Episode 466 – Rebels Without a Cause, Part 2

This week, for the final episode of 2022: the Zenkyoto movement arrives at Japan’s largest private school. Plus: how did a movement that grew so big so quickly fall apart just as fast?


Andrews, William. Dissenting Japan: A History of Japanese Radicalism and Counterculture from 1945 to Fukushima.

Eiji, Oguma. “Japan’s 1968: A Collective Reaction to Rapid Economic Growth in an Age of Turmoil.” The Asia-Pacific Journal 13, No 12 (March, 2015)

Kapur, Nick. Japan at the Crossroads: Conflict and Compromise after Anpo. 


Zenkyoto activists on the Nihon University grounds.
Akita Akehiro, the leader of the Nihon University Zenkyoto.
Nihon University students doing the ‘snake dance’; the movement is intended to clog streets and make it impossible for police to clear the area given the press of people.
An overhead view of a mass Zenkyoto meeting at Nihon University.

These two documentaries provide an account of the events of the Zenkyoto at Nihon University, put together by former Zenkyoto activists. It’s in Japanese, but some of the footage is worth a look even if you don’t know the language.


I think that, had you been running some sort of gambling parlor in 1968 and taking odds on the likely location of a college campus rebellion, Nihon University would have been one of the worst bets you could offer.

For those of you not familiar with it, Nihon University is a private school in Tokyo, founded back in 1889 by one of the former leaders of the early Meiji government Yamada Akiyoshi. Like most of Tokyo’s other major schools, the university is split between several different campuses across the sprawling Tokyo metro area.

None of this innured it to student radicalism, of course; Waseda University was also a private school in Tokyo founded in the Meiji period, and was so dominated by student radicalism–and split between different sects of politically active students–that the school was jokingly referred to as a factional department store.

No, Nihon University had other things going for it that made the place an unlikely site for student rebellion. For one thing, the school was massive–over 90,000 students in 1968, meaning that one out of every ten college students in Japan went to Nihon University. And within that gigantic student body, the various radical student factions –like the Zengakuren, or the Communist Party-affiliated Minsei youth league–had barely made a dent, a fact that the university administration touted as a hallmark of their success. Indeed, even the small number of student radicals on campus were more likely to sing the school fight song than socialist or communist songs like the Internationale during their rallies.

However, the Nihon University administration was, in the time honored mold of a certain type of university administrator, taking credit for a lack of radicalization that they in fact had very little to do with in the first place.

In fact, what drove the lack of political radicalization among the Nihon University student body was its demographics more than anything else. Nihon University had a reputation closer to how state schools are often talked about in the US–good, sensible education intended to allow working class families to make the leap into white collar jobs, or at least the upper levels of the blue collar sector. Thus, most students at Nihon University were more concerned with fulfilling familial expectations than with politics.

But if the Nihon University administration didn’t deserve credit for the minimal levels of political radicalization before 1968, they absolutely did deserve credit for driving student activism during and afterwards.

Why that is has a bit to do with the reputation the university administration, led by President Furuta Jujiro, had cultivated. Nihon University had a pretty substantial endowment–as most private universities do–to fund its activities. Furuta was committed to growing that endowment–something else university presidents are often charged with doing, so nothing out of the ordinary so far.

But Furuta chose methods to do this that were, to put it mildly, unpopular. First, he cut costs as much as he could in terms of faculty and campus costs–cheap buildings, poorly maintained, housing large numbers of overpacked classes taught by underqualified instructors.

Second, he raised tuition–something most private universities in Japan were doing at the time. If you’re American, you’re probably used to the idea of private schools having more prestige than public ones, but in Japan it was largely the other way around in the 1960s–public schools like Tokyo University had far more prestige, and their substantial government subsidies made them cheaper to boot. But private schools had picked up a lot of new students in the 1960s as the economy rebounded, especially in high tech sectors–and most of that was absorbed by private schools which raised their tuitions to cover costs. By quite a bit, in fact–the average private school tuition in Japan jumped from around 24k yen a year in 1960 to 67k in 1968.

So far, not too unusual–and no I’m definitely not working out anything from my experience teaching at an underfunded university in this episode, thanks for asking. But what really set Nihon University apart was Furuta’s third method of building the university’s wealth. He spent a great deal of the saved money on real estate investments around the rapidly growing city of Tokyo, buying properties under the university’s name, leasing them, and selling them as needed to help financially strengthen the university. This practice was so common that some students began to jokingly refer to the school as Nihon Fudousan–Nihon Real Estate–instead of Nihon University.

But this practice didn’t really provoke much beyond grumbling about administration priorities–after all, Nihon University was still a decently affordable private school representing a gateway into middle class status for working families. That made it very popular; in 1968, the university had a 50% acceptance rate. Nothing much came of the university’s unusual spending habits–at least, not until February, 1968. In that month, Tokyo’s Tax Office announced an investigation into Nihon University’s books, and what they found was frankly astonishing.

The books had been cooked–not just cooked, in fact, but burned to a crisp (to really belabor the metaphor). But it’s a level of corruption that really requires an overwrought metaphor to convey–2 BILLION yen was missing, likely embezzled by university leadership. That is, for those of you playing along at home, 5.5 million dollars in 1968 US currency, which would be just over $47 million today.

The result was, naturally enough, a massive scandal. One member of the university accounting department went on the lam and had to be chased down by the cops over several months. Another committed suicide, leaving behind a note professing their innocence.

And of course, student outrage was tremendous. These were, again, students primarily from blue collar families who had paid university tuition–tens of thousands of yen at a time when a 24 hour shift as a construction worker would net you a thousand yen tops–out of a sense of aspiration for a better future. And now their money was being used to make others rich at their expense.

By May of 1968, as the investigation into the university dragged on, students had begun putting up fliers and holding protests on campus denouncing the administration, led by the small number of Zengakuren and Minsei students on campus. These protests were, and I cannot emphasize this enough, pretty small overall, which is what makes president Furuta’s response to them utterly baffling.

Furuta decided to reach out to the cops and request the intervention of riot police–at the same time calling on members of the school’s athletic clubs (generally dominated by right-wing students) to attack the protestors.

This certainly worked in the short term–the school’s martial arts clubs in particular took up the call to beat down the protests with substantial glee–but proved utterly stupid and counterproductive in the longer term.

The images of their classmates being beaten by the police and fellow students was enough to drive Nihon University students into organizing their own Zenkyoto–short, remember, for Zengaku Kyoutou Kaigi, or All-Campus Joint Struggle Committee.

The aim of the Zenkyoto was straightforward–getting the school to admit to its wrongdoing with financial misappropriation, as well as taking responsibility for its foolish choice in attacking legitimate student protests.

Now, before we get too deep into this, I want to briefly put a pin in things to go over some terms from last week, because I imagine many of them were new to you and it never hurts to refresh these things. Specifically, to understand how all this is going down, we need to understand the ideas of the jichikai, the Zengakuren, and the Zenkyoto.

So first, the jichikai, or “self-governing council.” These are the equivalent of student government’s in the USA, but they operate a bit differently. First, though these councils did have presiding officers, every single student in the school was enrolled in them–making them a venue for student direct democracy, and thus harder to control for school administrations. Jichikai also received funding from every student’s tuition payments that was not dependent on approval from the administration (at least, not in theory), giving them substantial financial independence.

These jichikai were entirely local to a specific university–but there were attempts to unite them across campuses into a broader student movement. That’s where we get to the Zengakuren, with which we spent a great deal of time last week. The Zengakuren began as a method for the Communist Party to influence the goings on of Japan’s student movement–the party would attempt to set up Zengakuren affiliates at universities around the country, and those local Zengakuren would try to build up a following in the university’s specific jichikai–thus giving the communist party a powerful on-campus ally.

The theory was solid, but in the mid-1950s the communist party began to lose control of the Zengakuren movement, and in the early 60s the Zengakuren itself began to break apart into competing factions over ideological issues. By 1968, jichikai over Japan would be affiliated with one or the other of the various Zengakuren factions based on the politics of the student body (or, less charitably, on whichever faction was most popular)–or with no faction at all.

Finally, there’s the Zenkyoto. The term Zenkyoto was used nationally, but there was no national Zenkyoto movement in the way that there were national Zengakuren movements of the various factions. Instead, these were entirely campus specific bodies–but they were often supported by the local jichikai, and by extension the dominant Zengakuren factions of that jichikai.

However, the politics of your average Zenkyoto member were very different from the Zengakuren. The Zengakuren national student movement was generally, in one way or another, very closely tied to Marxism as a philosophy even if many of its factions were opposed to the Japanese Communist Party specifically. Thus, Zengakuren members tended to be concerned with how they fit into a broader revolutionary movement–even if, again, that movement was not spearheaded specifically by the JCP.

By contrast, the Zenkyoto tended to be radically individualistic as an idea. Zenkyoto members were very influenced by “New Left” ideology that rejected the class- and organization-based framework of what they called the “Old Left”–essentially, communist and socialist parties as well as unions, which they saw as requiring members to subordinate their individual agency to the collective. The Zengakuren also embraced this rhetoric to an extent, hence its ambivalent relationship with the existing communist and socialist movements in Japan.

The Zenkyoto and the New Left were, by comparison, very focused on individualism and agency in their rhetoric. The guiding light of the movement was the term shutaisei, roughly, “autonomy” or “agency.” Membership in the Zenkyoto–and protest itself–was about expressing your agency as an individual and your personal convictions rather than your faith in any specific ideology. As one Zenkyoto student put it: “I feel it necessary for each one of us to establish separate identities as distinct from one another before we can enter into a relationship of solidarity. But even then we should constantly be aware of the fact that ‘I am I’ and ‘you are you’, and that you and I should not be put together to form any stereotyped category. This is why I am repelled by Minsei (the communist youth league) and the JCP. The cause for my revulsion lies not so much in their revolutionary tactics as in their habit of disregarding separate identities.”

Why does all this matter? Because it meant the “two Zens”, so to speak, both had reasons to work together–after all, they both got a lot of support from the campus jichikai–and substantial tension between them. Many Zengakuren-affiliated students wanted to use campus activism to try and drive the jichikai and local Zenkyoto away from focusing on narrow, campus specific interests and towards more national and overtly political activism.

Meanwhile, the Zenkyoto often had a lot of support from “nonpori”–a term derived from English referring to “non-political” students who were not affiliated with the Zengakuren and who didn’t want to see the Zenkyoto move towards that style of political activism.

It also meant that often, Zengakuren-affiliated students involved in a campus Zenkyoto would try to push one of those “nonpori” students into a leadership role. Why? Because putting someone like that in a leadership role would make the Zenkyoto more appealing for other non-political students, making them more likely to support the Zenkyoto–and possibly be radicalized by the experience.

This is, in fact, what happened with Nihon University, where the spokesman for the Zenkyoto was the nonpori student Akita Akehiro.

Why him specifically? Because he’d emerged early in May of 1968 as a skillful speaker and leader–in particular, he hit upon the brilliant idea of converting the amount of money the school had embezzeled–two billion yen, an almost inconceivable amount for most–into something the students could actually comprehend. The administration had, in Akita’s words, stolen 30,000 yen per student–and that was a number that could actually be made sense of in terms of their daily lives.

To be fair, Akita and the Zenkyoto were also operating from a pretty strong position in general. It was clear that some level of wrongdoing had been committed by the school administration, even if the matter was still under investigation. When Furuta refused to admit to any wrongdoing, it did not take long for the Zenkyoto to respond; by June, 1968, the group had called a campus strike and set up barricades, and by July most of the other campus groups–including several faculty departments–had declared their support for the strike.

The summer of 1968 devolved into a bitter standoff. Akita’s approach with the Zenkyoto was to shurt down the university with the strike and try to use the disruption to force President Furuta and the Nihon University administration to the bargaining table.

Furuta’s response, meanwhile, was to try to wait things out–and in the interim to encourage boy the police and right wing students to continue attacking the Zenkyoto barricades in the hope of physically dispersing them.

The stalemate continued into September, by which point every single department of the University was supporting the strike. Despite months of literal street battles between riot police, right wing students, and left wing students, the barricades remained in place–in the few instances where the police made progress in removing them, Zenkyoto reinforcements showed up to push the police back and replace them.

Indeed, Nihon university students were so battle-hardened, so to speak, that the Nihon University Zenkyoto even volunteered to dispatch “reinforcements”, so to speak, to the Tokyo University one during its pitched battles with the cops–see last week for more on that.

The violence was constant and intense–one cop was even killed during a fight, a comparative rarity despite the constancy of the violence. By September 30th, President Furuta was starting to feel the heat–and decided to give in at least a bit to the student demands.

In particular, he agreed to Akita’s stipulation that he submit to a mass bargaining session with the Zenkyoto–that session had over 30,000 attendees in a packed auditorium while Furuta attempted to negotiate with them.

It took 12 hours–with the negotiations being led primarily by Akita–but Furuta finally caved in. He admitted to the misuse of college funds, and apologized for calling in the police against the original protests in May. He even agreed to get the board of the university to sign a pledge apologizing for the incident and offering their mass resignations.

It looked like the Zenkyoto had won–but that was the thing. It only looked that way. Furuta had, in fact, been lying out of his mind when he said that he had agreed to the student’s terms; as soon as he got out of the bargaining session, he reneged on his promises and requested renewed help from the police.

Furuta seems to have gambled, not incorrectly, that the Nihon University Zenkyoto would eventually run out of steam if left to its own devices. The police couldn’t drive the student occupiers away, but they could put constant pressure on the students–and given that pressure, the students were the more likely ones to crack.

And this is, in fact, exactly what happened. The struggles between the two sides resumed, but the Zenkyoto had essentially lost the initiative. Furuta clearly was not going to back down, and the Zenkyoto could not force him to–all it could do was try to endure a siege by the police. And ultimately, all endurance has its limits.

The Zenkyoto of Nihon University, like its counterpart at the University of Tokyo, labored on until early 1969. The entire 68-69 school year was essentially canceled, but by the time the new 69-70 school year started in April, things were back to normal–minus over 1700 students who had been arrested by the police, including Akita Akehiro.

Furuta Jujiro would never resign, though his tenure would not last very long–in 1970, he was hospitalized with lung cancer and died shortly thereafter.

The Nihon University and Tokyo University campus occupations were the largest and generally best known from this time period, but they were not the only ones. Large-scale student strikes, complete with their own Zenkyoto, took place at Meiji, Chuo, Waseda, and Keio Universities in Tokyo, as well as Kyoto University. Scores more affected universities across Japan–and in some cases, even high schools, though the high school Zenkyoto were never as active or well-known (or successful in shutting down campuses).

The Zenkyoto movements of 1968-69 were enormously disruptive in the academic life of Japan. In total, 10% of university freshmen around the country did not attend their classes due to the strikes; 107 of Japan’s 377 four year universities were affected to some degree by student protests starting in 1968, and only 47 of those 107 disputes were resolved by the end of the calendar year.

Those numbers actually went up the next year, too–by the summer of 1969, police records indicated 165 campuses with major student disputes, of which around half had at least one building barricaded. Reports from the same era suggested that the anti-Japanese Communist Party sects of the Zengakuren alone could mobilize over a quarter of a million students to fight in street battles.

The campus disputes, and the Zenkyoto movement itself, peaked in the late summer of 1969–triggered primarily by the upcoming automatic renewal after ten years of the US-Japan Mutual Security treaty.

The protests in 1960 around the last version of the treaty had, after all, been the biggest show of force for the Japanese left basically ever, and had put the Zengakuren itself on the political map. It makes sense that the treaty renewal would spark a similar response.

The highlight of this particular movement was a National Zenkyoto rally at Hibiya Park in Tokyo scheduled for September 5, 1969. 26,000 students from 178 different universities attended–though naturally, Tokyo-based universities were particularly prominent. The goal was to try to unite disparate campus movements into a cohesive whole, as some Zenkyoto leaders–including the since arrested Akita Akehiro of Nihon University–had come to view specific campus issues as indicative of broader political issues in Japan.

Akita, for example, said in a 1969 interview that he felt the fundamental issue driving the campus dispute on Nihon University was the university’s prerogative of simply churning out workers to support Japan’s economic growth, a goal totally divorced from any of the ideals associated with university education: personal growth, intellectual self-actualization, all that jazz. He went on to say , “Our fight changed from a fight for [particular] demands into a fight against the established order itself…the university is no more than a shell. Thus the form of our struggle is not determined directly in opposition to the state. Its pivotal focus has been the capitalist system itself … and the dehumanizing functions of capitalist society.”

However, the very attempt to turn the Zenkyoto into a mass national movement also began the process of undermining it. The Zenkyoto of Japan’s various universities had gotten as strong as they had because of the support they enjoyed from “nonpori” students who shared concerns about specific on-campus issues. Some were, in fact, radicalized in the process of their protests–Akita Akehiro is a great example of that. But most were not, and that was kind of a problem for the sustainability of the movement.

Even the most generous estimates of campus radicalism suggested that around 20% of the average campus student body supported their Zenkyoto–the other 80 were either indifferent or opposed to them. This at a time when Japan’s college matriculation rate was only around 20%–based on those numbers, the total Zenkyoto membership around Japan would have been around 300,000 students, or about 4% of the overall population of young adults. And a bunch of that support was nonpori students who would not follow the movement off campus.

More ominously, the national Zenkyoto rally was also the first time some 80 members of a newly organized Sekigunha, or Red Army Faction, would make their appearance. This radical student movement embraced active, violent revolution against the Japanese state; we’ve discussed them before, and you can see episode 181 for more.

What matters for us is that this sort of violent radicalism did a lot to turn off students, and society at large, from the movement. The campus violence made, as you can imagine, a LOT of headlines–generally speaking, public opinion supported the specific grievances of the students but was extremely upset by the violence of the protests.

The emergence of more extreme groups like the Red Army Faction–where much of the membership came from Zengakuren members who had been even further radicalized to the point of embracing terrorism–also represented the culmination of growing anger with the protest movement in general.

Public opinion had already begun to swing against violent street protest by this point, in part because of the sheer scale of it. In 1969 alone, there were some 2460 street battles involving almost three quarters of a million people in total (of whom the substantial majority were students) and resulting in over 14,000 arrests. This constant violence began to wear at public opinion, which again was broadly sympathetic to the aims of the individual Zenkyoto movements if nothing else.

That was particularly true because, while fatal violence was relatively rare–given that most of the weapons involved were blunt and thus by definition harder, though not impossible, to kill someone with compared to a gun or blade–it still happened. And most of the deaths associated with these movements were students–killed primarily, in point of fact, by other students.

Fights between the various Zengakuren factions as well as with Minsei–the Communist Party-affiliate youth movement–were extremely common. Between 1968-1975, there were at least 1776 violent factional battles leading to 4848 injuries, 3438 arrests, and 44 known deaths. The fights between the various factions–which distinguished themselves via helmets of different colors labeled with kanji characters from the name of their faction–were often compared in the press to yakuza turf wars or battles between the old warlords of the Sengoku period, so not exactly flattering comparisons.

And while the Zenkyoto were technically separate movements from the Zengakuren, there was still a lot of overlap–the infighting tainted the image of student activism in general in Japan.

The government of Prime Minister Sato Eisaku was able to take advantage of this growing distrust of and distaste for student activism by passing a new University Management Bill in 1969 which, among other things, centralized more control over the university system into the hands of the education ministry–and allowed the ministry to just outright shut down schools with protracted campus disputes. In addition, the law made it much easier to call in the riot police to suppress student revolts.

Probably the single biggest factor in the collapse of the Zenkyoto, and the student movement in general, was just the job market. Getting a job in Japan after graduating from college was and is a pretty involved affair that involves substantial scrutiny of a detailed resume–the sort of thing where a protracted gap caused by, say, an arrest, or expulsion from your university for making too much trouble, would show up in a pretty glaring way.

Finding yourself and your sense of individuality through joining a protest was one thing, but if it had the chance to keep you from getting a job–particularly in an economy where, if you didn’t get one fresh out of college, positions were so competitive that it was very hard to find one down the road–well, that was something else..

Particularly for anyone who was arrested this was a huge issue, because either due to the volume of arrests or out of a desire for retaliation many of the trials of those arrested took years to resolve. Akita Akehiro, for example, didn’t even get his final verdict until 1977, so eight years after he was arrested (one year in prison, if you’re wondering–ultimately, he got a job at an automobile plant in his hometown of Hiroshima).

Even if you weren’t arrested, there was one other aspect of the changing world of 1960s Japan that was likely to de-radicalize you: the economy. Generally speaking, people are more prone to fall in with political radicals during eras of economic instability–which the early postwar in Japan certainly counts as. But by the late 1960s the economic recovery was well underway–families were better off than ever, which meant their children now had more to lose if they got arrested, or kicked out of university, or (as many parents threatened to do) cut off financially if they didn’t stop engaging in activism.

It’s also worth noting that while plenty of student activists were ideologues, not all of them were–indeed, the majority probably were not.

Indeed, in a certain sense, that was the whole point of the student factions. They made activism accessible–you did not have to read a bunch of difficult philosophy or political theory. Instead, the focus was on activities, and not just activist ones: hikes, choirs, dances, that sort of thing.

Many of the factions had catchy songs that were emphasized a lot more than specific political stances. For example, here’s a translation of one from the Shagakudo, a faction associated with the Japan Socialist Party: “Take up your stave, Japan’s number one dream is a big world revolution. No doctrine, with a happy smiling face, ally with the proletariat. Do your best, we’re strong, us, the red-helmeted Shagakudō.”

The factions ultimately were exciting, which is how they got so many members to mobilize in the first place–but many of those members were, as a result, not terribly politically committed. More than a few later works by former Zenkyoto and Zengakuren participants lampooned that fact; for example, the novel What am I, or Boku tte nani, by Mita Masahiro, has its protagonist drawn into student activism while repeatedly admitting that he has no idea what the actual ideologies at play are–he just enjoys the physicality of doing things with his fellow students.

Similarly, Murakami Ryu’s novel 69 describes fictional high school students barricading their school, quoting hip New Left philosophers, and even organizing a culture festival in imitation of what they’ve seen college students doing on the news–but doing it to attract girls.

Given that the level of political commitment among students was mixed at best, it’s probably not that surprising that many of these activists simply left activism behind before–or shortly after–graduating.

Over the early 1970s, the power of the old Zengakuren factions petered out. Several do still exist today, but they’re minor compared to the power they once held and in many cases largely inactive.

Indeed, the Zengakuren is outright banned from operating on some college campuses specifically because of the events of the late 60s.

Similarly, the old jichikai student councils do still operate–anyone familiar with modern Japanese media is probably aware of the ubiquity of student government in Japan’s various educational settings. But they’re substantially disempowered compared to what they once were–in particular, many universities changed their rules to make the jichikai more directly financially dependent on the school administration.

Student activism certainly is not dead–protests still happen on campus. But the idea that anything like 1968 could happen again seems, to put it mildly, unlikely at best. It is hard, overall, to escape the conclusion that, to quote Michael Wert, “The campus has been sanitised.”

And it’s not just the present–the past has been sanitized as well. Few universities today acknowledge their history of student radicalism. I’ll admit I didn’t check every single webpage on the Tokyo University or Nihon University websites, but from what I can see neither one makes any mention of 1968 on their official chronicles of the university’s history.

So, what does all of this mean, ultimately, if today the activism of 1968 seems little more than a distant memory?

Well certainly, I think this history raises some fascinating philosophical questions about protest and violence and the justification thereof. I certainly sympathize with a lot of the positions of the radical students–particularly around the quality of university education and imperious administrations–and yet, I can’t say I love the idea of groups of violence on university campuses. Which, I’m sure, makes me a mealy-mouthed bourgeois reactionary, but hey–nobody’s perfect, right?

Realistically, I do think this is an important–and very personal–question for anyone living in a democracy to consider. The relationship between protest, violence, and political power is a complex one, and for myself I’m still not sure where I draw the line on those things.

Beyond that, I think honestly for me the thing that seems most important in all of this is that it serves as a reminder of just how wrong the image of Japan as a “nation of harmony” really is. This idea that Japanese society is inherently more harmonious, or special, or different because of some unique and ineffable aspects it possesses is still one you see floating out there all the time–but the reality is that dissent has always and will always exist in Japan, just like it does everywhere else.

There are specific historical reasons–many of which we’ve covered today or last week–why this particular movement collapsed, or why in general the political opposition in Japan tends to be fairly weak. But those are the specific results of historically-grounded circumstances–had things been different, well, things would be different.