A Japanese Student Union: Zengakuren

Interview with Ikuma Saito, a student at Hosei University and the President of Zengakuren

Zengakuren students help shut down Sather Gate at UCB during the March 4th, 2010 strike

For you, what is the function and role of a student union?

It is an organization for students to become major players of their society. It is both an “organization to fight” for the future of students and an “organization to motivate for struggle”.

Please give us some background on how your student union formed and out of what conditions.

Zengakuren was formed in the midst of turmoil after the defeat of Japanese imperialism in World War II. A huge number of students stood up against re-militarization of Japan and demanded the expulsion of the professors who had played criminal role in the last war from universities. The second major subject was to defend and reconstruct education and lives of students. Meanwhile the GHQ [1] planned to transfer state universities (excluding the previous seven “Imperial Universities”) to the local cities and to place them under the control of banks and big corporations, coupled with the scheme of raising tuition fees three times higher than before.

Zengakuren lead mass student protest

What was the level of mobilization at the time you formed a student union?

From June 23 to 26, 1948, a General Strike was carried out against this plan of “university reorganization” with the participation of 300,000 students of 116 universities across Japan. Their demands were: “No transfer of state universities to local cities! Stop raising tuition fees! No higher railway fare!”

The nationwide general strike gave birth to Zengakuren (All Japan Federation of Students’ Autonomous Bodies) as an comprehensive national student organization with progressive political orientation, comprising all the universities and technical colleges and 70% of the private universities all over Japan. It was founded on September 18th, 1948. The struggle of students developed into another General Strike on May 24th, 1949 in which 139 universities participated. On this day, the government was forced to give up the plan and Zengakuren continued its struggle to demand withdrawal of the punishment of the students for organizing university strikes.

General Assembly at Nichidai

What internal structure did you ultimately chose? Is it centralized or federated? What were your considerations?

We Zengakuren have chosen a centralized internal structure because we can keep unity in establishing and carrying out our political line among various organizations and movements throughout the country. We see no contradiction between centralization and autonomy as far as there is unity in political line. (Not to mention class antagonism).

How do students join the union? And do students pay dues?

When Zengakuren was founded, all students of each school were bound to be organized. (All Students-affiliation system) Now in a university, in which students have a preserved autonomous body, each student pays dues for it. Otherwise, each activist pays dues for activities individually. Zengakuren has historically and politically experienced various stages of development.

Which sectors of education are represented in your student union? Do private schools also participate?

We organize all students regardless of whether they are in public or private school. There are students who were expelled because of their struggle also.

Does your campus administration officially recognize you? Do they negotiate with you? If so, over which issues? Do you have a contract?

It depends on the power relationship between each students’ autonomous body and the university administration. Especially after the upsurge of 1970 Ampo (Japan-U.S. Security Treaty) / Okinawa struggle [2], most university administrations have decided to refuse recognition of students’ autonomous bodies as partners of negotiation.

Zengakuren marches against US imperialism [Sept. 2008]

What is the internal decision-making process? What level of autonomy do individual campuses and departments have? Who has the right to call a strike, for example?

Basically, we make decisions through mass discussion, for example by class discussion among students. The student autonomous body of each university has the right to call a strike. As for a General Strike, the central committee has the right.

What is your relationship with labor unions? With political parties? With student government? With popular struggles?

We are willing to cooperate with any other organizations and popular struggles. Especially with independent militant labor unions and fighting farmers’ movement, we have established developed strong ties. Add this, I think we need a political party which represents our movement and guarantees the continuity and progress of our movement.

students participate in protest against Fukushima power plant

What campaigns does your student union address? What fights are you involved in right now?

One is the struggle against the Neo-liberal offensive and privatization of education on campus, for example improvement of living conditions. The other is political activity outside of campus and now we are addressing the struggle against nuclear power plants. We consider both of the two issues as inseparable and combined.

We will hold  a “One-day action – STUDENTS’ STAND UP DAY” on April 19. This includes a demonstration around Hosei University and protest action against The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. The slogan is “Take back the university for us students!” We expect a large amount of students will come together including from Fukushima.

Zengakuren protests repression of students

What are ongoing challenges you are facing and your perspectives for continuing to strengthen this work?

Any movement has ups and downs. I think the important thing is unflinching spirit against all kinds of difficulties. Nothing starts until we earnestly and squarely address all students on campus, trust in them and make unity among students.

Zengakuren contingent marches with UC Berkeley March 4th on Telegraph

1] GHQ stands for General Headquarters. It was the acronym used by the Japanese to refer to the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, General Douglas MacArthur, who led the occupation of Japan after World War II and effectively ruled the entire country, instituting many reforms in the process

2] US / Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security (AMPO): Signed in 1960, it ensured the continued presence of US troops and bases on Japanese soil and guaranteed continued military cooperation between the two countries


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