Rumpus on campus

Prestigious university in Tokyo has become a battleground in a war over freedom of political expression

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 low-security prison.

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.”

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