Where's the spirit of Japan's troublemaking coffee-house Hobbits?

by Roger Pulvers

There was a time, in the 1960s and early ’70s, when the people of Japan were not apathetic about what was being done on their soil. The opposition here to the U.S. invasion of Vietnam and Japan’s support of it was large scale and vocal. Mass demonstrations were frequently held across the nation, participated in by people of all ages and from all walks of life.

The Japanese government, hosting U.S. forces at bases from Okinawa in the south to Aomori Prefecture in the north, knew how critical their support was to the American war effort. In 1965, Adm. Grant Sharp, Commander of U.S. Pacific Forces, said: “Without Okinawa, we could not have continued the combat in Vietnam.”

The same could be said for the Marine Corps Air Station at Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture. That base played a major role in support, supply and maintenance. Bombing sorties were flown from there to Vietnam in an attempt to break the will of the Vietnamese enemy.

So it was that the city of Iwakuni became the stage of a small protest movement centered on a tiny coffee shop there. How that coffee shop came into being and what it accomplished is the intriguing story of “Hobitto-senso o tometa kissaten” (“Hobbit — The Coffee House that Stopped a War”), written by Roppei Nakagawa and published in October 2009 by Kodansha. Nakagawa’s book took me on a time-slip tour of the early ’70s and brought home vividly the main difference between that era and ours today.

Nakagawa was a student at Doshisha University in Kyoto when a friend said to him, “Wanna join us in a demonstration at Iwakuni?”

“I had no idea what kind of a town Iwakuni was,” he writes. “I had never been west of Osaka.”

But Nakagawa had been moved by photos of the Vietnam War when he was still in high school: self-immolating monks, mothers fleeing violence while clutching their babies to their chest. He had joined Beheiren in his first year at Doshisha.

The name Beheiren is an abbreviation of a title standing for the Citizens’ League for Peace in Vietnam. It was founded in 1965. In face of serious efforts by the Japanese government to insinuate that Beheiren was a communist front — which was patently untrue — the organization maintained a strict policy of nonviolence and dedicated itself solely to the ending of the war in Vietnam.

Nakagawa became involved in the movement to encourage American soldiers to lay down arms. As the war effort intensified and more and more planes were leaving the base to bomb Vietnam, a number of U.S. military personnel turned against the war. Some of those even wrote antiwar tracts, which Nakagawa and his friends published in a newspaper called, ironically, Semper Fi (short for the Latin phrase semper fidelis, meaning “ever loyal”).

Nakagawa ended up staying on in Iwakuni and opening a coffee house where U.S. servicemen against the war could go and meet young Japanese. He called it Hobbit, and the image of J.R.R. Tolkien’s undersized and wily Hobbits battling great cruel enemies well fitted the bill.

Fortunately, Nakagawa had kept a diary of his Hobbit days, and the book recounts incidents from it, both monumental and mundane. I was entranced by the little details, of how much a plate of spaghetti or an exotic BLT sandwich cost back then (¥150 and ¥250, respectively). The place sat only 25, four at the counter and the rest at a few tables, but it became a focal point for protest and an exceedingly sharp thorn in the side of the powers-that-were — in other words the base commander and the Japanese government that did his bidding.

Antiwar activities took many forms. Nakagawa and his friends threw flyers over the base’s barbed-wire fence; they engaged with soldiers in order to convince them of the injustice of the war; and they even flew kites over the base and the bay to try to prevent planes from taking off.

The coffee house was established thanks to contributions from Beheiren members in Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Fukuoka. The diary records every day’s take. In the beginning, coverage in the press and other media of the coffee shop and its clientele of peace-loving soldiers and young Japanese brought in as many as 140 customers a day. Music by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and their ilk provided the atmosphere.

But it wasn’t long before police harassment began, and some customers were intimidated into staying away. Eventually, Hobbit was raided by the police, who claimed to discover evidence linking the people who ran it, Nakagawa included, with drugs and guns. With the escalation of the bombing of North Vietnam, an order went out from the base that Hobbit, located just a stone’s throw away, was off-limits to U.S. military personnel.

Running through his book, too, is Nakagawa’s personal story. He was worried about his future prospects if he remains in Iwakuni and doesn’t return to Kyoto to finish university. I was particularly moved by a diary entry of his from March 18, 1972: “Got back last night to Iwakuni on the night train. Been at home for first time in a while until yesterday. . . . (My parents) told me they want me to graduate. Mom said, ‘If you look all scruffy, everyone will mistake you for a member of the (Japanese) Red Army.’ So she gave me enough money to buy shoes, a sweater and pants, and get a haircut.”

Nakagawa left Iwakuni in 1973 to finish his studies. Beheiren was disbanded in 1974 and the war in Vietnam finally ended the next year. Hobbit closed its doors in January 1976. Nakagawa graduated and became a journalist, editor and author.

“Hobbit — The Coffee House that Stopped a War” got me thinking about the role that an individual, however powerless, can play in helping to change the course of history. With wars of injustice being waged by the United States and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan equal in cruelty, if not scale, to that of the war waged in Vietnam, where are the demonstrations, the flyers thrown over barbed-wire fences; where is the camaraderie of the lovers of peace, and of those who flew kites to challenge giants?

Where are the Japanese Hobbits of today? I am afraid that the people of this country, young and old, are, strangely, more insular now than they were then — despite travel and the Internet. They appear to have drawn a tight circumference around themselves and to be living — happily? — inside it. Will this self-imposed insularity last forever?

Author and scholar Shunsuke Tsurumi, who figures prominently in Nakagawa’s book, writes in its afterword: “Not long after Hobbit closed down, the war in Vietnam ended in the victory of the Vietnamese people. And, soon after, people moved on. . . . But I appeal to the Hobbit and the spirit of the wily little troublemaker lurking in Japanese people, and wait for a new antiwar movement to show its face.”