Against Japanism

Women in the Japanese New Left w/ Chelsea Szendi Schieder

July 12, 2021 Against Japanism
Against Japanism
Women in the Japanese New Left w/ Chelsea Szendi Schieder
Show Notes

Kota is joined by Chelsea Szendi Schieder to discuss her latest book Coed Revolution: The Female Student in the Japanese New Left.

Women in the Japanese New Left played a vital role in building up the militant student movement against Japan’s new capitalist education system and its complicity with the US imperialist aggression in Southeast Asia. However, the gender dynamic and patriarchal tendencies within the movement undermined their effort and led to the movement’s demise. This weakness was further compounded by the mainstream media’s misrepresentation of revolutionary women as vulnerable, ridiculous, or threatening, while silencing their own voices and political convictions. 

We discuss the case of Kanba Michiko, a 22 year old student activist who died on June 15, 1960 during the mass protest against the US-Japan Security Treaty. Despite her own philosophical outlook as a dialectical materialist and political commitment as a revolutionary communist, she was portrayed by the media as a passive victim of police violence or innocent bystander, as a “maiden sacrifice for postwar democracy.” 

Another important figure of this period was Tokoro Mitsuko, an activist and theorist who critiqued the masculinism she saw as inherent in capitalism. As an alternative, she proposed the logic of care and nurturing, and horizontalism and “endless debate” as a form of direct democracy that reflects this supposedly feminine logic.  While Tokoro’s characterization of this logic as “women’s logic” is undeniably essentialist, her philosophy was a product of its time when women’s work was devalued not only by Japan’s revitalized capitalist economy, but also within the student movement itself where women performed most of the care work such as cooking and cleaning, while men took the leadership positions and engaged in militant confrontations with the police. We discuss this tension within the framework of the debate between prefigurative and instrumental politics and the question of gendered division of labour within the leftist spaces today. 

We then move on to discuss the patriarchal tendencies within the Japanese New Left’s cultural production such as the valorization of the figure of “Mama” as a de-politicizing figure and the popularity of yakuza films among the student militants, as well as the use of sexual violence as a political allegory in the films of Oshima Nagisa and Wakamatsu Koji. 

We talk about the role of political violence in bringing about social change and how its misuse and mass policing that sought to establish grassroots community relations led to the New Left’s alienation from the masses and its subsequent demise. We address the question of how the Japanese left can overcome the negative legacy of inter-sectarian violence, and the gruesome internal purge of the United Red Army that seems to have discredited the leftwing militancy altogether. We specifically discuss the figure of Nagata Hiroko who was portrayed by the media in sexist terms as dangerous and irrational, and blamed for this intra-organizational violence more than her male comrades. 

We conclude our interview by discussing what the ascendancy of bourgeois feminism reflected in the state-led initiatives such as “womenomics" catered towards upper and middle class Japanese women, and Japan’s neocolonial policy in the Global South and its exploitative immigration policy mean for feminism in Japan today, as well as the possibility of working class and non-Japanese women emerging as a revolutionary subject of their own. 

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Intro Music: Cielo by Huma-Huma

Outro Music: Parabola Divanorium by Paraj Bhatt   

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