During a recent conversation with a student in his sixth year at a university renowned to be an incubator for Japanese politicians, 23-year-old Atsugi Fukuhara tells me that he wants to stay a student forever.

The past five years have consisted of a lot of drinking and partying, though he also spends a good proportion of his time working. His university fees are around ¥1 million per year, and to cover this, and keep him in beer and cigarettes, he works night shifts at a hotel. His major is political science, but he’s never voted.

“If I did vote it would be for the Communist party, but as they wouldn’t get in, there’s no point,” he says. “Also, the paperwork that I have to do to register is horrible.”

Atsugi is a big fan of counter-culture, “but the real yankii (roughly translatable as juvenile delinquents), student protests — these have vanished,” he says. “I have a lot of respect for them, but if I tried to be like the students of the ’60s, it would just be like a life-style thing, or nostalgia.”

Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the most iconic year of student protests, and the exhibition “1968: A Time Filled With Countless Questions,” at the National Museum of Japanese History in Sakura, Chiba Prefecture, looks at the upsurge in militancy and grass-roots activism in Japan at that time. Using contemporary documentation, photography and artefacts, the exhibition shows the extent to which people opposed to the war in Vietnam, nuclear weapons, Narita airport, graft and corporate negligence, got themselves educated, organized and agitated.

Protests in Japan that year started with a demonstration against the arrival of the nuclear-powered USS Enterprise, which was due to visit the U.S. naval base in Sasebo in mid-January before going onto Vietnam. Referencing two violent clashes between student protesters and police that had occurred the previous year at Haneda airport over then Prime Minister Eisaku Sato’s perceived collusion with the United States and its policy in Vietnam, the student organization Zengakuren, made up of disparate sub-groups of varying radicalism, wanted the aircraft carrier to be met with a “Third Haneda Incident.”

Zengakuren were not disappointed; student protesters wearing helmets and armed with rocks and wooden staves, fought with police who used batons, tear gas and water cannons outside the U.S. base on Jan. 17. Bystanders and journalists were also reported as having been viciously beaten by riot police, despite not being directly involved in the protests.

At Japan’s biggest university, Nihon Daigaku, a mass revolt was sparked over the misappropriation of ¥2 billion of university money, a few weeks after the students of the Sorbonne University had set up barricades in Paris. The nonideological and inclusive “Nihon University All-Campus Joint Struggle Council” (Nichidai Zenkyoto), was created, and pushed for reforms in the university administration. The university responded by creating gangs of right-wing students, recruited from the faculty of physical education, to break up their meetings.

The infamous occupation of Yasuda Auditorium by The University of Tokyo students also originated in a dispute about money. In this case medical students’ resentment at the token remuneration they were expected to accept as trainee doctors. Famously documented by photographer Hitomi Watanabe, some of whose images appear in the exhibition, this grievance evolved into a more symbolic resistance against the assumed legitimacy of state authority, when the university administration chose to deal with student unrest not with negotiation, but by calling in the riot police.

While anti-Vietnam war sentiment was a feature in campus rebellions, Makoto Oda, the co-founder of the loose association known as Beheiren (short for Betonamu ni Heiwa wo Shimin Rengo, the Citizen’s League for Peace in Vietnam) noted in a 1969 publication that Japanese university fees and the war should not be conflated. Originally formed in 1965 after the first bombing of North Vietnam by the U.S., Beheiren was an open group that espoused nonviolent civil disobedience. A brilliant gold and blue flag, and pink helmet, are on display at exhibition as mementoes of a movement that was driven by both humanistic opposition to the war, but also discomfort with the continued use of Japan as a strategic location for U.S. bases.

As well as reminding us of the explosively violent protests of 1968, the National Museum of Japanese History show also features a section on the bureaucratic war of attrition waged on the victims of Minamata disease by the Chisso Corp. and abetted by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry.

Deaths from mercury poisoning from the Chisso chemical factory in Kumamoto Prefecture were first identified in 1956, and the inclusion of this environmental disaster in an exhibition commemorating 1968 is due to a breakthrough that year of the government finally admitting that wastewater from the Chisso plant was to blame. Strikes, sit-ins and protests had largely been ineffective in securing recognition and adequate compensation for victims of the poisoning, until a second instance of the problem appeared in Niigata and a successful lawsuit was filed against the Showa Denko petrochemical company.

In contrast to this example of successful legal activism, did the spectacle of violent student protests achieve anything worthwhile? This is one of many questions raised by the exhibition. Of course another following from this is to ask what happened to the aggressive confrontational energy of these protests?

In 1969, sociologist Toyomasa Fuse, assessing the potential of student radicalism, wrote that “if students do not stir things up and protest, then the university and society would be the victims of complacency and the prisoners of anachronism.” In this respect, has the burden of paying back a student loan proved mightier than the water cannon?

“1968: A Time Filled With Countless Questions” at the National Museum of Japanese History runs until Dec. 10; open 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., closed Mon.; entry is ¥830 and includes admission to the museum’s permanent exhibitions. www.rekihaku.ac.jp/english

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