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Protests and poetry: The death of Kyoto's original counterculture hub

Updated 26th August 2016
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poetry reading Honyarado
Protests and poetry: The death of Kyoto's original counterculture hub
In the spring of 1972, three Kyoto dropouts -- a folk singer, a photographer and a poet -- decided to build a space where their creative and political ideas could meet.
For the last 17 years, the US and its allies had been fighting communist Vietnam in a brutal and unpopular war.
Kai Fusayoshi Credit: Sachiko Hamada
The trio were antiwar activists -- they had already founded the notorious Hobbit café in Iwakuni, Japan's largest US naval base, which had grown into a hub for US army defectors. Now Kyoto needed its own counterculture salon -- a meeting place for art, coffee and politics.
And so Café Honyarado was born. The two-floor wooden house served cheap meals and hosted poetry readings, bread-making workshops and parties for its free-thinking clientele.
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Frequented by artists and writers from Japan and abroad, the café became a hub for literary and civic engagement, including a campaign to release political prisoners from Korea and Vietnam.
Award-winning Japanese street photographer Kai Fusayoshi was one of the cafe's founding members. He fought to keep it alive when a new owner planned to scrap it, but in January 2015 a fire destroyed the treasured site. The circumstances looked suspiciously like arson, some said.
Two million of Fusayoshi's black and white negatives, tens of thousands of prints, as well as precious books and diaries were lost.
Sharing some of his surviving photos, Fusayoshi told CNN Style how Honyarado shaped Kyoto life for almost half a century, and how its artistic legacy will endure the devastating blaze.
Folk singer Nobuyasu Okabayashi, a Honyarado co-founder, was dubbed "the Bob Dylan of Japan." Credit: Kai Fusayoshi
Before Honyarado, you opened the Hobbit café. Why was that so controversial?
Around 1970 weariness spread within the US forces. People rebelled or ran away to avoid killing the Vietnamese. We made a hub to help active the G.I. activities in Iwakuni, as many soldiers came there.
Japanese police followed me all day long during its two month construction. The US and Japanese governments were worried about this situation. They tried to frame us to stop it, saying that Hobbit had been made by the Japanese Red Army (a militant communist group).
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When the JRA attacked Lod Airport [now Israel's Ben Gurion International Airport] in 1972, massacring 26 people, the Japanese government made up a story that the gun had come from the Hobbit cafe. Then the commander of the Iwakuni base issued a ban: Hobbit was off-limits for all G.I.s. It didn't matter if we were JRM or not. Naturally, we went to court and won, but the U.S. and Japanese governments did not apologize.
What was the mood at the time when Honyarado was founded?
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After the student power storm [of 1968] had disappeared, a strong apathetic mood had spread in Japanese society despite the many social problems left. However, many still had hidden feelings against the Vietnam War and it was stronger within the artistic community.
How did Café Honyarado community campaign for its causes?
Our first priority was to cherish fun. Before Honyarado started, we were antiwar movement activists, as well as a small team of moving carpenters; a singer, poet, sculptor, professor, kindergarten teacher; all dropouts. It is no exaggeration to say we had the bond of the underdog.
In Honyarado, many groups were born as ad hoc councils -- we used to publish monthly newsletters. Many events there led to the activation of the neighborhood and of Kyoto.
When the oil shock of 1973 occurred, we thought that the US would cut off our food supply. We adopted such a tragicomic operation very seriously. First we rushed to City Hall to appeal the situation. We dressed like Chindon'ya, brightly dressed Japanese street musicians. Fortunately no one was arrested.
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Did the police ever try to stop you?
The police followed me whenever I brought something to the coffee shop. Bad rumors had been spreading in the neighborhood. A few months after opening, our singer friend [Nobuyasu Okabayashi] was accused of writing obscene novels for teenagers -- they were actually harmless. We fought this in court for seven years.
A rice cake making party at the Cafe, held "instead of a general shareholders meeting". Pictured left is prominent anti-nuclear activist Aileen Mioko Smith. Credit: Kai Fusayoshi
Tell us about the poetry readings. Were they wild?
They were unique in style. Not just the poets, but the audience too used to share their here-and-now feelings. It was full of humor.
We welcomed the founder of Beat Generation poetry, Allen Ginsberg, American writer Gary Snyder, and French novelist and film director Jean-Philippe Toussaint, as well as hugely popular Japanese figures like poet Shuntaro Tanigawa and jazz singer Maki Asakawa.
What impact did Honyarado have on you?
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I was a dropout since birth. I couldn't speak or walk until four years old. At the café, everyone was supported.
Receiving the news of the fire in bed, it was if I was watching a dream. Some negatives were rescued from the ruin, though only a few.
I think it's important to remember that while living in the same place, we shouldn't forget to consider the world's social problems. It seems like a merry-go-round of history repeating itself.
Thanks to places like Honyarado, we sometimes witness unexpected happenings and encounters. Above all, as a photographer, I have taken millions of pictures with help from those I met there. I hope they are not forgotten.
Fusayoshi now runs Hachimonjiya, another Kyoto haunt for artists & writers.
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