Resistance in Education:
Japanese and Western theoretical sites 1948-1980

Bruce Burnett, Dr School of Cultural and Language Studies in Education Queensland University of Technology Australia

[email protected]


This paper seeks to revisit traditional neomarxist western understandings of student resistance within the context of the major postwar Japanese student movement. Despite the fact that Japanese student unrest preceded many of the theoretical contributions of student resistance from the west, such as that produced by the Birmingham School in the 1980s, little or no attention in Western theory has been directed towards the distinctive collective component of resistance displayed in Japan. The most influential understandings of western educational resistance during the 1970s and 1980s were premised on notions of an informal, disorganized and apolitical understanding of agency and in particular the theoretical neomarxist underpinnings of the researcher. In contrast, in the Japanese case it is the students themselves who are entrenched in a Marxist paradigm that governs a range of outcomes. This paper traces the development of postwar Japanese educational resistance (1948 to 1975) and questions the ability of western resistance-based theory to embrace the notions of collectivity inherent within the Japanese context. At the heart of the paper is therefore the central question of how applicable were historical sets of neomarxist understandings of resistance to cultural, theoretical and ideological forms of ’counter-hegemony’ removed from Western settings.


This paper attempts to examine two contradictory notions of student resistance. The first being the traditional neomarxist Western understandings of student resistance such as those premised on an informal, disorganized and apolitical notion of agency. The second being the paradigm of postwar Japanese student resistance which grew from the ashes of World War Two into at a series of splinter terrorist groups. The paper attempts to highlight and contextualize the distinctly collective nature of educational resistance displayed in postwar Japan and to question the usefulness of neomarxist constructions in unpacking cultural, theoretical and ideological understanding of ’counter-hegemony’ in non-Western settings. This paper begins by examining the series of theoretical contributions that led to the seminal Western theorization of resistance produced by the Birmingham School in the 1980s. The paper then moves on to provide an account of the major postwar student movement in Japan from 1948 to 1975. The paper concludes that there are distinct problems of using Western theory to unpack educational resistance in Japan for much of the work done on educational resistance in the West has been located within frameworks of subcultures and class which are not mirrored within the Japanese context.

Unpacking the Lineage of Western Educational Resistance

A profusion of literature generated during the 1970s sought to demystify the role of educational institutions in promoting inequalities in society, by highlighting how they authenticated specific cultural and institutional provisions. Young and Whitty (1977, p.1-15) refer to a general desire to analyze and interrogate the relationship between schools and their specific cultural and historical contexts, and to comprehend the roles of schools in terms of the ideological structures which they helped to sustain and reproduce. Education, for the first time was scrutinized under a series of new lens that enabled a relationship to be viewed between schooling, power and the ’subject’. Wexler (1982) comments that in, the early 1970s we applied the sociology of knowledge to education and attacked the surface of liberal knowledge. We rejected idealism, objectivism and privatism in favour of a social and historical analysis of educational forms and school knowledge … the critical models that emerged … included categories of Marxist social analysis, like capital accumulation, alienation, exploitation, labour process, hegemony, and even contradiction, which were new to the social studying of schooling. (cited in Smith 1988, p.60)

This was a multi-pronged critique, located within a wider radical attempt to show how certain bodies of knowledge, and therefore the people who were in possession of that knowledge, had been subjugated. The critique was performed on several fronts almost simultaneously C by political economists (Bowles & Gintis 1976), by educational sociologists (Bernstein 1971, 1975, and Jencks 1979), and by curriculum theorists (Apple 1979, 1985, Young 1971 and Bourdieu & Passeron 1977). This initial body of theory generated further attempts at pedagogical deconstruction, typified in the work of Giroux (1983a, 1983b), Aronowitz & Giroux (1985), Apple (1979, 1985) and Bates (1978, 1983). A revolutionary discourse of resistance and emancipation however, did not truly surface until the politicizing of education merged with a notion of the ’critical’, derived from critical theory and the political philosophy extracted from the Frankfurt School (i.e., Young 1989, Bates, 1978, 1986, Giroux, 1981a, 1981b, 1983a, 1983b and Lather 1984, 1986a). This became part of a much wider deconstruction which sought to expose the injustices of current institutional arrangements. It involved unpacking the structure of educational texts (writing, speech technology) in order to unmask the real beneficiaries of this version of educational truth and allow thereby a newly constructed social order based on the fundamental principles of social justice. Whose interests are served by any particular version of good educational order, was and still is the driving logic of such critiques C the idea that education as a competing system of beliefs can be demonstrated to be linked to broader social and political ideologies of class, race and gender inequality. (Hamilton and McWilliam 1997, pp. 25)

The first substantial body of theory relevant to Western notions of educational resistance is that of social reproduction which can be linked to both the French structuralist Althusser (1971) and American political economists Bowles and Gintis (1976). The notion of ’ideology’ in this context is crucial, for it was conceptualized as possessing its own generative capacity. In contrast to Gramsci (1971), who had portrayed ideology as permeating through the very structures and process of how individuals acted, and who had indicated that ideology was imbedded in social practice, Althusser’s approach, was to propose that ideology “transforms individuals into subjects, by presenting them with particular positions or signs of a possible future that serve the dominant interests in a society” (Hamilton & McWilliam 1997, p.25). Althusser (1971) suggested that ideology was the central element in a process of transferring humans into social subjects. This transformation was considered to be “self-evident, inevitable and natural” (Hamilton & McWilliam 1997, p.25), illustrating how Althusser implied that ideology served to obscure and mystify the process of how an individual subject was constituted. Ideology was also linked for the first time to institutions such as schools that were subsequently implicated in the process of integrating individuals into capitalist society. The role of the school in the process had obviously been recognized; however Althusser set it apart, by clearly emphasizing that educational sites were apparatus of the state or ISAs (Ideological State Apparatus).

Around this same period, a somewhat different body of theory began to stress the cultural aspects of production and legitimation of schooling. Those most readily associated with what is now termed ’cultural reproduction’ are Bourdieu and Passeron (1977) and Bernstein (1975). Both Bourdieu and Passeron, and Bernstein began by addressing several of the inadequacies inherent in Althusser and Bowles and Gintis’ position, by arguing that it was the dominant class who was able to effectively manipulate what schools determined as culture and knowledge. By camouflaging specific forms of culture and distinctive accounts of knowledge to reflect neutrality, the ’ruling elite’ was seen to legitimate its own account of what was natural, thus masking the subjugation of those less culturally fortified.

Bourdieu and Passeron’s rejection that schools merely mirrored the functions of society, provided another useful lens to view resistance. Giroux (1981a), for example indicated that Bourdieu’s insistence that schools were in fact relatively autonomous social sites, highlighted the fact that they could only in part, be influenced by capitalist economic and political institutions. Althusser and Bowles and Gintis’ deterministic position outlined above, was disputed, due to the notion that identity was produced from the available constructions within that institution. Given that such constructions were “contradictory and always in competition, then the structural political economy of schooling [could not] rule out resistance, because it [could not] fix the process of identity production for teachers or students” (Hamilton and McWilliam 1996 p.26).

By interpreting institutions as sites where sources of conflict and resistance could be legitimated, and presented as the natural way of the world, Bourdieu (1977) also established a link between what he termed ’symbolic violence’ and the ’mediation/reproduction’ of social sites found within all capitalist societies. Here, the earlier ’steamroller effect’, suggested by Althusser and Bowles and Gintis, was supplanted with a more subtle imposition of the dominant classes’ view of the world. A narrowly defined set of ideologies, values, and knowledge C termed ’cultural capital’ C was argued to be of benefit to those who controlled the means of production, and subsequently served to perpetuate their positions of control.

By using Bourdieu’s concept of the Habitus, Willis (1977) for example had been able to focus on the relationship between power, knowledge and reproduction. Willis, however, achieved a completely different outcome to that proposed by Bourdieu. Bourdieu had maintained that the powerful dominant culture would engulf less fortified cultures, absorbing and rendering them powerless in the process. Willis, in contrast, was able to demonstrate that alternate cultures, could in fact contribute to their own subjugation. Of direct concern to this paper however, were the notions outlined by Bourdieu, which illustrated the manner in which educational institutions molded both identity and experience, for this attested to the degree that such institutions utilized educational codes to categorize a non-transparent mediation of authority and power.

In stark contrast to theories of reproduction, the literature loosely grouped together under the heading of resistance used contestation and counter-hegemonic discourse as a foundation of an analysis of Western educational institutions’ relationship with capitalist society. The literature from this period reveals the colorful and openly defiant images of studies of male working class youth (Hall & Jefferson 1976 and Willis 1977), and of female subcultures (McRobbie & Garber 1976 and McRobbie 1980, 1982). The notion of resistance inherent in the studies of this period, is characterized by, either overt acts of conflict, or the ritualized activities of subcultures. Collectively they fall under the umbrella of what has become known as a ’new sociology of education’ or the ’Birmingham School’ (Bates 1978).

The work of Willis (1977) radically altered the mechanistic reproductive matrix, by showing sensitivity toward the cultural processes occurring within a particular group of working class male youth. Although somewhat hesitant of the anti-theoretizm in ethnographies stemming from the Chicago School, Willis nonetheless, was the primary exponent of ethnography within the Birmingham school. On a theoretical level, he emphasized the importance of human agency and critical theory in analyzing the day-to-day lives of the participants in an ethnography. On a more concrete level, Willis’ account focused on the ’counter-school culture’ and the interrelationships this culture possessed with the school and the shop-floor. The central question for Willis was not to explain why “working-class kids get working-class jobs [it was] why they let themselves” do so (1977, p.1).

Willis’ work was extremely influential at this point in time for it suggested an essence of social reproduction in schools residing not merely in some dominant and invincible institutional determinants, but also in the cultural forms which are partly produced within institutional sites; produced not as inevitable responses to institutional demands, but as an expression of the lived contradictions of non-dominant cultures within institutional frameworks. (Gorden 1984, p.108)

However, Willis’ study was not free from criticism, for Giroux (1983a) and Gorden (1984) argue that oppositional behavior is not in all cases simply a reaction to what Willis interpreted as ’powerlessness’. The point made by Giroux can be contrasted with the earlier discussion of Althusser (1971), for it suggested that the ’ideology’ of those displaying resistance may in fact mirror the dominant position of the institution. This highlighted how it is possible for resistance to have little to do with the actual institution, other than the school serving as an arena for its expression. Another issue raised by Giroux (1981b, 1983a & 1983b), was that theories of resistance rarely devoted attention to gender or race, and did not contain the theoretical flexibility to examine forms of resistance that were race or gender-specific. The irony of the early neomarxist understandings of resistance such as those portrayed by Hall and Jefferson (1976), was that “although allegedly committed to emancipatory concerns, [they] end up contributing to the reproduction of sexist and racist attitudes and practices” (Giroux 1983a, p.287). Walker (1988) advances a similar argument, insisting that it was tempting for many researchers, themselves opposed to inequalities in the existing social order, to see hopes of social progress in what they believe to be the resistance of anti-school groups to an unjust and exploitative society. This runs the risk of romanticising working class culture, and some unpleasant forms of it at that, with sexist and racist aspects. (Walker 1988, p.6)

In addition, Ellsworth (1989), criticized neomarxist accounts of resistance for relying too heavily on overt acts that tended to place too much political weight on the acts of opposition which could be observed, ignoring less easily recorded, subtle forms of resistance. This was an issue which had been addressed much earlier by Giroux (1983a), and subsequently raised by Anderson (1990) and Atkins (1992), who collectively asserted that neomarxist framed notions of resistance failed to account for those students who were able to effectively minimize their participation in routine school practices while simultaneously displaying outward conformity to the school’s ideology, opting for modes of resistance that are quietly subversive in the most immediate sense, but that have the potential to be politically progressive in the long run. (Giroux 1983b, p.287)

The mechanistic nature, of the early resistance studies (Hall & Jefferson 1976, McRobbie & Garber 1976 and McRobbie 1980), was problematized by Walker (1988) in an analysis of social class, gender and ethnicity of youth culture, within an Australian inner-city school. Walker alluded to the ’reproductive pessimism’ of neomarxist accounts of resistance, concluding that ordinary people do in many cases, achieve remarkable things. Walker contrasted the determinism of earlier accounts, with illustrations in his study of how neither the teachers, the researchers, nor the pupils themselves could have predicted the fascinating variety of individual stories, nor all the cultural continuities and realignments. There proved to be a degree of individual loose-jointedness within which some young men made quite distinctive and personal choices … one could hardly have predicted that Stokeham Year 10 would produce both a foreign exchange market operator and a working class poet. (Walker 1988, p.155)

Unpacking the Lineage of Japanese Educational Resistance

The majority of the English literature focusing on Japanese resistance is structured around a business or ’lay’ readership, represented in titles such The Japanese Mind: The Goliath Explained (Christopher 1990) or Japanese Models of Conflict Resolution (Eisenstadt & Ben-Ari, 1990). What is evident within this relatively limited range of literature is the suggestion of a distinctive contextualized form of Japanese resistance and an over emphasis on notions of collective resolution of this resistance. Outside the postwar student and teacher union movements, there has been little research conducted related to Japanese educational resistance which tracks the tangents undertaken in the West. A number of issues arise when attempting to use Western theory to unpack examples of resistance in Japan. Foremost is that much of the work done on educational resistance in the West has been located within a frameworks of class or subculture that are not precisely replicated within the Japanese context. Another problem is the overt connection in Western neomarxist accounts between resistance and ’agency’ and an over reliance on the incomplete nature of social reproduction. The following historical account of the postwar Japanese student movement begins by showing how the processes of Japanese postwar reproduction were never as complete as portrayed in the West by Althusser (1971), Bowles and Gintis (1976), Bourdieu and Passeron (1977) or Bernstein (1977). The following section seeks to show the degree to which Japanese educational institutions have been affected by opposition or counter-discourse, and questions the relevance of Western theoretical understandings of resistance within the context of the most prominent illustration of educational ’counter-hegemony’ evident in post-war Japan — the sudden rise of the highly organized and politicized student union.

Student resistance in post-war Japan is most often classified into three distinctive periods, each approximately ten years apart. These begin shortly after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War and culminate in the late 1960s and early 1970s. McCormack (1971) argues that each period reflects a critical passage in the mobilization of Japan’s youth, and it is not surprising Tsutomu (1967) concludes, that each also coincides with critical periods of transition within Japan’s sociopolitical climate. One of the most visible aspects of this form of resistance has been its evolution. From a massive, mostly unified, movement with a clear mandate and wide support during the late 1950s, it can be seen to increasingly splinter and divide. By the 1970s, the movement, due to its increasingly violent tactics, had not only lost much of its size and momentum, but also public support (Steinhoff 1984).

The genealogy of the Japanese student movement, similar to the other forms of collective and in some cases individual resistance displayed in post-war Japan, are to be found in the reforms of SCAP (Supreme Command of Allied Power). In a similar manner to the Japan Teachers’ Union and the long running textbook censorship case initiated by Professor Saburo Ienaga, the student movement was also cultivated on the left-wing ideology of the times (Duke 1974). The similarities centered on theoretical Marxist assumptions that Ward Beer (1984) maintains were not directed towards ultra-nationalism, but rather were centered on Japanese Marxist interpretations of the laws of history and stages of social development. Importantly, the student movement differed from the teachers’ movement, in that the dissatisfaction of the students was bred in destitution and poverty in contrast to the working conditions and professionalism of the teachers. Students who were returning to the universities after an enforced absence due to the war, were forced to group together, lending each other economic and moral support (McCormack 1971 and Õno 1967). Once banded together, the students began criticizing the systematic inadequacies prevalent on campuses throughout Japan, which led in 1948 to the unification of the nation’s student bodies into the Zengakuren, the All-Japan Federation of Student Self-Governing Bodies. McCormack (1971) marvels at the surprisingly moderate and democratic tone with which the original leaders interpreted their role which centered predominantly around opposition to an emergence of fascism in education and absolute freedom in the organizing of the nation’s students. With the start of the Korean war and the subsequent ’Red Purge’ C in which the occupying forces began their ’reverse course policy’ on the liberal reforms they had implemented four years before C the Zengakuren responded by broadening the scope of their activities (Duke 1974). Together with a broadening of the movement’s umbrella of resistance, came stronger ties with other left-wing political parties (McCormack 1971). Duke argues, that this change in their goals was in direct retaliation to the conservative ruling party’s offensive against school and university teachers who also supported left-wing ideologies. The students’ change of course saw them begin to oppose national and international concerns, in contrast to broaching only local campus issues with Duke (1974), indicating that within a two year period, from 1949 to 1951, the Zengakuren had fallen under the controlling authority of the JCP (Japan Communist Party).

The irony of this form of collective resistance is evident in the manner in which those supporting the U.S. initiated democratic reforms became ideologically opposed to U.S. modeled capitalism. This contradiction became the direct focus of Soviet criticism in 1950, which led to the JCP undertaking a marked change of ideological direction. Where before in the 1950s they had promoted democratic resistance and peaceful democracy, they now embarked on a policy of disruption and disorder (Õno 1967). The ultimate aim of this new resistance was the eventual overthrowing of the U.S. sponsored system of government with a popular revolution (Steinhoff 1984). The Zengakuren, now firmly aligned with the JCP, began a campaign of campus turmoil with attacks on police stations and government buildings in what has been referred to by Duke (1974) as ’futile guerrilla-type forays’.

The increased momentum created both a rising public outrage directed towards the students as well as a weakening in the unions’ solidarity. Steinhoff argues that this was the direct cause of numerous internal factions, which formed within the movement. By 1956 the policy of the JCP had once again shifted to a more moderate position which further alienated the now radical students who were themselves, entrenched in the newly-evolved factions within the Zengakuren. As disillusionment grew, some of the student leaders were, purged from JCP membership, which further widened the breach. By 1960 there were clear JCP and anti-JCP factions within Zengakuren, and within a few years there were separate Zengakuren organizations reflecting JCP and anti-JCP positions. (Steinhoff 1984, p.177)

The next period of concerted resistance by the students began in 1960 in response to ANPO C the Japan-United States Security Treaty. By this time, internal fighting amongst different student groups was severely inhibiting the ability of the movement as a whole, to undertake effective resistance. Steinhoff argues that so much of the movement’s energy was being expended on internal disputes, that often the original focus of resistance was lost in the struggle for ideological hegemony. Steinhoff suggests that, each [faction] had its own national organization and worked energetically to extend its ideological influence, both by organizing new groups of students and by attempting to gain influence in independent local protest movements. A typical pattern developed in which a local dispute would develop spontaneously under its own campus leadership and attract a broad range of students. Then the sects would begin to move in, ostensibly to support the local protest. Inevitably, the sects would begin to quarrel over ideological niceties, and the broad campus support would drift away, leaving the sects to battle amongst themselves. (Steinhoff 1989, p.178)

The relative calm of the mid-sixties ended with the eruption of nationwide campus unrest in 1968-69. This was to prove the most combative and stormy academic year in the history of modern Japan with over one hundred universities becoming involved, the most famous being Tokyo University. Students from the ’Alma Mater’ of the nation’s élite, became incensed over the fact that medical students were forced to serve a one-year unpaid internship upon graduation, which was viewed by them as exploitative. It is representative of the issues on other campuses across Japan because it dealt with, the autocratic decision making in universities and perceived links between educational institutions and the conservative government. The focus of resistance had thus shifted to an attack on the university system, where higher education was interpreted as the stronghold of privilege, in a tyrannical and reactionary system (McCormack 1971). In the case of Tokyo University, students barricaded themselves into a section of the main tower, provoking the authorities into a show-down in which riot police with water cannons and helicopters were summoned. The disruption to Tokyo University can be gauged by the fact that no one was able to graduate at the end of that academic year and the officials of the university were forced to cancel entrance examinations for newly enrolling students.

Steinhoff (1990), argues that it was the non-campus based issues, such as the Vietnam War, which caused a more physical and aggressive change in protesting tactics. Steinhoff maintains that the students, being unable to engage their opponents in direct dialogue, were thus cut off from more peaceful forms of resistance. During the first two stages, the student protesters were protected by Japan’s post-war civil liberties. In addition, they received minority party support in the legislature, forcing police for the most part, to refrain from engaging in counter attacks during demonstrations. However, by the, late 1960s student demonstrations resembled mock medieval military skirmishes, with both sides decked out in helmets, shields, and fighting poles. Although vociferous opposition by parties in the Diet prohibited the use of teargas except in extreme cases, the riot police were soon outfitted with mobile riot buses, water cannons, and huge nets to deflect thrown rocks. (Steinhoff 1989, p.185)

While it is true that the student movement became divided and factionary as it matured, several basic characteristics remained consistent. First, the initial links to the JCP resulted in the issues being broadly defined. This appears to have been due to a widening of campus-based resistance to include national and international issues. Furthermore, the movement, irrespective of the faction, incorporated and absorbed Marxism as its raison d’être. Duke (1974), argues that the students were attracted by the idealism and logic of a Marxist classless society. Duke also proposes that while “other ideologies are vague and imprecise, particularly western-style democracy, Marxism in a superficial interpretation, is clear and understandable to the Japanese student who readily identifies with Marxist goals” (p.41).

Although the students “posed a potential threat because [they] raised issues that were shared by a much broader public that, if fully mobilized, would have posed a serious threat to the government’s power” (Steinhoff 1984, p.183), it is clear that the students lacked the economic potency, which could provide the logistics necessary to mount any realistic challenge. Steinhoff portrays the conflict as one between groups with very unequal power, for not only did the students lack the financial power, they also lacked the necessary numerical status. In an attempt to draw attention to their cause they resorted to extreme acts of radicalism and we observe the two core forms of Japanese collective resistance emerging. The first is expressive in nature and attempts to communicate a statement or message concerning the students’ feelings about an issue. It begins with attempts to mobilize as many students as possible through petitions and the distribution of hand bills, then progresses to the second stage consisting of rallies and demonstrations.

Steinhoff (1984, 1989, and 1992) argues that each progressive stage of student resistance C from the initial petitioning to the final storming of symbolic territory beyond police lines, even the guerrilla-like attacks with rockets C represents an expressive form of resistance, because the intention or goal is seldom a negotiated settlement. In contrast, the second core C instrumental resistance C aims to achieve some form of concession as a direct result of the protest. Similar to labour negotiations, the strike and the sit-in are the preferred tactic. Here the students’ goals are specific, their actions more premeditated, and the resistance less emotive or spontaneous. Another attempt to explain the students’ political viewpoints and motivation has been made by Õno (1967), who, writing at a time when student activity was at its peak, proposed that the immediate post-war ideals of a genuine desire for peace and democracy, had become a “dead issue” for the average citizen. The reason for this was that Japan no longer lived in an age of ideology, rather it lived in a “technological era in which everyone [was] most concerned with ’getting by’: the new psychological frame of mind” (Õno 1967, p.254). Õno goes on to contrast this position with the students’ tenacious resistance to supplant a concern for ideology with a concern for consumer comforts, which is argued to contrast with the general tenor of the times (p. 254). Õno maintains that the students proclaimed themselves watchdogs over the ideals of peace and democracy, ideals that they predicted would be lost if they gave up their struggle. Cummings (1976), writing some time after Õno, suggests that this position never resulted in any radical restructuring of the educational system in Japan, instead, it was left to more moderate groups to build the bridges of dialogue during the second half of the 1970s.

Other investigations of the Japanese student movement have linked their analysis to the ‘non-political’ such as the account given by Duke (1974), who examines the psychological influences of bushido C the way of the samurai C both on individual students and on the movement as a whole. Relevant to the manner in which the resistance was played out, are claims made by Duke (1974) that loyalty and solidarity C two of the most salient features of the samurai’s life C are still very much part of the modern Japanese psyche, and in particular were the cornerstone of the student movement. Stemming from complete dedication comes what Duke calls “dogmatism unsurpassed, in which the end, including the killing of policemen, rival students, and in the most extreme instance, even one’s own followers, justifies the means” (Duke 1974, p.43). What is interesting about Duke’s suggestion, is that this position renders the focus of the resistance, as well as the forms it takes, separate from any form of credible or reasoned debate. Another factor influencing the resistance Duke proposes, was the degree to which the student was able to ’live out’ a role that was free from the ’bourgeois activities’ so deplored by the movement’s ideology. Duke insists that, similar to the samurai spirit, a sense of sacrificial suffering was the epitome of the student’s calling. By displaying the ability to go without, and endure the hardships that would result in benefits for the movement as a whole, the student was able to exemplify love and loyalty. Hence, the greater the personal sacrifice, the greater is considered the contribution to the group’s movement. In fact, activists play upon the guilt feelings of the apolitical students by criticizing them for hedonistic tendencies while the radicals sacrifice for the purpose which gives meaning to life. (Duke 1974, p.43)

Of note in terms of how student resistance is ‘played out’ is also the existence of a separate body of literature centered on what is termed ’nihonjiron’. Nakane’s (1984), themes of Japanese socialization, together with Doi’s (1989, 1990) classic narrative center on the correspondence between Japanese society and individual behavior and are illustrative of a genre of the ’nihonjiron’ literature that has produced an established domestic discourse that revolves around core conceptualizations about Japanese people and culture. Evident in accounts of student protest such as Ono (1967), explanations of behavior are often linked to socially constructed notions of Japanese identity. Collectively, the ’nihonjiron’ literature attempts to construct Japan and the Japanese ’other’, with reference to a clearly defined set of ideological practices that reinforce the mythologies of a passive, docile and even workaholic ’other’.

Significantly, it is possible to trace notions of the ’nihonjiron’ literature in leading narratives of more general Japanese behavior, typified in the work of Reischauer (1990) and Van Wolferen (1989). What important in relation to linking this genre to the student movement is that the ’nihonjiron’ literature is not a Western construction and therefore diverges somewhat from what Said (1978, p.6) maintains is a distinctive relationship of power existing between the East and West. While Said’s notion of Orientalism maybe useful in unpacking the power and knowledge nexus in terms of images of Japan produced in the west, it is important to note that the Western subject is absent within much of the nihonjiron literature (i.e., that typified by Doi 1989, 1990). The reason for this is that the nihonjiron literature is written exclusively for domestic consumption, and represents a unique construction of the Japanese subject, by the Japanese themselves. It is the position of this paper that the nihonjiron literature is an empowering domestically generated discourse of Japanese uniqueness that serves as a series of multiple signifiers in determining the public/domestic narrative of Japan. Importantly, the West chooses to selectively draw on this narrative in their construction of the Japanese student radical/Other, in particular in terms of notions of the “collective” versus “individual”.


The paper has engaged with blocks of western resistance-based theory predominately shaped during the 1970s and 1980s and overlaid this theory on the distinctly collective forms of postwar Japanese student movement evident from approximately 1948 to 1975. This process has revealed several key elements. Marked differences emerge in the manner in which both phenomena have been scrutinized with a marked preference in the West for an examination of educational resistance within frameworks of subculture and class while in Japan student resistance appears aligned to the collective. Notable in the case of Japanese student resistance are the discrete political ideologies—i.e., Marxism— that are shared within this collective, although at times there was clearly disagreement on how best to operationalize this ideology (Õno 1967 and Shimbori 1963).

Hence, the collective and ideological nature of the Japanese student movement stands in stark contrast to Western notions of oppositional behavior that have for the most part been viewed through the emancipatory lens of researchers who have focused on class and subculture. Where in the west it was the school or the shop-floor that served as the stage to celebrate resistant behavior, with the exception of the final phase of student union organization, the Japanese students interpreted their hegemonic target as external to the educational institution. Thus, in the case of Japan, the institution served merely as a collective and relatively safe site from which to launch or play-out forms of collective oppositional behavior where as in the west resistance served as a critique of the institution and served as a form of protest directed towards the dominant ideology. In addition, notions of resistance embedded within the ’new sociology of education’ displayed resistance as contradicting earlier reproductive accounts which positioned schools and working class students, as merely the by-products of capital. Rather than compliantly submitting to the dictates of authoritarian teachers and schools that prepare them for a life of deadening labor … [educational institutions were seen to] represent contested terrains marked not only by structural and ideological contradictions, but also by collectively informed student resistance. (Giroux 1983a, p.260)

This was clearly a rejection of Orwellian notions of domination and reproduction, for Willis (1977) illustrated the manner in which socio-economic arrangements, set within the dominant structures of society, mediate class and culture and in turn shape the forms of ’resistances’ displayed by students’ real-life experiences.

The literature highlights the extent to Japanese postwar student resistance avoided individual overt acts with the most common forms of resistance being symbolic, collective and articulated through organized political channels. Although clearly interpreted as a major threat by conservative governments of the time, the student’s distinctive patterns of behavior reflect particular ingrained arrangements within the social framework of Japan. The notion of overt and covert forms Japanese resistance that emerges within the literature is one managed by elastic political and personal interrelationships of group members. Another key aspect that emerges from the examination of Japanese students is that their resistance emerged in reaction to negative conceptions of power within a framework that was seen as prohibitive and repressive. In contrast to a Western understandings of resistance where it was emphasized that “individuals are not simply acted upon by abstract ’structures’, but negotiate, struggle and create meaning of their own” (Weiler 1988, p.22), the Japanese literature does not address the dialectical nature of social reality (Giroux 1983a), or in Giddens’ (1979), terms, the “structuration of structures”. The literature on Japanese resistance, although focusing heavily on the effects of ’structuration’ on Japanese behavior, does not therefore attempt to take into account any notion of individual agency, or an expectation of political transformation through praxis or political action. We are left in the end with are two distinctive narratives told about youth during this period, one entrenched in the emancipatory neomarxist sentiment of the researchers, and the other embedded in the emancipatory Marxist sentiment of those who were researched.


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