Dr. Patricia Steinhoff is Professor of Sociology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. This is the fifth and final installment of our interview with Dr. Steinhoff about the Japanese New Left in the 1960s and 1970s.
PART 5 – WHAT DID IT MEAN?
If we look at where the Weathermen and Red Armies developed from their respective student movements, there are some very clear differences. The Weathermen made a point not to kill anyone after they ended up blowing themselves up, but the Red Army in Japan continued with bombings and other violent actions, no?
Actually, after the Lod incident, Shigenobu said, we aren’t going to kill anybody, and they did not kill anybody else in all their subsequent attacks. She was also deeply distressed because her best friend had already been killed in the United Red Army purge, before the Lod Airport attack. That was the only time the Red Army in Japan killed anybody.
I did a paper with Gilda Zwerman, an American sociologist who studies the “post-New Left” in the U.S. The U.S. also had groups that went underground and were involved throughout the 1970s. Part of it is that it’s not as visible in the United States, because it wasn’t centralized and it wasn’t national. It’s very easy to say, somebody did something stupid over in one place, but not to see it as a part of the same larger movement. We did a paper with Donatella della Porta who has studied the same types of movements in the same time period in Italy and Germany. And we first put all our cases, which included all the radical groups, including the Weathermen, including the Black Panthers, and the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army), Puerto Rican Nationalists from the U.S., the Red Brigades in Italy, and the Red Army Faction in Germany and a couple of other Italian factions. We put all our cases together and we tried to figure out what the processes were. The three of us wrote one paper about going underground and the process of who went and that sort of thing.
Zwerman and I did another one where we talked about other types of things that happened in the ’70s and the ’80s, so there are interesting parallels and when you put a lot of groups together, you can see a lot of common patterns, but there are differences because of the structural differences in the countries and the way the groups were organized. I wouldn’t want to say across the board that the U.S. was milder, but some things were different.
One of the reasons that the Japanese groups did what they did is because guns are so hard to find in Japan, whereas in the U.S., that’s not an issue. Going underground and having a guerilla army with guns — you weren’t about to overthrow the U.S. government that way. There are differences in thinking about what you can do and why. The Black Panthers were walking around the streets with guns quite deliberately in the 1960s.
Is there a palpable legacy of the student movement and the Japanese Red Army in particular? Did they accomplish any of their goals or was it just a total wash?
First of all, the movement marked a generation. And because of that, those people have gone on to do different things. It isn’t that they got certain things out of the movement and carried them directly, but rather that they had these experiences. The movement failed, and they had to figure out what went wrong. And in that process, which is a very built-in, very Japanese thing, you always have to analyze what happened and figure out what went wrong. Basically they tried to change course in an organized way. And I think it’s out of that, that this very different style of contemporary social movements in Japan has come about. I am writing about this now, as Japan’s “invisible civil society,” which came out of the New Left but reflects their thoughtful analysis of what went wrong with it.
Part of it is that they see that these big organizations, this top-down stuff doesn’t work. As students, they had a loose lefty kind of approach. They were not traditional uptight Japanese. But they were still Japanese, and they were in this structure that had a lot of the vertical stuff. So there’s a mix. When they decided that part of the problem is this big top-down organization, then they were freer to go in different directions and avoid large organizations by using networking to link together lots of small groups. And culturally, they were doing all these interesting things at the same time that people were protesting in the streets in the 1960s, there was music, literature, drama, all kind of art coming out of it in a kind of cultural renaissance. So it was a creative period that had its impact in many ways.
In terms of the Red Army itself… well, they helped immensely in making the Japanese justice system more severe than it was before, which certainly wasn’t what they intended. To a certain extent, the fact that these people in the early 1970s went to North Korea and went to work with the Palestinians, and that 35 years later they are still connected to those issues, and those issues are still on the front pages, in a sense you can say that their going there and staying there — at least as far as Japan was concerned — kept an awareness of what was going on in those two places that might have not been there otherwise. It would not have been as salient within Japan if they didn’t have a bunch of people in the Middle East who did stuff once in a while.
Or a bunch of people in North Korea that you could forget about until all of a sudden, it turns out that they had done all this other wild stuff. So in that sense, there’s an indirect awareness factor that they have something to do with.
I don’t think it was a wash. But clearly, a lot of lives were wrecked. I don’t just mean people who were killed or injured by their actions. But their own lives were deflected and pretty much wrecked. The guys that went to North Korea: half of them are dead, the remaining ones… Good God! That’s not what should have happened with their lives.
The Middle East people are pretty much going to spend the rest of their lives in jail. They did have a freedom of movement, because they were there in the Middle East and they were elusive, but still, there was a lot of stuff they couldn’t do because they were on wanted lists. And you know, their lives to a certain extent have been wrecked by it. So, it’s not a happy story.