these, 33 were officially charged and indicted, most of them on charges of trespassing.

In a conflict of this scale, with dozens of students being held without hearings for months at a time, one might expect a sea of media coverage and a swell of student support for their imprisoned peers. Sadly, this is not the case. The Japanese-language press has been markedly silent, although The Japan Times, an English-language publication, did run an article “Rumpus on Campus", explaining the conflict, by David McNeill on June 9, 2009. Students at other Tokyo-area Universities are largely unaware of the situation, and most of the students at Hosei University itself seem to be indifferent to the reasons behind the protests. The average student here sees the demonstrators as slightly odd, and very loud occasional obstructions. So why is so little attention being given to this conflict? Where are the charges of human rights violations and the suppression of free speech, or even a straightforward discussion of the facts? The situation is either being willfully ignored by the Japanese-language press, or it has been deemed un-newsworthy. Unfortunately, the explanation is likely the latter. The history of student activism in post-war Japan has created an atmosphere in which leftist student groups are either dismissed as outdated and inconsequential, or vilified as violent and out of touch with reality.

Zengakuren used to be a powerful and active force in Japanese politics. As the term “”All Japan” implies, it was once represented on all major Japanese campuses. In the 1950s and '60s, the movement was extremely vocal and influential in its unified opposition to the wars in Korea and Vietnam. During this time, there was a general impression of leftist student groups as being “pure of heart” [Sunada, I. “The thought and behavior of Zengakuren, Asian Survey, June, 1969, pp. 457-474]. Even those who would disagree with their politics or otherwise dismiss them out of hand as naïve were able to respect their dedication and youthful optimism. However, the group reached its peak of influence and popular appeal in the 1960s and then gradually dropped out of the Japanese collective consciousness as a political entity.

In 1964, at the height of Zengakuren's influence, Professor Michiya Shimbori of Hiroshima University published an paper in Sociology of Education, entitled “Zengakuren: A Japanese Case Study of A Student Political Movement.” (volume 37, number 3, pages 229-253) In that paper, he listed a number of “favorable conditions” for a successful radical student movement. Many of these conditions, such as a large number of students living in urban centers away from their parents, still exist today. However, a far greater number of the conditions have changed. In 1964, 10.2% of Japan's 17-21 year-old population was attending a tertiary educational institution of some kind. According to Shimbori, this was ideal for the fomenting of student activism. As only 1 in 10 Japanese had the privilege of higher education, university students at that time knew that they would be graduating from university in a position of power. They were the elite of society, and therefore had both the opportunity and obligation to create change for the greater good. By contrast, 58% of the Japanese high school students now go on to higher education (“Tigers burning bright,” Times Higher Education, June 17, 2010). This change in demographic has shifted the status of the Japanese university student. Where in the 1960s, students were part of the elite, now they are of the masses. Accompanying this change in status comes political apathy. As members of the masses, students may feel alienated or unsatisfied with government or other examples of authority, but the confidence needed to act on that discontent has diminished. In order to fight for change, a group needs to feel that they are in a position to bring that change about.

There were also other reasons for Zengakuren’s decline. Like similar student movements in America and Europe, the group began to splinter into fragments due to either ideological differences, or factional allegiances, resulting in a larger number of smaller groups and therefore less political power overall [Kokubin, Y. “The University Problem,” Zengakuren: Japan's revolutionary students, Ishi Press: 1970]. Currently, there are five groups in Japan that claim the name “Zengakuren” as their own. At this point, it appears to be history and location more than ideology that divide the groups. The various factions calling themselves Zengakuren each claim official presences at different university campuses, without any overlap. This seems to fly in the face of the “All-Japan” assertion within the groups’ names, but given the prominence and relative success of the Japanese student movement of the '50s and '60s, none of the groups wish to abandon the moniker

A further reason for Zengakuren’s decline was a growing reputation for violence. Many of the mass protests and public actions in which Zengakuren took part were planned in part by an organization called Chukaku-ha, a faction of the Japanese Revolutionary Communist League. Chukaku-ha has claimed responsibility for a number of small missile strikes, bombings, and other attacks over the decades. The most famous Chukaku-ha attack occurred in 1984 when members used a truck-mounted flamethrower to attack the headquarters of Japan's center-right Liberal Democratic Party. The close relationship that Zengakuren has with Chukaku-ha, along with a general decline in the popularity of revolutionary politics and public disdain for violent tactics, have taken a heavy toll in terms of public perception and student support.

Although their influence was obviously waning, Zengakuren maintained a presence on several Japanese campuses throughout the '70s, '80s, and even into the '90s. They even occupied buildings on some campuses from which they ran their operations. However, by the year 2000, they had been expelled from all the major campuses in Japan. Members of the various Zengakuren could occasionally be seen passing out pamphlets in front of train stations while wearing their distinctive helmets and face masks, but their on-campus activities had been all but halted.

Four years ago, however, the administration at Hosei University took a misstep which gave the remaining members of Zengakuren a renewed focus for their activities and a new tool for recruitment. It started when a small number of students were expelled for placing unauthorized posters on campus. The posters protested alleged misuses of university funds and linked members of the administration with the center-right Liberal Democratic Party. From this point, things escalated quickly. Student protests formed outside the main gate of the university, complete with placards, megaphones and the usual accoutrements of student unrest. The university responded by getting a legal injunction, prohibiting demonstrations within 200 meters of the campus. When the injunction was ignored, mass arrests ensued. The student arrests caused more anger, leading to larger protests. The larger protests led to more arrests...and the cycle continues.

Protests at the main gates of Hosei University are now a weekly occurrence. They vary in size from a small group of ten or twenty, to traffic-stopping crowds of a couple of hundred. Despite the noise that these protests create, there is very little conversation about the reasons behind the protests among the student body. Zengakuren may have found new life and purpose in the struggle for free speech on campus, but it appears to be an uphill battle for this message to reach the students. In order to rectify this, several members of Zengakuren traveled to California this year to protest in solidarity with University of California Berkeley's Student Worker Action Team (SWAT). Those who made the trip to California all stated how impressed they were with the freedom that Berkeley students had to speak out against the policies of their own university, and hoped to implement some of their tactics upon returning to Japan, according to an article in the paper Oakland North, “Japanese Students Join and Learn from UC Berkeley Protest” on March 5, 2010. It is questionable though, whether the tactics of a protest group in UC Berkeley could be successfully imported to Japan, where both student reception of demonstrations and administrative reactions to protesters are so different.

The summer of 2010 was incredibly hot in Tokyo. Under the oppressive glare of the sun and the unrelenting humidity, protests have been fairly small for the last few months. However, the new Japanese semester has just begun, and a new semester is usually accompanied by renewed determination. The current situation with the protests at Hosei University seems to be rather cyclical. Neither the protesters nor the university show any signs of backing down, and as the conflict is now in its fourth year, there is no reason to expect it to end any time soon. Zengakuren may not be the force that it once was, but now that they have a new flashpoint issue and location on which to focus, perhaps we will be seeing more of them.

Robert Hamilton lectures at Meiji University in the School of Global Japanese Studies. He also teaches some classes at Hosei University where the protests are taking place.
Photo from