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Recalling ‘the fall of the Yasuda Auditorium’ and the end of Japan’s student movement

by Hiroaki Sato

At a friend’s Easter Sunday dinner party, I asked, “What do you think the student movement of the ’60s in the U.S. accomplished?” One guest answered, “Obama’s election.” Unexpected but true: in this country, the opposition to the Vietnam war went hand in hand with the movement that culminated, in federal legislation, in U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

I raised the question because this is the 40th anniversary of “the fall of the Yasuda Auditorium” — the nine-story clock tower that rises above the University of Tokyo (Todai) — that marked the beginning of the end of Japan’s often violent student movement. In January 1969, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department mobilized 8,500 officers in riot gear to remove the students from the building they had barricaded.

The two-day process was warlike. The police used 10,000 tear gas grenades and sprayed the gas from helicopters as well. They lined up an array of water cannons as well as fire engines capable of throwing up water with far greater pressure, enough to smash through the boarded-up windows of the auditorium.

The students responded with different weapons. They flung broken-up flagstones and Molotov cocktails from the roof and windows of the clock tower. They dropped chairs and desks. In place of truncheons, they carried and wielded square lumber poles that were often spiked.

The one weapon neither side used was the gun. Atsuyuki Sassa, “chief of staff” of the Metropolitan Police Department’s security section, that is, the riot police, reminds us of this in his book, “Todai Rakujo” (1996). During the confrontation, an American journalist he knew, named Fisher, ran up to him, red-faced, and shouted, “Why don’t you shoot them? Kill them! Shoot them!”

Inevitably, the police kicked and beat the students after they were cornered or arrested.

The result was a large number of casualties: 270 of the 400 students arrested on the Todai campus were found to be wounded, many of them seriously. One had been blinded. Police casualties were considerable, too: 710 wounded, 31 seriously, though the police figures include those injured outside the campus. As Sassa tells us, only about a quarter of his 8,500-man force was directly deployed to Todai. The rest was for support that included battles with riotous students elsewhere in the city.

What were the Todai students fighting for? Campus democratization. It was an aim with which Sassa, himself a graduate of Todai’s law faculty, the producer of elite bureaucrats, fully sympathized.

“The main factors of the Todai struggle,” he writes, “were the feudalistic authoritarianism that remained old and unchanged, the empty content of lectures that did not deserve the name of ‘the highest academic institution,’ the inefficient bureaucratic management far removed from modern reality, the extremely impotent customs of professorial conferences.”

The demand for campus democratization went with the worldwide movement against the Vietnam war and the Japanese opposition to the U.S.-Japanese Security Treaty. The war and the military alliance gave the Japanese youth a special sense of outrage.

“The tyrannous violence that the United States, the flag-bearer of ‘liberty and democracy’ during WWII, was perpetrating on a small country in East Asia, shattered the youth’s worldview,” Taizo Shima wrote in “Yasuda Kodo: 1968-1969″ (2005), an account of the same confrontation from an opposite side. Shima was one of the students barricading themselves in the auditorium.

No, “the fall of the Yasuda Auditorium” or “the fall of Todai,” as Sassa calls it, did not put an end to the student movement in Japan, any more than Chicago police and National Guardsmen clobbering the protesters during the Democratic National Convention put an end to the student movement in America. If anything, barricading campus buildings quickly spread to other colleges and universities, in the end to more than 40 percent of them nationwide. For that matter, a number of high schools followed suit.

Still, the fall of the Yasuda Auditorium took something out of the student movement. After all, Todai was Japan’s most prestigious institution of higher education. Its domineering clock tower was “a symbolic presence in every sense,” Inuhiko Yomota, another Todai graduate, writes in “High School 1968″ (2004). It epitomized “Japan’s modernization and imperialism spanning a century.”

What did the struggle accomplish? Sassa, for one, couldn’t help wondering while watching on TV the university’s 1991 commencement that marked the reopening of the auditorium, now completely refurbished. One female graduate, dressed in a white wedding dress and lace gloves, cheerfully declared, “I am marrying Todai!”

Sassa is on the positive side. The fight induced “a shift from German idealism to Anglo-Saxon pragmatism,” he suggests. It also tamed “the Todai disease,” the students’ snobbish “elitism and superiority complex.”

Shima, now an authority on primates, doubts that Todai has changed much. But the student movement as a whole had some important effects, he believes. The Japanese youth’s struggle against the war and the security treaty “prevented Japan from remilitarization and blocked it from sending its troops to the war in Vietnam.” As a result, Japan was able to contribute to “peace in Asia after the Vietnam War.”

Shima goes further. It was “the pre-emptive suppression” — the police tactic of numerically overwhelming the demonstrators, for example — “of youthful rebellion since the 1970s” that permitted the Japanese government to support U.S. President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, creating “resentment among Arab people that will last well into the future.”

Perhaps. In the meantime, I think of Todai graduates who I know were dislocated psychologically, professionally, as a result of that struggle. Yomota, one of Japan’s greatest scholars at large today, is among them. He wrote his high school memoir partly to overcome the sense of betrayal and grievance he suffered when his friends abandoned him — without telling him — midway in an attempt to barricade a building of their school. The school was right next to the University of Tokyo.

Translator and essayist Hiroaki Sato is at work on a biography of Yukio Mishima