KYOTO – Nestled away on a side street just south of the busy intersection of Shijo and Kiyamachi streets, the Western facade of the Salon de the Francois cafe stands out amidst the traditional machiya wooden townhouses.
Inside, the Italian Baroque design, the classical music playing in the background, the old, slightly musty smell of the chairs, and the entire atmosphere evokes the cafe culture of the pre-Internet Showa Era, when people gathered in coffee shops to talk or read books and newspapers.
There are plenty of coffee shops and restaurants around Japan that invite nostalgia trips. But unknown to most customers is that Salon de the Francois is not merely another European-inspired coffee shop your parents or grandparents once visited. It’s a Registered Tangible Property over 80 years old that, in its youth, served as one of the city’s most important centers of anti-fascist opposition.
Salon de the Francois opened in September 1934 and became a place where Kyoto’s intelligentsia, students, trade unions, actors, artists and labor activists gathered to rail against Japan’s creeping militarism. It was one of the places where editors of the anti-fascist Kyoto-based newspaper Doyobi (Saturday) planned issues, discussed articles, and distributed the six-page publication before most of them, as well as the cafe’s founder, Shoichi Tateno, were arrested and jailed for their anti-government activities.
“Tateno was a labor activist. Doyobi was edited by his friends Masakazu Nakai, a lecturer at Kyoto Imperial University, and Raitaro Saito, a well-known actor, and was distributed in the cafe and all around Kyoto,” explained Kyoto University professor Yuichi Sato, whose 2012 book “Kyoto Popular Front: Anti-Fascist Movement at a Cafe in Kyoto During the 1930s” details the history of Kyoto’s pre-World War II anti-fascist movement as well as the history of Salon de the Francois.
In 1935, the fates of both Tateno and the cafe changed when a young woman, Rushiko Sato, joined the staff. She would marry Tateno and help run it. Today, their son, Hayao, is one of those involved with preserving the cafe’s role in Kyoto’s prewar history.
“My father originally set out to be an artist, but later joined the socialist movement, which was quite active at the time. The cafe was originally opened to help provide funds for various leftist causes and the Japanese Communist Party,” Hayao Tateno said.
The elder Tateno was a fan of Jean-Francois Millet, one of the most famous painters in the Barbizon school, which is where the name Salon de the Francois came from. By summer 1936, the cafe was well-known and Tateno’s friends Saito and Nakai, who had been involved in other publications, decided it was time to start an anti-fascist newspaper.
“Doyobi was first published on July 4, 1936. It was inspired by Vendredi (Friday), an organ of the French Popular Front, but the criticism of the government was not so direct. It was academic or intellectual criticism, especially of fascist movements in Germany and Spain,” Sato said.
During the 1930s, socialist movements in Kyoto distinguished themselves from those in Tokyo and elsewhere in several ways. The first was that the city had a large and active group of buraku outcasts, who had faced historical discrimination and fought for their rights. There were also substantial numbers of Chinese and Korean workers who came or were brought to Japan after 1910 to fill a need for labor, including in jobs Japanese did not want to do. Finally, there were many trade unions in traditional industries like weaving, yuzen dying and ceramics.
“The presence of so many intellectuals and academics at Kyoto University was also important. These people had access to government officials and could provide my father and his friends with all sorts of information,” Tateno said.
Doyobi was available at Salon de the Francois, of course, and the cafe, its customers, and the newspaper’s editors who met there found themselves the targets of police surveillance. By the end of 1937, Tateno, Nakai and Saito were among those arrested and heading to prison.
Publication of Doyobi was suspended. But Salon de the Francois would not be shut down until food shortages toward the end of the war made it impossible to stay in business. It would get through the war years under the name of Junkissa Miyako-sabo (Pure Tea Room Miyako), due to rules requiring bars, clubs and restaurants with names derived from the languages of hostile foreign countries (especially English and French) to be changed to Japanese names.
The cafe reverted to its original name after the war, but not before it underwent renovation in 1940 with the assistance of Alexsandro Bencivenni, a Dominican friar studying Indian philosophy at Kyoto Imperial University. The new design, which remains basically unchanged today, was believed to be modeled on the lounge of an Italian luxury liner that plied the route between Italy and Japan.
At the time, Italy was an allied nation with Japan. But when Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943, Italians suddenly became enemy nationals. Bencivenni would be interned for the rest of the war in Aichi Prefecture.
The postwar Occupation period brought initial freedoms but also crackdowns on communists, socialists, labor activists and other left-wing groups. However, Tateno said the situation was completely different from the prewar period and that government repression was nowhere near as strict.
By 1996, the Cold War in Europe was over, communism discredited in most parts of the world, and Tateno and Doyobi editor Saito had passed away. The Salon de the Francois was by then a piece of history that would become a Registered Tangible Property in 2002.
Today, the cafe is usually full of both longtime regular customers and the odd tourist.
“The Salon de the Francois has a history, and a service that you can’t find in chains, which are convenient. Many Japanese today, especially younger people in Kyoto, have an interest in the past, and we’re part of that,” Tateno said.