The Protests That Made and Unmade Japan’s Postwar Left

The Protests That Made and Unmade Japan’s Postwar Left

After the Uprising

The Anpo treaty protests and the unmaking of Japan’s postwar left.


For over a year, Japanese crews have been diligently at work transforming a section of Oura Bay, on the eastern coast of Okinawa, into an American airfield. Using sand and rock brought in on barges, they have buried a section of reef and are filling in the seabed so that US planes can land on top. Construction started in December of 2018, when after years of administrative battles between Tokyo and the Okinawan prefectural government, Japan’s defense minister announced there would be no further delays. That left a small fleet of locals in kayaks as the last line of resistance. As the construction proceeds, they paddle around the ships with banners demanding the landfill work be halted and that American forces leave the island.

Today, it is really only in Okinawa that the US military presence in Japan is so contested. American bases take up about 15 percent of the island, and although Okinawa accounts for just one-third of 1 percent of Japan’s total territory, it houses roughly half of the 50,000 US personnel stationed in the country. The rest of Japan wears the US military presence far more lightly. If it were not for the occasional sighting of a uniformed service member here or there, you could almost forget that Japan is the cornerstone of American power in the Pacific.

This was not always the case. Sixty years ago, from the spring of 1959 to the spring of 1960, a struggle over Japan’s relationship with the American military sent the entire country into paroxysms. During these months, as many as 30 million people—about one-third of the population at the time—took part in demonstrations against a security treaty between Japan and the United States. Formally called the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, the agreement is more commonly known by its Japanese abbreviation, Anpo. First signed in 1951, it granted the United States a nexus of bases across Japan in exchange for the end of the American occupation.

The demonstrations against Anpo’s renewal remain the largest protest movement in Japanese history. And while they ultimately failed, a recent book by Nick Kapur, Japan at the Crossroads, frames the months surrounding the protests as a crucible of postwar politics. Until the 1960 demonstrations, Kapur writes, it was not clear whether “Japan would…one day become a socialist (or at least democratic socialist) nation and chart a neutralist course in international affairs or even tilt toward the communist bloc, or alternatively…revise its constitution, aggressively rearm, and revise its domestic laws to restore some aspects of the prewar social and political system.” As it happened, neither scenario came to pass. Instead, the cascade of adjustments that followed the unrest of 1960 fashioned a new settlement that exchanged the political struggles of the 1950s for rapid growth and locked in a practically unshakable conservative majority.

This is a familiar story in its general outline. The reestablishment of conservative rule after World War II and the social quiescence that attended Japan’s “economic miracle” are among the hoariest grand narratives of postwar historiography. But in six thematic chapters that cover a range of subjects, from diplomacy to labor history to art and literature, Kapur fleshes out the way that the protests and the reaction to them profoundly changed the country. During the Anpo demonstrations, the looming questions of postwar politics—not only Japan’s place in the world but also the nature of its democracy—turned on the country’s relationship to US power. They still do, giving Kapur a compelling case that Anpo was the origin of so much of what we associate with contemporary Japan.

To understand how the opposition to the Anpo treaty spiraled into something much larger, Kapur begins his narrative in the early years of the American occupation. Charged with a mandate to “democratize and demilitarize” Japan, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his American staff imposed a sweeping series of reforms that were as stunning for their idealism as they were for their imperiousness. Much is made of the postwar Constitution, which renounced war and accorded new civil and social rights to Japanese citizens, but just as important in these years was the legalization of the Japanese left. The wartime state violently suppressed socialists and organized labor, even as its breakneck drive to industrialize bred militancy on the factory floor. When Japanese workers were given the right to organize in late 1945, they leaped at the opportunity. Union membership exploded from 380,000 in December of that year to some 6.7 million by 1948. May Day demonstrations—which had been banned for a decade—returned in full force, transforming Tokyo and other cities into what one anxious politician remembered as “a sea of red flags.” Suddenly, Japanese socialists and communists had viable political parties to represent them.

The outpouring of left-wing activism in Japan was short-lived. By 1948, with the stark binaries of the Cold War beginning to take hold, occupation authorities revoked the right to strike for public workers and then looked the other way as Japanese conservatives purged thousands of left-wing employees from the government and private sectors. The same year, in an effort to fashion Japan into a bulwark against communism, the Americans rehabilitated a number of disgraced wartime leaders and began prodding the Japanese government to rearm.

Among those granted amnesty on Christmas Eve 1948 was Nobusuke Kishi, a shrewd and callous bureaucrat who oversaw a regime of forced labor in northeastern China in the 1930s and had signed the declaration of war against the United States. Restored to public life, Kishi went on to broker the unification of Japanese conservatives to form the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 1955. In 1957, he was made prime minister, placing him at the center of the Anpo demonstrations three years later. That a man the Allies indicted as a war criminal emerged as one of America’s greatest supporters in Japan was one of the many strange ironies that marked the US occupation, as anticommunism eclipsed earlier democratic commitments.

A revolution in political rights and a counterrevolution to suppress the left—these two faces of the occupation’s reform efforts clashed over America’s final demand, the Anpo treaty. In exchange for the return of national sovereignty in April 1952, Japan gave away a share of it in advance, ceding to the United States close to 3,000 military facilities across the archipelago, as well as the administration of the Ryukyu Islands, including Okinawa. No expiration or renewal date was specified. Under the terms of the treaty, the United States could deploy its forces in Japan to anywhere in Asia without consulting the Japanese government. Scandalously, America was even permitted to use its troops against the Japanese, in the event of “internal riots or disturbances”—a nod to the enduring American fear of a revolution from the left.

Critics across the political spectrum in Japan decried this arrangement. On the left, no small number would have preferred an alliance with China and the Soviet Union. Many more—about half the country, according to contemporary polls—favored an official policy of neutrality. The only real constituency for the Anpo treaty was a faction of LDP members who saw advantages in outsourcing Japan’s defense spending to the United States. And as it happened, they were the ones in power.

Japanese liberals and the left were dead set against Anpo. American nuclear testing and a series of conflicts between US troops and Japanese residents served to widen the opposition. In one instance, local women built shanties in the middle of a US artillery range near Mount Fuji and kept them occupied around the clock. An even more momentous struggle unfolded in Sunagawa, a village just west of Tokyo, where farmers were joined by members of the communist student league Zengakuren in a two-year campaign against the planned extension of a nearby American air base. The bloody clashes that took place around the perimeter of the base, pitting unarmed teenagers against police with batons, shocked the conscience of the nation. In the face of the public’s anger, President Dwight Eisenhower agreed to a 40 percent drawdown in the number of Americans stationed in Japan. The growing opposition gave Kishi the leverage he needed to renegotiate the terms of the alliance. But by then, millions of Japanese did not want a better deal with the United States. They wanted no deal at all.

The anti-Anpo movement was a broad church by the spring of 1959. In the ranks of the People’s Council for Preventing Revision of the Security Treaty, an umbrella organization established that year, were 134 organizations that included not only socialists, communists, and union members but also antinuclear and anti-base activists, student groups and women’s societies, Sinophiles and farmers’ cooperatives, and a slew of prominent intellectuals and artists. A shared antipathy for the American military bound these otherwise disparate groups together.

A miscalculation by Kishi catalyzed the opposition into an uprising that spread beyond political organizations to the population at large. On May 19, he attempted to force a vote on the revised security treaty in the lower house of the Diet. When Socialist Party representatives staged a sit-in to block it, the LDP speaker called in 500 police officers to clear the legislative chamber. People across the country watched on live TV as the members of the main opposition party were dragged one after another from the building. Then, shortly after midnight, the remaining legislators convened to vote on the new treaty. As the roll was called, the camera for the national broadcaster NHK lingered on the empty seats where the Socialists should have been.

The anger was instantaneous. “If we accept that the government is omnipotent, then we cannot also accept democracy,” declared the liberal political theorist Masao Maruyama in a scathing speech. “This is the choice that has been laid before us.” What followed was a solid month of protests. Across the country, hundreds of thousands assembled to call for the nullification of the treaty. Labor threw its weight into the struggle, with three general strikes called in June alone. But what most impressed observers at the time was the presence of the unaffiliated, as white-collar workers and mothers with babies strapped to their chests joined the crowds.

During the climax of the protests on June 15, the area around the Diet building offered a tableau of the vibrancy and violence at the heart of the postwar experience. Right-wing thugs wielding nail-studded staves laid into the protesters; students from Zengakuren stormed the gates of the Diet, occupying the inner compound into the night; and the demonstrations recorded their first death when Michiko Kanba, a young woman from Tokyo University, was killed as the students were driven back by riot police.

Kanba was given a martyr’s funeral three days later, as some 300,000 people jammed the streets surrounding the Diet in a final attempt to repeal the treaty. The LDP refused to change course. At midnight, a month after the revised treaty was voted through the lower house, it went into effect, per Diet procedure. “Many of the protesters sat where they were in silence until dawn before finally going their separate ways, stunned that the expenditure of so much energy and enthusiasm had seemingly all been for naught,” Kapur writes. Kishi announced his retirement four days later. The protests continued for a few more weeks, but in time they, too, reached their end.

The scale and intensity of the Anpo demonstrations took virtually every party involved by surprise. Politically active groups, from furthest right to furthest left, generally assumed that the average resident of Japan was apolitical. That so many people joined in the demonstrations seemed to augur a new day in Japanese politics. Writing in the summer of that year, Maruyama hailed the demonstrations as a vindication of Japanese democracy. For him, it proved that a system of government imposed by the American occupation had been embraced by the people.

Despondency was the most common reaction on the left. The artist Tetsumi Kudo literalized his despair by adorning a Tokyo gallery with flaccid duct tape sculptures in a series he titled The Philosophy of Impotence. Yet the left’s leadership also saw the demonstrations as the beginning of a new mass line. “Now, more than ever, we will no longer be completely absorbed by defensive struggles,” crowed the Japan Socialist Party Central Committee in a July 1960 report. Even some conservatives bought into this idea. In 1963, Hirohide Ishida, a leading figure in the LDP, harangued his party to modernize or face death by demographic change. Urbanization, rising education levels, and the growth of the industrial sector at the expense of agriculture, he warned, presaged a decisive socialist majority by 1970. As it turned out, the opposite was true: Within a decade, socialism’s electoral prospects had cratered.

What happened? The standard answer is economic growth. By the mid-1950s, the Japanese economy had entered what was then the fastest sustained period of growth in the history of modern capitalism. (China has since outstripped Japan’s record.) A good portion of this was achieved with industrial investment bought by suppressed domestic wages. But in a masterstroke, Hayato Ikeda, who replaced Kishi as prime minister, moved to dramatically raise workers’ wages, thereby shifting the economy from an export-led model to one based more on domestic consumption and buying support for the LDP in the process. The political significance of Ikeda’s Income Doubling Plan is difficult to overstate. In 1960, the JSP campaigned on a promise that under its rule, every Japanese family would be able to afford to drink milk three times a day. Ikeda’s policies doubled wages in seven years and opened the material trappings of a bourgeois lifestyle to all but the indigent. In doing so, they put national politics on an entirely new footing. When polled in 1967, nearly 90 percent of the Japanese saw themselves as middle class.

Kapur gives this account of the LDP’s success its due, but his real interest lies in the political transformations on the left and the right that took place after the signing of Anpo. Again and again, he shows how the issues that rent Japanese society through the 1950s were blunted not only by growing prosperity but also by new institutions that channeled conflicts toward less contentious and less public means of resolution. The realignment of US-Japanese relations was a case in point. The Eisenhower administration took Japan’s dependence for granted, and its diplomacy reflected this assumption; “proddings approaching the brutal” was how Secretary of State John Foster Dulles characterized his favored style of communicating with his Japanese counterparts.

After the chaos of 1960, President John F. Kennedy added a charm offensive to America’s repertoire in order to shore up the two countries’ relationship. To make up for the restrictions imposed on Japanese trade with China, the United States granted Japanese products privileged access to American markets. This largesse was paired with White House invitations to Ikeda and a concerted effort to consult more closely with the LDP on matters that affected Japan. A pattern of amicable collusion between Japanese and American leaders developed. To avoid another Anpo moment, they confined security matters to handshake agreements and secret pacts. Thus it wasn’t until 2010 that the Japanese government admitted it allowed the United States to keep nuclear warheads on Japanese territory during the Cold War, contradicting what the public had been led to believe about Japan’s prohibition of nuclear arms.

Domestic politics followed a similar pattern. Tacking away from Kishi’s brute-force approach, Ikeda tabled constitutional revisions, a fixation for LDP hard-liners since the end of the occupation, and began coordinating major policy decisions with the opposition parties. This gave them enough leverage to win some major concessions on welfare policy over the next decades, but it also co-opted challenges to the LDP’s rule. And wherever conciliation fell short, the courts and the police stepped in. Only weeks after the Anpo demonstrations ended, the Supreme Court upheld a Tokyo ordinance that required protesters to obtain a license before taking to the streets. Japanese police, whose budgets doubled in the five years after the demonstrations, found ways to curtail public gatherings through anti-loitering statutes and other existing laws.

What happened to the left in the midst of these political and economic changes presents the thorniest problem for Kapur’s argument. There is no doubt that 1960 was an unmitigated disaster for the left. In August, only months after the Anpo demonstrations failed, organized labor suffered a crushing defeat at the Mitsui Miike coal mine, when the largest strike in Japanese history was broken with deception and violence. In October the leader of the Socialist Party, Inejiro Asanuma, was murdered on live TV by a fanatical teenager who referred to himself as “Japan’s Hitler.” (In one of the stranger asides of American politics, the alt-right provocateur Gavin McInnes celebrated Asanuma’s assassination by reenacting it at the New York Metropolitan Republican Club in October of 2018, casting himself as the killer.) Kapur paints these events as harbingers of the Japanese left’s impending decline, but this is too deterministic and obscures the remarkable parallels between the fate of the left in Japan and across the world.

The strike at Miike was indeed a watershed moment for labor. In its aftermath, union leaders largely gave up the militancy they had relied on. Strikes were replaced with stage-managed wage offensives to secure annual raises that were worked out beforehand in negotiations with management, yet not until the 1980s did Japanese unions witness a major drop in their rolls.

The Japan Socialist Party presents a more ambiguous case. Unlike many of the socialist parties of Europe, the JSP never really toned down its Marxism. Into the mid-1980s, it continued to insist on the need for revolution, albeit one that would be carried out through parliamentary means instead of violence. Kapur echoes the scholarly consensus in arguing that this dogmatism prevented the JSP from ever posing a serious challenge to the LDP majority, and he attributes it to the leadership’s overly optimistic interpretation of the Anpo protests. But it is hard to see this as the definitive turning point in the party’s trajectory or its ideological dogmatism as the primary source of the party’s weakness.

The JSP’s parliamentary influence peaked in 1958 with around 36 percent of the seats in the lower house. The party lost seats in the following years, when a right-leaning faction sheared off to form the Democratic Socialist Party. But in the national elections held in November 1960, both the JSP and the LDP made substantial gains. (The real loser of 1960 was the DSP, which was punished by voters for its feckless attempt to occupy a middle ground between the protesters and the government.) In fact, the JSP continued to hold around 30 percent of the lower house throughout the 1960s. Yet mirroring the fate of the institutional left around the world, something finally broke at the end of the decade: In 1969, in a single election, the JSP lost over a third of its seats, and it never recovered.

If Kapur glosses over too many details of the left’s decline, he is still right that the outcome of the Anpo protests changed the face of Japanese politics. After 1960, the LDP’s Faustian bargain with the American military became the status quo. By no means did dissent end: The years after the Anpo protests saw a series of campaigns against nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War, and pollution that proved that certain causes were still able to put bodies into the streets. But these protests increasingly took place on the margins of Japanese public life, as vivid expressions of a fragmented minority. Never again would the opposition “possess the shared vision, unity, or organizational strength to mount the kind of truly massive nationwide protest movement seen in the summer of 1960,” Kapur writes. By the 1980s, protest itself had become a rarity. Looking back over the previous decades, the left intellectual Rokuro Hidaka lamented the replacement of politics by an “economism” that could contemplate only creature comforts and standards of living.

The events of the last decade provide a still-unfinished afterword of sorts to Japan at the Crossroads. Beginning with the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia,” a consensus has emerged in US foreign policy circles that China represents the gravest threat to American interests in this century. Our growing anxieties about East Asia have coincided with the return of the brazenly nationalist LDP leader Shinzo Abe, who won a second term as prime minister in 2012 and has led his party as far right as it has been since Kishi held the reins in the late 1950s. Abe’s primary goal is remilitarization, to be achieved through revising the constitutional constraints on Japan’s military spending and use of force. The result is that, once again, the military aspect of the Anpo treaty has emerged as the focal point of US-Japanese relations.

The parallels between the present moment and the years surrounding the Anpo protests are impossible to miss. There is the fact that Abe is Kishi’s grandson and claims he experienced his political awakening while listening to his grandfather discuss the demonstrations. Like Kishi, Abe has found that he can leverage US military strategy for his own agenda. In 2013, Abe, at the request of the Obama administration, forced through a draconian state secrets law. A year later, Abe’s administration unilaterally reinterpreted the Constitution to allow Japanese forces to come to the aid of the country’s allies, even if they were attacked outside Japanese territory.

If Abe can seem to be reprising Kishi’s act, the public’s response lends itself to historical analogy as well. What began with weekly vigils outside Abe’s residence in 2014 evolved, by the following year, into massive demonstrations in front of the Diet against his plans to amend the Constitution. At their height, the crowds exceeded 100,000—the most that a political movement has drawn in Japan for half a century. Even Japanese students were inspired to join in after decades of conspicuous absence from national politics.

But reading Japan at the Crossroads, one can’t help feeling struck by the sense that the recent revival of activism in Japan has yet to be accompanied by a commensurate return of political alternatives. Whereas the Anpo demonstrations of 1960 stemmed from the conviction that Japan should not bind itself to US foreign policy, the recent protests focused on “protecting” the Constitution, a formulation that recalls the anemic liberalism of pre-1945 Japan more than it does the ferment of the first postwar decades. And whereas the anti-Anpo coalition of the 1950s rallied around an expansive vision of Japanese democracy, the main demand of the recent protests was that Abe apologize and step down for violating the unspoken norms of the democratic process.

There is no going back to the left-wing politics of the mid-20th century, nor would such a return be desirable even it if were possible. Japan today faces a novel set of problems—from nuclear power to an aging population, from deindustrialization to figuring out a new relationship with China—all of which call for a new interpretation of the left’s long-held commitments. Yet if there is something worth recovering from the Anpo protesters, it is the scope of their political imagination and their conviction that the people of Japan could relate to one another and the rest of the world in a different and better way. Simply eliminating the Anpo treaty would not accomplish this, but on both sides of the Pacific, it should be asked what the alternatives to it are. The answers will be as fraught today as they were in 1960, but as we face a new century in which Japan and the United States seem poised to rearrange their bilateral commitments, it is a question worth asking again and again.

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