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Violence, Glue Sniffing, and Liberation: Global 1968 in Japan

Written by Jack Bennett. Shinjuku was the centre of national political struggles and counter-culture in late 1960s Japan. In the paradox of the collective embrace of individualism, a new revolutionary identity politics emerged.

In the late 1960s, Shinjuku, a ward in the city of Tokyo, became a centre for national political struggles over the legitimacy of protest and use of state force. This was, in part, due to marginalised socio-political identities and practices. The youth counterculture figure of futen (layabouts, similar to American hippies) who assembled near Shinjuku every day displayed non-productive behaviours like glue sniffing. Despite their air of inaction, their presence catalysed political actions centred on the Shinjuku station. Youth politics prioritised the symbols of individualism through transnational political engagements. Of all the rallies that took place in 1968, the bloodiest and most memorable occurred at Shinjuku Station. Over 700 leftist agitators were arrested during the night after clashing with the police. Seats were thrown from trains and parts of carriages were set on fire with the flames spreading to the south exit of the station.

Violent confrontations between protesters and police transformed perceptions of state force and legitimacy in Japan; consequently, creating new political possibilities within 1968 as a global movement. Popular protest has deep roots in the modern history of Japan, including the 1905 Hibiya riots and that strike action at Miike Coal Mine in 1960. Following the post-war US Occupation of Japan in 1952, major changes in social, economic, and political institutions sowed the seeds of future possibilities and discords. Economic shifts, both globally and in Japan, shaped the rise of radical politics in 1968. Globally, 1968 represents a shift to individualism spurred on by consumer capitalism. During the 1960s Japan experienced what has been termed an “economic miracle”. Underpinning this growth was the 1961 Economy Doubling Plan and the proliferation of American goods in Japanese markets. The consumerist society and improved standards of living that developed were rooted in government policy. The 1963 Basic Law for Small and Medium Businesses heralded a conservative-orientated ownership society that linked social mobility to purchases. The student movement of 1968 was another instance of the public asserting democratic liberties. This article will consider the relationship between the politics of state violence and urban spaces in Japan as well as the radical cultural politics of the moment. The year of 1968 was a global revolutionary moment in Japan, and it was manifested through art, theatre, counterculture, and abject communities.

Although the student movement in late 1960s Japan launched a radical critique of systems of power and hierarchy in newly affluent post-war Japan, the persistence of a gendered hierarchy perpetuated the gendering of the values of mainstream Japanese society within the old left. Female students contributed to the specific emergence of a ‘New Left’ in 1960s Japan. In June 1968, students at the University of Tokyo formed the All-Campus Joint Struggle Council. Campus-based activism in the late 1960s barricaded spaces at universities as part of a challenge to mainstream society. The barricaded universities were declared “liberated zones”, and the image of students resisting police in the name of greater academic and personal freedom initially elicited sympathetic coverage from the Japanese media. As a result, these places of education became spaces imbued with political possibilities. The actions of Japanese women in the protests furthermore resulted in the emergence of a distinct feminist movement in the 1970s.

There was an important coalescence of motivations within the activist movement of 1968: opposition to the war in Vietnam; the proliferation of nuclear weapons; the Narita airport development; as well as public opposition to graft and corporate negligence associated with the inherent corruption of the Japanese government. Coalescing in the 1960s, these factors encompassed a broad spectrum of Japanese society. Through both vertical and horizontal connections of solidarity, urban centres throughout Japan became associated with the revolutionary underground. The subversive activities of minority or discriminated groups transformed such locations into sites of anticipation in the revolutionary struggle of 1968. All of which took place within a backdrop of governmental and bureaucratic forces developing policies that provided the impetus for political activity.

Japan can be perceived of as “an economic giant but political pigmy” during this period. The political establishment of Japan was defined by Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) dominance rooted in an intimate relationship between politics, the bureaucracy, and industry. With a consolidated and affluent middle-class emerging in Japan producing political quiescence. Through the period there was a 95 per cent increase in the number of students graduating. This was linked to a standardised curriculum and the development of a compulsory co-educational system that emerged during the period of US occupation. Students became a distinct group and source of political agitation. In turn, this contributed to an upsurge in militancy and grass-roots activism. At the everyday levels of society, political contentions proliferated alongside a distinctly discontinuous practice of political solidarity. 1968, thus, represented the attempted reform, through liberating modes of violence, of the political and social conservatism that dominated Japan.

Crucially, the individual was placed within a shared community of radical political action, engaging in channels of immediacy and socio-economic interconnection. Thereby making socio-political restrictions and boundaries, within the traditionally conservative and deferential Japanese society, more visible through demands for revolutionary solutions. Particularly, the inadequacy of social confinement and representation across demographics within Japanese society, transforming politics as a consequence to fight for social representation. Fugitive forms of identity and categoried were created, highlighting the transition away from formalism. This contributed to increased governmental anxiety surrounding the unpredictability of uncategorisable direct action and activism. However, it can be argued that the normalisation of this behaviour in 1968 contributed to some extent to the missing or transgression of what was potentially intended to be expressed through such forms of activism. 

The actions of students in 1968 Japan illustrates the transmissibility of activism as politics became increasingly invested in the individual. Revolutionary political activists distanced themselves from the established political mainstream and institutions. This was directly informed and cultivated by the media presentation of activist activity and the transmission of public expectations and outcomes. As a result, the notion of radical otherness became intrinsically connected with negative characteristics within Japanese society. However, during 1968 and in the immediate aftermath, there emerged government concerns over police brutality and the geopolitical implications of Japan’s connection with the Vietnam war. In particular, the question of constitutionality arising from its pacifist demilitarised position in the post-World War Two era of international politics and its role as a strategically fundamental forward base for the United States’ anti-communism campaign. The peace movement demonstrations of 1968 developed upon the 1960 protests against the San Francisco Treaty, which tied Japan to the foreign policy interests of the US. This underpins the dichotomous nature at the very centre of Japanese national identity politics, between domestic and international expectations grounded in an aggressive past and the economic transformation during the 1960s. 

1968 in Japan was both reflective of experiences globally and inflected by local socio-political changes taking place. Thus, 1968 became both a symbol of national solidarity within Japan, with protestors drawing on global forms of identity politics, directly influencing the meaning of violence and cultural production. This resulted in a transformative turning point in twentieth-century Japanese and global history. As Alexandra Munroe has said, it was “undoubtedly the most creative outburst of anarchistic, subversive and riotous tendencies in the history of modern Japanese culture.” Interestingly, activists engaged in a form of national disidentification that embraced individualism in order to cultivate a transnational form of revolutionary identity politics in 1968 Japan. The protests represent a non-western society reacting to rapid economic growth, as modernisation created a crisis of national identity, coupled with the development of moralism.

Written by Jack Bennett

Bibliography

Eiji, Oguma. “Japan’s 1968: A Collective Reaction to Rapid Economic Growth in an Age of Turmoil”, The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 13, Issue 11, No. 1, (2015): 1-27.

Eiji, Oguma. “What Was and Is 1968”?: Japanese Experience in Global Perspective’ The Asia-Pacific Journal 16, no. 6, (2018): 1-18.

Eiji, Oguma. 1968: Youths’ Revolts and Their Background: The End of the Revolts and Their Legacy. Tokyo: Shinyôsha, 2009.

Marotti, William. “Japan 1968: The Performance of Violence and the Theater of Protest.” The American Historical Review 114, no. 1 (2009): 97-135.

Image: Tokyo Weekender

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