1968 in Japan: the student movement and workers' struggles

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ICC introduction

As we have already pointed out in several articles published in the International Review and in our territorial press, the events in France during May 1968 were only part of a much broader movement around the world.

We are publishing here an article from a comrade in Japan, which demonstrates clearly that this broader movement also had its counterpart there, despite the specific and difficult historic particularities of that country.

The future proletarian revolution will be internationalist and international or it will be nothing. It is one of the greatest responsibilities of internationalists around the world today to place their local experience firmly within the framework of world events, to understand the movement of the working class in any one place as being only a part, an expression of a greater whole, and to contribute to an international debate within the working class on the lessons of past events for the future of the struggle against a moribund capitalism. We therefore salute comrade Ken's effort to place the events of 1968 in Japan in both a historical and a global context. We support his conclusion wholeheartedly: "We would be satisfied if this brief summary reflection upon the Japanese "68" could assist in some way in the international coordination of the global working class (this was the most important thing then, and the most important thing now)."

There are several points in the article which are for us ambiguous either due to difficulties in translation or because of our own ignorance of Japanese history. We will highlight just some of them here, because we think that they are important elements for debate both among Japanese internationalists and more generally:

  1. It is clear that the workers' struggles saw many new features during this period: attempts at self-organisation, even at self-management, many of which had their parallels in Europe for example. It was inevitable at the time that the workers' should be influenced by the "socialist" and "communist" (ie Stalinist) parties and by trades unionist ideas; this seems to have given a certain importance to the SOHYO union. However it is unclear to us to what extent SOHYO was an expression of a real workers' movement in the form of wildcat strikes for example, which got derailed into an impossible attempt to set up a new union, or whether it was an attempt by the left fractions of the ruling class to create a more "radical" structure that could channel workers' discontent and struggles. What are the lessons to be drawn from the SOHYO experience in terms of organising workers' struggles today? What comparisons can we make with other workers' struggles around the world, particularly the massive strikes in Poland 1980?
  2. It is clear to us from talking to comrades in Japan that the degeneration of political infighting between the principle leftist groups and sects (which has apparently left as many as 100 dead and more than a thousand seriously injured over the years) has been profoundly traumatic for the political milieu in general. What lessons are to be drawn from this? Why is it that the "New Left" has been "forced into stagnation" as the comrade says? It seems to us that the new generation in Japan 1968 suffered from two handicaps: on the one hand, a tendency towards anti-American nationalism as a result of Japan's situation as a militarily occupied country, and on the other the lack of any left communist tradition which could serve as a reference point: the works of Luxemburg, Pannekoek, Gorter are virtually unknown and the left communist tradition represented by the Italian left is unheard-of.
  3. The comrade in one part of the text speaks of the "Vietnamese-Indochinese revolutionary war" and "revolutionary solidarity with the people of Vietnam and Asia". From our point of view, the war in Vietnam was an imperialist confrontation between the USA and the Vietcong, who were backed up either by China or Russia. Only very few young people who opposed the war in Vietnam developed their rejection of the war into a real internationalist position which rejects the participation in any imperialist war and calls for the class struggle against both sides in an imperialist conflict. It was a real tragedy of history, that all across the globe many young people were drawn into support of national liberation struggles, thinking that this would reinforce the struggle against "imperialism". Now with 40 years hindsight, it is vital to come to a deeper understanding of the nature of these wars at the time. Which balance sheet can be drawn of these so-called national liberation struggles?

We have wanted to keep this introduction as brief as possible, in order to reduce the problems of translation. There are clearly other questions raised in this article which it would be necessary to discuss, however we think that the three we have raised above are probably the most important. We hope that the publication of this article, with our comments, in English and in Japanese, will encourage an international debate that will contribute to a better understanding of the "Japanese ‘68" and a strengthening of the internationalist milieu in Japan itself. In this sense, "The world gets wider, but also smaller"!

ICC, 20 July 2008

Background History

The dissident movements which managed extraordinary significance in post-war history during the struggle against the AMPO (Mutual Cooperation and Security) treaty between the United States and Japan, and yet appeared to stagnate in the period immediately afterward, in fact maintained a constant mass base in the student self-governing organizations which had spread to universities across the country. In 1965, after a similar struggle against the treaty for normalization between Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK), the political season of the anti-war movement follows not long after, characterized by the struggles of the Zengakuren and the Zenkyoto and the 1970 anti-AMPO and Okinawa struggles.

Within the workers' movement, the SOHYO (General Council of Trade Unions of Japan) established itself in the course of leading the Mitsui Miike coal strike of 1959-60, which was the most important labor dispute in the post-war period, together with its participation in the struggle against AMPO in 1960, raising the demands for peace against war as well as a variety of democratic demands.

Besides the existing parliamentary parties, i.e. the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) and the Japanese Socialist Party (JSP), the student/worker organizations under their influence, and those trade unions under SOHYO, there were a variety of sects and organizations such as the Japan Communist League (BUND, the main section of the Zengakuren during the AMPO struggle in 1960), and the Japanese Revolutionary Communist League (under the Japanese Trotskyist Federation) which organized and participated in struggles.

These groups were organizations brought together through a critique of the USSR and Stalinism in the wake of the suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and critiques of the Japanese Communist party line

National university struggles, the Zenkyoto

As opposition to the Vietnam war grows on a world scale, the struggle in universities accelerates in Japan.

Nihon University, May 1968

Struggles are waged against student fee increases at Keio University in 1964, Waseda University in 1965 and Chuo University in 1966.

In 1968, the medical department at Tokyo University enter an indefinite strike against the "Doctor Registration law" (which would have extended the internship period of graduates by 2 years and introduced strict hierarchies in the workplace). A Student-body Struggle Committee (Zenkyoto) is assembled, an indefinite strike is declared and barricades set up by 10 academic departments. The next year in 1969, 8500 riot police attack the striking students, and the barricades at Yasuda lecture hall, among others, are cleared by force. More than 600 people are arrested inside Tokyo university. The University entrance exams of the same year for Tokyo University are cancelled as a result.

At Japan's largest private university at the time, Nippon University (Nichidai), instructor tax evasion in connection with unfair student entrance policies, as well as the discovery of over 2 billion yen (roughly 100 million dollars) of fees that have gone unaccounted for, sparks student struggle. In 1968, after an armed confrontation between right-wing/athletics students, an indefinite barricade strike is launched across the university. Over 35,000 people and students attend a mass negotiation session that the university director is forced to attend.

The student movements and the Zenkyoto came to be symbolized by these twin struggles at Todai and Nichidai University, and the movement spread to over 300 universities and high schools across the country. Blockades using barricades and student strikes continued up until the dawn of the 1970s, connecting with the anti-war movement, the anti-AMPO movement and the struggle in Okinawa which were peaking in the same period. These movements would take to the streets in columns.

The decisive difference between the Zengakuren and the Zenkyoto during the anti-AMPO struggles of the 1960s lies in the question of organization.

The Zengakuren is organized as its abbreviated name implies, an "All-Japan Federation of Students' Self-Governing Associations", being supported by a vertical organization beginning at the university level, down to department, to class, to individual (automatic membership for all students). In this sense, the Zengakuren was created in accord with the character of the "Potsdam Self-governing Associations" i.e. the top-down democratization brought about by the American occupying forces.

On the other hand, the Zenkyoto was premised on an extremely broad, free participation, quite the opposite of the self-governing associations, the Zengakuren or the party sectarians, and endeavored to be a mass movement based on direct democracy. From the start the Zenkyoto was a pluralist organization with a deeply parliamentarist character, centered around particular struggles. The majority of its constituents were known as ‘non-sect radicals', i.e. those who did not affiliate with particular political sects.

The movement against the war in Vietnam

Bearing the fruits of the 1960 AMPO, anti-war and anti-base struggles as well as the struggle against the ROK normalization treaty, a movement against the war in Vietnam began in Japan as well.

In 1965, an organization called Beheiren (meaning "Citizen's Union for Peace in Vietnam") was established. With no constitution nor member system of any sort, the movement depended on the independent initiative of its members, and spread nationally, eventually constituting over 300 groups.

The student movement at large, the Zengakuren, the Socialist Party, labor unions such as SOHYO and anti-war youth organizations were central to the movement, and a variety of struggles were developed against the war.

October 1967, sees the first phase of the struggle over Haneda airport and a struggle to prevent the then prime minister Eisaku Satou from visiting Southern Vietnam. In the melee, a Kyoto University student dies.

The same month: International anti-war day. Demonstrations and meetings held across the country to which 1.4 million people attend.

November, second phase of the struggle over Haneda airport (struggle to prevent the prime minister from visiting the US). Fierce fighting between the Zengakuren and riot squads over 10 hours. Nationally, more than 300 arrestees on this day alone.

January 1968, struggle to prevent the American nuclear submarine Enterprise from docking at Sasebo harbor.

February, mass meeting to prevent the construction of a new airport at Sanrizuka (now known as Narita International Airport). Farmers against the airport and students fight together for the first time. 3000 people battle the riot police.

February to March, struggle against the opening of Ojino war hospital. Physical struggles overflow into Tokyo city.

April, Okinawa day struggle. 250,000 people participate nationally. Subsequently, a ‘destructive activism prevention law' is passed against the Revolutionary Communist League (Chuukaku-ha) and the Communist League.

(May general strike in Paris)

October, unified international anti-war action. 4.5 million people participate nationally under the slogans of "against the war in Vietnam, for the return of Okinawa, stop the AMPO agreement". The Communist League and the Socialist Student's League attack the defense department; the Socialist Party, the Socialist Youth Liberation fraction attack the Diet and the American embassy and rush inside. The Chukaku-ha Socialist Student League (4th international) along with other people occupy Shinjuku station which is the critical supply point for American fuel tankers. Tens of thousands of people hold a mass meeting outside and around the station. The two national rail unions go on a limited strike. The Japanese government indicts participants for incitement to riot.

April 1969, Okinawa day struggle.

September, mass meeting establishes a national Zenkyoto federation. 26,000 students in 178 organizations at 46 universities nationwide meet in Tokyo.

October, international anti-war day. The Socialist Party, Communist party and SOHYO march together with 860,000 people. Under stiff conditions of repression, the various parties of the New Left engage in armed struggle around Tokyo. Police departments and police boxes are attacked. Tactics escalate with the organized use of molotov cocktails as well as explosives. Over 1500 people are arrested.

In the same month, the national rail workers, followed by 4 million industrial workers in 67 unions plan a 24 hour strike in November.

These struggles continue into the anti-AMPO struggle and the Okinawan struggle of 1970.

The worker's movement and other struggles

At the height of the 1960s economic expansion, the Japanese workers' movement moved into a period of constant growth centered around the Socialist Party, the Communist party and the SOHYO union, while engaging with a variety of political problems such as the place of the Soviet Union and the "Socialist Bloc", the progress of the anti-imperialist (anti-American) struggle and nationally, the AMPO, Okinawa and anti-war struggles. Labor disputes and strikes spiked after 1968 (in terms of numbers of disputes and participants), peaking in 1974. In this period, the national spring labor offensive of 1974 (2,270,000 workers in 71 unions on strike, winning a 32.9% increase in wages), the 1975 strike for the right to strike (led chiefly by the KOROKYO [Federation of Public Corporation and Government Enterprise Workers'Union] and the national railway unions), described as the second largest post-war struggle, and other struggles were fought.

The New Left sects raised objectives such as "creating a class-based workers movement", and set about intervening in existing workers' vanguards and creating left-wing factions within them. These sects also aimed for an independent direction involving the organization of unorganized lower class workers as well as those working at smaller corporations, creating regional labor unions, and attempting autonomous production and self-management.

In 1965, the Socialist Party-affiliated Anti-war Coordinating Committee (established to oppose the war in Vietnam and stop the Japan-Korea normalization treaty) managed to expand on a large scale under the slogans of "autonomy, originality and unity" without involving labor unions or top-down organizations, however this expansion was riven with the hegemony struggles of sects in the same way as the Zenkyoto movement not soon afterwards.

While the anti-AMPO, anti-war/anti-base struggles, the Okinawa struggle and the Sanrizuka struggle were constantly fought, the New Left sects began to devote their energy to single-issue struggles such as immigration struggles (for a refugee recognition law as well), solidarity with Koreans and Chinese people living in Japan, solidarity with the people of the ASEAN countries, the women's liberation movement, the Buraku liberation movement and movements of the handicapped.

Organized at the same time were regional struggles, anti-pollution struggles such as the fight against the Minamata disease (where mercury from a local factory poisoned thousands), the anti-nuclear movement, environmental movements, day laborer struggles (at Sanya, Kamagasaki and so on) as well as the ongoing struggle against the emperor system.

The fruits of "68"

Today, the post-war power structure, the so-called "1955 system", has "collapsed". We have moved from the one-party dictatorship of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to a two-party system that includes the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The Socialist Party, which acted a left foot of the political rule of the bourgeois, has dismantled, the diet seats of the Japanese Communist Party have decreased severely and the influence of the existing left organizations has dropped quite remarkably.

The Japanese-American system is all the more powerful and American bases or institutions exist at 135 locations nationally (20% of the main island in Okinawa is occupied by the US army). Troop dispatches to the Iraq war and "threats" from the DPRK have served as pretexts for the accelerated reform of the peace constitution centered around "article 9".

In terms of a workers' vanguard, SOHYO has dismantled and merged with RENGO (the Japanese Trade Union Confederation). New Left sects which had worked towards the creation of "revolutionary workers' parties to replace the Socialist/Communist parties" and a "class-based worker's movement" are being forced into stagnation.

Considering this, it is important to decipher the meaning of 1968, which served as a junction in world history. For ourselves, the Japanese working class, it is particularly meaningful to draw up a balance sheet of Japan's "68" from the perspective of the international communist movement.

  1. The accomplishments and the limits of the JCP during both the period when the Japanese branch of the COMINTERN was active, and the post-war period in which it was legalized, seeking "sovereign independence in defense of scientific socialism" and shifting to a parliamentary road.
  2. Criticism of Stalinism and the JCP and their result, the New Left and the birth and stagnation of Japanese Trotskyism.

With these questions in the forefront, to what extent does Japan's "68" fought above all by students and young workers connect with the French and American "1968s", the "Prague spring", the Italian "Hot Autumn" of 69, the huge Polish strike developed over the winter of 70 to 71 which gave birth to "Solidarity", and the Vietnamese-Indochinese revolutionary war?

These are questions we must continue to examine.

Japan's "68" was a struggle which questioned the real meaning of "post-war democracy", which included struggles by workers and students for themselves, and refused the future proposed by the existing left, Stalinists and the Socialists. It was a new struggle in which the Japanese working class attempted to shape the future by asserting its own hegemony. This "68" was a collection of struggles in search of proletarian internationalism, in particular revolutionary solidarity with the people of Vietnam and Asia, which attempted to realize a truly peaceful world in which prejudice, repression and exclusion of any sort was eradicated.

In the end, its ascendant period was unable to exceed the framework of rapid democratization and parts of the movement turned to mere terrorism. Unable to win the support of over 50 million workers, the aims of the struggles went largely unrealized and remain unfulfilled today.

However we are conscious of the systematic changes to Japanese politics, economy and society after "68".

Abolition of the foreigner registration and fingerprinting law (obligation of all foreigners on Japanese soil to be fingerprinted). Enactment of the "Gender Equal Opportunity Law". Slowly growing support for eliminating barriers for the handicapped and normalization (this country only formalized a law against discrimination towards the handicapped in 2004 (!) with the "Handicapped Law". This law states that "No person may engage in any conduct which infringes on the rights and well-being of a handicapped person because that person is handicapped"). Unlike that time in which the struggle against the Minamata disease was waged, today officials and companies stumble over each other to announce the themes of ecology, energy-saving and post-pollution. Movements for human rights, environmental preservation and regional struggles have transformed into NGOs and NPOs (non-profit organizations), which organize towards those goals. And so on.

Things that seemed at the time so unrealizable have to a certain extent been realized (disregarding to what ends they are used). Of course most of these gains have been "democratic" demands and symbolize nothing other than compromises and harmony with the enemy class. Recognizing the prevalence of class collaboration in the situation of Japanese capitalism at present can help us move towards real victories without our guard down.

However, "68" as a social movement still bears effects even today. The seeds of "68", which went beyond a framework of counter-power and resistance culture to spread to all of society, will certainly continue to foment changes in the future.

Thirty years after the crossroads of 68, we would be satisfied if this brief summary reflection upon the Japanese "68" could assist in some way in the international coordination of the global working class (this was the most important thing then, and the most important thing now).

To all our comrades who struggle in Europe:

The world gets wider, but also smaller. We await real opportunities to organize alongside you.

(23/03/2008 Ken)


Historic events: 


History of the workers' movement: