We are in a difficult position of political stagnation, even a certain historical impasse. The Japanese Left suffers from two major legacies of its own past: the residual Stalinism of the Japanese Communist Party, and the simplistic anti-communism of the sixties generation. To understand the first, one needs to look back at the origins of the JCP. The Party, founded in 1922, was led in the mid-twenties by Fukumoto Kazuo,† an intellectual of considerable theoretical gifts, trained in Germany, where he studied Lukács and was close to Karl Korsch. According to Fukumoto, the principle the Party should follow was ‘separation–connexion’—it needed first to take its distance from any easy trade unionism by developing a genuine class-consciousness, and then to return to build a mass basis in the working class. In 1927 the Comintern cracked down on this ‘left extremism’. Bukharin declared that the immediate battle in Japan was against feudalism; and when the JCP, a few years later, again started to speak of the need for a socialist revolution, the Comintern issued a second set of theses, in 1932, reiterating the priority of anti-feudal tasks. In the background was the famous Koza–Rono debate among Marxist historians. According to the Koza school, the Meiji restoration was only a transition of power within feudalism, and the next upheaval should be a bourgeois revolution. According to the Rono school (including the famous theoretician Uno Kozo), the Meiji restoration was a bourgeois revolution, and the next upheaval should be a socialist revolution. At least on the character of Japanese society in the early twentieth century, the Rono school had a better understanding. But it was unilaterally criticized by the Comintern and excommunicated from the Party. In this way, the Party lost brilliant intellectuals in those years.footnote1

The outcome of the interventions from Moscow was to impose a very rigid Stalinism on the JCP, which has remained a stubborn trait of the Party to this day. But the peculiar character of the JCP isn’t just a product of this inheritance. Equally important was the repression it suffered in the thirties, when its entire leadership was arrested and imprisoned, and after a long public trial received huge jail sentences. The Japanese state went to great lengths to secure public recantations from Leftists, and was generally very successful in ‘turning’ prominent Marxists into professed converts to the Imperial regime—the phenomenon known as tenko. But some of the Communist leaders resisted. Under extreme pressure, they refused to convert, and so had a great moral authority when they were released after the war. We must admire their courage, under extreme militarist oppression. But after the Second World War, their ethical aura became a substitute for political intelligence. Personal courage is one thing; political responsibility is another. The JCP became a gramophone record of moralizing self-righteousness. ‘Our brave comrades didn’t yield under the worst pressures—that’s the proof we are right’. Nothing could be more sterile as an attitude.

You couldn’t exactly say that. The most important post-war leader of the party, Miyamoto Kenji, was a leading literary critic in his youth, who won a major prize for his analysis of Akutagawa Ryonosuke’s novels—relegating Kobayashi Hideo, possibly the nearest Japanese equivalent to a Walter Benjamin, to second position in the competition. This was in the twenties; Kobayashi was outraged by the result. In the thirties Miyamoto was imprisoned in the remote countryside of Hokkaido, where he held out against his jailers unflinchingly. After the war this earned him such moral glory that he was all but deified within the Party. By 1958 he was General Secretary, and for the next twenty years ruled the JCP with a mailed fist. Official doctrine was still frozen by Stalinist insistence that Japan was not capitalistic enough and that the main enemy was a feudal-imperial system. So after the war the JCP continued to downplay any direct attack on Japanese capitalism. But now it avoided talking about the emperor-system too, as it had once done; instead it concentrated its fire on American colonialism and imperialism. The result was that in domestic practice it became more and more moderate, but in theory it remained as dogmatic as ever—indeed, eventually criticizing both the Russian and Chinese Parties for changing too much. There was one significant attempt to break this mould, when younger cadres like Ueda Koichiro and his younger brother Fuwa Tetsuzo tried in the late fifties to develop an Italian-style strategy, inspired by Togliatti, of structural reforms within the parliamentary system. Miyamoto crushed this revolt with great violence, and the youngsters were forced to criticize themselves. Fuwa was brought to heel and eventually chosen as heir to Miyamoto, since he had committed himself to continuing Miyamoto’s policies, while no doubt inwardly knowing they led nowhere. So the Communist Party became more and more solitary, more and more self-righteous, cast in the petrified image of Miyamoto, with his iron will and heroic past. A sad story.

Yes, the ingredients were much the same, but the mixture arrived sooner. Politically, a powerful critique of the JCP’s outlook was available from the late fifties, when Iwata Hiroshi—a pupil of the famous Marxist theoretician, Uno Kozo—published a book called World Capitalism. It is almost Wallerstein already. For Iwata, what the Left had to fight was not the remnants of Japanese feudalism, or just American hegemony, but Japanese capitalism as an integral part of the world capitalist system. His theory had a big impact on a trotskisant youth, providing it with an intellectual weapon against the JCP’s stage-ism. It was an emphatic assertion of the capitalist modernity of the country. Another kind of criticism of the Party came from the opposite direction. Here the key figure was Yoshimoto Takaaki, a poet and literary critic who brought a purified notion of ‘the masses’ to the fore—not so much in the sense of Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin, but rather in a rejection of doctrines imported from Moscow. Instead of such foreign conceptions, the Left should listen to the mass of the Japanese people themselves, starting from their needs and concerns. This line appealed strongly to the romantic strain in the cultural underground at the time, where many young people were reading Feuerbach more than Marx.

The Japanese New Left arose out of the confluence of these different elements. They made a potent concoction, which set off a protest movement well before its counterparts in the other capitalist countries. Already in 1960 the JCP looked outmoded, as the Party was outflanked by the Zengakuren—the national student organization, now ‘captured by Trotskyists’, as the JCP saw it—in huge mass mobilizations against the renewal of the Security Treaty with the US.footnote2 This was also the period of the last big struggle of labour against capital in Japan, the great miners’ strike against Mitsui. By the late sixties a very powerful front of revolutionary youth had built up, which mounted another spectacular battle over the Treaty in 1970. But by then, the movement had become more and more subjectivist and romantic, either pursuing an illusory unity with the masses or seeking a quasi-erotic communality of its own, in a Feuerbachian or Marcusean spirit.

Yes, but there was a specific Japanese twist to it. In the West, the radicalization came out of—or gave rise to—issues that later found expression in new social movements: the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Britain, early forms of ecological concern, the beginnings of second-wave feminism. In Japan, although the campaign against the war in Vietnam was very strong, these elements were all much weaker. The romanticism of the movement was more martial and male-chauvinist. So when its impetus was frustrated, it turned more quickly and disastrously to internal violence. In 1972 the terrorism of the United Red Army consumed itself, when its adherents killed each other in a pseudo-military camp on Mount Asama. The shock of that episode effectively gave the quietus to the Feuerbachian, Luxemburgian turmoil of the sixties. The following year, the oil crisis brought the very rapid growth of the previous two decades to a close. It was the end of an epoch.

This was background music, more than direct influence. When the Sino-Soviet split occurred, the JCP refused to align itself with the Russians—Miyamoto purged those loyal to Moscow. But two years later, in 1966, he also broke with the Chinese. Here you could say that the self-righteousness of Japanese Communism, an insufferable feature within the country, did include a nationalist reflex that eventually served it well—since, by the nineties, it could say: we didn’t allow ourselves to be told what to do by the Russians, let alone the Chinese or the Americans, so why should we be affected by the fall of the USSR or the turn of the PRC to the US? At the time, of course, the Japanese Communists were, in practice, closer to the Soviet than the Chinese line, while the student movement was closer to Maoism. But the Cultural Revolution never had the same degree of appeal for Japanese youth as it did for French or Italian. We were too close to China to be unaware of the atrocities committed during the Cultural Revolution, so Maoist influence remained relatively limited. The Japanese Left remained essentially divided between a Stalinist-style Communist Party and a heroic-romantic New Left. For twenty years of very fast economic progress, from 1950 to 1970, Japan had an extremely active leftist movement, first led by the JCP, then relayed by the students. But by 1973 everything came to a halt, as we entered the dismal seventies.