Background and Context for the Postwar Student Movement

Marxist and socialist ideas inspired a modest amount of student activism at the elite imperial universities during Japan's first period of emerging democracy in the 1920s (Smith 1972), which took the form of social science study groups or organized activities in poor neighborhoods (called

“settlement” activity in Japanese). Student activism was suppressed by the early 1930s as a by-product of the repression of the underground Communist movement through use of the 1925 Peace Preservation Law, which made it illegal to participate in any group that advocated change in the economic system or the national polity. The very first target of the Peace Preservation Law was a social science study group at Kyoto University, and students also were caught in the subsequent mass arrests of various front organizations associated with the Communist movement in the late 1920s. The state studied carefully how students had become involved in the movement, and the criminal justice system soon began to demand that those arrested also recant their ideological commitments and organizational ties, a process known as tenko (Steinhoff 1991). The repression and the demand for tenko broadened in the late 1930s to encompass previously legal groups and activities, and campuses were steadily militarized. Students largely fell silent or were channeled into nationalism, and by the early 1940s, many students had been pressed into war industries and finally into military service. Yet university campuses still had many faculty role models who carried on the liberal intellectual tradition. As these professors came under attack by the state, students and faculty expressed their resistance in whatever ways remained available.

At that time there were a limited number of public and private universities in Japan; their faculties and student bodies made up a small intellectual elite who had ties to a wide range of social, economic, and political organizations and supplied the higher ranks of the state bureaucracy. Students reached this pinnacle through the narrow, competitive doorway of successive levels of secondary education. A small number of designated higher secondary schools served as preparatory schools for university admission, and a somewhat larger array of advanced special schools trained teachers and other skilled technical specialists. There were also some academic higher schools and tertiary institutions for women. Although the criteria for university admission were academic and meritocratic, the need for family support for these additional nonproductive years of study limited admission primarily to the sons of the elite and the small but growing middle class. As of 1940, in a Japanese population of more than 100 million, there were 81,999 students in nineteen national, two public, and twenty-six private universities recognized by the Japanese government (Ikeda 1970).

Student activism reemerged after the war under very different political, social, and economic conditions. The end of the war brought demobilization; students who had left school for military service returned to campus to join younger students who had entered during the last years of the war. Almost immediately after the Occupation began in the fall of 1945, students at higher schools and universities began organizing to demand the removal of wartime school administrators and the restoration of faculty who had been purged during the war. They also took up other locally relevant economic grievances (Yamanaka 1981). Three critical policies of the Occupation fundamentally reshaped the postwar environment for student activism: the legalization of the Left, the far-reaching civil liberties protections of the new constitution, and the restructuring of the education system.

One of the earliest moves of the Occupation was to abolish the Peace Preservation Law and free from prison the small number of members of the prewar Communist movement who had successfully resisted the state’s tenko demands. They were treated as heroes who had resisted the ultranationalist state at great personal cost. Both the Japan Communist Party (JCP) and the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) became legal and legitimate players in postwar Japanese politics, enjoying constitutional protection, and during an initial honeymoon period they worked cooperatively with the Occupation authorities. Both political parties also resumed their prewar role of organizing Japanese labor unions, ironically now building upon the wartime corporatist government’s mobilization of all workers into state-led mass organizations under the Imperial Rule Assistance Association. Protected by strong new postwar labor laws, unions organized into national federations tied to the two political parties of the Left, building a tradition of labor unions in both the private and public sectors that extended well into white-collar levels. Union members were frequently mobilized to participate in political issue campaigns as well as to vote for the candidates of their respective political parties. The Japan Communist Party regarded students as one of its target populations for mobilization, along with workers, women, and minorities. It shaped the structure and scope of the postwar student movement, and the JCP exercised direct influence over the student movement until the late 1950s but had far less influence thereafter.

The second and perhaps most fundamental act of the Occupation was to bring about Japan’s postwar peace constitution, which includes constitutional protections for academic freedom in addition to freedom of speech, assembly, publication, and religion. It also incorporates strong women's rights, and it protects political organizations and the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively. The most remarkable element of the constitution is Article 9, which renounces the right to war. These rights were essentially handed to the Japanese people in a document largely written by the Occupation authorities, although procedurally the Japanese Diet, or parliament, approved the constitution. Although all of these provisions were written into the constitution, their meaning and application had to be settled in the courts in a process that continues to this day. The Japanese Left and its allies have become staunch defenders of the constitution because it protects their very existence. Students also have become involved in a wide range of issues and court cases based on their vigorous defense of what they perceive to be constitutional rights. During the peak periods of student activism from the late 1950s through the early 1970s, many constitutional questions were still slowly grinding through the courts, so the students felt very strongly that they were defending democracy and constitutional rights against illegitimate acts by the state.

The third key Occupation policy was the comprehensive structural reorganization of the Japanese education system. Japan had instituted universal primary education early in the Meiji era (1868-1912), and by the turn of the century most children had at least four years of primary schooling, which later expanded to six years. Beyond that base, the prewar education system branched off into many different tracks, most of which were dead ends designed to prepare students for various types of employment. There were private schools in addition to the public system, but in both the public and private systems, only one pathway led through the levels of advanced primary and higher secondary education required for entrance to university. Consequently, most students, regardless of their ability, were diverted into paths that could not possibly lead them to higher education. In 1946 the Occupation brought in American educational advisors, who recommended that the entire system be overhauled to a standard 6-3-3-4 system, with nine years of compulsory education, and that public education become fully coeducational. They recommended the restructuring of higher education into standard four-year universities, plus an array of two-year institutions offering terminal technical or associate degrees. The universities retained their existing internal European-style division into separate faculties, which are broader than American academic disciplinary departments. Law and medicine remained four-year undergraduate degrees with subsequent practical training and licensing requirements.

At the time this system was implemented in the late 1940s, completion of middle school was a feasible goal for universal education. There was no entitlement of universal high school education, so entrance to both public and private high school continued to be based on competitive entrance examinations and there were far too few places for all students at the high school level. The old elite public higher schools were folded into an expanded higher education system, which provided at least one state-supported university in each prefecture, with access by competitive entrance examination open to students who had completed high school. As Japan's economic recovery began, this standardization of education at the primary and middle school levels produced much larger cohorts of students who were prepared to go on to high school, and in the absence of sufficient public high school space, new private high schools approved by the Ministry of Education began to fill the gap. By the 1960s, about 90 percent of Japanese students were graduating from high school, and the demand for higher education was growing rapidly. Many private high schools expanded into higher education to help meet the demand, but university entrance became more competitive even as it opened to a much broader range and number of students.

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