Kyoto University’s Yoshida Dormitory: Students Living in Protest
Foreign Correspondent Editor, Maddie Baker, explores why the oldest dormitory on Kyoto University campus is protesting to protect its very existence.
One of the first experiences I had on entering Kyoto University last September was hearing about Yoshida Dormitory (or Ryo in Japanese) and the “anarchist” students who live there. It seemed quite a romantic concept: students making a stand and protesting their rights to run and live in a beautifully decrepit building – but a building that belonged to them. They manage it in all aspects from selecting the students who live in the dormitory, to collecting rent from the inhabitants to organising events ranging from live music to theatre performances. In reality, having spoken to various residents, I have found that there is also a darker side to this story; one where students have to feel ready to get up and leave at any moment.
I have found that there is also a darker side to this story; one where students have to feel ready to get up and leave at any moment.
As a History student, from first glance, I was in awe of this piece of “living history” that brought various images of pre- and post-war Japan to life for me. Yoshida Ryo was first established in 1913, more than one hundred years ago. However, some of the dormitory dates as far back as the 1880s – originating as a boarding house for secondary school students. As a result, the architecture of the building reflects both Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-1926) era building styles – most obviously represented in the traditional wooden structure of the dormitory; the Japanese Institute of Architectural History recently even applied to make Yoshida Ryo heritage-listed. You can also feel the social history of the time in students living in Yoshida Ryo today. Back when Kyoto University was an imperial institution, this dormitory’s occupants had links to both British Socialism and later Bolshevism. This left-leaning political activism would heighten in the tumultuous years of the sixties and seventies, during which the 1972 Tel Aviv (Lod) Airport Massacre took place, involving two radical Kyoto University students. Talking to Yoshida residents today, it is evident that there has been movement away from outright political activism and towards general openness – with an effort to embrace minorities, both racially and culturally, and provide a space for the local community, with regular community dinners for example.
The reason Yoshida Ryo is battling to survive is that the Kyoto University administration have been fighting for students to leave the dormitory, with the students receiving a notice to leave the premises by September 2018… but they are still refusing to move. According to Dr. Knaudt, ‘The issue is not about the building itself anymore, it’s about the fact that self-administration rights will not be granted to students,’. After speaking to Takumi, a Yoshida resident, it became clear that this was the case. The older wooden section of Yoshida dormitory is deemed unsafe as a result of the century-old foundation of the building rotting away, made worse by the propensity of the Kansai area for strong earthquakes. In response, the university is mid-way through court proceedings to evict students out of the building and ensure that they are not living in this structure. Yet Takumi claimed that he, for one, is not so interested in the long history of the dormitory and would be willing to live in a renovated building if he could continue to pay the same fees that are judged by the students administering the dormitory.
Meanwhile, Yoshida Ryo is not the only dormitory with a political past at Kyoto University (Kyodai). Established around the late sixties, Kumano Ryo is another student-run dormitory that has stronger political ties. Exchange students will most likely only know about Kumano because of its underground club, located in the basement of the dormitory, that runs events weekly. But, on exploring the building, I discovered Zengakuren, All-Japan League of Student Self-Government, helmets that would have been made for political clashes, peaking in the sixties and seventies. Decorating the dust-ridden corner is also a collection of Left-wing books covering topics ranging from Anarchism to Marxism. Discussing the current situation of these student dormitories with an Associate Professor at Kyoto University, Dr. Till Knaudt, he commented that ‘There is not much solidarity between the two dormitories…’ which has been an impediment to the efforts to keep Yoshida Ryo running in particular. The New Left-run Kumano most likely regards the unaffiliated Yoshida as a group of “community hippies”, while Kumano would probably be perceived as a “political sect” by Yoshida residents.
The reason Yoshida Ryo is battling to survive is that the Kyoto University administration have been fighting for students to leave the dormitory…
At the moment, Yoshida residents pay ¥2,500 (approximately £18) and only ¥400 (approx. £3) per month to Kyoto University. Of course, Yoshida Ryo’s existence would interfere with the way in which any global university would be run today – being businesses that are increasingly providing education as a service to student-consumers. In turn, the Kyoto University administration staff are evidently uneasy about left-leaning students running their own counter-culture dormitories and are not willing to renovate the dormitory for nothing in return. At the same time, according to Takumi, Yoshida occupants have a sense of pride and refuse to give up their self-administration and become effectively governed by the university.
The Yoshida Ryo situation has been progressing rapidly since my arrival a year after their supposed-eviction date in September. Yoshida residents were found by the university, who sent a representative of the court to find out who lived in the dormitory, and about fifteen students were picked out to attend court proceedings. It is also apparent that the number of Yoshida residents is in decline. There are now one hundred occupants of Yoshida Ryo, but new students have been discouraged from joining the dormitory – reportedly, there was an official warning against entering Yoshida in a university brochure pack for new students. Furthermore, residents’ efforts to protest eviction and put up signs have been staggered, with several students being suspended and related signs being banned from Kyodai campus. More positively, however, there is a growing support base for Yoshida Ryo, with a number of Kyoto University professors supporting Yoshida students and making a statement supporting the building’s upkeep last year, as well as more than 5,000 people signing a petition defending the dormitory.
Despite there being problems for Yoshida residents – the hazardous building, the lack of heating provisions in winter and the vulnerability of living in an unofficial dormitory, it seems to me that Yoshida Ryo could be an asset rather than hindrance for Kyoto University. If Yoshida residents were supported, Kyoto University could build on its image as an open and democratic space that actually allows for ‘voices of opposition’. Additionally, as Takumi commented, many students ask why someone would live in a dormitory like that, but there are many reasons – the living environment contributes to his studies, has economic benefits and is a source of pride. Would it not be better to cherish a piece of student culture like that?