On the morning of Aug. 30, 2000, a 48-year-old employee of a Meiji University cooperative was stabbed to death by four masked men near JR Uguisudani Station in Taito Ward, Tokyo.
The woman was one of eight people killed between 1999 and 2001 in bloody intrafactional fighting that gripped the ultraleftist Kakurokyo (Revolutionary Workers’ Council).
“Hearing the news was like seeing a ghost from the past,” said Katsuo Yoshinari, a 54-year-old former member of another ultraleftist group.
“I could not believe they have continued to make the same old mistakes, which have critically damaged their movement,” he said, recalling his own turbulent days on campus in 1970, when he engaged in violent protests against the government and infighting between rival “New Left” groups. Yoshinari now runs a Tokyo-based union for foreign workers without visas.
The 1960s opened and closed with massive antigovernment demonstrations. The revision in June 1960 and the automatic extension in 1970 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty divided public opinion and provided a focus for protests by student and labor groups.
Together with the Japanese Communist Party and the Japan Socialist Party, the ultraleftist groups, dubbed the New Left, played a leading role in mobilizing protesters.
The groups were spawned between 1957 and 1966 as splinter groups of the Japanese Communist Party after it abandoned in 1955 its avowed platform of violent revolution.
At the peak of the campaign against the treaty in 1959 and 1960, as many as 4.64 million students and workers participated in a series of rallies. Leading up to the 1970 campaign against the treaty, however, protest activities turned far more violent than those of the early 1960s.
The curtailment of the campaign against the treaty in 1970 signified the end of an era as leftist activists shifted their focus to other targets. These included protests against the construction of Narita airport and other public projects or taking up labor and environmental issues.
However, some die-hard ultraleftists escalated their use of violence, employing explosives, rockets and other weapons. Staging indiscriminate assaults, they only succeeded in alienating sympathizers and the public at large.
The most notorious case was a shootout between a gang of fugitives and riot police in a cottage near Mount Asama, Nagano Prefecture, in February 1972, leaving two police officers dead.
It was later discovered that members of the Maoist group, known as Rengo Sekigun (United Red Army), had lynched 12 of their comrades and buried their bodies deep in the mountains.
Claiming ideological purity, legitimacy and supremacy, infighting within leftist groups increased in the 1970s. More than 110 active sect members have been killed to date and thousands more have been injured, experts say.
“We aspired to revolution and did not hesitate to use violence, because we thought it was the students’ role to provoke the public,” said Yoshinari, who was one of around 150 members of the now defunct Zenei-ha (Progressive Faction).
“But it is obviously going too far when students kill each other and it’s no wonder the New Left lost public support.”
Makoto Konishi, a former senior member of Chukaku-ha (Middle Core Faction) of the Revolutionary Communist Council, agreed.
“The elitist but immature and self-righteous students misdirected their energy into fighting each other, instead of fighting against the powers that be,” said Konishi, who has written several books on the history of the nation’s New Left movement.
“While claiming to be the flag-bearers of anti-Stalinism, the New Left camp inherited the darkest side of communism.”
According to police documents, New Left groups currently number around 40, covering five “schools of thought.” The Public Security Investigation Agency believes the total active membership of the groups has dwindled to about 10,000.
In its heyday, as many as 70,000 protesters gathered at a park in Tokyo’s Yoyogi district on one day in 1970. According to one estimate, the number of activists may have been 10 times that number.
Although the movement was born out of student activism, the groups have failed to attract young members since the 1980s. The agency believes students now account for less than 10 percent of total active members, most of whom are middle-aged.
“The authorities no longer view the New Left groups as a threat to society,” said Hironari Noda, a former official of the public security agency.
Alarmed by the enervation of the movement, some groups have turned to less violent tactics. The number of terrorist cases allegedly involving ultraleftist groups plummeted to seven last year from 143 in 1990.
Instead, revisionist groups today put more emphasis on attempts to penetrate citizens’ groups, such as environmental organizations, to fulfill their political aims, the agency officials said.
Konishi said such tactics will only serve to hinder civic activism unless the New Left fully comes to terms with its bloody past.
“Before they preach the noble ideals of human rights, democracy or social justice, they must learn what such ideals really mean and how they have acted contrary to such ideals,” he said.
“If they do so, the New Left groups here will be able to find their place in society like European environmental or antiglobalization movements have.”