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Mobilizing Japanese Youth


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Mobilizing Japanese Youth

By: Christopher Gerteis

Video Interview

Christopher Gerteis discusses his book, "Mobilizing Japanese Youth: The Cold War and the Making of the Sixties Generation," with Bill Mihalopoulos. Watch here on the SHCY Youtube Channel, or listen to the conversation as a podcast. Other episodes of the SHCY podcast are available at our podcast website, or you can subscribe on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.

Christopher Gerteis is an historian of Modern and Contemporary Japan, with particular interest in the history of class and gender. Bill Mihalopoulos is faculty in the School of Humanities, Language & Global Studies at the University of Central Lancashire



This review was published in The Journal of Family History 47, no. 4 (2022):

Christopher Gerteis

Mobilizing Japanese Youth: The Cold War and the Making of the Sixties Generation.

Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2021. 181 pp.

The normative course of life in postwar Japanese society centered around the idea of the company as family. After receiving their education, young men would gain lifetime employment as a company family member, which in turn would allow them to have their own private families: get married, buy a house and car, and have children. Now decades into the post-rapid economic growth era, there is a growing realization in Japan that, despite its pervasiveness as a social ideal, this normative course of life has always reflected the realities of only a minority of the Japanese male population. In this context, Christopher Gerteis's Mobilizing Japanese Youth is a timely and informative contribution to the scholarship on youth political mobilization that sheds new light on the topic through its attention to the nexus of gender, class, and generation.

Chapter 1, “Unions, Youth, and the Cold War,” examines how during the 1960s, Sōhyō (General Council of Trade Unions) was abandoned by the younger generation of workers who saw the union as not responsive to their politics, interests, and values. Regarding politics, student activists of Zengakuren actively organized protests of youths on and off campuses, including blue-collar workers. While sharing the political opposition to the war, Sōhyō leaders were dismayed that “their” youths seemed to be increasingly led astray by the undisciplined actions of Zengakuren. Sōhyō established a new youth outreach group, the Antiwar Youth Committee (Hansen Seinen Iinkai) to regain control over youth mobilization. This effort proved to be largely ineffectual, with the Antiwar Youth Committee engaging in joint violent protests with Zengakuren, ignoring the hoped-for restraining influence of Sōhyō funds bestowed upon them by its fatherly leaders. Regarding interests, Sōhyō continued to advocate the seniority-based family wage model privileging older male workers, making only minor adjustments to reduce age-based wage differentials and further undermining its appeal to young workers. Finally, regarding values, Sōhyō continued to deploy the “family man as union man” trope in its propaganda. The trope betrayed the union's support for the ideal of the father as sole breadwinner—an ideal that failed to resonate productively with the realities and hopes of young workers.

Chapter 2, “The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Red Army,” places the Japanese Red Army (JRA) within the global context of leftist revolutionary movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, highlighting the global and local flow of ideas and people that shaped the organization. The chapter's narrative centers around two members of the JRA, Shigenobu Fusako and Wakamiya Masanori. Shigenobu was the daughter of an overbearing former officer of the military's secret police (Kempeitai), with whom she clashed as an adolescent. Growing up in a lower-class Tokyo neighborhood, Shigenobu was channeled into pink-collar employment as an office lady but undermined her long-term prospects in her company with a sarcastic evaluation she wrote in response to a workplace femininity lecture. She attributes her turn toward revolutionary activism to her experiences after joining night classes at Meiji University, whose campus and surrounding neighborhood was a “place of encounter” filled with “civil servants, police officers, self-defense force officials, postal workers, and government office workers as well as private company employees [like me]” (54). Her recollections highlight how the global and the local, and the political and the personal, mixed naturally in this space of activism: They “discussed the problems between Japan and Korea and [the growing war in] Vietnam. We discussed each other's workplace difficulties and helped each other find work, as well as joining protests and demonstrations” (55). Among the transnational connections Shigenobu made from this space were collaborations with the Black Panthers and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which also intersected with the birth of punk rock in Japan. Compared to Shigenobu, Wakamiya Masanori is a less-known figure in the JRA. The chapter narrates his “long march” as a blue-collar activist from his stint in jail, to his days serving up his “Sekigun Ramen” in the Osaka slum district of Kamagasaki, to his ill-fated attempt to join the Maoist revolutionary group Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) in Peru.

Chapter 3, “Political Alienation and the Sixties Generation,” uses data collected by NHK during the 1970s to argue that the generational experiences of the late 1960s led to the formation of a shared identity among Japanese born to the Sixties generation, but one that was significantly fractured by differences in political attitudes correlating more strongly with gender and class.

Chapter 4, “Cold War Warriors,” narrates how the coordinated suppression of leftist radicalism led to the formation of strange alliances between former war criminals, Far Right politicians, mob bosses, and the CIA, who together campaigned to address postwar Japan's “youth problem.” Leveraging their ties with influential establishment figures and assisted by the CIA, the wartime profiteers Kodama Yoshio and Sasakawa Ryōichi reemerged in Cold War Japan as leaders of ultranationalist organizations seeking to save Japanese youth from communism through a renewed focus on traditional values. Predictably rejected by the New Left of the Sixties generation, the prescriptions of these old men were also rejected by younger activists of the New Right, who decried the transwar Far Right for their complicity in US imperialism in East Asia. New Right organizations like Suzuki Kunio's Issuikai never grew beyond an extremist minority in Japanese society. Nevertheless, their attempts to disambiguate the popular conflation of nation, emperor, and the postwar state were at least partially recognized by a significant minority, including New Left youths.

Chapter 5, “Motorboat Gambling and Morals Education,” examines how Sasakawa Ryōichi, who once bragged to a Time magazine reporter that he was the “world's richest fascist” (139), leveraged his substantial ties with establishment politicians to build a lucrative philanthropic gambling empire and used its proceeds to promote morals education. In this campaign, Sasakawa sought to simultaneously marginalize leftist political positions as anathema to Japanese values and re-instill in Japanese youths the traditional values promoted in prewar morals education. He also used his massive funds to construct a public image of himself as a world-class philanthropist, donating lavishly to universities throughout Asia, the United States, and Europe, as well as to the WHO and UNESCO. Sasakawa initiated his public campaign to reintroduce morals education for Japanese youths in the early 1970s. As attempts to have the state revise its curriculum would trigger protests, Sasakawa instead funded television programing promoting neo-Confucian moral values to children. The popular series ran for 294 episodes and its catchy commercial titled “One Good Deed a Day” exemplified “Grandpa” Sasakawa's amiable style.

The epilogue connects the radical youth politics of the 1970s to youth precarity in contemporary Japanese society. It describes a prevailing social system focused on reallocating resources to serve the aging demographic topography at the expense of youth—a bleak situation wrought, at least in part, by the four decades of political conservatism of the Sixties generation.

This book is full of fascinating details on both Far Left and Far Right activists and succeeds in its overall arguments. Some minor criticisms include the following. In Chapter 1, the author shows how Sōhyō was abandoned by young workers for failing to connect with them on the levels of politics, interests, and values. While the general argument is compelling, a fuller discussion of how the three levels intersected, as well as how the conflictual lines between generations and class intersected, would have strengthened it. For example, while the seniority-based family wage model certainly did privilege older male workers, it was also a wage model enjoyed by a privileged class minority in the prewar period that was subsequently expanded to a wider category of workers through the postwar labor movement. While the values of the union man as family man may have remained constant across the 1945 divide, the extent to which this trope reflected the realities of workers changed considerably. There were also considerable changes to the class nature of university students in the postwar period. The author makes the valid point that the youth radicalism of this period cannot be explained as the product of “middle-class ennui.” While the author mainly backs this claim with his examination of working-class activists, it could have been further buttressed with a discussion of the rapid massification of universities during this period that resulted in what might be called “non-middle-class rage” stemming from the social devaluation of the university degree, and how this affected the dynamics between working class and student youth activists.

It could also have been further enriched through the inclusion of the voices of young workers and their life histories—something the author provides in fascinating detail in the following chapter on the Red Army. This chapter provides a lively history of the JRA by tracing the trajectories of Shigenobu Fusako and Wakamiya Masanori and highlighting the local and global connections of the group. Its conclusion points out that Shigenobu was complicit in reinforcing the gender hierarchy of a masculine polis through her propaganda messages. While the author illustrates this complicity in convincing detail, one can question if it completely “eclipsed” Shigenobu's ideological visions. The gender norms of mainstream society powerfully affected members of the JRA, as did the pervasive consumer culture of early 1970s Japan. However, should we conclude that these influences and the JRA members’ active embrace and enactment of these norms defined them? The chapter's framing suggests that we should; its rich and lively contents suggest that we should not. The chapter raises questions for further research concerning the intersections between gender norms and activism in Shigenobu and other women activists, as well as their differently gendered portrayals in the mainstream media.

While the first two chapters focus on nonstate actors on the Far Left, the last two examine the Far Right. In the early 1950s, “reverse course” became a phrase encapsulating the reactionary turn in Japanese society and politics under the Cold War, with transwar figures escaping the postwar purge and rehabilitating themselves into positions of power. While the phrase was no longer widely used by the late 1960s and early 1970s, the case studies of Kodama Yoshio and Sasakawa Ryoichi illustrate how the trend it referred to continued well into this period. One “Old Left” activist once quipped to the effect that postwar Japan has been on the “reverse course” trajectory for so long, by now it should be in the Stone Ages. However, the last two chapters of this book remind us that generational, class, and gender intersected in ways that preclude a simple portrayal of a linear movement backward in time.

Here, one can question the author's framing of his subjects of analyzes as “nonstate actors” of the Far Left and Right. As the author shows in vivid detail, Far Right activists of the transwar generation enjoyed state establishment connections and resources to a degree that casts doubt on their position as “nonstate actors.” The boundaries between state and nonstate were significantly blurred on the Far Right. On the Far Left, the boundaries were clear and to a degree that was likely higher than most when viewed in global context. While the capacity of social movements to unite and enable political change may have been “a high standard” that was generally not attained in the global 1960s, there were also significant differences in the degree of state (and mainstream society's) exclusion of these social movements, as well as the degree to which the Sixties generation eventually came to embrace the political status quo.

Overall, Mobilizing Japanese Youth is a valuable contribution to our understanding of youth mobilization in Cold War-period Japan. The reviewer is grateful for the book's insights and richly illustrative material, as well as the questions it raises, but not for Grandpa Sasakawa's “Fire Safety Song” now stuck inside his head.

Kenji Hasegawa, Yokohama National University

Christopher GerteisAbout Christopher Gerteis

Christopher Gerteis is an historian of Modern and Contemporary Japan, with particular interest in the history of class and gender. He is also Founding Series Editor of the scholarly monograph series SOAS Studies in Modern and Contemporary Japan, published in association with the UK publisher Bloomsbury. From 2019 to 2024 he is in residence as Academic Editor and Associate Professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, The University of Tokyo.

Dr Gerteis’ first book, Gender Struggles: Wage-earning Women and Male-Dominated Unions in Postwar Japan (Harvard, 2009), is an interdisciplinary study of the forgotten history of wage-earning Japanese women who during the 1950s militantly contested the socialist labor movement’s revival of many prewar notions of normative gender roles. By showing how unions raised the wages of male workers in part by transforming working-class women into middle-class housewives, Gender Struggles demonstrates that organized labor’s discourse on womanhood not only undermined women’s status within the labor movement but also prevented unions from linking with the emerging woman-led, neighborhood-centered organizations that typified social movements in the 1960s—a misstep that contributed to the decline of the socialist labor movement in subsequent decades.



This post is part of the SHCY Featured Books series, which provides conversations about important contributions to the history of childhood and youth.