At first glance, Japan’s tranquil campuses would appear to have little in common with Taiwan’s universities, where police recently clashed violently with students protesting a trade deal struck with China. One marked exception, however, would be Hosei University in Tokyo, which for several years has been the scene of intense conflicts between sections of the student body, administrators and police.

Since the trouble began in 2006, there have been 125 arrests and 33 indictments for trespassing, violating bylaws on assembling and obstructing government officials, among other offenses. Eight Hosei students have been suspended indefinitely for their part in the protests and three expelled. While most of those indicted have been convicted, in February this year five activists were found not guilty in one of the main trials in the long-running saga.

Hosei students Taku Arai, Makoto Masui, Ryo Onda and Yuichi Utsumi and former Tohoku University student Yosuke Oda had been charged in June 2009 under the Law for the Punishment of Acts of Violence, a prewar statute often used against organized crime that carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison. Their first trial ended with an acquittal in May 2012 and this February the Tokyo High Court upheld the verdict and also rejected the prosecution’s final appeal.

The five defendants are affiliated with Zengakuren (the All-Japan Federation of Students’ Self-Government Associations) and Bunka Renmei (Culture League), an unofficial Hosei student group. Their backgrounds and political experience vary, though, and Oda, the only non-Hosei student among the five, was a former chairman of Zengakuren.

Onda was inspired to take part in the Hosei student movement after entering the college.

“I was given a flier and joined a rally. And then I really got into it and ended up an activist,” he says.

Utsumi and Oda were among 29 arrested in the first major clash between students and the police at Hosei on March 14, 2006. That day, 200 police were called in to quell protests by students from Hosei and elsewhere protesting the removal of large billboards on which students had posted political notices such as “Stop constitutional change” and “Bring down the (Junichiro) Koizumi regime.”

“The direct reason for the removal was aesthetic,” explains Utsumi. “However, it later became apparent that the university had been holding meetings with police beforehand.”

What happened that March aggravated the student activists, stirring up further protests against the university authorities in the following years, which came to a head again in the first months of 2009.

At several incidents in April and May, handfuls of protesters were arrested on a range of allegations. The five recently cleared in the Tokyo High Court case were eventually charged under the Law for the Punishment of Acts of Violence in connection with tearing down university notices in February of that year. Hosei had accused Masui, who was 21 at the time, of threatening staff, and notices were put up in three places announcing he was banned from entering the campus for failing to pay his tuition fees. Hosei claimed the damage to the notices amounted to over ¥120,000.

The university accused the protesters of disrupting the campus, inciting “riots” and of “inflammatory” and “libelous” speech both at the campus and online. That spring’s heated confrontations between police, security guards and protesters were covered in an article on the Community pages here.

The five spent eight months in detention, during which they maintained complete silence as the police attempted to extract a confession.

“It was like ascetic training,” Masui remembers. “It is tough to be arrested, but you can become stronger through that kind of experience, too.” They looked to role models such as left-wing activist Fumiaki Hoshino, who has been behind bars for nearly 40 years but has steadfastly refused to speak to police.

The young activists faced a lengthy and expensive legal battle, led by lawyer Tatsuo Suzuki, a candidate in the recent Tokyo mayoral election. They were also supported by a range of left-wing and nonpartisan groups.

“The Law for the Punishment of Acts of Violence was used repressively before the war as a security law, but since 1945 it has been used against both organized crime and the student movement, and today is actively employed for general cases,” says professor Norio Takahashi, a criminal-law specialist at Waseda University. “Tearing down notices is damaging property, and when this is carried out collectively, the sentence is aggravated.”

However, Takahashi also notes that an equivalent penalty can be given out under the regular property damage section of the criminal code, though the Law for the Punishment of Acts of Violence may be used instead to add weight to the charges in cases where violence or intimidation are involved.

The “Hosei Five” were ultimately acquitted because the court ruled that camera footage and witness testimony central to the allegations were inconclusive. The result is a mixed one and does not fully vindicate their cause in the long run. The prosecution had claimed the five had plotted and carried out the damage as a group, and this could be what tipped the case in the students’ favor.

“In this case, all five would need to be involved at the scene, and likely they were found not guilty because this could not be substantiated,” Takahashi says.

When I meet four of the Hosei Five away from the protests, the activists are amiable but pull no punches when it comes to describing their struggle. They are quick to label Hosei’s behavior as “suppression,” and perhaps these forthright views may help explain why their story has barely been covered in the mainstream media.

“As far as I can see, people like us who criticize and fight the state are almost never reported about,” says Utsumi.

While NHK covered the first acquittal, it then went on to interview an expert about the case’s significance rather than the five themselves.

“They don’t come to interview us!” Masui complains.

In 1968, 80 percent of Japan’s universities were paralyzed by campus strikes and conflicts. Hosei in particular became known as a bastion of student activism. The reasons for the subsequent decline of the Japanese student movement are complex, though the Hosei Five believe the current climate of neoliberalism has put a stranglehold on activism.

Hosei’s student organizations have steadily ebbed away over the years. By 2002, its Student Self-Governance Council had ceased to exist, while the Bunka Renmei (a student cultural club organization) dissolved in 2007. The current incarnation is an unofficial, unrecognized reboot.

The activists see their actions as part of a struggle against neoliberalism and nationwide changes to the university system, such as increased outsourcing, higher tuition fees and restrictions on student organizations. Hosei became a symbolic fight in the wider struggle against these changes, galvanizing student activists from around Japan.

Like many universities that invested money in the stock market, Hosei suffered heavy losses in the fallout from the Lehman Brothers collapse. The activists condemn the university for treating education as a capitalist enterprise. The Japan Times invited Hosei to comment on the accusations in this article but the university declined.

Three of the Hosei students among the five were expelled, officially for “violent behavior,” “interfering with university duties” and “interfering with classes.” Masui was removed from the register for failing to pay fees.

The punishment “wasn’t because of our arrests,” Onda says. “The reason was our student activism.”

All five are still involved in political activities, but whereas Utsumi and Onda could be described as professional activists, Arai, Onda and Masui are now in steady work. Masui, for instance, is a care worker and unionist.

Oda campaigns against nuclear power for Nazen (the No-Nukes Zenkoku Network) and Utsumi is a hard-core leftist, producing numerous fliers for demonstrations from his bag during the course of our interview.

Utsumi claims to have no regrets. He says he was dedicating his life to student activism before the court case and is carrying on regardless.

“Fantastic!” chips in Onda, a colorful character who always wears snappy suits and shirts. He says he is now a “working man,” though that does not mean he has to give up his trademark wardrobe.

“Well, I’m actually white-collar, though I wish I could be like Utsumi!” he quips.

Their arrest records and expulsions mean they are unable to work as civil servants or at major corporations.

“The large companies check up on you,” says Onda.

The five may have been acquitted but their fight is not over. Now they are petitioning to get the university to apologize and accept the verdict as a vindication of their activities, as well as to have their punishment and sanctions meted out to other Hosei students repealed.

On Friday, a rally of around 60 people in support of these goals was held outside the Hosei campus in Ichigaya, drawing a heavy police presence.

“They are trying to suppress us,” Utsumi says. “They are ready and waiting.”

The Japan Times spoke to some regular Hosei students during the demo.

“It’s totally fine for them to have their say, but they are quite loud,” said Tomohiko, a first-year student. “There’s a hospital right by the campus. I wonder if this noise is so necessary.”

The students seemed to be aware of Bunka Renmei and some were also knowledgeable about Hosei’s history of activism.

“I don’t want to take part myself but this is kind of a Hosei tradition,” noted fourth-year student Misaki. “Students should be free to make speeches like this as long as it doesn’t lead to bloodshed.”

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