Interview with Brian Hioe on Japanese Marxism (archive 2012)

Brian Hioe is a member of the  Platypus Affiliated Society  and an undergraduate at New York University.


C. Derick Varn:  Recently, you spent time in Japan and did some detailed research on the history of Marxism in Japan and its current incarnations.  Briefly, what did you discover about the types of Marxism that have developed there?

Brian Hioe: It’s hard to sum up, of course, but if we are to speak of Marxism as it existed in the pre or post World War II periods, to broadly generalize, I would say that in the earlier broader sense that these forms of Marxism are more generally bound up with the problem of Asian modernity and Marxism in a non-European context.  This is largely the question of how to accomplish the aims of Marxist revolution in a country that does not fit the classical category of an advanced industrial nation as one sees with early Marxists before World War II in the Meiji and Taisho periods.  As might be expected, this is more generally inflective of broader issues of concern with Western-imported thought and its applicability to an Asian context, which was, of course, by no means a phenomenon unique to Japan, but a particularly prominent issue during these periods.

Following World War II and the period of Japanese militarism in which Marxism became outlawed and was forced to operate underground, the problems of Japanese Marxism becomes the question of the Soviet Union and the differing responses to it, even as this is in itself remains bound up with previous questions of Asian modernity.  For example, the dividing line between the splits in Marxist groups in Japan was often the question of whether Japan has accomplished a bourgeois revolution or whether this remained to be done.  Although to be sure, there was much doctrinaire infighting on such grounds, the political implications were such that the (Stalinist) Japanese Communist Party held Japan to have not accomplished a bourgeois revolution, presumably so as to provide justification for Popular Front-ism and the like.  Contrastingly, the later anti-Stalinist groups such as the Zengakuren, which rose to international fame in the 1960s, generally originated in but broke from the Japanese Communist Party, were often conflicted upon this issue, and this served as a dividing line among the Zengakuren groups.

On the other hand, if we are to consider the contemporary state of Marxism as it currently exists in contemporary Japan, I would say that the specter of postwar Marxism has not yet been exorcised—its influences still remain in some sense.  So far as I spent a great deal of my time on the Japanese Left, the groups I encountered came out of this history as either groups surviving from this period, newer groups whose political imagination is such that efforts are made to reenact postwar, 1960s-style Marxism as a viable model to be emulated, or, alternatively, the attempt to break with this history altogether in a manner so as to precisely avoid this type of Marxism.  These seem to me to represent differing, somewhat schismatic responses to the history of postwar Japanese Marxism.
C.D.V.:  Does Japanese Marxism break down on non-Leninist, Trotskyist, and Maoist lines like in the US or are there differently delinated groups in response to local concerns?

B.H.: Yes, much as with the US and elsewhere, Japanese Marxism breaks down upon non-Leninist, Trotskyist and Maoist lines, though the history is at variance. The most historically prominent group up until the postwar period is likely the Japanese Communist Party, which adhered to the Soviet Union and in that way can be said to be Stalinist, although it begins to distance itself from the Soviet Union in the 1950s, took no sides in the Sino-Soviet split. Its relationship with its prior antecedents became unclear in this way. So I am not sure where to categorize such a group, since it is clearly not Trotskyist or Maoist group, and at least today would by no means refer to itself as a Stalinist group. What I don’t know is if Lenin is still upheld, if the group can be called non-Leninist, nor the exact points any shift in this discourse occurs. My own suspicion is that the relationship of the JCP to its prior history is made opaque by its statements disavowing the brutality of the Soviet Union but also criticizing Eastern European states for rejecting socialism and embracing capitalism and, in this way, any engagement with this history that works through it in its messiness is glossed over. For all its touting as the world’s largest Communist party, it is, in fact, a group you rarely ever see today on the Japanese “Left” and it is rarely included, as such.

To raise the Zengakuren again, as the most prominent group of the postwar period, of the groups that were known under the name Zengakuren, some originated in splitting from the Japanese Communist Party. Trotskyism appears in the group in the form of groups as the Kakumaru-ha faction, which originates in a split from the Japanese Revolutionary Communist League National Committee, which was affiliated with the Fourth International, and in some fashion thereby claimed for itself the mantle of being the first Japanese Trotskyist group. By the time the Kakumaru-ha formed in 1959 as a further split from the Japanese Revolutionary Communist League and became one of the groups known under the mantle of the Zengakuren, it was known as a Trotskyist group. However, other Zengakuren were alternatively Maoist, and some anti-revolutionary Marxists, the latter of which naturally tended towards the critique of Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, et al. The Zengakuren is often thought of as Japan’s “New Left,” equivalent in some fashion to the American SDS, but although it was also a student group, it originates over a decade earlier, and was never one discrete organization but a conglomeration of groups and groupuscules. Furthermore, if the Japanese Revolutionary Communist League was in fact the first Japanese Trotskyist group, that dates the origin of Japanese Trotskyism to 1957. So, then, while the presence of Maoist or non-Leninist groups in the Zengakuren is not a surprise for a group which grows to prominence in the 1968 period, the presence of the Kakumaru-ha in the Zengakuren as a Trotskyist organization would point to the difficulty of establishing any“Old Left” or “New Left” distinction as we use these terms in the United States, so far as the New Left can be characterized by suspicion of Old Left Trotskyist groups. Yet the categorical divisions do remain much the same, I think, even if the history is different.

To speak of Marxist groups in present day Japan, however, I encountered non-Leninist and Trotskyist (or formerly Trotskyist) groups, but rarely ever any Maoist groups. I suspect the reason for the lack of Maoist groups might be anti-Chinese sentiment in regards to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which does not provide much space for Maoist groups to breathe, but this may be casting aspersions a bit too far. A number of the groups that composed the Zengakuren are still around and remain active and so can be termed today’s Trotskyists; for example, there have been a number of English language translations in the last decade of the publications of Kakumaru-ha’s theoretician-leader, Kuroda Kan’ichi that appear to come from what it is that remains of the Kakumaru-ha. Other Zengakuren groups, too, are active that continue to organize demonstrations, especially in relation to the anti-nuclear movement. Likewise, there remain a number of Trotskyist labor unions, even if between some of them there seems to have been some distance between them and Trotsky and more of an attempt to return to Lenin. Otherwise, there are non-Leninist groups that embrace“democratic socialism”, some of which are also splits from the Japanese Communist Party, such as the Zenko group at whose conference in I spoke at in Osaka in August 2012, or the closely aligned Movement for Democratic Socialism (MDS).

C.D.V.:  How have Japanese Marxists dealt with the periodic resurgence of local Nationalism?

B.H.:  It’s a tough question. While I was in Japan, navigating among different Left groups, I did not encounter any mobilizations specifically addressing nationalism, except as more broadly a phenomenon stemming from and intimately bound up with the Japanese Right. The predominant political issue on the Left is or was, after all, the anti-nuclear movement, although, rather interestingly, the anti-nuclear movement raised questions of nationalism given that far Right groups were also participants alongside Left Marxist and anarchist groups and were sometimes among the most militant and dramatic of participating groups at protests.

To the extent that I saw nationalism addressed as specifically nationalism by the Japanese Marxist Left, it was in regards to figures as the far Right mayors of Tokyo and Osaka, Ishihara and Hashimoto, respectively, but these are figures so large as to cut across multiple domains—in addressing these ultra-nationalist figures, it was on issues such as their support for nuclear energy, their abuse of labor, militarist provocations, or their censorship policies rather than specifically on the issue of nationalism, although it probably need not be said that such policies are intimately bound up with nationalism. I was not in Japan during the time that Ishihara formed his Sunrise Party and Hashimoto his Japan Restoration Party, or when the two parties merged, so I can’t speak for the response, except to report a general wave of despair and resignation expressed at that time among my acquaintances in Japan. The Japan Restoration Party aimed at organizing as a “third force” in relation to the two major parties of the“center-right” Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and “center-left” Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), although it must be noted that it is the former which gave rise to the Japan Restoration Party. Again, I don’t know of any mobilizations around that might have occurred, given my lack of proximity, nor what along what lines such mobilizations might have organized. For example, there are sectors of the Japanese Left modeled upon the European anti-fa, but these are primarily anarchist, rather than Marxist in nature, and I never saw any anti-nationalist demonstrations or organizational by them—of course, it could be that I just failed to notice. I also suspect that nationalism and the national question may be an issue that is left opaque, whether cynically or unconsciously, by aspects of the Japanese Marxist Left more reformist in nature in operating within the status quo of the electoral system, even when they lay claim to an putative internationalisms. This may be I myself being cynical in this case; however, like I raised earlier, the specters of North Korea and China does provoke strong national sentiment even among certain individuals who self-identify as being on the “Left”.
Nevertheless, so far as the rise of the Japan Restoration Party is coterminous with the return to power of the LDP that had dominated Japanese politics since World War II through one-party rule until the emergence of the DPJ in 1998, some left-liberal commentators speak of the permanent decline of the DPJ and, accordingly, the failure of Japan’s experiment with genuine democracy. So while it may be simplifying the contours of the Japanese political situation to say so, likely, in the changed political landscape, nationalism will become a issue that the Japanese Left will be required to address in a more definitive way if it is to be able to respond in any effective manner.

C.D.V.:  How exactly do you think anti-Chinese tendencies have complicated things in Japan?

B.H.:   For the Left, that’s actually somewhat unclear to me. I suppose it has to do with the relation of the Left to the rest of society. The specter of China is one that can evoke the fears related to Japan’s territorial sovereignty, not to mention Japan’s military capacities, and in this way the issue is very frequently a rallying call for the far Right who, after all, would like to see a renewed Japanese militarism in order to maintain Japan’s territorial sovereignty or perhaps reclaim Japan’s territorial boundaries of old. The specter of China, too, is bound up with specter of North Korea because of China’s being North Korea’s ally; in fact, sometimes the calling out of North Korea is really a cipher for China. Yet while this is very frequently an issue of concern for the Japanese Right and far Right, China can be an issue that evokes strong feelings among liberals, as well, and can serve to sometimes draw out sentiments of nationalism.

Hence the tricky position of the Left. This may be somewhat speculative, as I never saw any much in the way of direct addressing of the issue, but with the sections of the Japanese far Left that work in or through Japanese liberalism, sometimes bleeding into reformist politics, probably China proves an issue to be worked around rather than directly addressed. For example, one of the various Japanese Occupy groups I encountered while in Japan had a Twitter account that was spewing out tweets inflecting a somewhat nationalistic anti-Chinese sentiment. I think this example is illustrative of some of the antinomies that the Left needs to navigate in Japan. So far as Occupy in its global incarnations encompassed perspectives not strictly “Left”or “far Left” but very often left-liberal, such a group (or whoever running the Twitter account) would claim the internationalism of the Occupy mantle of the“99% versus the 1%” in addressing global economic inequality, but simultaneously express nationalist sentiment in relation to China.

In other words, the China issue is one which brings out the difficulty of the Japanese Left in working in a political milieu in which the China issue can bring out nationalist sentiment even among liberal and left-liberals—even, of course, if the Left itself is not invulnerable to falling prey to nationalism either. And, indeed, I think part of it may also be the difficulties of calling one’s self “socialist,” “Communist,” or “Marxist” in Japan with the examples of “actually existing socialism” of China and North Korea all too close for comfort. But that seems to be a problem generally for Marxists in East Asia.


C.D.V.:  And are there more attempts at fusion of Marxist and Hegelian concepts with local developments in the Japanese left than has been discussed?
B.H.:  There are some examples, but not many that I know of, and many of these belong to an early era. Part of it is, I think, the relative prominence of Marxism in the Japanese social sciences following World War II, but that Japan does not experience a Marx renaissance. Rather, after the turbulent 1960s, Marxism goes into a decline in Japanese academia.  I’ll go into what I do know.

For example, the school of Japanese “Hegelian Marxism” I know about is the “Uno School,” an economic school which follows from the thought of Japanese Marxian economist Uno Kozo (1897-1977). Uno’s two most prominent students are Thomas T. Sekine (Sekine Tomohiko) and Makoto Itoh (Itoh Makoto), of which I interviewed the former (forthcoming in the Platypus Review). The Uno School is very often touted as a “Hegelian Marxism” in western circles so far as Sekine is the primary English-language advocate for the Uno School and his interpretation of the Uno School has a Hegelian spin, which has led to the criticism that he, in fact, over-Hegelianizes the Uno School. In any case, Sekine’s contention is that the dialectical account of the development of Geist provides a means of understanding of capital, in regards to the movements of capital being dialectical—Hegel’s mistake, so to say, being that he mistook what is historically specific to capital for the developmental tendencies of the human spirit. So, then, does Sekine provide a reading of Capital which overlays Hegel’s Logic onto it, in order to serve the enterprise of an economics that is held to be objective knowledge. It is entirely not clear to me how much of this Hegelian Marxian thought is present in the work of Uno Kozo himself.

Likewise, I already mentioned Kuroda Kan’ichi (1927-2006) in relation to the Zengakuren, as the theoretician-leader of the Kakumaru-ha. Kuroda was one of Uno Kozo’s interlocutors in his day, during the heyday of the Japanese Marxist groups, and in his Methodology of Social Science: A Critique of Uno Kozo’s Theory of Economics, he critiques the understanding of capital produced by the Uno School as fundamentally bourgeois in nature, because Uno Kozo’s interpretation of Capital rearranges the work so as to begin with “circulation.” His contention is that Marx wrote Capital to be understood by members of the proletariat which is why the work begins with “production,” in relation to the proletariat’s being directly embedded in the processes of production. He poses a reading of Capitalthat, instead, reads the Phenomenology of Spirit onto Capital, as the bildungsroman coming-to-self-consciousness of the proletarian, Karl Marx. It is not entirely clear to me how much of Kuroda further elaborates on his forays into Hegelian Marxian, because his books are rather hard to obtain, although they were actually translated into English by the present day Kakumaru-ha in the 90s and 2000s, and I know his thought coheres into some sort of body.

There are also later academic readings of Hegel and Marx, such as Uchida Hiroshi’s reading of Hegel’s Logic onto the Grundrisse (Marx’s Grundrisse and Hegel’s Logic 1988) but I know much less about this, and I’m not aware of any schools of thought that emerge from these attempts.  Again, I would think this is attendant with the decline of Marxism in the Japanese academy.  Obviously, there is more than I mention here.  I should also add by way of caveat that I’m limited to reading English language texts, my Japanese being too poor at present to read theoretical texts, so there is likely much I am not aware of, but such is my perception.
C.D.V.: Does the experience of left-wing tramas like that United Red Army’s impolsion and the Japanese Red Army’s Lod Airport massacre have effect on the current Japanese left?

B.H.:  Yes, I would say so, though I wouldn’t necessarily tie it down to any single event as to the general history of 60s violence. For example, in the anti-nuclear movement, even as a number of Left groups hoped to use the issue as a radicalizing issue for the public, the organizers of the weekly protests on the Japanese capitol in Tokyo (which, at times, numbered in the tens if not hundreds of thousands), sought to avoid the expression of explicit political views. It eventually became clear that the organizers were, in some fashion, coordinating with the police that was otherwise restricting the protests’ actions, when it became noticeable that the organizers’ signs directing people were the same signs the police had. In other words, what was feared was that the protests would rupture the norms of civil society in a way that would be alienating. To make the Occupy connection again, I was reminded of Occupy, in which the question of radical views quite possibly alienating public from the protest of broader issues versus the use of broader issues as a way of radicalizing the public was also an issue.

In Japan, as with most places, the employment of violence carries societal stigma, but I think in the Japanese context it’s especially haunting of the far Left in relation to the history of the 1960s. The last thing you’d see at a protest would be any form of black bloc. After events as the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attacks, which were, of course, acts of violence carried out by a religious cult, and which was profoundly disruptive of society, Left groups tend to get lumped into the category of being violent cults themselves because of their history. Or Left groups are perceived as being much the same as violent right-wing groups; certainly, sometimes hyperbolic discourse about revolution can sound not dissimilar.

I might mention here the widespread police surveillance of Left-wing groups that takes place in Japan. Of course, very often on the Left, groups which are not at all any threat to the state want to feel as though they were important enough to be observed by the state and so claim to see police surveillance everywhere. But I’ve attended meetings in Japan with an attendance of only a dozen people, advertising of which was conducted almost entirely through the Internet, in which undercover police were present. Undercover police have a habit of standing en masse outside of meetings of radical labor union organizations with notepads, as though they were monitoring individuals, even when a lot of this might just be psychological intimidation. Furthermore, protests in Japan are usually accompanied by disproportionately large numbers of police—a protest consisting of only about fifty people might be accompanied by an escort of fifty or more policemen. Given that the regulation of the police is overwhelming, a public that very often just wants to avoid trouble is deterred from the far Left by way of societal stigmas reinforced in this way.

This degree of police surveillance is certainly a response to the history of 60s violence and, in that way, restricting of the Left’s activity. Yet the effect of 60s violence that I would point to on the Left is the schismatic response of the Japanese Left to this. Again, in the example of the anti-nuclear movement, in order to maintain civil respectability and mass appeal, sections of the Left sometimes attempt to curb their radicalism in order to avoid alienation. As is not surprising, this proves problematic for anything that provides for more than reformist politics. Contrastingly, other sections of the Japanese Left react by embracing the iconography of Japanese sixties radicalism in order to play up their militancy—for example, the iconic Zengakuren helmets and the distinctive aesthetic of sixties protest banners. As is also not surprising, this is, in fact, alienating to the general public. So far as I observe, in this way, the response on the Left tends to be divergent in these opposing directions, both problematic in their own way, both responses to the legacy of the 1960s.

C.D.V.: What do see happening in he Japanese left after the brief flicker that was Occupy in Asia?

B.H.:  Occupy was never very big in Japan—it was more of a one-day protest action in 2011. However, many groups adopted the Occupy name and the slogan of the “99% versus the 1%” afterwards, and I encountered a number of groups calling themselves Occupy or using Occupy-based slogans. I was intimately involved in particular with a group that called itself Occupy Tokyo Action. There were other groups, but they weren’t very large. By no means on the scale of the Occupy movement in the US.

Other times, established organizations adapted the Occupy name but, in that way, it actually became quite rhetorical. Sometimes groups would just add the slogans of Occupy the rhetoric of the 99% and the 1% to all the preexisting slogans and self-identified labels, and it would just became another protest chant or declarative statement of self-assertion: “We are the ninety-nine percent!”

So far as I was coming off of Occupy to Japan because I was living there in the spring and summer of 2012, sometimes it was clear to me what exactly Occupy was was actually not entirely understood—for example, that impetus behind the original concept of Occupy was the occupation of a public space. So people were calling themselves Occupy but not entirely knowing that means, I think, and people were claiming the mantle of the 99% but not necessarily in a manner where it was meaningful. I was invited to speak about Occupy several times by individuals or organizations, but while I sought to adopt a critical stance and offer something else than what was purely salutary, I think people often thought what I had to say was unexpected or counterintuitive.

For example, something I tried to do when invited by leftists or leftist groups to talk on Occupy was to frame Occupy in the context of the Left—which was sometimes surprising to people, who didn’t see Occupy as a leftist movement. Well, to be sure, it was too heterogeneous to call it that, so I agreed, but why else should there be this interest in Occupy, then, on the Japanese Left? That was something I found myself wondering very often. And I’m not sure what people were hoping to get out learning from someone who had been observant of and involved in Occupy—in my talks, I very often tried to point out or gesture towards my own perceived imperfections of Occupy, which wasn’t always what people wanted to hear. This may just be me being overcritical of everything, which is generally the tendency on my part. Still, it also did make me quite hopeful that there was this interest in global events relevant to the Left.

What was larger, of course, but also interrelated was the anti-nuclear movement. The original anti-nuclear movement post-3/11 had tapered off, but when I was in Japan, the Japanese government’s plan to restart the nuclear reactors in Fukui and Oi sparked a resurgence of the anti-nuclear movement. As I mentioned, at one point, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people were marching every Friday on the Japanese capitol in Kasumigaseki, which is a district of Tokyo. This came out of the blue, so far as the anti-nuclear marches on the capitol had continued weekly and there was even a sort of Occupy-esque tent, Tento Hiroba, in Kasumigaseki. But although Tento Hiroba had managed to resist all attempts to evict it for over a year, when I first arrived in Japan, these marches consisted of only about several hundred people, though they resembled the casseroles marches. Yet that these marches had gone on for over a year since 3/11, even with the loss of momentum, provided the site for the reinvigoration of the anti-nuclear movement in regards to providing for weekly protest actions of thousands. Very quickly, it became clear that these were the largest demonstrations since the 1960s though, as I said, perhaps the emphasis upon social and civil respectability in these demonstrations was because of the lingering stigma of the sixties.

I mentioned being reminded of Occupy in the Japanese Left—it was through the anti-nuclear movement that I was. Some aspects of the anti-nuclear movement saw themselves as in the spirit of Occupy, including those who I was involved with. But my own perception was that the anti-nuclear movement was, in some sense, the actual Japanese Occupy. While, of course, it actually outnumbered Occupy in New York by several orders of magnitude, and the cause wasn’t the same, what I felt was that it had many of the same problems as Occupy. The question of radical views versus an appeal to populism, also the issue of how to make one issue into an entry point into a broader panoply of political issues. Likewise, the question of leadership between groups, the relation of the movement to police actions, and the issue of attempting to make a movement grow, but towards what purpose? Such were the questions at hand.

Still, if we’re to tie these issues together, Occupy and the anti-nuclear movement, in relation to the current state of the Japanese Left, I honestly don’t know. The anti-nuclear movement wasn’t growing significantly larger, and after the high point of a mass demonstration in Yoyogi Park, near Harajuku, in late July, eventually at some point the protests saw a decline. I think there’s been somewhat of a vacuum since, and a sense of confusion on the Japanese Left of what is to come next—especially since the issue was never resolved in any decisive way, but just became somewhat obfuscated and, in that way, buried. We shall see. Is there potential for a third resurgence? I don’t know, although protests continue, and the two year mark has arrived.  But what concerns me is that I don’t see people asking this question of themselves.


C.D.V.:  Anything you’d like to say in closing?

B.H.: Just that, fundamentally, I think the issues of the Japanese Left are the same issues that the Left faces the world over. Much of what the Japanese Left faces, I think, are the issues that the international Left across the world faces, except that such issues are configured differently in regards to the specifics of Japanese history. I’ve mentioned the Occupy parallel many times, also the shared problems faced by the Left in East Asia where it proves difficult to call one’s self a Marxist because of the specter of “actually existing socialism.” What this points at is the need for an international politics that operates at more than merely expressing solidarity for various national politics or various issue-based politics from afar, but intimate political involvements on every level. Good feelings, even feelings of shared struggle, only go so far, after all. At worst, expressions of global solidarity can even be quite performative in nature, in claiming to situate national struggles within the context of a global Left, but really in the interests of just drawing a number of new protest slogans from abroad and the projection of one’s hopes and desires onto some place other than home so as to avoid confronting the reality which looms ever-present before you. I certainly saw that sometimes on the Japanese Left, for example, in relation to me as someone who came from America immediately following a period of involvement in Occupy, but also in relation to the Japanese Left as understood from the American perspective, by way of the perception of Japanese radicalism my American radicals. And what I don’t see from either perspective is the sort of radical self-questioning necessary to actually make shared international struggles meaningful in any visceral, politically-charged level.

Perhaps, then, what the state of the Japanese Left points at is this need for a new internationalism in which worldwide struggles can be made meaningful on the visceral polticially-charged level with an actual effect on reality—and also its absence in the present. I would say so about the Japanese Left so far as these are maladies faced by the global Left, and so far as the Japanese Left is an expression of the global Left. Indeed, I can only speak for myself and my own perceptions so much as far as I went into Japan, began researching the history of the Japanese Left, and sought to absorb myself into the contemporary Japanese Left—even if, of course, it ends up that I can’t help but subsume the Japanese Left to my preexistent political conceptions. That is, I think, inevitable to some degree. Yet this is what I would conclude, in my knowledge that I don’t know everything, that my knowledge of the Japanese Left is necessarily incomplete, and that neither do I have any answers.

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