Beheiren, U.S.-Japan Relations, and History Activism in Japan

[Editor’s note– Wanting to spur activity on this website, I am reproducing here excerpts, with no attempt at cohesion, from a graduate seminar paper I completed in spring 2013.]

The social and political movement known as Beheiren (Betonamu ni Heiwa o Shimin Rengo) sprang forth from a sweltering of anti-Vietnam War sentiment in Japan in April 1965. Riled by the beginning of Operation Rolling Thunder, or the sustained bombing of North Vietnam by the United States Air Force, Beheiren organized some of the largest non-violent protests in Japanese history, distributed anti-war books, newsletters, and pamphlets, and, most controversially, aided the desertion of nearly two-dozen American soldiers. Keyed into the global current of protest and activism against the Vietnam War, Beheiren’s influence and impact in Japan reverberated far beyond this single conflict.[1]

In spearheading opposition against the Vietnam War and, especially, the Japanese government’s implicit and direct support for the United States in Southeast Asia, Beheiren also transformed Japan’s “new left” and the nature of citizen activism and protest.[2] Beheiren eschewed hierarchy, organization, and top-heavy bureaucracy. Even the leading figure behind the movement, Oda Makoto, a Japanese intellectual and novelist, rarely claimed ownership. “Beheiren should not have a permanent organizational structure,” Oda once wrote, “but should be temporary and ad hoc.[3] Anyone was free to represent Beheiren as long as they clung to its anti-war message and opposition to the Japanese government’s involvement in Vietnam. [4] Local offices and chapters of Beheiren proliferated across Japan, and protests, publications, and persons associated with the movement could be found in nearly every corner of the archipelago.

Throughout its eight-years of activity, Beheiren was also eager to internationalize. As a result, English become the lingua operandi for the organization/movement.[5] The first issue of Beheiren’s AMPO: A Report from the Japanese New Left, published in November 1969, for example, announced that “AMPO is a movement publication designed to overcome the fact the Japanese left, one of the most articulate and active movements in the world, is covered by a blanket of silence in all languages but Japanese.”[6] To narrow the gap between the movement and the outside world, Beheiren engaged in a sustained public relations campaign by producing fringe publications for the American left and, perhaps more significantly, purchasing advertisements in several major American newspapers.[7] A November 16, 1965, ad in the New York Times questioned, for example, “Can bombs bring peace to Vietnam?”[8]

Beyond the printed word, Beheiren pursued other inroads into the intricate mosaic of cultural, social, and political ties between Japan and the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. The depth and diversity of American-Japanese relations during this period is perhaps best represented by the trans-Pacific exchanges between counterculture music scenes,[9] and it is no surprise, then, that when John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “War Is Over!” campaign came to Tokyo in 1969, Beheiren’s members eagerly participated.[10] In other words, Beheiren emerged not just in the context of the “shock of the global” in the late 1960s and 1970s, but it sought to directly insert itself into that global shock.[11] As Tessa Morris-Suzuki has written, “the international collaboration which the movement favored was primarily focused on the United States” (la collaboration internationale que le mouvement avait favorisée était avant tout centrée sur les États-Unis) and Oda Makoto desired to form a joint Japanese-American movement against “American hegemony” (l’hégémonie américaine).[12]

Beheiren ceased to exist in 1974 following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords and the formal ending of the U.S. commitment to defend South Vietnam. Despite only having led protests against one single conflict, Beheiren engaged a broader range of questions; and despite having remained in existence for less than a decade, the issues dealt with by the movement possessed a much longer shelf life. The movement not only resisted the U.S. war in Vietnam; it also challenged the Japanese government’s involvement in this conflict, debated memories of Japan’s experiences in World War II, and encouraged a new dynamic in state-society relations. Of course, Beheiren’s success in these various endeavors is ripe for debate.  After all, the movement had no perceptible impact on the Japanese government, which remained supportive of the United States throughout the conflict in Vietnam. [13] And yet Beheiren remains worth studying.

Why? At a time when seemingly only the most jarring commentaries about Japan’s role in World War II generate discussion and garner attention domestically and abroad, Beheiren’s  commentary on war memory remain as fresh and sensible as it was shocking in the 1960s. Moreover, exploring the alternative narratives of World War II presented by Beheiren challenges the assumption that Japan has not yet come to grips with its past. Rather, Beheiren’s history activism reaffirms Carol Gluck’s simple but astute observation that Japan’s history is always “reconstituted…in the light of the present.”[14] Perhaps future social movements in Japan will honor the spirit of Beheiren when the proper moment appears.

[1] See Arthur Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, c.1958 to c.1974 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); Carole Fink, Phillipp Gassert, and Detlef Junker, eds. 1968: The World Transformed (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998); George N. Katsiaficas, The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 (Boston: South End Press, 1987).

[2] Simon Andrew Avenell, Making Japanese Citizens: Civil Society and the Mythology of the Shimin in Postwar Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 106-107, and Yumiko Iida, Rethinking Identity in Modern Japan: Nationalism as Aesthetics (New York: Routledge, 2002), 121-123.On the evolution of the new left, see Claudia Derichs, “Japan ‘1968’—History of a Decade,” in 1968: Memories and Legacies of a Global Revolt, ed. Philipp Gassert and Martin Klimke (Washington, D.C.: German Historical Institute, 2009), 89-94, and Claudia Derichs, “Japan’s New Left: The Founding of a Self-Named ‘Avantgarde’ and Its Subsequent Development,” in The Fifth Annual Ph.D. Kenkyukai Conference: Friday June, 18, 1993, International House of Japan, Tokyo (Tokyo: Ph.D. Kenkyukai, 1994), 190-204.

[3] Makota Oda, “Making Democracy Our Own,” in Listening to Japan: A Japanese Anthology, ed. Jackson H. Bailey (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1973), 135.

[4] Japan, and especially Okinawa, was a crucial link for the United States army in conducting operations in Vietnam. See Miyume Tanji, Myth, Protest and Struggle in Okinawa (New York: Routledge, 2006), 94-96.

[5] On this point see Asako Nakai, The English Book and Its Marginalia: Colonial/Postcolonial Literatures After Heart of Darkness (Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 2000), 161-163, and Peter Gerald Kelman, “Protesting the National Identity: The Cultures of Protest in 1960s Japan” (PhD diss., University of Sydney, 2001), 155-160.  For a critique of this argument, see Hyeok-tae Gwon, “Gukgyeonganeseo tal/gukgyeongeul sangsanghaneun beop: ilbonui beoiteunam banjeonundonggwa talyeongbyeongsa,” Dongbanghakji 157 (2012): 113-166.

[6] AMPO: A Report from the Japanese New Left, no. 1 (November 1969), 3. For one memoir account of Beheiren’s activism in the U.S. military desertions, see Terry Whitmore, Memphis-Nam-Sweden: The Story of a Black Deserter (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997).

[7] Thomas R.H. Havens, Fire Across the Sea: The Vietnam War and Japan, 1965-1975 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), 65-66.

[8] “Can bombs bring peace to Vietnam? An appeal from citizens of Japan,” New York Times (November 16, 1965), 33.

[9] Julian Cope, Japrocksampler: How the Post-War Japanese Blew their Minds on Rock ‘N’ Roll (London: Bloomsbury, 2007).

[10] Kevin Concannon, “War Is Over!: John and Yoko’s Christmas Eve Happening, Tokyo, 1969,” Review of Japanese Culture and Society 17 (December 2005): 72-85.

[11] Niall Ferguson, Charles S. Maier, Erez Manela, and Daniel J. Sargent, eds., The Shock of the Global: The 1970s in Perspective (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010).

[12] Tessa Morris-Suzuki, “Le missile et la souris: Mouvements virtuels pour la paix dans un âge de terreur,” Annals Histoire, Sciences Sociales 58, no. 1 (January-February 2003): 168-169.

[13] See, for example, Ikuo Kawakami, et al, “A Report on the Local Integration of Indo-Chinese Refugees and Displaced Persons in Japan,” manuscript commissioned by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 2009, 22.

[14] Carol Gluck, “The Past in the Present,” in Postwar Japan as History, ed. Andrew Gordon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 65.


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