What was life like in Japan in the 1960s

Student protests in the 1960s
What happened at Tokyo University?

In the 1960s, protest movements achieved the greatest popularity in post-war Japanese history. The student movement in particular was very popular. In the late 1960s, the campus of the universities became the stage for protest movements across the country: first for protests against the Vietnam War and later for demonstrations against the planned revisions of the US-Japanese security treaty in 1970. The elite Tokyo University was no exception.

In 1968, 34 percent (or 127 universities) of eight-semester universities in Japan went on strike, called for a boycott or the buildings were barricaded. In 1969 this number rose to 41 percent (or 153 universities) and it should continue to increase.

Internal university problems, for which the students got involved in the protests, included a self-administration of the university facilities, an extension of the rights of students and a refusal to increase the tuition fees. In addition, the students criticized the nationalization of university administrative bodies, economic cooperation between universities and cooperation in the course of the Vietnam War. The movements at Tokyo University and Nihon University were particularly influential here. They were characterized by a long period of time, a large number of participants, a high level of influence on other universities and a strong presence in the media.

The beginning of the protest

The first organized student movements in modern Japan began in 1918 at Tokyo University. In that year the student umbrella organization "Shinjin Kai" was founded at Tokyo Imperial University (later: University of Tokyo). The "Shinjin Kai" acted as the initiator of national student associations. That is why the University of Tokyo formed the ideal and organizational leadership of the Japanese student movement from that moment until the end of the 1960s, whereby its great influence was based on its status as a “training center for the elite”.

And it was there, in the center of the student movement, that all ten faculties went on strike in the fall of 1968 - what had happened?

The reason for the protests at the University of Tokyo was the demand for the abolition of the "internship system" that medical students had to complete nationwide since the late 1940s.
The internship system required students to attend unpaid training without further qualification after graduating from medical school. The system made it possible for “interns” to be deployed to compensate for the ongoing labor shortage in the medical field.

In January 1968, all classes of the Tokyo University Medical Faculty went on strike. This strike led to expulsion from the university and the de-registration of ringleaders. Seventeen students, many of whom had not even attended the protest, were punished and four of them were de-registered.

Because the medical school refused to enter into negotiations with the students, the medical students occupied the Yasuda Auditorium on the Hongo Campus on June 15, 1968 to draw more attention to the grievances.

Two days after the occupation began, on June 17, 1968, the university administration called in the riot police to break down the barricades. The students viewed this practice of using the police to solve university problems as a violent violation of the university's autonomy. The use of the riot police was condemned outside the medical faculty as well, and the student movement gained further popularity. Everywhere called for an apology for this drastic move and a suspension of the punishment of the students.
At the University of Tokyo itself, the protest activities in the form of meetings and discussion groups extended to all faculties and also to the graduate school. Finally, on June 26, 1968, the students of the humanities faculty went on strike without notice. From the summer vacation until the beginning of October, this strike then spread to all ten faculties.

Revolution of the Elite

At the law faculty, the strike lasted the shortest, at around 1.5 months, and at the humanities faculty, at almost 1.5 years, until the end of 1969, the longest. During the strike, the students boycotted lectures, research activities, erected barricades on campus and prepared their protests in these barricades.

With their actions, the students deepened their fellow students 'awareness of the problem and had discussions with faculty members who were not ready to respond to the students' demands. In this way, a consensus arose far beyond the medical faculty on the importance of questioning the university system. The University of Tokyo was still the "school of the elite", which should train the next generations, develop new technologies and offer students a high social status. But now the students questioned this status, asked whether they were not just a cog in the machine to keep the university system going. With slogans such as “Daigaku Kaitai” (“Disassemble the universities!”) And “Jigohitei” (“Shed your status!”), They looked for alternative paths for their studies and research.

At the same time, the students also had connections to protests outside the university. In the wake of their strike, many of them went to demonstrations and rallies by left-wing parties discussing the Vietnam War, the 1970 Security Treaty and the return of Okinawa.

Nevertheless, the protests at Tokyo University ultimately ended in a "defeat". Many students - even the radical left members of the Communist Party of Japan (JCP) - worried about the length of the strikes and began dismantling the barricades in late autumn 1968. So the demonstrations ended without the students' demands being met. After a fight with riot police, all barricades were lifted on January 18-19, 1969, including the infamous Yasuda Auditorium on Hongo Campus.

The legacy of the student protests

It is generally understood that the student protests in Japan ended at this point. The last rebels, who kept the Yasuda Auditorium manned with helmets, poles and Molotov cocktails, were overpowered by the riot police with water cannons and tear gas. Television recordings and documentaries anchored the moment as the failure of the movement in public memory and linked the end of the occupation of the Yasuda Auditorium with the end of the student movement of the 1960s.

For some students at Tokyo University, however, the questioning of their own status and role in university operations continued even after the protests had ended. A survey I did with protesters at the time showed that they carried out active self-questioning even after the protests and that, in their view, the deployment of the riot police was responsible for the fact that the protest movement's goals had not been achieved. For example, a researcher with prospects for a bright future gave up his career and instead published papers on “Alternative Practices for Knowledge Transfer” and held readings to make them available to the general public. Others found themselves confronted with similar questions again after leaving university, such as the distribution of decision-making powers when starting a company or discussions about teaching staff among their own children. Still others continued their social engagement in non-profit associations and advocate, among other things, environmental protection, a reform of medical facilities, an independent life for people with disabilities and the emancipation of women and minorities.

Due to the tense relationship between these participants and the communist party, the actions of the protesters at the time (unlike in Germany) did not lead to the formation of a new left in parliament. What is certain, however, is that the protest movements at Tokyo University have outgrown grassroots movements that still question the power structures and norms of society today.