East Asian Anti-japan Armed Front: A Tale for These Times


In the 1970s, several armed anti-imperialist organizations emerged in Japan tracing the genealogy of contemporary violence through the history of colonialism and capitalism in East Asia. Chelsea Szendi Schieder presents here a short history of one of them: the East Asian Anti-Japan Armed Front.

It was the rise of modern human society that made wolves baddies. People in Japan had not traditionally raised sheep or goats that they needed to protect from wolves. Rather, wolves had been revered as “big-mouthed gods” that kept the threat of wild deer and boars away from the fields. The introduction of rabies in the 18th century, deforestation, and conflict with encroaching humans destroyed the Japanese wolf. By 1905, the wolves of Japan were extinct.

In 1974, a group calling itself the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front [EAAJAF] adopted the name “The Wolf Cell” as a tribute to the destroyed Honshu wolf, likening the oppressed masses with that eradicated beast. Within a year, however, the Japanese police had rooted out the Wolf Cell too. With their bombing campaigns, the Wolf Cell also became cast as the villians of postwar Japanese society. Perhaps worse, their stories are often written out of the narrative of a peaceful, affluent postwar Japanese history. Their strategies were violent, prompting condemnation, and eclipsing their aims of bringing attention to the violence of the Japanese state and capital. That historical violence remains inadequately acknowledged, and yet is foundational to contemporary Japan. The story of these “wolves,” then, is also a tale for our time.

The Wolf Cell ///

At lunchtime on August 30, 1974, the Wolf Cell of the EAAJAF bombed the headquarters of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in central Tokyo, killing eight and injuring almost 400. The images of the explosion’s aftermath are haunting. It was a rare scene of extraordinary violence in the heart of an ostensibly peaceful postwar Tokyo. The EAAJAF had meant to only interrupt business as usual and not to kill anyone, but their telephoned warning had not allowed for enough time for a full evacuation of the area, leading to unintended deaths.

These deaths and the bombing campaigns in general that were central to the strategy of EAAJAF have made many dismissive of the group as a terrorist organization.

The editors of a recently reissued edition of the documents created by the EAAJAF recently published (2019), insist upon understanding the context in which the EAAJAF turned to violence. The group operated in the 1970s, a moment in which the Vietnam War had intensified many more vague concerns about the violence of capitalism and U.S. imperialism. In some ways, that context has not necessarily changed. What has changed is that, contrary to the aims of EAAJAF and other radical groups active in the 1960s and 1970s in Japan, the violence of the Japanese state and capital are rendered less visible than ever. What, then, was EAAJAF trying to accomplish? How did they frame their protest?

Anti-Japan ///

It’s important to understand what a group composed by Japanese members meant by employing the term “Anti-Japan” to establish their theoretical orientation. As one might imagine, “anti-Japan” is often employed in Japan today as a slur against critics of Japanese government policies, indicating “unpatriotic.” The EAAJF’s use of the term entailed a specific interpretation of what it meant. As Wolf Cell member Daitōji Masashi wrote in 1984:

Japanese people are all people of the main country of Japanese imperialism. We recognize that even those who are exploited by capitalists and oppressed by authority have a structural relationship of being aggressors toward the oppressed peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Recognizing that Japanese people who thought of themselves as victims are actually aggressors: that is the basis of ‘anti-Japan’.

This framing seeks to undo a kind of victim consciousness that many social movements in Japan tapped into in the post-World War II period. Postwar Japan was very much under the control of the United States. Even after the actual Occupation Period (1945-1952), the U.S. maintained military bases across the archipelago and continued to occupy Okinawa. This projection of U.S. power in Japan threatened the nation’s sovereignty and became the basis for a kind of “victim consciousness” even among the Left — a narrative that maintained
Japan’s ultimate victimization to U.S. power. Japan’s vigorous labor movement in the 1950s also often emphasized the plight of Japanese workers with regard to Japanese capital without considering the larger picture. The EAAJAF emphasized that Japanese people should not lose sight of themselves and their actual position within global structures of war and capital.

The EAAJAF had other specialized vocabulary designed to bring historical violence into the language of the present,and to emphasize the legacies of war in a time of ostensible “postwar” peace in Japan. They referred to Japanese people (nihonjin) as “People of the main country of Japanese imperialism” (nitteihongokujin) to emphasize the way that ethnic majority Japanese people have benefited from the uneven exploitation of ethnic and colonial others, ranging from the internal colonies of Okinawa and Hokkaido (at the expense of Indigenous Ryūkyūan and Ainu peoples), to the imperial colonies of Korea, Taiwan, and stretching into postwar neocolonial relationships under Cold War capitalism. They dubbed the First World War the “First World War to Struggle for Colonies between Imperialisms.”

With these neologisms, the EAAJAF sought a basic recognition of war in peace, a continuation of war through capital amassed during wartime, and of uneven relationships first created in the crucible of imperial conquest and violence.

These were ideas that gained wide recognition in the campus-based, non-sectarian New Left of the 1960s out of which the EAAJA originally formed. The original members participated in study sessions on the history of Japanese imperialism at Hosei University, researching how corporations like Mitsubishi benefitted from the use of forced labor from colonized Korea. In the context of an increasingly policed and seemingly ineffective student movement, the members opted for an underground urban guerrilla strategy.

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Article on the bombing of Mitsubishi Heavy Chemicals in the August 30, 1974 evening edition of the Asahi shimbun.

Before the bombing on Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the EAAJAF conducted a bombing campaign that targeted more symbolic sites to draw visibility to the often forgotten histories of violence upon which the postwar Japanese state was built. On December 12, 1971, they bombed Kōa Kannon Temple at Atami Bay. The temple was erected in 1959 to honor “seven warriors” — men hanged as war criminals by the Allied Occupation authorities who had been cremated and were supposed to be scattered at sea, but whose ashes were secretly retained and interred. On April 6, 1972, EAAJAF bombed Soji-ji Ossuary in Yokohama, which housed the remains of about 5,000 Japanese who lived in colonial Korea. Making a link between overseas Japanese colonialism in East Asia and the formulation of Japan’s internal colonies, they bombed a statue in Hokkaido that depicted Japanese colonists and an Ainu man as well as the Institute of Northern Cultures on October 23, 1972, a day chosen because it was when the Ainu chief Shakushain, who led a rebellion against Japanese authority in Hokkaido, was killed by the Matsumae Clan in 1669.

In March 1974, with the publication of a book Hara Hara Tokei, EAAJAF officially debuted and publicly adopted the moniker of the Wolf Cell of the East Asian Anti-Japanese Armed Front. In Hara Hara Tokei, the Wolf Cell outlined urban guerilla tactics and shared bomb-making methods. The title roughly translates to “Suspense Clock,” but “hara hara” can indicate not only a feeling of suspense or excitement, but also refers to the “hara” command form used in written Korean-language instructions. With “clock,” the EAAJAF referenced the clocks they used as part of their explosives, and also suggested a more general sense of temporal urgency

The EAAJAF advocated an underground strategy at a moment at which the police in Japan were intensifying their targeting of leftists, even as many movements continued to organize openly. One could interpret their turn to a clandestine, urban guerilla campaign as an act born of frustration with the ultimate failures of mass-based movements in postwar Japan to influence the actual direction of Japanese politics. The urban guerilla policy of the EAAJAF, as outlined in Hara Hara Tokei, was to participate in society by day, with jobs and without any overt activist connections. They did not participate in labor movements or social movements. They advised all would-be urban guerillas to maintain a low profile, keep clean-cut, maintain affable relations with relatives and neighbors, but also keep a prudent distance. In total, the EAAJAF had three cells. The original Wolf Cell consisted of Daidōji Masashi, his wife Daidōji Ayako, Masunaga Toshiaki, and Sasaki Norio. Soon after, two more cells formed: the Scorpion Cell and the Fangs of the Earth Cell. 

Over time, their bombing became more daring and confrontational. On August 14, 1974, the Wolf Cell attempted to blow up the bridge over which Emperor Hirohito’s train travelled, but their plan was thwarted. They then recycled their explosives and used them in the deadly Mitsubishi Heavy Chemicals attack instead. In subsequent bombings of various corporations, the EAAJAF managed to avoid more deaths but did incur injuries. These activities ended when the police swept up most of the organization’s members in a mass arrest on May 19, 1975.

The Violence in Japan’s Postwar Peace ///

The theoretical underpinnings for East Asian Anti-Japan Armed Front’s actions was an understanding that ostensibly peaceful postwar Japan’s affluence was actually based on historical militarism and oppression, as well as continued exploitation. The wartime history of Mitsubishi and other Japanese corporations’ involvement in imperialism was still temporally close when the Vietnam War prompted anti-war activism in Japan that made explicit links between the booming Japanese economy and the suffering of people in Southeast Asia. The neocolonial relationships Japan forged with other Asian countries from the 1960s onward were facilitated by United States Cold War policies that sought to bolster Japan as a buttress against communism in Asia and thus secured Asian markets for Japanese goods.

The EAAJAF had three conditions for the companies that they targeted in their bombing campaigns: 1) the company was part of primitive accumulation process under the formation of the modern Japanese state in the Meiji Period (1868-1912); 2) the company participated in the process of militarization and and benefitted from wars of invasion and colonization; 3) the company, after World War II, continued the exploitation of other nations through mechanisms framed as development but which created neocolonial economic relationships.

Even as the deaths and injuries caused by the EAAJAF’s bombing campaigns could support police claims about the dangers of leftist ideas and activists to the peace and order of postwar Japan, there was also a measure of support for these violent activists among those who recognized their actions as occurring within larger, global frames of state and industrial violence. The EAAJAF was not the only leftist activist group that became infamous for its violence in postwar Japan. In early 1972, bodies of purged United Red Army (URA) members were exhumed and the event prompted a media-led and police-led outcry against leftist extremism.

While the state and the mass media vilified individual activists for their violence as “violent threats” to public order and the nation, many others demanded that activist violence be understood in the larger structures of violence. For EAAJAF, that meant insisting that their bombing campaigns needed to be understood in the context of a longer history and framework of imperialism and capitalist exploitation. The imprisoned members of both the EAAJAF and the URA had supporters in Japan who wrote letters and attended their legal proceedings. These supporters did not necessarily condone the violence these organizations engaged in, but instead often sought to draw attention to the violence implicit in post-World War II Japanese society.

In the case of the URA, a group that killed its own members after being driven underground, the violence was particularly difficult for leftists to understand, and while many activists insisted on their distance from the URA, others articulated their support. Setsu Shigematsu, in her book on the women’s liberation movement in Japan, Scream from the Shadows (2012), traces the support movement among feminists for the “violent” women of the United Red Army in particular as something that can “form the basis of a different kind of feminist ethics of violence.” Rather than understand violence as something committed by dangerous individuals, women’s lib activists in 1970s Japan practiced “critical solidarity,” a “praxis of political identification based on a philosophy of existence that emphasizes the contingency of one’s life and destiny and the realization of one’s potential commonality with the other, including the potential expression of violence.” This kind of critical solidarity with those who committed violence sought to emphasize the violence embedded in daily life, a point that the EAAJAF attempted to bring home in a more literal way.

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Still from Shane O’Sullivan‘s documentary Children of the Revolution (2010) showing Japanese Red Army founder Shigenobu Fusako.

Anti-Japan East Asian Armed Front and the Japan Red Army ///

On August 4, 1975, the Japan Red Army (JRA) — a group originating in the Japanese New Left but active abroad — occupied the U.S. and Swedish embassies in Kuala Lumpur, demanding the release of imprisoned EAAJAF members. With that action and a subsequent 1977 hijacking of a Japan Airlines flight from Dhaka, the JRA gained the release of eleven EAAJAF members. Although the JRA did not have active links with the EAAJAF at the time, they recognized common theoretical foundations. The released EAAJAF members then joined the JRA.

The international Japan Red Army originated when Shigenobu Fusako, then a member of a group that later merged into the URA, left Tokyo for Beirut in 1971 to link up with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in an attempt to internationalize the leftist struggles of the Japanese New Left. Shigenobu was drawn to the idea of an international network to respond to “American and Japanese imperialism.” The group became internationally infamous after three of its members were involved in an attack on Lod Airport near Tel Aviv in 1972.

Shigenobu, who is currently serving a 20 year sentence in prison in Japan, personally denied involvement in the 1972 Lod Airport attack. But she did note that the actions of the Japanese attackers — two of whom killed themselves in the act — were unusual. While Japanese people had become accustomed in many senses to die for their nation, she noted, it was rare for Japanese to die for others, in this case, for Palestinians. It defied a kind of ethnonationalist “common sense” in Japan. In risking themselves to advocate for Korean and Ainu causes, the EAAJAF also sought to overcome this common sense; they also recognized the emptiness of any calls for “peace” that merely sought to affirm a commonsensical status quo from the positions of established economic and geopolitical power.

War is Peace? ///

The Japanese state and industry was born of war and continues today to be involved in global war. Contemporary Japanese affluence is a product of ongoing geopolitical violence. The government-led campaign to bolster the image of Japan as a soft cultural power further conceals this fact. A common image of a peaceful Japan obscures the way that Japanese industry, developed during wartime, has continued to participate in war even in the “postwar” period.

Japanese industry is aggressively pushing into the global arms market. In 2014, the Japanese Cabinet weakened restrictions on weapons exports and joint development, which has made it possible for Japanese corporations to become more involved in the international arms trade. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries made it into the top half of the list of Defense News Top 100 list of defense contractors from April 1, 2017 to March 31, 2018. The Network against Japan Arms Trade (NAJAT) has expressed concern about Japanese and Israeli projects to develop drones for military use. Some of the Israeli military’s reported human rights violations involved drone use, which also implicated Japanese companies: Fuji Heavy Industries (Subaru), NEC, and Mitsubishi Electric.

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A Picture to be Burnt (1993), an etching representing Japanese Emperor Hirohito by artist Shimada Yoshiko, and one of the pieces in the cancelled Aichi Triennale exhibit in 2019.

At the same time, in Japan today, there is very little tolerance for dissenting voices that point out Japan’s longer history of violence. In August 2019, an exhibit at the Aichi Triennale art fair that included pieces about Japan’s wartime history of violence — in particular, a statue representing a “comfort woman” created by two South Korean artists — was shut down in response to menacing phone calls and faxes. The quick capitulation to threats benefitted those who desired to close the exhibit for reasons of preserving national honor, such as the mayor of Nagoya, the city in which the Aichi Triennale is held, who stated that the art “tramples on the feelings of Japanese citizens.” Artists seeking to draw attention to Japan’s legacies of violence and militarism in a symbolic, non-violent way are framed as violent; they are silenced through threats of violence.

Chris Marker concludes his cinematic meditation on the protests of the 1960s and 1970s in A Grin Without a Cat (Le fond de l’air est rouge) with footage of wolves hunted by a sniper in a helicopter. As yet another wolf collapses, the narrator’s final words speculate: “some wolves still survive” (“il y avait toujours des loups”). The audience can see here the way that the odds are stacked: wolves may pose a threat to ranchers, but the militarized violence mobilized against them seeks not only control but annihilation. One does not have to condone the violence of the EAAJAF to try to understand it. To understand it is also to understand the contingency of history by which we can inherit affluence that is also a legacy of violence. If we meditate on that history of violence and exploitation we can also understand the limits of the metaphor of the wolf; the legacy of this violence and exploitation is ultimately human, consuming humans and animals. The EAAJAF, in tracing the war in peace and the destruction in progress, presents us with not a model but emphasizes another history that may help us work through what we mean by violence and villains. ■