Half a century since Japanese peace activists set up a group that campaigned against the Vietnam War and helped deserters from the U.S. military escape to Europe, the group’s legacy lives on.
As some warn of growing reactionary tendencies in Japanese politics, researchers and present-day peace activists see significance in the way the Japan “Peace for Vietnam!” Committee, known by its Japanese acronym Beheiren, committed itself to its goals.
Former Beheiren activists, for their part, want to pass on their experiences to others who seek peace.
Beheiren started on April 24, 1965, when around 1,500 people staged a street demonstration in downtown Tokyo to protest the Vietnam War, responding to calls from young intellectuals such as prominent writer Makoto Oda, who became the group’s leader.
While vigorously campaigning against Japan’s involvement in the war, Beheiren was also known for actions such as running full-page anti-war ads in The New York Times and The Washington Post.
With no formal membership system, Beheiren placed emphasis on individual action under the principle that the proposer should be the practitioner, rather than relying on the collective actions of organizations such as labor unions.
Those who participated in anti-Vietnam War activities were called Beheirens, and many formed Beheiren groups nationwide in schools, workplaces and communities.
“It was Beheiren that presented for the first time the principle of ‘individual-initiated actions,’ not organization-driven ones,” said Hideo Ichihashi, a professor of liberal arts at Saitama University.
Beheirens were encouraged to “raise a protest even alone,” if the need arose, he said.
Ichihashi is among several researchers focusing on Beheiren activities. He has interviewed former campaigners mainly in Sapporo and Fukuoka and has collected documents relating to their activities.
Ichihashi’s studies suggest that activists eventually shifted from the Vietnam War peace focus to other issues closer to home, such as nuclear power and the environment, following the disbandment of Beheiren in 1974.
“It could be said that Beheiren was the harbinger of Japan’s nongovernmental or nonprofit organizations,” he said.
Oda, who died in 2007, was involved in establishing a law to support the victims of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. He also supported the campaign to defend war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution.
Among former activists, Shigeru Sekiya shared his experiences as a Beheiren with a group of South Korean peace activists and refuseniks last September in Seoul.
As a college student in Kyoto, Sekiya, now 66, was involved in Beheiren’s undercover operation to shelter U.S. deserters and help them head for Europe via Hokkaido and the Soviet Union.
“South Korean people were interested in how we could carry out such audacious operations and said they were encouraged by our achievements,” Sekiya said.
In 1968, the operations were disrupted by a man posing as a deserter who was suspected of being a U.S. agent.
Subsequently, another Beheiren activist, Taketomo Takahashi, then an associate French literature professor at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, flew to Europe in 1970 to seek the support of anti-war groups there. In Paris, he learned how to forge passports to help the deserters on their journey.
Some young men from Sweden provided him with their passports, which were altered and were eventually used by two U.S. deserters to leave Japan between 1970 and 1971.
“I believe their cooperation represented cross-border solidarity among those who oppose war,” said Takahashi, who is 80.
Countless people gave deserters shelter at their homes or fed them, and they remained silent about their involvement for a long time. Beheiren activists say they have been surprised decades later to encounter people who revealed they, too, took part.
“There were many nameless people in Japan in those days who did what they could in protest against the Vietnam War,” Sekiya said.
Numerous Beheiren-related documents, donated by former activists, are housed at the Research Center for Cooperative Civil Societies at Rikkyo University. A forged passport used by a deserter is among them.
“Visitors are interested in Beheiren activities as the starting line of the civil movement in Japan at a time when the country’s postwar democracy has fallen into a critical situation in the wake of the enactment of a secrecy law and planned expansion of the Self-Defense Forces’ capabilities,” said Koichi Takagi, director of the research center.
He was referring to a law that has been criticized as undermining both the people’s right to know and the freedom of the press in the name of protecting vaguely defined special secrets.
“Most of all, it is quite exhilarating that Beheiren outmaneuvered strong governments,” said Takagi, a sociologist.
Takahashi now heads Wadatsumi-kai, an anti-war association that collects mementos left behind by war dead and shows them at a museum in Tokyo named Wadatsumi no koe kinenkan, loosely translated as the Memorial Museum for Voices from the Sea.
The museum is in the city’s Bunkyo Ward, and aims to convey the tragedy of war, displaying papers written by college students who were conscripted and died in battle. It attracts around 1,000 visitors a year.
During the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II this year, Takahashi said he hopes he can do more to pass on the experiences of anti-war activists so that Japan, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, won’t go down the path to war again.
“At least, as citizens, we could enable deserters to cross the state-controlled border,” he said. “I want succeeding generations to know that anti-war groups could achieve certain successes like that.”