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Japanese students join and learn from UC Berkeley protest

on March 5, 2010

Kenya Suzuki is envious of how UC Berkeley students can speak out against the university administration without necessarily being arrested.  Suzuki was arrested at Nakano Station in central Tokyo in July, 2008, after organizing a gathering to call for changes at the private Hosei University.  “Thirty security police officers jumped at me and I got arrested,” said Suzuki, 23-year-old student at Hiroshima University in Japan.

Protests against budget cuts at the University of California are attracting student activists from around the globe. German, Korean and Japanese students joined UC Berkeley students in the picket lines Thursday, March 4.  Suzuki is one of 10 Japanese students from Zengakuren, or the All-Japan Federation of Students’ Self-Governing Associations, who flew from Japan to attend protests at UC Berkeley.

“We do not even have the right to put out signboards or hand out flyers if it speaks negatively about the university administration,” said Suzuki, who was prosecuted and jailed for eight months for handing out flyers outside Hosei University.  He was charged with trespassing, even though he was handing out flyers outside of the campus boundaries.

Suzuki spent eight months in jail for handing our flyers outside of the Hosei campus.

At Hosei University, known for its student political activism, 118 students have been arrested since 2006 for criticizing the University for “privatizing student money.”  According to Zengakuren, one third of the total assets of Hosei University are spent on financial speculation to raise money, and approximately $30 million was lost in 2009. Students who failed to pay tuition, however, were expelled from the university.  Zengakuren also maintains that Hosei University installed 150 surveillance cameras, barbed wire and hired a special security force to protect the school.

Some Japanese students have been detained for organizing a gathering, and do not have access to their own lawyers.  At Hosei University, Suzuki said, students are not allowed to use microphones to make public speeches, and cultural club activities that are critical of the university are discouraged. Security forces are hired to prevent those political activities from happening within the campus.

“Japanese universities are treating students as a product that brings in money.  Some college administrators are afraid of student activism that protests against their privatization and they try to quash it, even by cooperating with the police,” said Suzuki, who looks like any other Japanese student, wearing skinny hipster jeans and with his hair dyed light brown.

The 10 students from Zengakuren were invited by Claire Keating, an activist for the Third World Assembly, a political group that advocates for working class people of color. She attended the 2009 International Labor Conference in Japan, where she learned of the arrest of 118 students. “What we have here [in California] is terrible, but they [Japanese students] don’t even have the right to free speech,” said Keating, a graduate of UC Berkeley, who was at the protest in front of the Sather Gate on Thursday morning.

Japanese college campuses used to be hotbeds of political activism, mainly led by Zengakuren, which is influenced by Trotskyism and anti-Stalinism.  Zengakuren, which was born out of the students’ general strike against the Korean War and the Red Purge by the allied forces [which occupied Japan after the World War II], was active along with its splinter groups in the 1960s. It was especially successful in mobilizing students to organize political activities, such as the 1960 Ampo struggle, or protests against the revision of Japan-US Security Treaty.

The student movement resurged in the late 1960s because of the war in Vietnam, and the Japan-US treaty that was renewed in 1970.   Some student Zengakuren activists, wearing helmets, marched to the entrance bridge of Tokyo’s Hanneda Airport and tried to prevent the visit of then-Prime Minister Eisaku Sato in 1967.  One thousand student demonstrators clashed with 200 police officers and one student was killed.  At the same time, on college campuses like Tokyo University, Japan’s public education institutions became a battleground for students opposed to the renewal.   Japanese college campuses were thrown into chaos, with students wearing helmets and swinging sticks against riot police.  Some student organizations encouraged guerilla activities, such as throwing Molotov cocktails.

Some student activists were influenced by different splinter groups of the Japanese Communist Party. The Japan Revolutionary Communist League started violent infighting because of differences in ideas, causing more public distrust of student activism.  By 1975, the number of deaths caused by infighting had grown to 16.

Student activism lost its support from the Japanese public as protesters’ activities radicalized and Japan became more affluent.  University administrators, including those at Hosei University, started keeping a tighter grip on student activities.  Today on Japanese college campuses, it’s hard to spot activists because students do not see campus political activities as an effective way to send a message, or they see it as less cool to do so.

Japan is currently experiencing a deep recession triggered by the collapse of Wall Street last summer.  The unemployment rate in January was one of the highest in Japanese history, at 4.9 percent.  Even companies such as Sony and Toyota are laying off people, and there are not enough jobs for college graduates.  Yet there have been no demonstrations or strikes by college students, as there have been at UC Berkeley.

Horaguchi calls for freedom of speech at the Hosei campus.

“I want college students to know that they have the power to change society,” said Tomoko Horaguchi, a Hosei University student, who was arrested for handing out flyers at Hosei along with five other students in mid-February.  Horaguchi, who was also at the Berkeley protest, said her charge was forcible obstruction of business — in this context, “university business.”  Horaguchi said university administrators saw her activities as an obstacle to soliciting more students.  “We did not say anything when the poice grilled us, and they couldn’t find sufficient evidence to prosecute us. It was our victory,” said Horaguchi.

While experiencing the protests at UC Berkeley, Suzuki was surprised by how the politically active students, and those who are usually less politically involved, were united in protesting against budget cuts and fee hikes, and how freely they expressed their ideas.  “Maybe there are some things we can learn from the protest at UC Berkeley, so that we can get more students involved in activities to change our colleges for the better,” said Suzuki.


  1. Fabio on March 9, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    Great report on the militant delegation from Japan for M4 protests!

  2. Angela J. Bass on March 10, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    Awesome job on this story, Ms. Mie. Very enlightening.

  3. School Days « sungypsy blog on April 23, 2010 at 10:57 am

    […] “loitering, putting up banners and making speeches within 200 metres” of the campus. This has led to many arrests and detentions and it was these “unjust punishments” that today’s, larger, rally was all about. […]

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