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Three veteran grass-roots campaigners from the pacifist movement shared a half-century of experiences with college students recently against a backdrop of protests over the Abe administration’s policy of lifting constitutional constraints on the Self-Defense Forces.

During a symposium at Keio University in Tokyo, Shinobu Yoshioka, Taketomo Takahashi and Yukio Yamaguchi recounted their involvement in the anti-Vietnam War campaign and other activist movements since the 1960s.

“While Japan was getting excited over the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, war was raging in a corner of Asia and the U.S. started bombing North Vietnam in 1965,” said Yoshioka, a popular nonfiction writer. “As junior and senior high school students at the time, we felt frustrated because we did not have any means to express our views.”

It was after entering Waseda University in Tokyo that Yoshioka joined the Japan “Peace for Vietnam!” Committee, known by its Japanese acronym “Beheiren.”

Involved in Beheiren’s secret operation to provide shelter to U.S. deserters and help them escape from Japan to third countries, Yoshioka said, “It was quite interesting to hang around with U.S. soldiers of my generation and meet with their supporters — more interesting than attending college classes, so I dropped out.”

People all over Japan allowed deserters to stay in their homes or provided them with food, without making their involvement public.

Takahashi took charge of the operation after quitting his post as an associate professor of French literature at Rikkyo University in Tokyo.

He learned how to forge passports in Paris with the assistance of underground groups and provided doctored passports to two deserters so they could leave Japan between 1970 and 1971.

“I joined Beheiren as a common man without titles and affiliations,” Takahashi said. “This behavioral principle has been handed down to those involved in current grass-roots campaigns. I think it is one of the most historically significant legacies of Beheiren.”

Takahashi now serves as chief of the Wadatsumi-kai, an anti-war association that collects and displays mementos left behind by conscripts, mostly college students, who died in battle.

“It is illegal to forge passports to help deserters, but I believe it was the right thing to do as only through acting illegally could we save them (from the military service),” he said.

Beheiren started in April 1965 when around 1,500 people led by the late Makoto Oda, an influential writer, and other young intellectuals staged a street demonstration in central Tokyo to protest the Vietnam War.

When Beheiren was actively campaigning against the war, Yamaguchi was studying in the United States after completing a doctorate in physics at the University of Tokyo on the path to becoming a researcher.

After returning to Japan, he got involved in campaigns to stop the shipment of tanks from a U.S. military facility near Tokyo to Vietnam and in support of farmers whose land was to be seized to build Narita International Airport.

As a physicist, he also grappled with a personal dilemma — it had been physicists who developed the atomic bomb.

“Looking back on my academic career, I was taught the logic of science and technology, but not the ethics,” Yamaguchi said.

His experiences as a scientist and activist made it difficult for him “to live as a pure expert,” he said. He is now a co-representative of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, a nonprofit organization working to create a society that does not rely on nuclear power.

Emphasizing that the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 plant shows that nuclear power is a technology “founded on the sacrifice of ordinary people,” Yamaguchi said, “We need to have the attitude of questioning government policies and making satisfactory choices for ourselves. We no longer live in an era where we can rely on experts to make decisions on important issues.”

The symposium was organized by professor Koichi Takakusagi to commemorate Yuichi Yoshikawa, a former secretary-general of Beheiren, who died May 28 at age 84. Yoshikawa was active in various pacifist movements until his death.

On the controversial security bills that would expand the role of the Self-Defense Forces and how they were steamrolled through the Lower House last week, Takakusagi said it is difficult to stop oppressive politics carried out in the Diet by the ruling majority, but that democracy exists outside the Diet as well.

“Mr. Yoshikawa as well as the three panelists — Mr. Yoshioka, Mr. Takahashi and Mr. Yamaguchi — were at the center of civil movements in the 1960s and 1970s, when people rose up in the belief that they could not leave democratic politics up to the Diet,” Takakusagi said.

“They showed that it is important that each of us think and act to maintain and enhance democracy.”

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