dissenting japan

William Andrews’ Dissenting Japan provides a history of radical politics in a post-war Japan shaped by the needs of US imperialism, finds Sean Ledwith 


William Andrews, Dissenting Japan: A History of Japanese Radicalism and Counterculture from 1945 to Fukushima (Hurst 2016), xxv, 356pp.

The title of this study of what used to be the most dynamic East Asian capitalist society might strike some readers as anomalous. The eponymous state has acquired a reputation in the West as being one founded on the conformity and compliance of the mass of its population. The refreshing goal of William Andrews is to puncture this myth and reveal the fascinating contradictions and possibilities that lie beneath the harmonious façade of Japanese society:

‘The myth that the Japanese are inherently conformist must be challenged. Conformity and conservatism exist in no short supply but I believe it is fundamentally the result of top down repression’ (p. 307).

Readers unfamiliar with the dissident tradition in Japanese culture will find this book the ideal introduction.

The author is a British writer who has spent over a decade working in the country and, as such, combines an outsider’s perspective with empathetic insight into Japan’s unique characteristics. Andrews does not declare an explicit left-wing allegiance but his overall message is that Japanese society, like all other capitalist states, is fundamentally crisis-prone and crying out for radical change. There are many features of the country that are peculiar to its distinctive historical trajectory but it has not been immune to the global crises of neoliberalism, militarism and environmental degradation that plague the rest of humanity.

Japan’s rulers in the past famously sought to implement a policy of sakoku, sealing it off for over two centuries from foreign influences (p.4). Their successors now find that option impossible as they have willingly hooked the country up to the vicissitudes of the global capitalist order. The shockwaves that have resulted from the multifaceted crisis of the system in this century have, in the view of the author, created fertile ground for a revival of a rebellious current in Japanese culture that has been regrettably overlooked in the West. Andrews describes his book as ‘a call to arms to remember what has been forgotten, that Japan has a radical recent past belying its quotidian image as merely harmonised and homogeneous’(p.8).

The book is mainly focused on the country’s political evolution since World War Two, but the author also briefly sketches how its modern history was shaped by the Meiji Restoration of 1868. In that year, powerful landlords and proto-industrialists used the Emperor as a front-man for a political expropriation of the Shogunate that had dominated Japan for centuries, but which they feared was failing to provide the leadership required to resist predatory European powers. From that point on, Japan was catapulted onto an accelerated process of economic development that enabled it to emerge as the only significant non-Western capitalist power and one of the few Asian countries to avoid colonisation. As noted by Trotsky, early-twentieth-century Japan displayed the classic features of combined and uneven development, with formidable military and naval machines co-existing with an archaic political superstructure based on Shintoism and Emperor-worship. The state that took East Asia by storm during World War Two was constructed by a passive revolution from above: ‘top-down, imposed and only sketching in the semblance of democracy’(p.14).

Following the collapse of its regional empire in the global conflict, Japan found itself occupied by the same country that had subjected it to the world’s first demonstrations of nuclear devastation. The US dispatched General Douglas MacArthur to act as political overlord in the wake of the genocidal attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Mainstream opinion today views the postwar American occupation of Japan as a largely benign process, designed to enable a former foe to take its place in the community of civilised nations. Andrews has no such illusions, noting that‘the political system was initially shaped and designed by the CIA in the aftermath of the war to neutralise left-wing influence’ (p.301).

Like many countries in that era, Japan experienced an upsurge in labour militancy and unionisation, climaxing with the prospect of a general strike in 1947 that would have seen three million workers walk out. Sadly, MacArthur bullied the union leaders to call off the strike at the eleventh hour, breaking the confidence of the left for a generation. The General,

‘ordered a purge of left-leaning government workers – over 11 000 teachers and civil servants were dismissed for belonging to leftist groups – and later extended this to the private sector, such as the media and film industry.’

Bizarrely, MacArthur also imposed a regime of censorship on Japan that banned cultural products from his own country such as the novels of John Steinbeck and Citizen Kane! (p.15).

Japanese radicalism re-grouped the following decade as part of protests against what Andrews dubs ‘the most controversial law ever passed’ in the country, the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, known colloquially as Anpo (p.25). First signed in 1952, the Treaty was predicated on turning the country into a base from which American spy planes could take off: ‘The US was exploiting Japan as a hub for its Cold War campaign and be damned if Japan was attacked as a consequence’ (p.29) .The Anpo movement was notable for the breadth of its support from virtually all sections of the Japanese left, including trade unions, civil and student organisations, and the two largest opposition parties, the Japan Socialist Party and the Japanese Communist Party.

Half-a-million people demonstrated in November 1959 against the American military presence, and shortly afterwards, US President Eisenhower was forced to cancel a visit due to the scale of the protests (despite an astonishing request for security assistance made by the government to the Yakuza criminal gangs!) (p.40). The following year, almost six million people participated in a general strike that brought the country to a standstill. The undemocratic nature of the political system the US had nurtured was promptly demonstrated in 1960, however, when the Treaty was ratified by the Japanese government with brazen disregard for the mood of its own population. The fragile Anpo alliance of opposition promptly disintegrated amid tactical confusion and mutual recrimination. Andrews observes the consequence of this defeat would unsurprisingly influence the thinking of Japan’s radical left in the 1960s:

the parliamentary failure of the mainstream left-wing parties informed radicals’ decision to take matters into their own hands on the streets, since direct action now seemed the only effective means of protest (p.41).

The next spark to re-ignite Japan’s radical tradition was provided by the country’s role in the US intervention in Vietnam. The government’s supine commitment to the American alliance as symbolised by Anpo entailed that Japanese airbases were to be used by the USAF to launch waves of bombing against nearby North Vietnam. Andrews argues the overwhelming opposition of most Japanese to this was partly based on a sense of guilt as the bombers’ target had been one of the Asian countries brutally occupied by them in the Second World War. He notes:

The Japanese population was also fully aware of their nation’s own complicity in the bombing of Vietnamese citizens: American planes were taking off from bases ostensibly on Japanese soil, and men, armaments and fuel were being supplied from their shores (p.99).

The anti-war movement was also fuelled by ongoing resentment at two particularly egregious aspects of the alliance: the southern island of Okinawa was technically American territory as the postwar occupier was still refusing to give it up; and the death toll among ordinary Japanese across all islands caused by military accidents connected to the US army – 500 people killed between 1952 and 1977 (p.100). The protests were spearheaded by a group known as Beheiren, or the Peace in Vietnam Committee. The movement pulled off some spectacular achievements in the late 1960s including the arrangement of visits from luminaries of the international left such as Jean Paul Sartre and Howard Zinn, and organising what Andrews terms ‘the first anti-war strike in the world’ in which over two million workers participated (p.103).

One of Beheiren’s most impressive projects was an underground network to assist US soldiers wanting to desert. Over a period of four years, fifty military personnel were smuggled out of the country, much to the chagrin of the occupying power. The author perceives this innovative tactic as being based on a combination of sound anti-imperialist instincts and a more traditional aspect of the Japanese psyche:

‘… despite the risks and the inconvenience, there was no shortage of people who wanted to help the soldiers; it is hoganbiiki, sympathy for the underdog, again, which also seemed to fuel Beheiren in general’ (p.108).

Like the rest of the capitalist world, Japan was engulfed by a global wave of protest in 1968, culminating with a giant student-led day of action in October: ‘From Shinjuku to Kojimachi and the Diet, Tokyo was burning with the fires of urban warfare’ (p.113).

The anti-war movement of the 1960s was not strong enough to deflect the ability of the US to wage merciless assaults on Vietnam but it did ultimately succeed in forcing the superpower to draw-down its military facilities in Japan, with about a third of bases relocated by the end of the conflict (p.112). Despite its creativity and impact, however, Beheiren was unable to translate the campaign against the US military into a wider movement against the home-grown elite. Andrews puts this down to two factors. First, all oppositional currents within Japanese society found themselves struggling for relevance as the country’s economic miracle went into overdrive:

‘With the country enjoying unprecedented economic success and Okinawa at any rate returning to Japan in 1972 … the majority of people would not have seen anything to protest about (p.120).

The second reason was an outbreak of sectarianism and chronic internecine conflict that will be wearily familiar to socialists in the West. Like many sections of the global left, radicals in Japan struggled to come to terms with the downturn of class struggle after the high tide of 1968. Many who had participated in the Beheiren movement found the lure of middle-class and middle-aged career advancement too tempting to resist, but there were just as many who became disenchanted by a new, self-destructive mentality that emerged in the 1970s. As the author puts it:

‘the more byzantine the New Left in Japan became – the more its strength also dissipated … purges and infighting revealed the weird and unpleasant underbelly of militant radicalism and led to an unshakeable cynicism towards the Japanese Left (pp.160-1).

Some of the subsequent battles between factions of the far left read like jaw-dropping scenes of Samurai warfare from the films of Akira Kurosawa in which no form of brutality or savagery is left untested, and massed ranks of rival armies confront each other in a fight to the death. The Trotskyist left splintered into two groups known as the Kakumaru-ha and the Chukaku-ha. Any nuanced ideological differences between the two soon became secondary as they gripped each other in a political death spiral, with the Japanese police happy to watch from the side-lines. Readers new to the subject may be pleasantly surprised that revolutionary Marxism was so prevalent among Japanese youth, but also horribly familiar with how it degenerated into irrelevant point-scoring and worse:

It was veritable state of war with leaders living in secret locations under pseudonyms and with nameplates disguised on buildings. Headquarters might be stormed any day and volunteering to give out faction literature on the street might mean putting your life in jeopardy (p.154).

Elements of the Japanese left were also diverted by terrorism, the worst form of substitutionism, as an alternative to the patient re-building of a mass movement. The most notorious example was an attack on Tel Aviv airport in 1972 carried out by three Japanese supporters of the Palestinian cause that left twenty-six civilians dead.

Fortunately, Andrews’ highly readable account concludes on a more optimistic note regarding the future prospects of the Japanese left. The triple catastrophe of 2011 in which the country was simultaneously hit by an earthquake, tsunami and the Fukushima reactor crisis has kick-started a new wave of activism. The following year, Shinzo Abe was elected as Prime Minister; his subsequent pursuit of austerity economics and creeping militarism has further fuelled renewed interest in the ideas and traditions of the left. A manga version of Marx’s Capitalhit the bestseller list in 2008 at the same time as a re-publication of Kanikosen, a classic novel by one of the martyrs of Japanese Marxism from the 1920s, Takiji Kobayashi (p. 274).

Most significantly, a society that is frequently misjudged as being fully compliant with the capitalist ethos has recently spawned a movement that modestly echoes the global revival of the left in the form of Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and others:

‘Protest is no longer the preserve of the radical … there has been a renaissance at certain universities and through groups like the non-sectarian, media-savvy Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (p.301).

The author alludes to a Japanese expression that ‘the nail that sticks up will be hammered down’ (p.233). As the country is infected by the anti-establishment zeitgeist of the twenty-first century, it is feasible the nail of resistance will one day become too big to hammer down.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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