Two, Three, Many 1960s

The global Sixties began in Tokyo on June 15, 1960, with the death of Michiko Kanba, an undergraduate at Tokyo University.  On the night of her death she had joined a group of fellow university students at the front of a massive demonstration — 100,000 people deep — facing off against the National Diet Building.  At first, officials claimed she had been trampled to death by other demonstrators, but the autopsy showed signs that she may have been choked, and a medical examination by a Diet member indicated that it was likely the riot police who had strangled her.  While debate on how she died continues, it was clear that she and her fellow students, many of whom had suffered injuries meriting hospitalization, had been greeted at the gates of the Diet with great force.  Her death made the violence of the supposedly democratic Japanese state visible.

The crowd of thousands was gathered in opposition to the renewal of the US-Japan Security Treaty.  Known in Japanese as Anpo, the agreement authorized American military bases on Japanese soil and, in the protesters’ eyes, made Japan complicit in American adventures in Korea and Southeast Asia.  Under the terms of Anpo, Japan’s sovereignty was questionable and its relationship to its ambitiously pacifist “peace constitution” became ambiguous.

The month leading up to the June 15 protest was a tumultuous one: news footage reveals brawls among Japan’s top politicians, citizens’ and workers’ groups pouring into the streets for protests and petition drives, and Eisenhower’s press secretary had to be rescued from a mob by a marine helicopter.  It was typhoon season.

Ike’s scheduled visit to Tokyo to celebrate the renewal of Anpo, which was ultimately forced through by Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, had to be canceled.  The American president reassured his people in the “Report to the American Nation on His Far Eastern Trip” that “These disorders were not occasioned by America; we in the United States must not fall into the error of blaming ourselves for what the Communists do; after all, Communists will act like Communists.”  Never mind that postwar American policy had forced Japan to abandon neutrality while allowing the country’s war crimes in Asia to go unaddressed.  Never mind that the people of Okinawa, who had suffered under Japanese imperial policy, remained in effect colonized under US military occupation.  Never mind that the United States kept nuclear weapons on their bases in Japan, in spite of the extreme unpopularity of such a decision among a population that considered themselves uniquely intimate with the horrors of nuclear warfare.  Never mind that Prime Minister Kishi himself was a Class-A war criminal rehabilitated under American Cold War direction.

Cold warrior Japan-watchers offered less paranoid analyses perhaps, but declared the ruckus as symptomatic only of Japan’s “immature democracy,” implying that such an event could never occur where the fruits of democracy were ripe, i.e., in the United States.  Their paradigm, in which democracy’s maturity was measurable by its middle-class consensus, would be turned topsy-turvy by the events of the 1960s.  By the end of the decade dynamics similar to those of 1960 in Japan would play out on American streets.  If this subversive spirit of the 1960s is to retain any political urgency for the left today as opposed to providing slogans for the latest GAP advertising campaign, we need both a longer and more critical view of the 1960s beyond the iconic year of 1968.  This view must include June 15, 1960.  On that date in Tokyo, the contours of student protest were revealed, themes that would become more pronounced over the decade.  First, we can see in the Anpo protests the birth of a “new” left dynamic, which encompassed risk-taking students.  Second, coverage by an ever-expanding mass media was critical in shaping the outcomes of the confrontation.  And, finally, the mainstream political response refused to engage with the students’ radical critique of late capitalist society.  These factors would rise to prominence in all student movements throughout the advanced industrialized nations, and in those of many developing nations as well.  And there would be casualties.

By the late 1960s students from New York City to Paris, from Mexico City to Prague were embroiled in movements that self-consciously identified themselves as a new left-leaning alternative to both American and Soviet strategies of hegemony.  These young, often comfortably middle-class, activists took increasingly provocative risks in confronting police on city streets and on university campuses, while the news media made it possible for the whole world to watch.  Prime ministers and presidents dismissed these protests as youthful antics.  They sought to rhetorically neutralize student dissent by infantilizing it, and by asserting that they heeded the ostensibly homogenous middle-class citizen.  No matter how noisy the antics of student radicals would get, Prime Minister Kishi in 1960 and President Nixon nearly ten years later claimed to hear only the “voiceless voices” and the “silent majority” respectively.

The story of dissent in the 1960s is an international story, as is the story of the New Left.  The details of that story, however, retain national inflections.  The international context in which the USSR’s naked display of power in Budapest — contrary to the promises of Khrushchev’s Destalinization Speech — and support of US policy over the Suez Canal estranged comrades worldwide in 1956, and deeply affected the Japanese left as well.  Within Japan, leftist activism celebrated a long tradition by the mid-twentieth century.  The socialist critique of capitalist society had arrived at the same time as industrial capitalist society itself.  Advocates of communist and anarchist alternatives played a lively role in modern Japanese history, and — in spite of various Japan experts who would have it advertised differently — labor in Japan has its own bloody saga of struggle.  Silenced by wartime authorities, communists in Japan emerged from prisons with the surrender in 1945 as the only imperial subjects who had resisted the call to war.  In the context of Cold War American foreign policy, this distinctive claim to moral authority did not protect prominent communists from a Red Purge of public officials under the Allied Occupation in 1950.

In this unfriendly milieu, the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) employed underground tactics, encouraging university students to leave school and foment revolution in the countryside.  When the JCP renounced this approach in 1955, it left a generation of students feeling betrayed.  Several literary works recorded this disillusionment, including Sho Shibata‘s 1964 novel Saredo warera ga hibi (Well, That’s Our Lot); this text, which follows the chronic disappointments of former university student activists, was subsequently dubbed the “Bible” of the student movement in the late 1960s.

Students in Japan at this time were doubly disappointed by actually existing socialism and the JCP, and sought to craft a New Left.  Two elements of this project get dropped out if the New Left is seen in a narrowly chronological or geographical perspective.  The first is the significant influence of Third-Worldism, which found agency and inspiration in the actions of “the wretched of the earth” in a way not seen before or since.  The most compelling challenges to the status quo emanated from the forests of China and the mountains of Cuba, rather than in the Comintern or the University.  A comparison of this with contemporary ads for human rights organizations that pose the people of the southern hemisphere in the pitiable poses of victims demonstrates how the discourse has shifted.

The second factor in the making of the New Left was the rapid expansion of Marxian analysis to understand exploitation in terms that expanded beyond class.  Similar to trends elsewhere, subsequent movements of ethnic minorities and women in Japan borrowed from the language and strategies of the New Left.  Neither trend, however, was an unqualified achievement.  A quick look at how they developed in the Japanese case shows that the images of liberation from Algeria, the Congo, and Vietnam were often embraced with a romantic enthusiasm lacking a meaningful analysis, and that a move away from an emphasis on class-based struggle allowed students to remove themselves from workers in Japan.  This last development led to the isolation of most segments of the student movement in Japan, as its adherents became increasingly involved in inter-factional disputes, to the point of uchigeba — internal violence — late in the 1960s.  This development represented a clear tactical break from the strategies of the student left of the 1950s, which often sought to create after-work “circles” at factories that were focused on art, poetry, or music, and thus created close-knit groups of workers that engaged politically as well.

Over the decade, a split widened not only between the student movement and labor in Japan, but also between an increasingly radical student movement and the general public.  A tendency toward daring action was already present among the students who considered themselves the vanguard of the mass protests on June 15, 1960.  The seven major newspapers in Tokyo issued a joint statement condemning the acts of the students on the following day, although disagreements remained within the ranks of journalists about who was to blame for the aggression that resulted in Kanba’s death in addition to many hundreds of injuries.  These discrepancies were often based on what various reporters saw happening in the streets.  The hundreds of thousands of citizens also on the scene at the time witnessed and therefore interpreted the events for themselves.  In this way, many bystanders became activists merely by being caught between a police stick and a student.

But as television became a more pervasive source of news, it created an intimate distance.  Intimate because the moving images entered the homes of viewers, but transmitted by the television screen, they also offered a mediating distance.  One iconic image supplanted myriad personal impressions.  Filmmakers in Japan in 1960 could sense the tremendous implications of this change.  Nagisa Oshima offered his film Night and Fog in Japan as a direct response to June 1960 in the fall of that same year.  In the film, the betrayal of the young New Left students by an older generation of JCP leaders is dramatized in a scene when an old-guard communist’s wife denounces her husband for watching the June 15 Anpo protests on television.  Another 1960 film, Masahiro Shinoda‘s Youth in Fury, follows a young man with fascist fantasies as he experiences the build-up to the June protests through the images that flicker at him from televisions in shop windows and moments stolen in front of a friend’s TV set.  Detached from the greater body of activists, he settles on his own more extreme solution: explosives.

It makes sense that those in film would be both sensitive to and critical of the power of television to define an event.  The power of the mass media and its relationship to the global 1960s, identified by Guy Debord in that decade in terms of “spectacle,” represents one important area of inquiry to be pursued in rethinking this period.  Indeed, the “death” of the New Left in Japan is generally considered to be a media event.  In 1972, a shoot-out between a group of extremist students and police in a mountain lodge was broadcast live and 90% of Japanese television viewers were tuned in to the drama on the final day.  Traffic in Tokyo was noticeably lighter.  The distance between the viewers at home and the radicals barricaded in the mountain lodge with a housewife as a hostage was sharply delineated.  While other student activists continued to pursue other avenues of protest, such as folk music concerts, the media images of violent extremism became iconic.  The language of the movement had splintered, and a sector had shifted into the spectacular, and very newsworthy, vernacular of hijackings, bombings, and hostage takings.

As the mass media focused on extreme performances of protest, thereby encouraging an ever more sensational repertoire, it aided politicians who portrayed all student activists as prone to irrational violence.  In 1960 Prime Minister Kishi dismissed rowdy demonstrators as a minority, claiming that he heeded the “voiceless voices” of the majority of citizens.  Even to the non-radical ear at the time, this phrase sounded lame.  City streets were filled with people mobilized to counter the US-Japan Security Treaty.  An anti-Anpo citizens’ group re-appropriated Kishi’s phrase, and named their protest organization the “voiceless voices.”  However, this dismissal of student radicalism in the 1960s as youthful antics lingers as perhaps the strongest political legacy of the 1960s.

The typically banal commemorative invocations of the Sixties employ a select set of images under which student activism is conveyed as a desire for individual freedom.  Focusing on 1968 alone lends itself to distortion, insofar as it effaces the links with the longer history of Third-Worldism and post-colonialism.  As we find ourselves now half a century away from the 1960s, it is particularly important to do more than revisit the images of Berkeley’s People’s Park or interviews with Mark Rudd.  I assert here that the 1960s began on June 15, 1960 not to supplant this iconography with another, but to stretch the chronology and the geography beyond the usual American narrative.  But it should be stretched further, to the civil rights movement closer to home, and to the police massacre of black protestors in Sharpeville, South Africa in 1960, and to the police massacre of Algerians in Paris in 1961, and to all the other confrontations between state power and protesters.  It would be a tragic understatement to say that middle-class youth were not the only victims, although the press generated by the death of such a youth made it clear that the obscene logic at work even in the “free” world valued their lives more highly.  The narrative of protest in the 1960s should also be knit more intricately, to position the figures of university students within their communities and their families.  Michiko Kanba was a daughter, a student, a demonstrator, and — with her death — a martyr.  More needs to be understood about all of these aspects of her, and all these aspects of those around her.  For every iconic image or figure there is a multiplicity of meanings.  There is more than one year in the 1960s, and more than one story.  There are two, three, many 1960s.

Chelsea Szendi Schieder is currently writing about the history of gender in the Japanese New Left.  A PhD candidate at Columbia University, she is conducting research at Waseda University, in Tokyo, while on a grant from the Japan Foundation.  She can be reached at<>.

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