National / Social Issues

Newly released archives stir memories of Japan's anti-apartheid campaign

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo

Activists who took part in an anti-apartheid movement years ago in Japan, while voicing support for those oppressed in South Africa, are featured in newly released university archives.

Newsletters, photographs and other records compiled between 1963 and 2015, available at Tokyo’s Rikkyo University, show how activists reached out to socially vulnerable people in Japan while protesting injustices happening overseas.

The archives, which are on display at the university’s Research Center for Cooperative Civil Societies, are meant to shed light on the grass-roots effort against apartheid and other discriminatory practices.

The campaign was staged mainly from the 1960s through the 1990s, involving writers, researchers, people of religious faith and students.

While distributing anti-apartheid flyers in front of the South African Consulate General in Tokyo, the campaigners held rallies and symposiums by inviting South African activists.

“We also organized a boycott campaign of South African products, even though it was not powerful enough to impose economic damage,” said Keiji Shimogaki, a former office clerk who took part in the movement in Osaka. “I just spoke out against what I thought was unfair.”

The campaigners also joined those facing discrimination at home — Koreans living in Japan and people from socially disadvantaged buraku districts.

“We faced a question about how we address these domestic issues when we tried to draw public attention to the apartheid in South Africa,” Shimogaki said.

Reflecting his comments, the campaign newsletters include a series of essays by a Korean who refused to be fingerprinted for foreign resident registration.

The fingerprinting requirement for foreign residents was lifted in 2000 following a revision of the alien registration law in the face of international pressure.

“We learned from our anti-apartheid campaign that universal values, such as freedom, equality and tolerance, could be achieved in a society where people can live as they are,” said Akira Kusuhara, a campaigner from Tokyo.

Kusuhara, then a graduate student, stayed in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda from 1966 to 1967, where he was questioned by African students regarding Japan’s involvement in apartheid under the status of “honorary whites.”

Under the designation, Japanese enjoyed a privileged position similar to white people in South Africa under close bilateral economic ties.

But for Kusuhara, apartheid was an issue involving not only South Africans but also Japanese.

“We affirmed that we can end discrimination only through face-to-face meetings with others in our daily lives,” said Kusuhara, now a professor emeritus of Kokugakuin University. “Segregation will generate hate speeches and other forms of discriminatory acts.”

Echoing his remarks, Kumiko Makino, a research fellow of the African Studies Group of the Institute of Developing Economies at the Japan External Trade Organization, said the anti-apartheid movement records still have significance, amid concerns that an apartheid-like system could be revived given cross-border flows of people.

Although it has been argued Japan needs immigrant workers, including trainees, amid a growing labor shortage in the aging society, some show reluctance or caution about accepting them as neighbors.

“This exclusionist way of thinking will lead to (justification of) a labor-management system under apartheid, in which the privileged class used those who were deprived of their human rights as convenient workforces,” Makino said.

The campaigners aimed to build a society where people could live with dignity regardless of race, gender or other backgrounds, Makino said. “The documents on their activities allow us to reaffirm this origin.”

She also expects the documents to enable researchers to fill a void in the history of global anti-apartheid movements, from which those in Japan are almost absent.

“The campaigns in Africa as well as in Europe and the United States have attracted attention, but those in Japan (are) unknown internationally,” Makino said. “I want to introduce the overlooked history of the campaign some day by studying the archives at Rikkyo.”

Akinobu Numajiri, chief of the Rikkyo center, said the documents “show how people struggled at a time when the Japanese government and corporations prioritized economic benefits over (the) human rights of South Africans. I hope we can hand down the historic records to following generations.”

In South Africa, Nelson Mandela, who waged a long and ultimately victorious struggle against apartheid, became the country’s first black president in a historic election in 1994.

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