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Interview: Dr. Patricia Steinhoff 1

Okamoto Kozo on Trial

Dr. Patricia Steinhoff is Professor of Sociology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Ever since jetting to Israel in 1972 to interview Okamoto Kozo — the only surviving attacker of the Lod Airport terrorist incident — Dr. Steinhoff has been on a 35-year journey to chronicle the history and social organization of post-war Japanese Marxist radicals, from their earnest beginnings in the mass protests against the Ampo treaty in the late 1950s to their self-destruction and descent into international terrorism in the early 1970s. Although the Extreme Left has ceased to be a significant political force in Japan, the members’ past actions continue to haunt the present. Police boxes still plaster up wanted posters for fugitive Marxists, Japanese Red Army soldiers once active in the Middle East spend their days navigating through the Japanese courts, and ex-Red Army Faction plane hijackers of the Yodo-go incident remain a sore point in Japan-North Korea relations.

In this five-part interview, we ask Dr. Steinhoff to explain the formation of the student movement in Japan, its radical re-organization into the infamous “Red Armies,” and the general social impact of the New Left upon contemporary Japanese society.


How did you end up researching Japanese student leftism and the Red Army saga?

I was a Japanese specialist before I was a sociologist. I have an undergraduate degree in Japanese language and literature. I was at the University of Michigan, with the Michigan Daily, when it was a center of student protest. My closest associates were very much in the center of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and activism in the early ’60s. So I was very close to that kind of activism, but I was not an activist myself.

When I went to Harvard and wanted to do a dissertation, Robert Lifton had just written a piece about Japanese student radicals — the ’60 Ampo [Japan-U.S. Joint Security Treaty] generation. I had read that, and in it he talked about the students making a tenkō (転向) which he meant as, they went from one organization to another, one ideological position to another. I’m not sure how accurate that description is for the students of that period. In any case, the word tenkō came up.

I was working at that time under Robert Bellah. He asked me what I wanted to do for my dissertation, and I said two things. One was Japanese politeness levels, which I had done some work on and had found sociologically interesting. The other was tenkō. And he knew Lifton and knew the Lifton piece, and he immediately said, “Tenkō! That’s a great topic. But don’t do the post-war, you need to do the real tenkō of the 1920s and 1930s.”

That’s what I did my dissertation on. My initial research in Japan was pre-war, but it was on the most radical elements in pre-war Japan — the members of the Japan Communist Party and the support organizations around them. And it ended up being a dissertation about how they confronted the state and how they were suppressed in their prison situation. The existing Japanese work at that time was all being done as intellectual history (思想史). I’m a sociologist and have a pretty low tolerance for intellectual history (laughs), so my approach was to look at the social context in which this was happening. I looked at the documents — in that period in the ’60s, a lot of classified material from pre-war Japan had come out and it was on the used book market and people were collecting it. There were pre-war, government documents about tenkō and how it had been managed.

When you say “tenkō” in this context, do you mean renunciation of Marxist beliefs?

The pre-war situation was that they arrested a lot of people under the Peace Preservation Law, that it’s against the law to carry out actions that have the purpose of changing the kokutai (國體, national polity) or the economic structure. So the logic is that it’s an action, but the crime really depends on what your beliefs are. What happened in this situation was, the criminal justice system was not content with prosecuting people for actions: they wanted them to give up the beliefs. Otherwise the crime is continuing, right? So tenkō became about pressure to give up your ideas.

A whole system was developed for getting people to make a tenkō and then using the confession/tenkō statements made by leaders to get other people to do it. It became a kind of mass movement. In the ’30s, it spread out to many other groups that had been caught under the Peace Preservation Law, well beyond the Communist Party. And also, it put pressure on many people long before they were ever arrested. When the Konoe government created the Imperial Rule Assistance Association (大政翼賛会) in 1940, they put pressure on all the mass organizations to become part of it, under state control. In that process, they pressured organizations to make an organizational statement that was basically a loyalty oath or a tenkō

I was interested in the whole process of tenkō, the logic of it, how the prosecutors tried to make it happen, and how people responded to it. So I tried to understand how people dealt with that pressure.

The research was actually being done in Tokyo in 1966 up to the beginning of 1968. Things were heating up in the student movement but I had my nose in the books and was not paying attention to what was going on around me.

So after the dissertation I turned to what I originally wanted to do which was look at post-war tenkō. I wanted to find a post-war situation that had some of the same elements, and my idea was the post-war constitution gave people a lot more protection in the legal system, and the post-war education system was trying to produce stronger individuals. So a lot of the thrust of the occupation should have created different social conditions in which people could resist that type of pressure if it fell on them again. I was looking around for a similar post-war situation in which people because of ideological commitment got themselves in a direct confrontation with the state and were under pressure to stop doing what they were doing.

So I was looking around, and I was aware that another social movement was going on, but I didn’t know what was happening in much detail.

Then in 1972, the Red Army people who were in the Middle East carried out the airport attack in Israel.

Before that, were Americans aware that there were major leftist protests in Japan?

I was not aware of the Red Army. I was aware that there were big protests. Certainly other Japan specialists who were in Japan during the late 1960s were aware of the protests, but I don’t think they were too well publicized in American mass media except possibly as protests against the Vietnam War, which were just one part of the movement in Japan. And these were not just leftist protests, because a lot of citizens groups were also involved in them. I was aware that there had been a huge blowup at Tōdai (Tokyo University), and in fact, I had come back in the summer of ’71 and things were pretty rocky and tense for foreigners. I had a friend who had lived around the Komaba campus and had been beaten up by Tōdai students. If I had wanted to get in and start studying it at that time, it would have been very difficult.

When the Lod airport event happened, we were watching it on television, the aftermath of it, and my husband said, isn’t that what you study? It’s the wrong country, but it’s Japanese, and [surviving attacker] Okamoto Kozo is in a prison situation. And he’s going to be under some kind of pressure. So I then made some strange arrangements that got me to Israel in August of 1972.

My very creative husband said, write a letter to Golda Meir. “She used to be a Milwaukee school teacher. You can write to her.” So I wrote her a letter and explained who I was and what I was doing, and I didn’t hear and I didn’t hear. But I had put in some names of people I knew as references. And I started hearing, “Hey, the Israeli embassy called.” I didn’t think anything of it. Then all of a sudden I got this air letter from the Attorney General of Israel saying that Okamoto has finished his trial, and we’ll let you interview him, but we can’t promise he will talk to you, because he hasn’t talked to anybody else.

So I went and I interviewed him. It was very exciting and interesting. I collected some other materials. I had a transcript of his trial testimony, but it was in Hebrew, so I had to find somebody who could translate it for me.

The immediate problem was, I am a sociologist. I don’t study individuals. I talk to people and try to understand what their context is, but a single person is not a topic for me. The obvious thing was to go back and find out where this guy came from.

Then I started looking at the background, looking at the Red Army. For several years, I was just collecting stuff because I was doing some non-Japan research in Hawaii. And then finally I decided it was time to get back to business, and in 1982 to 1983 I had a sabbatical in Japan, and I wanted to put the context back in. It seems like by then that the movement activity is all over, you can’t study it anymore. But in fact, in ’82 when I came, the trials were still going on and there were still lots of people. But the movement inside the country had died down enough that if I could find the people and get the access, it was not as difficult to study as one might think. There were more materials available then. In that year, the URA (United Red Army) defendants were available. The first trial had just finished but you could visit them in prison. I was shown how to do that and began interviewing them. I was interested in the early origins of the Sekigun [Japanese name for the Red Army]. So I interviewed a lot of people and I was asking about how they got into it and how the movement got started

From then, I started coming to Japan quite regularly. By the late 1980s, I was coming every summer for a period of time. And I could pick up the research where I had left off the year before. And somewhere along the way, I had met Takazawa Koji who became first a source of a lot of the documentation and then a source for interview with other people. We ended up collaborating on a lot of projects, and then he ended up donating his entire collection to the University of Hawaii, which had all of the materials in it. It’s mushroomed from there.

I never dreamed that 30 years later I would still be studying it, but by total fluke I picked a group that is not active in Japan anymore but has people still in hot spots around the world that they went to at that time.

How did you end up releasing a book on the Red Army in Japan but not in the U.S.?

By the late 1980s, I was ready to start writing what I thought was going to be my book about the Japanese Red Army. I suddenly realized that there was this huge rock in the middle of the road called the United Red Army. I couldn’t deal with the rest of it unless I tackled that first and understood it. I started writing about that. At some nijikai (after meeting drinks), Takazawa said, if you write a book and publish it in Japanese that will be enough money to come back again to Japan.

So I had an English draft that wasn’t ready to go to an American academic publisher. It was just a start. But I gave it to Takazawa, and he negotiated the publication through a good publisher Kawade Shobo Shinsha. Kawade had a very good staff translator do the translation, so next time I came back for a sabbatical in 1989-1990, I worked with the translator chapter by chapter to make sure that it said what I wanted to say. So that book came out in Japanese as 『日本赤軍派―その社会学的物語』. It had two printings at Kawade, and then a decade later Iwanami Shoten reissued it in their Modern Japanese Classics series (『死へのイデオロギー―日本赤軍派―』). It has still not been published in English, because so much happened in the 1990s with the exiles in North Korea and people returning from the Middle East that the story kept developing. It has been an enormous benefit to me, because it opened a lot of doors in Japan. After that of course, I would pick up some internal thing from the movement, and it would say, “Steinhoff says this…” (laughs) Contaminating my subjects!

Tomorrow: Part 2 – The Birth of a Movement

W. David MARX
September 9, 2007

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

33 Responses

  1. tomojiro Says:

    very interesting stuff. Haven’t read her book but I have just ordered it via amazon.

    Also can’t wait for Part 2.

    Keep the good work! Cheers!

  2. 7374e9 Says:

    As I was reading her description of tenkou in the 30s, I suddenly realized how strikingly similar it sounded to Stalinist trials in the same time period. Only the pressure was in exactly the opposite direction, to pull people back into the Communist party field. Anybody has any ideas about this symmetry? Perhaps simply all totalitarian regimes are alike. Any significance for comparative Russian/Japanese studies?

  3. Aceface Says:

    Good interview.Can’t wait for the second part.

    All I remember is Maruyama Masao was reffering to Tenko that “You have more chance of survival in Tokko/Kempeitai ruled Japan as a communist than Nazi Germany or Stalinist Soviet Union”.
    It’s Paternalism is very relevant to Japanese Fascism that you can always come back to the open arm of the Emperor once you choose to think again.

  4. neogeisha Says:

    this is an excellent piece. finally someone has brought rigour to a japanophilic blog! in the future, would you please indicate how the interviews are conducted, i.e., in person, phone, or email? thanks.

  5. W. David MARX Says:

    Neogeisha: This was conducted in person a few months ago.

    Aceface: Interesting point on the paternalism angle. Maybe Japanese fascism was less paranoid than Stalinism??

  6. Global Voices Online » Japan: Interview with Dr. Patricia Steinhoff Says:

    […] David Marx at Néojaponisme interviews Professor of Sociology Dr. Patricia Steinhoff about her research on the history and social organization of post-war Japanese Marxist radicals. In […]

  7. Adamu Says:

    First I wouldn’t call something like this “blogging” – it is a big step above and it sets the bar quite high for what might follow.

    This is very very juicy and please hurry up with the 2nd part. It makes me wish I had decided to study Japanese at University of Hawaii as I once intended!

  8. W. David MARX Says:

    We are a “web journal,” thanks. I am fine with the word blog and all, but everyone seems to think that “blogging” just means meandering diary posts.

    Parts 2,3,4, and 5 are very interesting, so stay tuned.

  9. Aceface Says:

    “Aceface: Interesting point on the paternalism angle. Maybe Japanese fascism was less paranoid than Stalinism??”

    Paraphraising what Jeane Kirkpatrick had said while back that”Traditional authoritarian governments are less repressive than revolutionary autocracies”.Because in the authoritalian regime you can still find certain sector of the society that are relatively free from state control such as business and culture,while that can not be said in the case of marxist totalitarian regime.

    In case of Japan in the 30’s,as long as you are Japanese,you are chosen member of the club.Whereas in the Soviet Union of which the dogma of the regime is class struggle,everybody can be a potential dissident thus need to be watch over all time and must be eliminated once any evidence of being as such was found.

    In Nazi Germany,if you are not belonging to Alian race/being communist/gay than you may end up going to the concentrastion camp.While in Japan,the colonial subject can be “Japananese”once you adopt Japanese name and pledge allegiance to the Emperor.No hostility toward homo sexual and communisst can always turn-around.

    Not that I’m saying Japanese style of fascisms are less harmful,but that may partly explain why Tenko is very Japanese phenomenon.

  10. W. David MARX Says:

    In the past, I have used tenkō to explain the transition between college age consumer lifestyles and shakaijin, which I think I picked up from someone else. I know this is an extrapolation from the original concept, but it fits to a certain degree: you are able to ideological/stylistically wander in your youth as long as you perfectly renounce and choose “the mainstream order” of a business career in the end. Punk rock clothes etc. are a-okay unless they get in the way of the movement over to shakaijin life.

    There is a bigger question though of whether “ideology” in Japan can be more of an orthopraxical means to group identification rather than an orthodoxical belief system. (An example of all those different helmets, which will be covered next time.) If this is the case, it makes tenkō much easier, because you are not “ripping your heart out” as much as choosing a new locus of self-identity.

  11. Global Voices صداهای جهانیصداهای جهانی » Blog Archive » ژاپن:تاریخچه مارکسیسم Says:

    […] نئو جپونیزم مصاحبه ای (انگلیسی) با پاتریسیا استاین هوف در مورد تاریخچه مارکسیسم در ژاپن انجام داده است. استاین هوف حدود سی و پنج سال است که جنبش مارکسیستی در ژاپن را مورد بررسی قرار می دهد. وی از جنبش های دانشجویی مارکسیستی پس از جنگ جهانی دوم و تبدیل شدن آنها به “ارتش های سرخ” می گوید. این استاد جامعه شناسی در مورد نقش این گروه ها در جامعه ژاپن نیز صحبت کرده است.متن کامل مصاحبه را در اینجا بخوانید […]

  12. W. David MARX Says:

    Hey, now we’re talking!

  13. alin Says:

    > fascism was less paranoid than Stalinism

    (same as in the case of sadism and masochism) i think it’s a fatal mistake to put these two in symmetrical relation. it’s basically a very american self-serving thing to do.

    great read. hi ;-)

  14. W. David MARX Says:

    Fatal mistake? Only Americans would think to put sadism and masochism into a binary? Glad to see you are sticking to your guns even on this new terrain.

  15. neogeisha Says:

    adamu, “blogging” need only be a derogatory term if one aspires to be part of the mainstream, for-profit media. however, if one’s aim is to create truly free and fluid media, then this is a “blog” of a standard to which all others should aspire.

  16. W. David MARX Says:

    Such praise after two posts! I can only go downhill from here.

  17. alin Says:

    > Only Americans would think to put sadism and masochism into a binary?

    i didn’t say that !!, and i don’t know what guns you’re talking about. i find your reaction extremely rude (since i direcly addressed # 7374e9’s question, the same way that you did). true, i said it very briefly but if you can’t see my basic point i doubt you’ll see it if i’d written a whole book on it. maybe in the old days someone like Brown might have given me a hand here. think i shall refrain and .. i don’t have any guns.

  18. Laicus Says:

    It seems to me that there may be a number of alternative explanations of the greater tolerance–such as it was–displayed by the Japanese Empire which completely eschew any Japanese particularity.

    Structurally, Japan was a monarchy, as opposed to a more secular dictatorship. Where Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia were both ostensibly based on rational systems of goverment, monarchies are all based to one degree or another on some version of divine right. There can be no argument with a monarchist beyond fundamental disagreement over whether there exists such a thing as a king or whether king is simply a title held by an arbitrary man.

    By contrast, one should be able to argue one’s way through fascism or communism. However, such arguments may lead one to different orthodoxies while cleaving still to the principles of the party. This potential factiousness seems more fundamentally dangerous than any simple act of revolt against a monarch. Where the latter must overturn the entire system the former need only infect the system with an orthodoxical impurity to weaken it.

    I do not know if the Japanese professed the same kind of noblesse oblige that European monarchies and aristocracies often claimed to, though if they did I would suggest that that would also agitate towards public acts of forgiveness.

    Perhaps more straightforward–and therefore more convincing–is the assertion that age tends to lend stability to a government. As the culture and society wrap around and seep into the cracks of the power structure the government not only gains the credibility of generations but benefits, or at least is depeneded upon by, more of the society. Certainly there have been European monarchies which were highly oppressive, yet still patriotically supported by their subjects who believed that their lot was simply a necessary result of the order of the universe.

    Is there anything that I’m missing that implies that this phenomenon was more intimately related with Japan than it appears on its face?

  19. DH Says:

    Excellent first article – I look forward to the rest of the interview, and what’s to come.

  20. laotree Says:

    Well done! It’s great to see you actually enlisting people more learned than yourself on this new project; good insulation against some of the conjecture that has tangled up past discourses. I just hope this doesn’t become a strictly didactic venture, after all the sis-boom-bah of the manifesto.

    Just out of curiosity: You once said that you had envisioned Clast as the classroom and neomarxisme as the barroom, but where would you place the new joint in that continuum?

  21. W. David MARX Says:

    Alin – I think we are both bad at recognizing each other’s tone. Although I thought that calling an idea “American self-serving” was not the most gentle way to address the issue, sorry for provoking gyaku-gire.

  22. W. David MARX Says:

    You once said that you had envisioned Clast as the classroom and neomarxisme as the barroom

    I think someone else said this as a description. I hope for a similar level of dialog here as I had on Neomarxisme, but hopefully the content itself will lead to a more productive/constructive comment reel.

  23. laotree Says:

    Sorry to put words in your mouth! Unfortunately comments don’t come up on the search function, so I couldn’t verify who said it. So how about offering correspondence degrees from Neojaponisme Junior College?

  24. W. David MARX Says:

    We are not accredited.

  25. alin Says:

    > calling an idea “American self-serving”

    sorry i don’t see why you had to take that personaly. nowadays i’d say a bit of objectivity in regards to post-war american ideology should be a prerequisite to an intelligent conversation shouldn’t it?

    again i stressed american because BASICALLY no european or asian or whatever folk would look for symmetry in those two. (even in germany who has equally experienced and still dealing with the consequences of both).

    it’s historically quite clear now that communism and fascism have been paired and demonized beyond reason to make the other idology the natural and only choice that doesn’t need to be questioned.

    and, i repeat my original point: fascism and communism are neither the same nor complements. they don’t really form a binary.

  26. alin Says:

    my real concern here though is not with pedantic historic accuracy but the fact that we’re carrying on with the same fictions. which is why i jumped on #7????’s question

  27. W. David MARX Says:

    Except they both showed up in the same era, rose from similar prerequisite economic conditions, and shared a central idea of radically “modernizing” social order. I think it’s totally fair to think of them in a binary, especially since they did. The USSR’s greatest enemy was fascism, then capitalism. Reverse for Nazi Germany. Remember the Spanish Civil War? Pretty clear binary on that one.

    You may have a point that they are fundamentally different in some kind of character, but why they are put into a binary is pretty obvious.

  28. alin Says:

    no no no, i can’t believe this!
    you don’t know what it is but you’re doing it. (or however it goes) . you’re just proving my point. why not pair fordism with either of the two and leave the third one out?

  29. DanaB Says:

    I think there are also some other points that need to be considered in this interview, speaking as an academic.

    First, Steinhoff, like academics of yore, notes the important role her husband plays. I find this too. Frankly, if one hopes to have a stable home life and an international academic career, the supportive spouse is a MUST.

    Secondly, her area of expertise – unusual, important and valued – emerged from her following her nose/heart. She did not allow conventions within academe to define the topic, she set out with spirit, pursued something worthy of her interest, and was therefore embraced by academe. This is too often ignored. It is not that she ignored the rigor of academe – it is that she brought more to her work.

    The third point I find interesting (but do not know where it leads) is that Steinhoff self-identifies not as a Japanologist, but as a sociologist. She has the credibility to do either. I would suggest that others are also doing the same, because the field is atrophying… It is worth asking ourselves (within academe) why Steinhoff makes this distinction and what it means.

    I would also add my voice to the other folks’ saying this is a wonderful use of the web~!

  30. 7374e9 Says:

    alin said: my real concern here though is not with pedantic historic accuracy but the fact that we’re carrying on with the same fictions. which is why i jumped on #7????’s question

    alin, you jumped at your own interpretation of my question. The question was about cultural determinants of tenko and apparently similar phenomena in USSR and Germany at the same time. It was NOT about generalizing from this similarity to equating stalinism and fascism.

    I was curious if people thought there were differences in national character such that, while superficially similar, the end result of confessions and turn-arounds was different in the USSR and Japan. In the USSR in most cases a confessor would still be executed or sent into camps and worked to death.

    Thanks to Aceface for illuminating comments!

  31. Aceface Says:

    Dana B says:
    “The third point I find interesting (but do not know where it leads) is that Steinhoff self-identifies not as a Japanologist, but as a sociologist. She has the credibility to do either. I would suggest that others are also doing the same, because the field is atrophying… It is worth asking ourselves (within academe) why Steinhoff makes this distinction and what it means.”

    Reminds me of the interview of Clyde Prestwitz by GLOCOM web magazine few years ago,that Prestowitz was saying he’s no Japan hand but basically an EU specialist.As if he now thinks relating his expertise with Japan is an one way ticket to the intellectual warehouse…

    IMD at Lausanne professor Jean-Pierre Lehman also wrote series of derogatory essays on Japan at Japan Times about couple years ago.








    Lehman must have foreseen the decline of Japan studies as an academic field and probably wanted to switch his career as Asia hand by letting Japanese paying all the expense.And if we say no,then we will all be stamped as”narrow minded nationalists”.Ha!

    Chalmers Johnson’s brain child,Japan Policy Research Institute’s director,Steven Clemmons now runs a blog on the U.S policy on totally different island nation from Japan…That is Cuba.

    I’ve also noticed the recent U.S house resolution on the comfort women was lobbied by a quasi-think tank by the name of Asia Focus Point,which used to brand themselves as”Japan Information Access Project”.

    No wonder some Japanese think Japan specialists are tenured vultures!

    Laicus says:

    “Is there anything that I’m missing that implies that this phenomenon was more intimately related with Japan than it appears on its face?”

    One thing that the Japanese intellectuals were lacking compare to their German or Russian counterpart was the possibility of defect was very limited.

    Japanese language is only spoken in Japan and the intellectuals could not find place for their activities once you are out of the country.
    The immigrant communities aboroad were limited.The colonies in East Asia were almost as opressive as homeland.Those in the western hemisphere are basically peasant centered community totaly lacking intellectual mindset.Anyway most of them had suffered internment after the Pearl Harbor,thus couldn’t provide sphere of any activities.
    The Soviet Union had accepted about 100 or so political exiles whom were all communists,but many were purged in the great purge of the 30’s by Stalin.

    The other option for defect is to go religious.But Japan is known for the state controlling the religion from the days of the buddhism arrivals and the state shinto supported by the ministry of the interior had oppressed freemdom of the religion,thus the religion could not offer any sanctuary for the dissident just as it was in say Poland during the cold war or Tibet inder the rule of Beijing now.

    Being dissident in the 1930’s Japan means you would be completely cut off from the outside world.You get no mental support from your voiceless countryman in neither the form of nationalism nor shared religion.There were no international organization that give you a helping hand because there were no UN nor Amnesty International.And the west was totally lacking any sympathy toward Japanese of any political ideas.

    Such isolation can easily persuade an individual to Tenko and abandonement of the universal values.For they have felt the societies that holds these values(read Western nations)do not open doors to them because of the racial prejudice or the language barriers or the conflict of the national interests.Thus tenko intellectuals usually become the true believer of the imperial cause afterward without any further persuasion from the authority.

    The novelist Endo Shusaku had wrote about Tenko in “The Silence” in 1960’s using the story of a Portuguese Jesuit trun-around in the 16th century as a metaphor.I’m waiting how it would be represented in the coming film by Matin Scorcese.

  32. Transpacific Triangle » Back to Blogging: Some Things I've Missed by Graham Webster Says:

    […] of Hawaii who has studied student radicalism in Japan with some of the best sourcing around. Start reading here. And I’m not just plugging this because you’ll see my work on the site in the future as […]

  33. Mr. Suzuki, you are a delicious looking cake. :: Chomsky in Okayama :: October :: 2008 Says:

    […] On the Japanese New Left, see this multipart interview with Patricia Steinhoff:  1, 2, 3 (language), 4, 5, 6, 7 […]