Japan’s Turbulent Postwar Decades Foreword by John W. Dower for “The Provoke Generation: Rebels in a Turbulent Time”

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In these excerpts from Pulitzer-prize-winning MIT historian John W. Dower’s essay, Japan’s Turbulent Postwar Decades, Dower indicates that the protest movements that roiled university campuses in the mid- to late 1960s in the U.S. and Europe had their counterparts in Japan as well. In Japan, as elsewhere, these protests provoked the engagement, and even active participation of a number of seminal photographers. Dower explains the socio-political context of these manifestations:

Much writing on the “golden sixties,” as the decade came to be called, tends to focus on industrial policy and the emergence of a mass consumer society. This is understandable but misleading. Protests continued almost unabated and were often still targeted against militarization and subordination to U.S. Cold War policy, but also responded to a range of new crises created in part by myopic preoccupation with economic growth. At the same time, in Japan as in Europe and the United States, the mid-1960s also witnessed the emergence of a patchwork of New Left movements that were critical of the established “old left” parties such as the Socialists and Communists, with their hierarchical modes of operation and traditional definitions of political issues. Theorizing and existential angst proliferated, especially among university students reassessing the very meaning of protest in an affluent society. Factionalism deepened. Violence by both protestors and the police occurred at levels far exceeding the climax of the 1960 anti–security-treaty demonstrations. At the same time, non-violent and non-hierarchical protests attained new levels in both theory and practice.

Kazuo Kitai, Sanrizuka Protesters, 1969, from the series Sanrizuka, 1969-72 © the artist

Industrial pollution became a conspicuous target of grassroots protests, for instance, culminating in the passage of fourteen separate environmental protection laws by the so-called Pollution Diet in 1970. This was followed between 1971 and 1973 by four courtroom victories in cases involving victims of pollution diseases, the most famous (and heartbreakingly photographed) of which was the mercury poisoning of residents in Minamata, a fishing village in the southern island of Kyushu. While these anti-pollution campaigns faced establishment resistance, local participants were assisted by activist lawyers, doctors, scientists, and journalists as well as student and other nationwide support groups.

An even more protracted and dramatically photographed and filmed post-Olympics struggle that carried well into the 1970s involved an unprecedented alliance between conservative farmers and activist students protesting the government’s forced purchase of farmland to build a new international airport in Sanrizuka, a village outside metropolitan Tokyo. This was to be the largest single government project ever undertaken in Japan—greater than the bullet train and presumably a fitting emblem of the country’s exalted new stature.
In 1966, when the airport plan was announced, local farmers opposed to being forced from their property organized under the shorthand name Hantai Dōmei (the full name was Sanrizuka-Shibayama Rengō Kūkō Hantai Dōmei, or the Sanrizuka-Shibayama Union to Oppose the Airport). Their protests escalated in October 1967, when the first forcible land surveys began. Organized into brigades of elders, youths, women, and even children, the farmers crisscrossed their fields with trip-wires, confronted the surveyors with agricultural tools (sickles, pitchforks, and bamboo sticks), and bombarded them with human excrement. Militant students soon joined them, generally framing the struggle as inseparable from the state’s ascendant capitalism and militarism. (There was some fear the airport would become available to U.S. and Japanese military aircraft should another Cold War conflict closer to Japan occur.) Eventually, a number of students moved to the area on a permanent basis.

Hitomi Watanabe, from the series Tōdai Zenkyōtō, 1968-69 © the artist

Violent confrontations escalated to veritable pitched battles between 1971 and 1977, when the land surveys were succeeded by attempts to expropriate and clear property owned by still-resistant farmers. These clashes resulted in thousands of injuries and several deaths, of police as well as protestors. On the farmer-student side, the struggle involved erecting “solidarity huts,” barricades, forts, towers, and even underground bunkers and tunnels (partly inspired by the Vietcong resistance to U.S. forces in Vietnam). The state, in turn, mobilized thousands of helmeted riot police protected by visors and shields and armed with truncheons, tear gas, water cannons, cranes, bulldozers, and the like. The airport finally opened under the name Narita International Airport in May 1978 after a final climactic confrontation, seven years behind schedule and only one-third the size of the original plan: a shabby capstone to Japan’s high-growth “success story.”

Hitomi Watanabe, Tōdai Zenkyōtō, 1968-69 © the artist

Student participation in the Sanrizuka struggle had long-standing precedents. The Communist Party–affiliated Zengakuren federation (short for Zen Nihon Gakusei Jichikai Sō Rengō, or All-Japan League of Self-Governing Student Associations) dated back to 1948, when it emerged in opposition to the reverse course in U.S. occupation policy. Although Zengakuren had played a highly visible role in the anti–security treaty demonstrations in 1959 and 1960, by then it was already splintering into factions critical of the party’s orthodoxy and organizational rigidity. By the late 1960s, the number, names, and divergent positions of the resulting militant student groups—Minsei (affiliated with the Communist Party), anti-Stalinist, Trotskyist, post-Trotskyist, “true Marxist-Leninist,” Maoist, Socialist, anarchist, sui generis—had become difficult indeed for uninitiated observers to parse.