Commentary / Japan

Protests in 1969 Tokyo and today's Hong Kong

by Kuni Miyake

The Hong Kong International Airport was luckily open when I took a midnight flight from Haneda to see the street marches by defiant demonstrators over the weekend. The South China Morning Post carried the front-page headline “The night the city was set ablaze,” which actually wasn’t true.

The city was not ablaze. Just a few quarters of a huge entity with 7.5 million people were burning. Similarly, Tokyo’s mainstream media reported that “Demonstrators clashed with the police elsewhere in the city and its downtown area was in chaos with tear gas.” The reality, of course, was different.

In fact, Hong Kong as of Sept. 1 looked similar to Tokyo in 1969. A half a century ago in Japan, many liberal students were socialists. They organized street demonstrations and protested against the United States as well as the pro-American Japanese government and the conservative Liberal Democratic Party.

Marching among the young and old on the street in Hong Kong, I recalled the old days in Tokyo around 1969. Those demonstrators are like my generation 50 years ago. We were younger and so was our democracy. We were angry, frustrated and, most importantly, too naive to believe that we could change politics.

For those who were born after the 1980s, here is my take on the similarity and difference between Hong Kong now and Tokyo in 1969.

1. What the Hong Kong student demonstrations are about

Rikkyo University professor Toru Kurata concludes that in Hong Kong, “the civil society tries to change politics while the latter tries to control the former,” making the latest local political confrontation “an ideological dispute” and therefore “a sort of cold war.” It is an apt observation.

2. There are six categories of participants in the Hong Kong demonstrations

In the 1960s and ’70s, street demonstrations in Japan included simple rubberneckers like me, liberal activists, the existing left and the radical new left or extremists like the Japanese Red Army. Similarly, the Hong Kong demonstrators today consist of six categories.

The first is a group of politically inactive ordinary citizens who support the city’s democracy. The second category seems to be more politically conscious liberal youth who wear black shirts and sometimes white masks. The third category is a group of moderate liberalists who wear black shirts with black caps and black masks. They are called “He-Li-Fei” and favor peace, rational thought and non-violence. This category could also include the fourth group of existing opposition “democrats,” who pursue democratization within the establishment.

3. Die-hard extremist fighters’ objectives The fifth category of protestors are called the “brave warriors” and has an estimated several hundred members at most. They are die-hard warriors who wear the full gear consisting of black helmets, goggles, gas masks and black water-proof clothing. The sixth group, the most radical brave warriors, is always ready to fight the police.

4. Clashes take place at night

Many of the first four groups go home before sunset. That’s when the radical activists get more active. Most of the fires and clashes reported over the weekend in Hong Kong took place around or after 5 p.m. More importantly, they are relatively small incidents as compared to those in Japan of 1969.

5. No leaders is good news

The demonstrations have no single leader. If there had been one, he or she must have been already arrested by now. Another reason for the longevity of the movement is the will of the silent majority to defend the hardliner activists. Without such support, the demonstrations would not have continued.

The marches and rallies are as elusive as water. Recently somebody destroyed the social media account used by the participants. The demonstrations, however, went on spontaneously. The Hong Kong authorities cannot simply continue their endless wack-a-mole game against the phantom protestors on the streets.

6. Neither side has viable options

Of course, the ultimate responsibility should be born by the Hong Kong government, which started the political mess and invited the chaos. The liberal activists, on the other hand, will eventually lose the support of ordinary people if their political movement became too extreme and radical.

7. Hong Kong should be smarter

The lesson learned in Tokyo before and after 1969 was that rallies, marches and demonstrations on the streets can’t change politics by itself. The student movements in Tokyo a half century ago eventually became so extreme that ultimately they lost popular support, became isolated and finally collapsed.

As of 2019, Hong Kong cannot afford to make such mistakes because the political situation surrounding this free and democratic city is much more serious and urgent. Fifty years ago in Tokyo, free speech and the rule of law were fully guaranteed and nobody challenged them.

All in all, unlike in Tokyo, where the political environment has been so lenient and indulgent, the people of Hong Kong now more than ever need the right wisdom and skills not only to enhance their freedom and democratic values, but must also not lose those they already have.

When I left Hong Kong International Airport, I told the ground staff in Chinese “Jiayou, Xianggang! (Hang in there, Hong Kong!). I don’t know whether they got my message, but I had to say it. The young demonstrators in Hong Kong are true freedom fighters whom Hong Kong deserves. God bless them.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.

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