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.
PART 1 – FINDING THE TOPIC
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