Oct 24, 2017
SAKURA, Japan - The late 1960s was a time of antiwar protests, citizen activism and a nationwide student movement that questioned the political and social framework of postwar Japan.
That tumultuous era, centering on the year 1968, is recalled at an exhibition currently taking place at a museum near Tokyo, which showcases around 500 documents generated by diverse social movements ranging from the anti-Vietnam War protests and resistance to the construction of Narita airport to the struggle for justice by victims of Minamata disease.
"1968: A Time Filled with Countless Questions" at the National Museum of Japanese History in the city of Sakura, Chiba Prefecture, also shows how college students in the late 1960s struggled to improve the educational environment as they sought to grapple with issues such the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty and United States control of Okinawa.
"We try to shed a spotlight on the time around 1968 when people's pro-democracy movements gained ground globally," Hiroshi Kurushima, director general of the museum, said, referring to such events as the student protests and general strikes in France, known as the May Events, as well as the Prague Spring and subsequent military intervention by Warsaw Pact forces to quell it.
"It is about time to look back 50 years and think about the meaning of those days," Kurushima said.
The exhibition begins with an introduction to the antiwar movement, with fliers and journals issued by the Japan "Peace for Vietnam! Committee," known by its Japanese acronym "Beheiren," displayed.
These documents, which were provided by the Research Center for Cooperative Civil Societies at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, include Beheiren's antiwar ad carried by the New York Times on Nov. 16, 1965, titled "Can bombs bring peace to Vietnam? An appeal from citizens of Japan," and a forged passport that the group created to help U.S. deserters made their getaway.
"It is significant that Beheiren promoted cross-border campaigns at the grassroots level" at a time when international society was mainly controlled by states, said Shoji Arakawa, a professor at the museum who is supervising the exhibition.
Beheiren was launched in 1965, with influential young writer Makoto Oda issuing a pamphlet: "We are ordinary citizens. Being ordinary citizens means that office workers, teachers, carpenters, mothers, journalists, florists, writers and boys studying English and you, who read this pamphlet, are among us. And what we want to say is only 'Peace for Vietnam!'"
In its last journal issued in March 1974, Oda noted, "We, small people, have managed to promote this campaign by gathering small power."
The exhibition also casts light on how ordinary people, caught up in postwar Japan's rapid economic growth, fought to protect the sanctity of their daily lives.
In the rural village of Sanrizuka, east of Tokyo and located near the museum, farmers staged a long-term protest against the construction of a new international airport, Narita, which was initiated without their consent. Elsewhere, in the quiet coastal city of Minamata in southwestern Japan, fishermen and their families were exposed to mercury poisoning from industrial waste.
The exhibits, which include photographs and letters exchanged between those involved in activist movements, indicate the strains imposed on society during the pursuit of profit and the public interest.
A flier, believed to have been distributed in 1970 in the vicinity of the site for the new airport, notes, "We will not give up. We will protect our homes, our lands and our dignity, maintaining our stance to oppose the airport construction here."
In the section on Minamata disease, documents expose the deep chasms that opened up in the local community as victims and their families fought for compensation from Chisso Corp., the chemical maker responsible for the disease, which had been dumping mercury tainted water in the sea.
While some local residents supported them, including members of Chisso's labor union, others expressed discomfort with their actions, arguing that they were hurting the city's reputation. Addressing the victims, a flier noted, "How can we earn our daily bread without the company (Chisso)? You must realize that you antagonize not only the company but also other Minamata citizens."
Narita Airport and Community Historical Museum, Supporting Center for Minamata Disease and other institutions and individuals contributed the documents for this section of the exhibition.
The year 1968, meanwhile, marked the formation of the All-Campus Joint Struggle League at Nihon University and the University of Tokyo. Known in Japanese as Zenkyoto, it eventually expanded to other universities nationwide.
At the University of Tokyo, students occupied the Yasuda Auditorium, the symbol of the college, during their struggle for campus democracy. The university authorities called in the riot police to deal with the situation, prompting criticism that the intervention infringed college autonomy.
"Those involved in the Zenkyoto movement are aging, while related documents have been scattered and lost over the past 50 years," said Arakawa. "We need to initiate research into how to locate the student movement in our history."
Hirofumi Ushiba, a Rikkyo University graduate student of the history of social movements who was visiting the exhibition, said, "Each document highlights the actual lives of those involved in the campaigns."
"Confronted by these countless voices, I feel overwhelmed. It's made me aware how these decades-old campaigns carry significant meaning for society today," he said.
"1968: A Time Filled with Countless Questions" runs through Dec. 10 from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The museum is closed on Mondays.
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