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Japanese protest security treaty with U.S. and unseat Prime Minister, 1959-1960
The political atmosphere in Japan in the 1950s was anything but calm. Still reeling from the Second World War, citizens were coming to terms with their newly democratic leaders—politicians who, before the war, had been ardently fascist. A growing nationalist movement was forming, as well as strong leftist political factions. These two movements opposed Japan’s strong ties with the United States, and disagreed with the American military presence in their country.
In 1951, Japan and the United States had signed a post-war treaty that allowed the U.S. the right to maintain military bases in Japan, as well as to call on Japan for help in a war. The American bases in Japan were of strategic importance in the nuclear containment of China, and Americans were not required to confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons at the bases to the Japanese people. Nationalistic sentiments as well as fear of a nuclear war inspired growing opposition to the U.S. bases during the 1950s.
This opposition was renewed in 1957, when Kishi Nobusuke became prime minister. Nobusuke, a former war criminal, was leader of the Liberal Democratic Party. He came to office without official elections, and proceeded to remove many of the democratic advancements that had been put in place since the war. Upon arrival in office, he declared his intention to revise and ratify the security treaty with the United States. The new security treaty would further strengthen the ties between the U.S. and Japan. It would renew the U.S.’s right to maintain military bases in Japan, and obligate both countries to assist each other in case of armed attack of Japanese territories. This meant that not only were U.S. military bases stationed on Japanese land, if the bases were attacked by Cold War opponents Japan would have to supply its military to defend them. Nobusuke’s announcement prompted the formation of a strong campaign among Japanese citizens whose goal was to stop the ratification of the treaty.
During the 1950s, several protests against the American military bases had been formed. In these “base struggles”, campaigners were sent to the villages that surrounded the bases to raise awareness about the danger the bases posed and to promote opposition to the American military presence. The movement failed to spread nationwide and eventually trickled out. Immediately following Nobusuke’s announcement, however, protestors of all types formed a unified opposition. Unlike many large Japanese protests of that era, the campaign consisted of more than organized laborers and leftist groups. The campaign against the ratification of the security treaty included the Federation of Japanese Women’s Organizations, the Association of Japanese Literary Persons, the YMCA, and many other professional associations, artistic and cultural groups, and academics. One hundred and thirty-four such groups formed the People’s Council to Stop the Revised Security Treaty, which met for the first time on March 28th, 1959. The coalition was led by Sohyo, the Socialist Party, and Zengakuren, the national student association. Its reach, however, extended to a majority of Japanese citizens who feared a fascist uprising from Nobusuke and a nuclear war from the United States.
During 1959, as the treaty was being prepared for ratification, the People’s Council organized “United Action” days in protest. These actions, which were focused in Tokyo but took place in other cities across Japan, consisted of limited strikes, educational workshops, rallies, car parades, and sit-ins. The movement grew as the People’s Council reached out to all Japanese citizens, encouraging them to support their cause, if even by participating in just one action. The campaign also distributed thousands of pamphlets and informational leaflets. These pamphlets were countered the government’s own propaganda campaign. The anti-security treaty campaign, though, also had the support of the media, which condemned the government’s fascist-like actions.
The campaign’s first large action took place on November 27th, 1959. Thousands of protestors congregated outside the Japanese Diet (the parliament building) with the intention of presenting the government with mass petitions that had been signed against the treaty ratification. Campaigners presented the petitions, but some then spontaneously burst through the Diet doors, and occupied the building for the rest of the day. They sang, and danced, and cheered for their cause. Their large display of youthful energy was instrumental in attracting more students and other citizens to their cause. They proved that they were not “angry socialists or communists”, but a bi-partisan group of Japanese people who cared deeply about their rights.
Despite the mounting protest, plans for the ratification of the treaty went ahead. The campaign’s next large action took place on January 15th, 1960: thousands of students occupied the Hared airport in an attempt to stop Prime Minister Nobusuke from flying out to the U.S. to meet with President Eisenhower and sign the revised version of the treaty. Nobusuke still managed to fly out, and the ratified treaty was signed on January 19th, 1960. The fight, however, was not over. Nobusuke still had to get the signed treaty approved by the Diet. On May 19th, 1960, Nobusuke’s party was to bring the treaty up for approval. The Socialist party, in an attempt to prevent the vote, sat-in at the Diet. Nobusuke was determined to get the treaty passed at all costs, and took the risky move of having the Socialist Party members removed through physical force by the police. Without those members present, the treaty was voted through within fifteen minutes. This police order, along with other strong-armed actions he took, became Nobusuke’s downfall. Although the treaty had been passed, and the campaign failed to achieve its original goal, the protest now became a larger protest against the government. Protestors were angered by Nobusuke’s behavior and demanded that he step down. The campaign became a campaign to protect Japanese people’s democratic rights.
Beginning on May 20th, the day after the vote, the campaign’s actions were intensified. Members of the Socialist Party began an indefinite boycott of the Diet. The People’s Council organized many large demonstrations, including three hugely successful general strikes on June 4th, 15th, and 22nd. After the success of the June 4th strike, campaigners were enthusiastic and excited for the strike and rally on June 15th. They were, however, wary of violence on the part of counter-protestors, and feared for the safety of participants in the rally. As protestors marched towards the Diet, campaigners started a marching song, chanting “citizens all, be brave”, to keep people’s fear allayed. As they approached the Diet, though, physical violence broke out as counter-protestors launched themselves into the melee. Campaigners, who had been strictly instructed to resist from responding violently, continued the march and turned to the police to control the situation. Police began to arrest protestors and counter-protestors, using billy clubs to put choke holds on those being arrested. The scene turned tragic when a young woman protestor was strangled by a club and died. Though the government later denied responsibility for the death, Nobusuke was widely blamed and anger rose.
At the next large action, the June 22nd general strike, over 120,000 people rallied around the Diet. Their anger and passion shocked Nobusuke, and he was left dumbfounded. It had become clear that the protestors were only gaining momentum, and that they would not stop until change took place. Pressure within the government for his resignation rose, and the next day, June 23rd 1960, he resigned. Although protestors failed to achieve their original goal of stopping the ratification of the security treaty, they managed to bring down the government. Their persistence protected the democratic rights that they had sacrificed so much to win.