Prestigious university in Tokyo has become a battleground in a war
over freedom of political expression
By DAVID McNEILL
June 9, 2009
Illegal arrests, forced expulsions, "kidnappings" by security police
and beatings by hired thugs. No, it's not another dispatch from a
violent banana republic. Those accusations come from the leafy
back-streets of Ichigaya, Tokyo, home to a branch campus of the
prestigious Hosei University.
Hosei authorities and a group of students are locked in a poisonous
struggle that has turned the campus into something resembling a
Entrances are guarded by newly installed CCTV cameras and jittery
guards equipped with Bluetooth headsets. Notices have been published
at many sites naming and shaming "troublemakers" who have been
expelled, and the police are on call in case things get out of hand.
A provisional injunction forbids students from "loitering, putting up
banners and making speeches within 200 meters" of the campus.
Since the dispute began three years ago, 107 students have been
arrested and 24 indicted, some of whom awaited trial in detention
centers for up to six months. Last Friday, five more students were
formally charged with offenses including trespassing and obstructing
the police. Another is being kept in detention for at least two more weeks.
Supporters say some have been framed using a prewar law designed to
crush labor protests. "They ripped down some of the notices
identifying them as having being expelled," explains Tatsuo Suzuki,
lawyer for the students. "And for this, they are being prosecuted
under a notorious law aimed at punishing physical violence? It is
absolutely outrageous and illegal."
The origins of the dispute go back to March 2006, when Hosei began
removing fliers and other material promoting the activities of a
radical student group from campus notice boards. A fragment of the
once-powerful Japanese student movement, the group had criticized
university policy, along with the usual targets of the left: the
military and the business-friendly Liberal Democratic- New Komeito government.
Campus security guards subsequently detained 29 students, sparking a
series of rallies and lockouts culminating in two-day demonstrations
last year in which police were invited on campus and 38 students were
arrested. Another large demonstration of 1,500 people took place on
April 24 this year, at which six students were arrested.
Ordinary students not involved in the protests were swept up by
over-zealous cops, say observers.
"My friend Makoto Masui was detained because he was taking
photographs," recalls a third-year student at the university who
requested anonymity. Masui was reportedly held in a Tokyo detention
center for 10 days and later expelled from Hosei. The university
published his and several other students' names on dozens of campus
notice boards, forbidding entry.
"Everybody is afraid to talk about what's happening because the
university is so over the top. Lives are being destroyed. They invent
reasons to expel people then arrest you if you protest. It's really
scary. I just want to graduate and leave."
Activists allege that Hosei used thugs from a private security firm
to rough up protesters. "They're just gangsters hired by the
university," says Yoshihisa Uchiyama, a former Hosei student and
political activist who was expelled in 2006.
Photographs distributed by Uchiyama to journalists at the Japan
Foreign Correspondents' Club last week show heavy-set men looming
over an apparently unconscious student during a campus demonstration.
Some students have reportedly been grabbed by private guards and
handed over to Tokyo detectives.
Those tactics appear to have radicalized more students than the small
core of activists they initially targeted. Supporters from Hiroshima,
Osaka and other parts of the country protest every day outside the
Ichigaya campus. Several have also been arrested, including Reiko
Goto, a student at Osaka City University who claims she was roughed
up while in detention for almost six months.
About 170 lawyers have reportedly signed a petition protesting the
student detentions and the resurrection of legislation from less
enlightened times the Law Concerning Punishment of Physical
Violence. The rarely used 1926 law targets group violence and
intimidation and was a key piece of pre-fascist legislation, claims
Suzuki. "It's incredible that it is still on the books at all, let
alone being used against students."
Remarkably, the fracas has stirred almost zero media interest. Hosei,
meanwhile, refuses to give interviews or comment on any of the
accusations, referring journalists instead to a statement on its Web site.
The statement says action was taken to stop disruptions by members of
Zengakuren, or the All-Japan Federation of Students' Self-Government
Associations, a leftwing group set up in 1948 that famously led
student opposition to the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Hosei acknowledges the historically positive role played by the
federation but claims it has since become an "empty shell controlled
. . . by a non-university political sect" that has interfered with
teaching and committed incidents of assault and verbal threats on
members of staff. The sect has also "infiltrated" the university's
Cultural League, which organizes on-campus club activities, bringing
in "outsiders" who continue to noisily protest with loudspeakers.
We will "deal rigidly" with such acts, adds the statement, and
"maintain a firm attitude against trouble-making and any illegal acts
disturbing university business."
Observers say the "political sect" is the Japan Revolutionary
Communist League, or Chukaku-ha, a radical Marxist group perhaps most
famous for a 1984 flamethrower attack on the Tokyo headquarters of
the Liberal Democratic Party. Despite its violent history, Chukaku-ha
is pretty much a spent force, known mainly today for peaceful
campaigning against military installations.
Noisy propagandizing by leftwing factions is still a minor feature of
life on a few campuses in Japan, notably Waseda University and the
University of Tokyo.
Hosei does not suggest that Chukaku-ha violence caused the initial
dispute. So why has it decided to crack down on a tiny group of
revolutionaries well past its active peak? Apart from the charge of
"disruption," the university is not saying. Uchiyama and his
colleagues believe the reason is student resistance to university policies.
"Until three years ago, students were free to distribute pamphlets
and put up items on the notice board. That changed when we said that
the university is transforming itself into an instrument of
moneymaking," he says, noting a steady rise in tuition fees. "It is
clearly a violation of freedom of speech and independent political activities."
Graduates of Hosei say, however, that the student activists could be
disruptive. "I saw them once barging into a classroom to campaign
against something or other," recalls Masami Fukada, who graduated
three years ago. "They just seemed completely different to everyone
else studying there."
Students unconnected to the dispute say much of the campaigning went
over their heads anyway. "The information on their flyers was a bit
extreme: 'Privatization of university facilities is the road to war,'
'Topple the Aso administration' that kind of stuff," said the
anonymous student. "Most of us thought: 'What the hell are they going
on about?' But you should be able to criticize things in a university
to some extent."
Ironically perhaps, in its Web site statement Hosei insists that it
seeks to develop among its students "strong character" based on the
spirit of "freedom and progress" and puts "great value on freedom of
thoughts, belief and expression." It says the university "cannot
allow campus open spaces to be overpowered by small groups who seek
to monopolize them."
"Pamphlet distribution and the setting up of signboards on campus are
not permitted by persons from outside the university in the name of
freedom of expression. The rule is stipulated in order to guarantee
freedom of expression for (all) students and fair and efficient usage
of common space."
The war of words could be the basis for a discussion not confined
to Japan on how far universities should go in allowing on-campus
political activity. But Hosei has retreated behind the rhetorical
barricades, megaphones have replaced debate and dozens of students
have been criminalized. The media has so far declined to adjudicate
or even report what is happening.
"Japan's press chooses to believe that the student movement is dead,"
says Suzuki. "That's why they're not writing about this. What is
happening at Hosei shows that this is not the case. We are at a
turning point in the student movement."