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1968 and the Japanese Student Movement

Michael YC Tseng

March 6, 2018

Behind the barricades, 1968 was a time when the actual and the impossible were indiscernible. From late 1950s to 1970, the Japanese student movement echoed the intensity of its international counterparts, occupying university campuses, protesting against the Vietnam War and the joint Security Treaty with the United States (ANPO), and debating philosophy, theory, strategy and tactics.

The scale of the radical student uprising was massive: in an attempt to prevent the Prime Minister’s visit to South Vietnam, anti-ANPO students battled the riot police for 10 hours outside of Haneda International Airport. The barricade tactics initiated at Nihon University spread to over 300 university and high school campuses across the country, with many continuing until the 1970s.

The US occupation and the student movement

As is true with any other movement, the historical background, political environment and civil liberties available determined the forms of the Japanese student movement. In the years leading up to WWII, Japan saw itself falling into the void of Fascism. But the Occupation 1945 – 53 implemented far-reaching civil liberties protections of the new constitution, the restructuring of the education system and the abolishment of the 1925 Police Law that was responsible for the wide spread persecution of Leftists.

Student associations formed all across Japan during the occupation. The student representatives elected along faculty lines in universities built federations of governing associations, and the national federation consolidated in 1948 as the All-Japan Federation of Student Self-Government Organizations, or the Zengakuren. With the legalization of the Left, the Japan Communist Party (JCP) disseminated its ideological orientation and nationalistic policy at the time—the promotion of democracy and economic recovery—by working closely with students’ self-governing organizations. JCP formed student cooperatives to provide food and supplies.

The Occupation reversed its course in Japan almost as soon as it promised civil liberties, restoring nationalists, war criminals and pre-war imperial conglomerates that had been purged earlier in order to increase competition with the communist block. Its attempt to purge communist faculty was met with heavy resistance from the students with large-scale protests, and the momentum prevented the government from passing legislation to allow the police into Universities until the brink of the second renewal of ANPO in 1970.

Zengakuren’s characteristic was defined not by the conflict between left and right but the antipathy between pro-JCP groups and the leftist groups opposing JCP. During the early years of the Occupation, JCP envisioned the students as a youth arm of a united front led by themselves, but with the emergence of the New Left, the ideological difference started to tear apart the political party and the radicalized students. Concerned with the issues of peace, anti-war, imperialism and the nation-state, the students’ top goal was stopping the renewal of the Joint Security Treaty (ANPO).

Radicalized Students and 1960 ANPO

Until the mid-60s, the ethnocentric, conservative and capitalist ruling party—the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)—enjoyed an abundant voter base amongst farmers, small businessmen and neighbourhood associations, whereas the JCP and the Socialist Party of Japan (SPJ) relied on students and labour unionists. Rapid economic growth and urbanization alienated individuals from their communities. In 1945, 28 per cent of the population lived in the city, but in 1970 this number leaped to 72 per cent. Among this figure, close to 50 per cent were between 15 and 34 years old. The average starting salary of this generation of people was around 80 dollars in 1968. The students were crammed by the academic industrial complexes in small living quarters, possessing a great deal of free time and anger.

Frustrated by the alienation wrought by rapid economic growth, the Vietnam War and the local derivatives of American Hegemonic power, the students renewed their interest in Marxist theories and their hatred for the JCP, whose nationalist policy was still stubbornly economic recovery. The students saw that democratic process on the street rather than putting their faith in political parties, and by 1968 the pro-JCP sects and the New Left sects expressed their political frustration by means of physical violence against the state and each other.

The Joint Security Treaty was first signed in 1951 during the occupation, and expressed the dynamics of the two countries at the time: Japan would subordinate itself to American military strategies while there were no specific clauses that would demand US come to Japan’s aid should a third-party attack. In the 1960s renewal, Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke aimed to redefine Japan as an equal partner with the US and leader of Asia. While the implication of the pre-1945 militarist legacy did not sit well with the already frustrated and alienated students, it was the introduction of Kishi’s government’s Police Duties Performance Law Bill to the Diet (Japan’s legislature) in the same political stroke that defined the tactics of the student organizations.

The draconian Police Bill was defeated by a coalition led by the Socialist Party, and Kishi would later admit that the police bill was a preparatory step to forcibly realize the renewal of Security Treaty, in order to counter the radical student movements. Within such an extreme political climate, Zengakuren’s tactics eventually elevated into what was described as “bodily tactics”: physical confrontations with the authority with sheer numbers of bodies. A Zengakuren group led a rally of about 10,000 into the compound of the Diet, and the clash between student radicals and the police led to the death of a Kimba Michiko and many injuries on June 15, 1960. Radical students equated the physical violence done to their bodies, especially Kimba’s death, to the legacies of Japan’s military past and ongoing American hegemony.  

Both the bodily tactics and the visual-political strategy worked in the short term: what happened in the compound of the National Diet led the US to question the Japanese government’s ability to maintain order, and cancelled Eisenhower’s visits while Kishi was ousted a month latter. But in the long term, the form laid down by the ANPO student movement would haunt the political limits of the subsequent participants in the student radical uprising.

1968: Nihon University and The Yasuda Incident

The student movement took the fight against oppression with a calling into question of the brutality of capitalism and imperialism. In the years 1965-68, students intensified their bodily tactics, and severed their umbilical core with the JCP, whose nationalistic economic tendency was seen by the New Left as the key elements of the failure of the ANPO movements. Zengakuren was split into three tendencies: the Minsei (pro-JCP), Sampa (anti-JCP), and the New Left radicals.

At the largest private university in the country, Nihon University, the sole administrator of the University monopolized decisions as well as suppressed student and faculty views and opinions. But scandals of the embezzlement of 2 billion yen of student fee and tax evasion, in the context of a radicalizing student movement, triggered an indefinite general strike. In 1968, 35,000 students barricaded the university demanding transparency, and the administrator was forced to attend negotiations inside the barricades. Frustrated with the “mass-produced” lessons created by the academic industrial complex, the students behind the barricades ran independently-run classes and invited guess speakers. Many activists recounted this six months of barricade as the happiest experience of their lives.

The barricade at Tokyo University was, on the contrary, grim. In January 1968, the Ministry of Health introduced a bill to oblige graduates to be registered as intern doctors, effectively forcing them to work in precarious conditions for a long period of time after years of studies and passing the national examination. The medical students staged a blockade style protest, but the lock down of the medical building prompted the university to illegally allow the police to come into the campus and punish students. This sparked widespread indignation and the whole campus was shut down, with the Yasuda auditorium barricaded.

The police invasion of this barricade was the notorious Yasuda incident in early 1969, where 8,500 riot police stormed the Yasuda “fortress” and arrested more than 600 people. The police were not the only enemy to the students inside the barricade. Chieko Kashiwazaki of a New Left group recounted that Minsei students and members of JCP tossing stones off the top of the building in an attempt to drive the campus alliance students into corridors to be arrested by riot police.

Adadchi Kazuhiro, a research assistant, appealed to his fellow activists inside the barricade who were are on the verge of giving up that is it not simply corruption they are fighting again but also for the social role of the university. He pleaded to them: the university industrial complex functions as a factory to produce workers for the private sector, and naturally the Pro-nation-state JCP elites and their pawns would wish to end this struggle.


The history of the Japanese student movement therefore contemplated the meaning of post -war democracy. From the ANPO struggles to battles of ‘68, the drive to assert itself against the violent imposition of either state repression or US imperialism never ceased. But the radical student movement began to fade in the 1970s as Japan continued its economic bloom and its complicity in the American imperial project. Participants of the struggles became filmmakers, lawmakers, with a few completing tomes on the labour movements while remaining in police custody until the mid 90s. But fifty years later, as new movements confront austerity, imperialism and police brutality, the legacy of 1968 continues.

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