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A spark that ignited social change


ORGANIZING THE SPONTANEOUS: Citizen Protest in Postwar Japan, by Wesley Sasaki-Uemura. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001, 293 pp., $27.95 (paper)

The events accompanying the revision of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty in 1960 aroused strong emotions among those involved, making it difficult for a long time to discuss what took place in a disinterested manner. Now, more than four decades later, the political is gradually being transformed into the historical, and a fresh look at this important juncture in Japan’s democratic development seems possible.

The renewal of the treaty by the U.S. and Japanese governments, headed respectively by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, former minister of munitions in Tojo’s war Cabinet and a convicted war criminal, was intended to consolidate Japan’s position as part of the U.S. military empire. Many Japanese saw this as the first step toward remilitarization and the restoration of prewar structures, and when Kishi used police force to get the treaty passed in the Diet in time for Eisenhower’s planned visit to Japan, a storm of popular protest erupted. The presidential visit had to be canceled and the Kishi government fell as a result.

The Japanese government as well as the American press, both firmly entrenched in their Cold War positions, consistently portrayed the protesters as a single-minded, violence-prone mob manipulated by the Socialist and Communist parties. In “Organizing the Spontaneous,” author Wesley Sasaki-Uemura argues convincingly that such a characterization is not only highly ideological, but downright wrong.

To be sure, the Japan Socialist Party and the Japan Communist Party opposed the treaty, voiced their opposition to it in the Diet, and tried to capitalize on the protests that sprang up outside parliamentary and party channels. But they did not control the protest movement, many of whose protagonists never had any links with either of the two parties.

As becomes clear in the book, the movement was driven by concerned citizens who associated in many largely independent action groups as conscious political actors trying to assert their participatory rights in state and society. There was a great deal of spontaneity, although as the confrontation with the government grew more acrimonious, the need for organization and coordination became more pressing.

The protests were the largest mass demonstrations in postwar Japanese history, and attracted a diverse range of participants: progressive intellectuals, peace activists, residents affected by the presence of military bases, trade unionists, and members of religious organizations, housewives’ cooperatives, student associations and minority groups. Sasaki-Uemura examines four of the groups that took part in the security-treaty protests: the Mountain Range (an organization dedicated to understanding the lessons of the Pacific War), the Poets of Oi (a cultural circle in an industrial factory), the Grass Seeds (feminist activists) and the Voiceless Voices (a citizens’ group formed specifically to protest the security treaty). Relying both on contemporary publications by the groups and on interviews, the author draws a detailed picture of what the issue meant to these activists.

Many other groups took part in the protests too, of course, but Sasaki-Uemura’s selection is representative enough to show that the movement against the treaty was not monolithic or homogeneous. The common thread running through it was that those involved perceived the treaty as a threat to the kind of Japan they wanted to build, on the basis of the social and political reforms enacted in the early days of the postwar period. They saw that the U.S. government had no misgivings about propping up dictators elsewhere in Asia, and that with its support Japan’s old political elite, represented by Kishi, was reinstalled and ready to revive an authoritarian regime.

While the Japanese and U.S. governments presented the issue as a matter of international relations, the protesters perceived it within a wider framework, meaning that their political engagement continued even after the treaty was ratified. As this sensitive documentation and interpretation of the activities of the four groups reveals, to many activists “the protests were a struggle over the form Japanese democracy would take.” The demonstrations proved to be a catalyst for increased citizens’ involvement in democratic society and new modes of participation. This book can, therefore, be read with benefit as a description of the appearance of new types of social movements in postwar Japan.

This is particularly evident in the final chapter of the book, which reviews the legacy of the protests. Many participants later became involved in other causes, such as the anti-Vietnam war movement, Women’s Lib, environmental protection, antidiscrimination and resistance to governmental control of Japan’s history textbooks. Many of them found that their concerns were largely ignored by established political institutions and thus resorted to direct democracy.

Viewed in this context, the protests constituted the beginning of a new understanding of democracy in Japan which articulated itself in social movements. It is this new perspective on a well-known episode which makes this book worth reading.