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How to Resist Policing: The Practical Meanings of Towel Masks for Student Protesters in Late 1960s Japan

Masks have long been a symbol of resistance movements around the world, especially in East Asia. As early as the 1960s, protestors in Japan began wearing masks during their demonstrations. Masks became a part of the uniform of the late 1960s protesters for causes such as the Vietnam War, the university system, and the evictions for Narita Airport.

It is impossible to discuss Japan’s post-war democracy without mentioning the 1960 Anpo (Japan-US Security Treaty) protests, a movement of opposition parties, students, workers and intellectuals that was led by the Socialist Party and set up in 1960 to oppose the Japanese government’s policy of revising the Japan-US Security Treaty.

This movement could not stop the new treaty from taking effect but forced Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi to resign. Many cultural figures and members of the mass media were sympathetic to this cause.

This paper examines the history and inner workings of the movement in question, including the historical significance of the helmet/mask/gebabo stick attire in the late 1960s and the reasons for the historical prominence of this moment. Due to the constraints of the paper, we will not be able to delve deeply into the specific issues that were protested or the ideological background of the movement. Instead, we will focus on analysing the movement of the 1960s with a particular emphasis on the material “equipment” utilized by the participants. It is worth noting that the author is currently conducting a separate project that involves collecting life histories through interviews with individuals who were involved in the movement, and the findings from this research will be compiled and presented at a later date.

Helmet, Mask, and Gebabo Stick

Between the 1960 Anpo protests and the later movements, there was a difference in clothing, specifically helmets and masks, which were not seen in the former struggle but became common in the late 1960s for reasons including resistance to policing. The use of masks for this purpose was also seen in South Korea in the 1970s.

In Japan, masks had become popular among urbanites during the late 1870s and the following decades as an item of modernization.[1] However, mask-wearing was uncommon among Japanese protestors and during street riots and other demonstrations before the mid-twentieth century. Then, in the late 1960s, Japanese student activists who were protesting the complicity of the US and Japanese governments in the Vietnam War began wearing masks and helmets in response to the government’s use of force. I may clarify the specific moment at which mask-wearing emerged or explain that this occurred at various times..

In Japan, helmets, gebabō (Gewalt staves), and masks were the symbols of the New Left movements led by the young people and students who criticized the established communist parties. The New Left movement in this paper refers to the Bund movement (see below), which was formed in 1955 by students who were sceptical of the demilitarization policy of the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), and the non-JCP movements that continued after its split and were responsible for direct action movements.

Discourse on the New Left movement in Japan often emphasizes the symbolism of ‘militancy’ with masks and helmets. Although scholars have examined the use of helmets and Gewalt staves, they have largely overlooked the use of masks in the history of Japanese student activism. Why did student protestors start wearing masks in the late 1960s, in contrast to the 1960 movement?

Masks against Tear Gas: The Miike Coal Mine Case in 1960

What answers to the abovementioned question have been provided in previous studies? Japanese sociologist Eiji Oguma argues that student protestors began to wear helmets to reinforce the public impression that they were rebellious, which was formed by the news media.[2] However, as my interview revealed, the significance of wearing a helmet and mask was more practical. As I will explain later, Yoshitaka Yamamoto highlights three reasons for wearing a helmet and a mask. Focusing on masks reveals understudied aspects of the Japanese student protests in the late 1960s.

During the 1960s, student movements in Japan emerged as a response to various issues, including the hierarchical nature of academia and the dominance of authority within universities. One notable example is the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Medicine, where the abolition of the internship system led to a movement for the improvement of training at affiliated hospitals. The university’s response, which included harsh and potentially invalid punishments, sparked widespread protest. In addition, at numerous private universities, including Keio University in Japan, student movements arose from protests against tuition fee increases. The student movement at Keio University is well known for its efforts in opposing tuition fee increases, which began in 1965 and subsequently spread to other private universities. These movements also often included criticism of the Japanese government’s participation in the Vietnam War and of the traditional left, including the JCP.

In Japan, tear gas had been used to suppress resistance movements long before the student movement at Keio University. One of the earliest examples of tear gas use was during the 1952 Bloody May Day, a demonstration against the rearmament of Japan three days after the end of the Allied occupation, which resulted in two deaths, including that of a Hosei University student.

In 1955, the JCP, which had adopted an armed line, withdrew its policy of armed struggle. After that, the direct action by communists was taken over by the Communist League (Bund), which was formed by students who had been purged in the course of the development of the new policy, and by the All-Japan Federation of Students’ Self-Government Associations, which sympathized with the policy of the Bund.

Tear gas was also used on June 15, 1960, at the peak of the Japan-US Security Treaty Struggle (1960 Anpo). The protest resulted in the death of a student at the University of Tokyo, the cancellation of President Dwight Eisenhower’s visit to Japan, and the resignation of Prime Minister Kishi. Revising the Japan-US Security Alliance would have allowed the US military to remain in Japan on a semipermanent basis, and the movement gained momentum amid growing fears that Japan would be drawn into wars initiated by the US. The Bund also carried out a raid on the Diet building. While tear gas was used at both events, the protestors did not wear helmets or masks. I argue that this was partly because the crowds did not anticipate the use of tear gas.

A month after the Security Treaty Struggle, tens of thousands of members of the labour unions and student groups joined the Mitsui Miike Mining Struggle in Kyushu, the western island of Japan. As energy policy shifted from coal to oil, this dispute intensified, and the labourers already wore helmets during protests against monopolistic capital. When the protesters heard that ten thousand police officers equipped with tear gas grenades had been deployed in July 1960, they added water goggles and “gas masks” to their equipment.[3] While the government ultimately ordered the police not to use tear gas on protestors, most of them wore towels as masks, as shown in photographs from the protests.[4] The same type of towel mask was used during protests throughout the late 1960s as well.

The Security Treaty could be abrogated every ten years if either the US or Japan gave notice. The respective anti-war movements therefore set 1970 as their new target. Meanwhile, in the mid-1960s, the US increased its military support for the South Vietnamese government. The fears of 1960 that the existence of the Japan-US Security Treaty would lead to complicity with US imperialism became a reality.

Yoshitaka Yamamoto, a graduate student in physics, founded the Committee for Anti-Vietnam War at the University of Tokyo in the mid-1960s. Student groups such as this one proactively participated in major protests in various areas of Japan.[5]

Yamamoto is known to have chaired the All-Campus Joint Struggle League (Zenkyōtō) at the University of Tokyo. From 1968 onwards, the All-Communist Party was formed at many universities to oppose the Vietnam War and to reduce tuition fees.

Recently, the participants of the 1960s student movements, including Yamamoto, have restarted their activities. I often joined their meetings and contributed to their essay collection.[6] When I interviewed Yamamoto on the meanings of their masks, he did not call them masks, remarking, “This was not a mask we know today. We used only an ordinary towel.”[7]

According to Yamamoto’s testimony, it appears that the student movement utilized commonplace towels, rather than specialized equipment, for “masking.”

Concealment: Radicalization of the Movements in the Late 1960s

Figure 1: “Kanda Cartier Latin Struggle” in January 1969. In support of the struggle at the University of Tokyo, students barricaded themselves in imitation of the Cartier Latin in Paris, where the French student demonstration “May Revolution” took place in 1968.[8] (Courtesy of Michiko Sasaki)

In the late 1960s, the Vietnam War raged. In Japan, Okinawa, still under US occupation, was the base for the so-called North bombing sorties, and the Japanese government, which had signed the Japan-US Security Treaty, was criticized for recognizing the South Vietnamese government rather than the North Vietnamese government.

In the mid-1960s, the Japanese government provided the US military with logistical support for the Vietnam War. In 1967, Prime Minister Eisaku Sato decided to visit Southeast Asia, including South Vietnam. At the time, growing public opinion held that Prime Minister Sato’s visit to Southeast Asia, and South Vietnam in particular, was Japan’s de facto acknowledgement of the US imperialist invasion of Vietnam. Student protesters believed that this pro-war gesture was unacceptable; they tried to prevent the Prime Minister from arriving at the Haneda International Airport, which was the departure point towards Southeast Asia. This protest is now called the first Haneda struggle.

In response, the nascent student movement that had formed in the early 1960s became more radical. The more radical student movements became, the stricter riot police became. Under these new, more violent/strict forms of policing, masks became a necessity for protesters to hide their identities.

Before masks appeared in the student movements in late 1967, helmets had already been used by protesters in labour movements. According to Yoshitaka Yamamoto, who founded the Committee for Anti-Vietnam War at the University of Tokyo as a graduate student in the mid-1960s, helmets first appeared at a meeting of Santama Shaseidō, a Union of Socialist Youth, in 1964. Santama Shaseidō was working to organize radical anti-war movements of young workers; many union members began wearing motorbike helmets in solidarity with workers, many of whom rode motorbikes.

In the 1960s, there were conflicts between activists and the various parties of the New Left. One of the earliest known stages of this internal conflict took place on October 7, 1967, the day before the first Haneda struggle. At Hosei University, two different sects clashed. It was the first time that the gebabō (Gewalt staves) appeared. In other words, protestors used helmets to protect themselves not only from the police force but also from other sectarian activists. In addition, it was also vital not to let other sects see their faces, and masks were used for this purpose.

Yamamoto, who was a graduate student in physics at the University of Tokyo at the time, recalls the first Haneda struggle, which attempted to prevent Prime Minister Eisaku Sato visiting South Vietnam.In this struggle, on October 8, 1967, the national police killed a Kyoto University student. His death motivated the student activists to prepare protective equipment. At the second Haneda struggle on November 12, some students began to wear helmets.

As Yamamoto recalls, the police intensified their crackdown on student movements during the second Haneda struggle. In fact, 347 people were arrested, while only 57 were arrested in the first struggle. Yamamoto pointed out that many protesters began wearing masks in this struggle.

The protests continued. During the Sasebo Enterprise Struggle, a protest against the American nuclear aircraft carrier access to Sasebo port occurred in Kyushu in January 1968. The US decision to bring a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to a port in Nagasaki Prefecture, so close to the site of the atomic bombing, was harshly criticized not only by student activists but also by local people. During this struggle, Yamamoto joined the protest and saw participants wearing not only helmets but also masks.

Yamamoto, a leading young protestor, was severely beaten in the head by riot police at the Sanrizuka Struggle—the protest against the government’s construction of a new airport at Narita on March 10, 1968. Yamamoto recalls that he “was saved by wearing the helmet.” The towel mask was more useful when it was combined with helmet-wearing: this type of mask helped participants keep their helmets on their heads.

These protestors wore masks for two main reasons, as follows: first to avoid revealing their identities to the police or other activists, and second, to protect against tear gas. To suppress and monitor student movements, the public security police followed and photographed the mug shots of activists. In the face of increasing repression, an increasing number of student protesters began to use towel masks to cover their noses and mouths to conceal their identity from the public order authorities.

In this context, the wearing of masks by social movement participants can be understood as a means of protecting their lives and safety against unjustified policing tactics, such as the illegal use of photography by law enforcement and the subsequent use of such imagery as “evidence” or for deceptive purposes. The use of masks was not simply a means of concealing one’s identity or protecting against tear gas but rather a way of counteracting the control of biopower and a natural action taken to safeguard oneself.

Helmets Disappeared, Masks Remained

Figure 2. Students on the subway in the late 1960s[9] (Courtesy of Michiko Sasaki)

Michiko Sasaki often accompanied and photographed the 1960s student movements. I used to visit her bar in Shinjuku Golden Gai, but it was closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the beginning of this article, I introduced Eiji Oguma’s assessment of the attire of the student movements. Indeed, as he says, students’ helmet- and mask-wearing may have been a medium to show off their “combative” attitude. This might explain why students wore helmets and masks, sometimes even in the subway (Figure 3). However, at least at the outset, students wore them for practical reasons: they wore masks to protect themselves from tear gas, conceal their faces, and secure their helmets.

This essay was written with the help of Yoshitaka Yamamoto and other interviewees. I would like to express my great gratitude to them. However, Yamamoto told me, “I would like to be asked more about the inner thoughts of the movements.” In my future research, I will thoroughly explore their thoughts and experiences behind their masks.


Shunsuke Tanaka (田中 駿介) was born in 1997 and graduated from Keio University, Tokyo. He is a master’s student at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, The University of Tokyo. He is majoring in the history of political thought and social movements in post-war Japan.


[1] Sumida, Tomohisa, “Bikō nomi o ōu mono: masuku no rekishi to jinrui-gaku ni mukete [Covering Only the Nose and Mouth: Towards a History and Anthropology of Masks],” Gendai Shisō [Contemporary Thought], 48, no. 7 (May 2020): 191–199; Hyun, Jaehwan and Sumida, Tomohisa, “The material lives of masks in Japan and South Korea,” The Mask—Arrayed (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science), October 2, 2020, https://themaskarrayed.net/2020/10/02/the-material-lives-of-masks-in-japan-and-south-korea-a-conversation-between-jaehwan-hyun-and-tomohisa-sumida/.

[2] Oguma, Eiji, 1968 [1968], 2 vols (Tokyo: Shinyōsha, 2009); Oguma, Eiji, “Japan’s 1968: A Collective Reaction to Rapid Economic Growth in an Age of Turmoil,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, 13, no. 12 (March 23, 2015): 1, https://apjjf.org/2015/13/11/Oguma-Eiji/4300.html.

[3] Miike Tankō Rōdō Kumiai [Miike Miners Union] ed., Miike 20 nen [20 Years of Miike], (Tokyo: Rōdōjunpōsha, 1967), p. 418, https://www.junposha.com/news/n21393.html.

[4] For example, see the US-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange (CULCON), “The Miike Mine Strike,” Cross Current, 2003, http://www.crosscurrents.hawaii.edu/content.aspx?lang=eng&site=japan&theme=work&subtheme=UNION&unit=JWORK087&contentLang=eng.

[5] Yamamoto, Yoshitaka, Watashi no 1960 Nendai [My 1960s] (Tokyo: Kinyōbi, 2015).

[6] Tanaka, Shunsuke, “Watashitachi ga “undō” o kataru toki: syūen wa dono yō ni ichizukerareruka [How Can We Situate “Periphery” When We Discuss “Movements”?],” in Zenkyōtō mikan no sōkatsu: 450 nin ankēto o yomu [Zenkyōtō, Never Ending Synthesis: Reading 450 Questionnaire Responses] (Tokyo: Sekai shoin, 2021), pp. 346–356.

[7] Yamamoto, Yoshitaka, Interview by Tanaka, Personal interview, Tokyo, May 27, 2021. Yamamoto and others called the towel masks “fukumen,” which means “covering the faces.”

[8] Michiko Sasaki, Nichidai Zenkyōtō: Ano Jidai ni Koi shita Watashi no Kiroku [Nichidai Zenkyōtō: A Record of Loving That Time], (Hyogo, Japan: Rokusaisha, 2009), p.283.

[9] Sasaki, Nichidai Zenkyōtō, p.13.