Interview: Dr. Patricia Steinhoff 2

1960 Ampo Demonstrations

Dr. Patricia Steinhoff is Professor of Sociology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. This is the second installment of our interview with Dr. Steinhoff about the Japanese New Left in the 1960s and 1970s.


Let’s begin with the 1960 demonstrations against the revision of the Ampo (Japanese shorthand for Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan). Did these protests enjoy broad public support?

Yes, the 1960 Ampo protests had very wide support. A lot of it was mobilized by the Communist Party and the Socialist Party. Those parties also had the main labor federations, which could mobilize huge numbers of people. There were also citizens groups created at the time. The student movement had initially been pretty much organized by the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) right after the war, but then expanded. But in the late ’50s, a lot of the student leaders were unhappy with what was happening with party policy, and they didn’t like being dictated to and treated like a subordinate part of the working class instead of being something on their own. A big group of those leaders broke with the Communist Party in 1958. Others were thrown out when they went with the leaders who left the party. They were the beginning of Japan’s New Left.

So the New Left, in Japan, means quite explicitly, “not affiliated with the Communist Party.” Marxist, but not JCP.

And the people who founded it had been key top leaders of Zengakuren (全学連, All-Japan Federation of Students’ Self-Governing Associations), particularly around Tōdai (Tokyo University).

At that time, was Zengakuren controlled by the Japanese Communist Party?

Not exactly, and to characterize it that way to an English-speaking audience invites misconceptions. Zengakuren was a national federation of student government organizations all over Japan. There were local student government organizations or jichikai (自治会) on every campus, and students were elected to leadership positions in student government for each university faculty or gakubu (学部). These student organizations ran the co-op, and they got money from student fees. And they would control the student government because they were elected to do so.

Zengakuren had a democratic centralist kind of structure, where they had campus units that were just students, but technically everyone at some level is a member. Then there is an organizational structure for the city-wide federation and then for the regional federation, and then the national one. Each level would elect the next level up — that is what democratic centralism means. The Communist Party controlled the top — the organization leadership — but not necessarily the individual students. It’s not to say that every student in Japan was a Communist, but the movement itself at the national level was under clear control. So Zengakuren could mobilize people for different things. That was the case through the 1950s.

Then in the late ’50s, that’s when these people — who were national leaders of Zengakuren, but most of them also were from the Tōdai cell that controlled the Tōdai student government organization — broke with the party. They walked out and formed their own organization — Kyōsanshugisha Dōmei (共産主義者同盟, Communist League). They kept the word kyōsanshugi (共産主義, communism) but not the kyōsanto (共産党) of the Communist Party. They organized themselves as another party. They were nicknamed Bund (ブント).

Were they aligned with the left-wing of the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) instead of the JCP?

No. It is a mistake to think of this in terms of national political parties, as these were groups of students operating independently. They were close to the Socialist Party in their ideas, but at that point, the Socialist Party was not that much involved in the student movement. Later in the mid-to-late ’60s, they had a student branch — one part of which became part of the New Left.

Then there was another organization, which was minimal in the late ’50s — the Trotskyite League (日本トロツキスト連盟). It had been just a little study group, but right at that point, it also began to grow. It became another part of the New Left, and because it’s Trotskyite, it was not connected to the Communist Party. That became Kakumeiteki Kyōsanshugisha Dōmei (革命的共産主義者同盟, Revolutionary Marxist League), and then that split in Kakumaru-ha (革マル派) and Chūkaku-ha (中核派). And also, Daiyon-Intā (Fourth International), which is affiliated with the Trotskyite Fourth International organization.

Ideologically-speaking, what were these parties’ relative positions?

These people are all left of the Communist Party.

From ’59 to ’61, there was a fair amount of movement between Chūkaku and Bund, so if you trace individual histories, they are entangled. They’re all much more militant than the JCP, but they’re basically student organizations and they’re seeing students as the vanguard of the proletariat. But a lot of it follows the Trotskyite idea of simultaneous world revolution. They’re all anti-Stalinist. The individual differences between the groups are too arcane to be described here.

When the protests failed to stop the revision of the Ampo treaty, what happened to the movement?

All of these groups in the early ’60s are grappling with the question of, why did it fail? What should we have done? For them, it became a kind of organizational policy issue. And it took a while for them to recover from that, and they recovered in different ways. Basically, by about ’63 and ’64, they realize that the treaty would come up for revision again in ’70. We have to be better prepared for ’70. So they started early in trying to organize and mobilize in order to be ready. And of course, during that same period, the Vietnam War heats up, so there are different issues. They first used the treaty with South Korea as one mobilizing point at the end of ’65. From then on, they’re looking towards ’70, but they are also organizing all of these groups on campuses.

Is there something about either the ideology of these groups or the fact that they are Japanese that led to the amount of factionalism? (Examples of rival group helmets can be seen here.) There seems to be many more divisions than what you saw in the SDS, for example.

When Bund split from the JCP, they kept the same kind of organizational structure. So they had this image of being a national party. They had this vertical structure, and they had these groups at the local level that are part of it. There is a kind of Leninist organization to it all.

SDS never had that. SDS had a central committee, but it was when Al Haber and Tom Hayden and a couple of people might meet over lunch. They didn’t have this kind of structure. Later they did attempt to have a national structure to coordinate the local groups, but it was nothing like the centralized national organization that each of the Japanese New Left sects had, which derived from Leninist organizational principles.

The structure is part of it, but they were also reading Marx when you couldn’t read it in the United States. They were studying it in school. Marxist economics was taught in the economics departments of Japanese universities. In that sense, they were much more sophisticated Marxists, and even in the pre-war period, there was a pretty sophisticated group of Japanese intellectuals who were doing Marxist analysis and argumentation about issues in intellectual history.

The Japanese New Left was a lot more ideological than the U.S. movement, and there was a kind of privileging of people who could do ideology. So the people who gravitated to certain types of leadership positions were those who could do Marxist style argumentation. If groups want to split, whatever the reason for the split — whether it’s personality or something about the policy — it only happens when it’s articulated as an ideological position.

So when they were under the JCP, you’d have these kinds of splits. These splits are common in the Left anywhere, because of that ideological system. But when they are under the JCP, if the local group can’t resolve it, Moscow steps in and says, this faction got it right, that faction didn’t, and so the losing group must make a jiko-hihan (自己批判) or self-criticism of where their thinking went wrong and fall in line with the group that was declared to have the correct view. So when they left the JCP, there was no longer anyone to arbitrate these disputes. Whenever there’s a dispute, they just split.

Yes, it’s Japanese, but it’s not culturally Japanese. There’s a little bit of it that’s culturally Japanese in the sense of vertical structures. They were very comfortable with that — at the time. But it has to do with the institutional structures they were working with. We never had that in the U.S.

The distances are significant too. It’s a big deal to have a national meeting in the U.S.: you can’t get people together. There were 56 colleges in Tokyo alone in the 1960s. Meeting and having all these kinds of gatherings — that could happen very easily in Japan, even with differences in transportation speed.

A common criticism against the student movement I have heard in Japan is that the students only protested “petty” and trivial matters like internal university politics rather than rallying the masses around serious issues.

That is simply not the case. Anybody who knows what was happening in the 1960s in Japan knows that students were not protesting trivial matters. In 1960, they weren’t wearing helmets, but they were having mass protests in the streets about the major issue of international politics in Japan, which was also the major domestic issue in terms of whether Japan was going to preserve a constitutional democratic structure. The “zig-zag” [snake dance] was invented for that. They were having conflicts with the police at that time, and the government was worried about controlling it. That all became part of the tradition, but the more militant stuff starts in ’67.

The key point was a big protest on October 8, 1967 (pictures available here). They were protesting against Prime Minister Sato going to Vietnam, where there would be a meeting to discuss the Japanese role in the war. They could see that because of the Ampo treaty and other relationships, they were getting dragged into the Vietnam War.

The Socialist Party and other people were upset about it. The Asahi had a position against it, and they were doing mild forms of political protest, but these students went to the airport and by that time there were several different groups of New Left students. At that time, there was a kind of tradition in the New Left about protesting trips of government leaders who did things they opposed. They would try to keep the person from leaving the country by protesting at the airport, since he is representing them. So there was a big brouhaha there — at the time Haneda was the international airport — and the riot police were there and had their water cannon trucks. The students had previously used the poles and helmets for internal clashes, but they brought them and used them for the first time against the police.

I did some very intensive research on that event — it’s very complicated, but there are all sorts of neat symbolic things happening. At the height of this protest, they are throwing stones at the police who have this big net to deflect the stones, but they crawled up on top of the police vans and were waving their flags. So you can imagine how the police felt!

They were on several bridges that used to go to Haneda. On one bridge, the police had pushed them back, and they were jumping off the bridge into the water. During the melee, on another bridge, they had commandeered a police truck and someone was driving it, and one of their own people fell under the wheels and was killed.

Bridge to HanedaOn the bridge to Haneda Airport

So that became this big mobilizing thing that a student had been killed. It was the first death of a student since the death of a woman student [Kamba Michiko] in the 1960 Ampo protest on June 15, 1960. Of course at the time the students claimed that the police had killed the student, but the real story became clear later on. And if you read any of the accounts of people of that generation — whether they were there or not — that was a key thing in motivating them to participate. They all write about it. The emotion of it is, he died, so I have to take his place. It wasn’t, uh-oh, I can get killed doing this, I better not go. But rather: they killed one of ours, so now I have to go enlist and fight the good fight. After that, you not only get more violence in the interactions but greater mobilization. And a sense that, yes, this can be dangerous but we have to do it.

So that’s what was happening. But at that point in 1967, there were a couple of on-campus conflicts, and they tended to be at private universities about raising school fees, which is a fairly real issue for students and not trivial. But by late ’68 and ’69, you have all these international issues flaring up at the same time at the national level. You have the anti-Vietnam War protests and Beheiren (Citizen’s League for Peace in Vietnam) involved in that. You have the students in the streets about international issues and trying to change the government and unable to do it. The Okinawa Reversion is part of that because it was the main issue in the 1970 Ampo revisions. There were also more general protests against U.S. military bases in Japan, which were there because of the Joint Security Treaty, but also aroused a lot of concern among the communities surrounding them.

So you have all these big international issues, but you also have issues flaring up at the individual campuses. And the Japanese university administrations at that time were pretty conservative and traditional. And not very student-friendly. These kinds of things were happening in the U.S. and Europe at the same time. And a lot of it in those places was not just the international affairs stuff — it was about students and how universities treated them. They may seem trivial today, but in the lives of students at the time, they were seen as major issues. And they mobilized ordinary students who were not in these very highly-politicized sects protesting national and international issues in the streets at the same time. Of course, once you get such a movement going on a campus, the sects come in, and it’s all mixed up together. The national level protests on the streets and the campus protests were running on parallel tracks, but it meant that the whole place was blowing up. And a high proportion of students was involved to some extent in either the on-campus protests or in the off-campus stuff or both. You can’t separate them. Because if your campus is closed, that means you have all those resources. Students can camp out in campus buildings to prepare for a street demonstration, and you can make bombs in the chemistry labs.

Tomorrow: Part 3 – The Movement Goes Underground

W. David MARX
September 11, 2007

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

15 Responses

  1. laotree Says:

    Another interesting chapter but difficult to find on the site! A more obvious link would be nice! (I stumbled into it by chance in the “Past” section.)
    This will most likely be remedied soon…

  2. laotree Says:


  3. W. David MARX Says:

    I don’t understand your problem.

  4. Adamu Says:

    As informative as this interview is, the most amusing part so far is definitely the helmet link!

  5. W. David MARX Says:

    I know she said:

    The individual differences between the groups are too arcane to be described here.

    But I still want to know all the different ideological positions that would cause so many helmets.

    In a book I have, there is some graffiti from the Yasuda Hall takeover where kids wrote, “What would each sect do if the revolution started tomorrow?” And they have kind of satirical answers, making fun of each major group. I should translate that at some point, maybe.

  6. alin Says:

    > But I still want to know all the different ideological positions that would cause so many helmets.

    the family crests in edo , or what i mentioned a couple of days ago, at click opera i think, the amazing variations in schoolgirls (hair etc) styles from from town to town – both from each other and from the “magazine” doesn’t necessarily imply different ‘ideological positions’. subtle ideological differences there may have been but i get the feeling you’re searching for the wrong thing in the wrong way.

    please don’t get too harsh on me for saying this.

    again, great read , thanks

  7. W. David MARX Says:

    What you are saying echoes what I said last time that “ideological position” may be simply a logo for group affiliation. Whatever the case, there has to be an EXPRESSED differentiation in ideology for different groups. They at least articulated themselves as different strains of Marxism even if they don’t actually “believe.”

  8. alin Says:

    > “ideological position” may be simply a logo for group affiliation … don’t actually “believe.”

    not quite, i think but it’s quite subtle and discussion around this, in english especially, tends to swing between trying to catch butterfiles with a hammer and a lame concept of 無ideology. (i have to run now .. and, no, i don’t have the answer)

  9. neogeisha Says:

    yes, the helmet research would be worth diving into, both because it would elaborate on ideological distinctions amongst splinter factions and because it would connect street fashion/ the promenade with group affilliation, which i argue is important to any sociology done on japan.

  10. alin Says:

    one thing i forgot to say earlier.
    thank you for showing us the alternative cover designs for “beaus in disarray”

  11. neogeisha Says:

    that text you translated is such a cool artifact. it’s fun to be able to reverse-engineer the current events of the period this way. great work, marxy.

  12. Kim Jong-il Hater Says:

    Could anyone translate the names of the groups on the helmets? I’m only in Japanese 3, so I only know a few Kanji, plus my comp can’t show Japanese characters.

  13. nate Says:

    pssst….you forgot “革命的” int he 中核/革マル part.

    I am really glad to see these interviews! Good job D.

  14. W. David MARX Says:


  15. 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 […]