Yuichi Yoshikawa visits the south entrance of the Diet building every June 15 to offer flowers in memory of a female college student who died there in a clash between police forces and anti-Japan-U.S. security treaty demonstrators on the day 50 years ago.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters surrounded the building every day to express their opposition to the bilateral treaty “as we still had vivid memories of World War II, which had ended only 15 years (earlier), and believed the treaty would lead to another war,” said Yoshikawa, 79, a veteran peace campaigner.

“When only a few people started a march with a flag, other people joined at their own initiative to make it hundreds of demonstrators at last, with antiwar sentiment stirred also by the outbreak of the Korean War and the launch of the Self-Defense Forces in the 1950s,” he said.

The death of student Michiko Kanba, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Tokyo, happened in the uproar, and those who went through it have wondered about the meaning of the largest mass movement in postwar Japan and how it has affected their subsequent lives and careers over the past half-century.

Among them is Akiko Esashi, who was a freshman at Waseda University and joined the demonstration for the first time in May 1960.

“I was just an ordinary student who cheered at baseball games between Waseda and its rival, Keio University, and I was told by my father when I left home in Hiroshima not to join the student movement,” she said. “But I started taking part in the marches frequently after Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi railroaded the revision of the bilateral treaty.”

The revised treaty, ratified on June 23, 1960, committed the United States to help defend Japan if it came under attack and it provided bases and ports for U.S. forces in Japan, stirring public concern that Japan may get drawn into unwanted wars.

“The protesters’ focus gradually shifted from concerns of war to the shape of Japan’s democracy” in the face of the government’s hardline stance, Yoshikawa said.

After graduating from Waseda, Esashi started editing fashion magazines, “but I always felt doubts about my work, given the magazines’ stance to flatter Japan’s high economic growth in those days,” which was promoted by Kishi’s successor, Hayato Ikeda, under the “income-doubling plan.”

Esashi gradually became involved in the women’s liberation movement and anti-Vietnam War activities, initiated by the Peace for Vietnam Committee, known by its Japanese acronym “Beheiren.” It was founded in 1965 by the late influential writer Makoto Oda and prominent philosopher Shunsuke Tsurumi. Yoshikawa was its secretary general.

She eventually became a freelance writer and penned an award-winning biography of a female writer who witnessed the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima and other books featuring female activists and reporters, while giving lectures on women’s studies at several colleges.

Koichi Kato, 70, a Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker, was a law student at the University of Tokyo in 1960. “I didn’t have a clear idea about whether the security treaty was good or wrong,” he said, but he was involved in the demonstrations a few times “in accordance with the conclusion of class discussions as a nonpolitical student.”

His father was promoting the security treaty as a then ruling LDP lawmaker. But Kato did not fully support either the treaty or the protests involving students and unionists as well as the Japan Socialist Party and Japanese Communist Party.

“But it urged me to have an interest in social issues and I made up my mind to devote my life to dealing with the Chinese Communist Party,” after pondering over how Japan should proceed for the future in international society, he said.

As a diplomat and China expert, he contemplated policy toward China. Later as a lawmaker, he opposed the 2001-2006 visits to Tokyo’s war-related Yasukuni Shrine by then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

“Japan sent troops to China, and those who were victimized will never forget this,” Kato said.

Some of the 1960 demonstrators are now trying to hand down the legacy of the movement to later generations.

Prior to the 50th anniversary of Kanba’s death, Esashi, 68, put out her biography, “Michiko Kanba — Legend of a Sacred Girl,” from major publisher Bungeishunju Ltd. last month, based on interviews with those who knew her well and examining many documents, including her writings.

“I wanted to review the explosive experiences in 1960 by writing the biography of Ms. Kanba,” she said. “I expect young people to read it and know that there was a woman who tried hard to change politics and society.”

Kato, who has held prominent positions, including chief of the former Defense Agency and LDP secretary general, now advocates the security treaty. “It is unconvincing to say we do not need to possess deterrence, particularly given the brinkmanship of North Korea. Can we feel safe without the nuclear umbrella of the United States?”

His relations with China, meanwhile, have continued.

Kato assumed the chairmanship of the Japan-China Friendship Association in 2008, succeeding Ikuo Hirayama, a prominent painter who died last December, and said without hesitation that the 1960 movement affected his career.

“I think Japan, China and the United States need to form ‘an equilateral-triangle relationship’ to keep each other in check,” he said. “The (trilateral) ties should work effectively, and the Japan-U.S. ties are situated under the security treaty.”

Yoshikawa is still involved in various peace campaigns and calls for abolishing the bilateral security treaty.

“Under the security treaty, the SDF have been deployed to where the United States needs them, such as Iraq. It goes against the pacifist Constitution,” he said in his recent lecture at Keio University, focusing mainly on the 1960 protests.

He was invited there as one of several guest lecturers for a contemporary social history course “so we could share history by hearing what those who have gone through it have to say,” said Koichi Takakusagi, a professor at the university.

Yoshikawa also suggested the abolishment of the bilateral treaty is the key in addressing the issue of U.S. military bases in Japan, particularly in Okinawa, which hosts the controversial Futenma air station.

Yoshikawa will visit the Diet building with other peace activists on June 15, as in the past years, to leave flowers for Kanba.

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