The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

School Days

The school year starts in April in Japan. But not for Ikuma Saito in the top picture. He has been expelled from Hosei University for membership of zengakuren, a militant left wing group that has been protesting the limits on freedom of expression imposed by the university on their group as it was handing out fliers on campus; plus numerous expulsions, suspensions and alleged beatings of students labelled as trouble makers.

Hosei is a large private university with a good reputation for studies of law. Saito san is (was) himself a law student and is an eloquent, impassioned and very entertaining speaker on what he sees are the unfair practices of university management: these include not just the repression of student political activity but also, according to a Zengakuren flier handed out at today’s demo, the steady privatization and monetization of Japanese education.

The protests take place everyday around lunch time outside the campus’s main entrance in Ichigaya though an injunction does forbid students from “loitering, putting up banners and making speeches within 200 metres” of the campus. This has led to many arrests and detentions and it was these “unjust punishments” that today’s, larger, rally was all about. With support from other left-wing union groups and other student activists from other universities, perhaps 300 people gathered outside the gate with a large force of police and private security men facing them. Not so secret policemen photographed and filmed the protesters, (a common occurrence in the UK apparently but pretty limited to the extreme leftwing here in Japan) and took copious notes of all and everything as the protest was moved, back off a public sidewalk where banners were displayed and students had been handing out fliers, to a small path in a riverside park on the opposite side of the road. After speeches from other expelled and suspended students like Masami Kuraoka (second image) the protest moved off in a short circuitous march of unimportant back streets to chants of “Whose University? Our University!” and “Free the prison university, Hosei!”

As we passed shops and private houses, whose residents and workers looked out bemusedly at the marching students, it struck me that the authorities wanted to really keep this low profile. As the protest started the blinds in all the windows of the university facing it were shut so the students inside couldn’t see the event and in the past students have been attacked and detained for reporting or photographing demonstrations, so I was a little worried. Mostly the police here in Japan are at a loss when it comes to dealing with gaijin photographers and journalists and tend to tell you what to do a lot (if they even speak to you) but are not quite sure how actually to move you out of the way or get you to follow instructions when you just act dumb to the language or even basically ignore them. This is an advantage sometimes like the time I photographed ex-Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. Yet at this demo there was not a whole lot of respect for the authority in the air and the police and secret service didn’t let politeness or cultural confusion get in the way. I was there in the crowd of protesters so I was basically one of them in their minds!

I have never been touched by a policemen in Japan before today but a number of times this afternoon I was manhandled out of the way by thuggish secret service men. Indeed one walked with me a while and bumped into me on purpose a few times as I was taking pictures. Or so it seemed to me but that could just be my excuse for too many images with camera shake!!! I did see one secret service man pick up the umbrella that had fallen off the rucksack of activist photographer and give it back to him though. The photographer didn’t say thank you which I thought, considering the usual behavior of the police this day, just a little rude.

An interesting day, too late to write more, there is of course a deeper, ideological debate to be had on the issue. There are more angles to this report and story and more characters to illuminate and record. There is a mountain of research I have to do before I can even make head or tail of my opinions and direction on the things I want to shoot and write regarding this but it is nearly 3am, and I have a kids’ day tomorrow so better go to bed.

See more images of left wing protest in Japan at my photoshelter archive here.



5 responses

  1. Sounds like you had a pretty active day, all things told! And it sounds like Ikuma Saito has got himself in a right, old pickle.

    Very interesting read!

    April 24, 2010 at 5:35 pm

  2. A great series of pics and a very informative write up as always. I was really interested in this piece, most of the university students I have met. here are apolitical, they only care about Disneyland, the colour pink and anything kawaii, so hearing about students being expelled for political reasons really grabbed my attention. I know students here in the 60’s had a lot of demos and riots, it seems like it doesn’t happen these days and you definitely don’t see it on the news (not much of value on the news here, mostly moronic stuff aimed at dumbing down people), but I am very glad you are getting out there and finding and sharing this stuff. Sorry to hear about your rough treatment as well, not so good when that happens. Stick at it though.

    April 25, 2010 at 9:07 pm

  3. Pingback: World Press Freedom Day « sungypsy blog

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