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Robert Kennedy in Japan
Image: Japan Today
japan yesterday

Robert Kennedy confronts communist hecklers at Waseda University in 1962

By Patrick Parr

On Feb. 4, 1962, 36-year-old U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and his wife Ethel stepped off their plane at Haneda International Airport, the start of a six-day trip. During their flight, they’d practiced a welcome speech in Japanese, tutored by U.S. Ambassador to Japan Edwin O. Reischauer, who spoke fluent Japanese and had studied the country intensively over the years — his book on Japanese history informing Eleanor Roosevelt’s trip to Japan back in 1953.

Inside the airport terminal, Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy stood before a microphone and delivered their best “arigatou gozaimasu,” with Robert expressing the best wishes of his brother, President John F. Kennedy. Ethel attempted to address the crowd, hundreds of whom were smiling that the Kennedy couple had tried to speak Japanese at all. When Ethel finally gave up, saying, “Oh, dear,” the crowd loved it and applauded. After all, it was the effort they appreciated. Many of the crowd’s signboards had mistakes of their own: “Welcome Mr. Robert Kenedy.”

After his attempt at Japanese, Kennedy addressed the crowd in English: “Our two nations are different in many ways and have their roots in different cultural traditions. Nevertheless, we share the same fundamental view of the worth of the individual person and the value of free and open societies. Amid the differences, there, Mrs. Kennedy and I know we will find much that Japan and the United States have in common.”

Kennedy had been to Japan once before — in the fall of 1951, when he traveled with his then-congressman brother, “Jack” (eight years his senior) and his sister, Pat. But that trip was a non-stop, six-week affair across 13 countries, when not much could be savored except each other’s company (at Bobby and Ethel’s wedding, Jack had been the best man). Now, Bobby was older and wiser, a happily married father of nine, and working in his brother’s Cabinet. His schedule would be packed with business engagements.

The Kennedys stayed at the Okura Hotel in Tokyo. Once, as they walked downstairs toward cars waiting for them outside, a female hotel worker in a “white silk kimono” had been ordered by her manager to wipe Kennedy’s shoes after he came down the steps. As she kneeled before Kennedy and started to use a cloth on his shoes, Kennedy was embarrassed: “Oh, no. Please!” he said, two associates coming over to usher the hotel worker away. Kennedy, perhaps more than anyone else in his family, never wanted to feel any more privileged than he’d been born into.

On their first day in Tokyo, Ethel appeared on My Secret, a TV game show that concealed the identity of the star similar to a popular American game show, I’ve Got a Secret. With millions of viewers already aware of the couple’s arrival in Japan, her “secret” identity was guessed quickly.

After her TV spot, Ethel then visited a school for disadvantaged children. News reports described her “patting the children on the head and saying “konnichiwa,” to them, and sometimes “kawaii desune,” vowing to send the school sweets and gifts from America, such as a record player. The children gave Ethel “a hand-made kimono, a table runner and a pair of geta (wooden clogs).”

Meanwhile, her husband’s first day was documented widely, with the Associated Press joking (yes, they can joke) that Kennedy seemed to be “campaigning for mayor of Tokyo.” As they described it, “The President’s energetic…brother swept back and forth across the city with motorcycle escort for more than 12 hours of everything but baby kissing.” Some of that "everything" included a private meeting with Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda and a tour of Japan’s supreme court.

But what Kennedy loved most was walking the streets without an agenda. After a formal meeting with government officials, Kennedy didn’t want to get back into a limousine that was waiting for him. Instead, he and Ambassador Reischauer randomly walked six blocks “from the justice ministry toward…the Japan Broadcasting Corp.” where Ethel most likely had been. “Japanese officials don’t do that sort of thing,” the AP reported, “and it took Kennedy’s police escort a moment to catch on. But when they recovered, the policemen ran ahead, blowing their whistles and halting traffic.” As Kennedy walked, “newsmen” surrounded him and “Japanese passersby gaped.” Relentless detail was given to Kennedy’s youthful appearance, and reporters made sure to note that “he was hatless and without a top-coat in 38-degree [Fahrenheit] weather.”

A tale of two universities

The highlight of the trip was the second day. Kennedy had lined up two appearances hours apart from each other. His first would be an afternoon event at Nihon University, where he was set to receive an honorary degree. “Afterward,” Kennedy wrote in his recount of the trip, Just Friends and Brave Enemies, “we were to drive directly to Waseda University for another meeting with students — a meeting which was to be more informal than the Nihon appearance. As it turned out, this was quite an understatement.”

Inside Nihon University’s “arena-type auditorium,” Kennedy could feel the formality and precision of the event around him. At least 10,000 students were seated properly as Robert and Ethel Kennedy walked onto the stage. “There were no heating facilities in the building,” Kennedy remembered, “but the university officials made arrangements to keep at least one part of us warm by placing electric cushions on our chairs. This can be slightly disconcerting, especially if it feels too warm and you can’t find the switch to turn it off.”

Every student in the audience had a translated copy of Kennedy’s speech, requested in advance by Nihon University. The college had even prepared technological devices to help students follow along. “A huge screen was placed behind me,” Kennedy wrote, “and page numbers were flashed on the white canvas in order to help the students in following the speech. It was somewhat confusing to hear ten thousand people turn the pages simultaneously, and frequently the applause came at an inappropriate time in the middle of a paragraph.”

At the beginning of his talk, Kennedy did take a stab at speaking a bit of Japanese, perhaps hoping to charm his way into the crowd’s hearts. But all he did was confuse them. “The audience thought I was speaking English and waited for the translation.” A few awkward beats later and Kennedy went ahead and plowed through the speech, the “friendly and enthusiastic” crowd following along as enormous numbers —1, 2, 3 — flashed behind him. Throughout his time in Japan, Kennedy had seen smatterings of communist groups protesting his visit, telling him to “go home!” At least at Nihon University, however, “there was not the slightest hint of anti-American feeling.”

The heckling lecturer

Enter Waseda…

“It never occurred to me not to visit Waseda,” Kennedy wrote, “although this course was urged by some.” Indeed, by many. On June 10, 1960, Press Secretary James Hagerty had arrived at Haneda Airport hoping to iron out plans for then-President Dwight Eisenhower. On his way to the American embassy, his car was aggressively surrounded by protesters. Unable to leave his vehicle as protesters “rocked it backwards and forwards,” according to former Waseda student Harada Hisato’s account, a Marine helicopter eventually came to take him away. The incident caused Eisenhower to cancel his trip and several of those protesters were a part of the Zengakuren, a radical student organization based largely out of…you guessed it…Waseda.

“For fifteen minutes there was complete chaos.” ~Robert Kennedy

At the time of the Hagerty incident, the Zengakuren (literally translated: All-Japan League of Student Self-Government) were angry about the Japan Security Treaty, which, as Dartmouth professor of government Jennifer Lind describes in The National Interest, “allowed the Americans to project force at will, and even empowered the U.S. military to subdue internal unrest.” This anger still emanated from certain bastions of Japanese political culture in 1962. On top of this was Okinawa, which, as Lind writes, the U.S. had transformed into “military bases and a neocolonial paradise of compounds and manicured golf courses.” The treatment of Okinawa was offensive to many in the Zengakuren and the fear existed that the U.S. would use these military bases to “draw [Japan] into a nuclear war with the Soviet Union or China.” America’s presence in Japan was not protecting the Japanese: rather, they were bringing the country closer to war once again.

As of 1962, there were five branches of Zengakuren.  The divisions stemmed from the range of perspectives on “Anpo” or the Japanese nickname given to the 1960 Japan-US Security Treaty. Sure enough, Kennedy and his team were about to meet the extreme leftist/Communist/anti-American branch.

Kennedy entered Waseda’s packed Okuma auditorium. Built to seat 1,200, that night’s crowd reached a sardine-level 3,000. “They filled the aisles, the orchestra section, the balcony and spilled out into the corridors,” Kennedy recalled. “Of this crowd of 3,000, only 100 or 150 participated in the efforts to wreck the meeting.”

The event was being recorded live, but Kennedy was unaware as to how many in Japan were watching. It turned out that millions of Japanese residents across the country were about to witness an hour of political madness.

With a translator by his side, staying with him line-by-line, Kennedy spoke only “for a few seconds” before “the disruptors, located strategically in twos and threes throughout the hall, many of them centered just in front of the stage, began to shout and jeer: “Go home, Kennedy!” Two members of the faculty tried to quiet the would-be riot makers but their efforts were ignored by the communists, "some of whom we were told came from schools and universities other than Waseda."

Kennedy wasn’t rattled. For most of his life he embraced moments of conflict or unpredictability — one might even say he was more comfortable dealing with frenzy than he was in moments of calm.

Still, one Waseda student, Yuzo Tachiya, standing in the front row, heckled Kennedy relentlessly while “waving a leaflet which the Communists had distributed.” The attorney general ignored him, for now.

Kennedy continued addressing the rowdy crowd, speaking over boos, shouts and also hissing “shhs” by students who wanted to listen. “So if we can proceed in an orderly fashion,” Kennedy said to the audience, “with you asking questions and me answering them, I am confident I will gain and that perhaps all you will understand a little better the positions of my country and its people.”

Tachiya would not stop “bellowing,” so Kennedy, still somehow a reservoir of calm, brought him into the moment, as television cameras stayed live. “There is a gentleman down in the front who evidently disagrees with me. If he will ask a single question, I will try to give an answer. That is the democratic way and the way we should proceed. He is asking a question and he is entitled to courtesy.”

Kennedy’s high-road, “come-on-up” approach startled everyone — school officials, his own team and also Tachiya, who now came up on stage to address a hostile crowd of 3,000, not to mention the millions watching at home. “He was dressed in a student’s black uniform,” wrote Kennedy, “and my invitation obviously took him by surprise.”

From heckler to lecturer, Tachiya stumbled a bit at first, but as Kennedy held the microphone in front of his mouth, Tachiya delivered a five-minute  “anti-American tirade,” criticizing American acts in Okinawa, citing the anti-war Article 9, the fear of nuclear war and the justified concerns of America’s involvement in Vietnam.

Kennedy couldn’t help but be impressed: “He was tough, intelligent, intense and articulate. His frame was slight but his lungs were completely sound. He was filled with the Communist fire of dedication. He had accepted the party line, word for word, and he expressed it well and without question.”

Just as Kennedy had secured the microphone and was set to give his reply, “immediately every light in the house went out as the power failed,” Kennedy wrote, “I could not believe by accident, and the microphone went dead. For fifteen minutes there was complete chaos.”

Words of hope via bullhorn

Kennedy could not be heard, though he tried shouting. Students, faculty and staff were randomly shouting over each other. Finally, according to biographer Arthur Schlesinger’s account, a “battery-operated bull horn” was located “under the stage platform.” Kennedy took it. With some lighting restored, U.S. Ambassador Reischauer “held up his arms and spoke to the students in Japanese.” The sound of a gaijin (foreigner) speaking fluent Japanese in an alerted state briefly stunned the crowd into a momentary silence.

Now that Reischauer had brought the crowd back to a singular focus, Kennedy took over, the TV cameras still rolling:

“Let me just say this to you. Let me tell you a little bit about what the United States stands for. Let me tell you a little bit about what we are trying to do in the United States. We were born and raised in revolution. We had many years in which to develop. We have been most fortunate. We believe in the principle that the government exists for the individual, and that the individual is not a tool of the state.”

[Applause…and “Kennedy, go home!”]

“…We in America believe that we should have divergencies of views. We believe that everyone has the right to express himself. We believe that young people have the right to speak out and give their views and ideas. We believe that opposition is important. It’s only through a discussion of issues and questions that my country can determine in what direction it should go.

The future of Japan and the Japanese people should be decided by Japan and the Japanese people. Different viewpoints are expressed at this university and in our universities in my country.

We are the heirs of the true Revolution. We are committed to progress while maintaining the rights and freedom of the individual.

This is not true in many other countries. For instance, would it be possible for somebody in a Communist nation to get up and oppose the government of that country?

It wasn’t necessary, for instance, for the United States to erect a wall to keep our people within our society as was done in East Berlin. If it’s a workers’ paradise on the other side, it is strange that it has finally come to this.

I am visiting Japan to learn and find out from young people such as yourselves what your views are as far as Japan is concerned and as far as the future of the world is concerned.

This world is in the hands of people like ourselves. Are we going to move forward or are we going to stand still? Are we going to accept what is the status quo or do we feel we can make progress? Are we going to improve the lives of our citizens and those in other countries that are less fortunate than we are? Are we? That is what the great struggle in the world is all about?”


“President Kennedy believes there is an age of greatness before us. With all the perils that are facing us as young people, these challenges transform our life from a routine into a great adventure. We have ahead the new frontiers of science and technology and education. We want to move forward into these new frontiers. That is our philosophy.”

After a few more remarks and exchanges, it was advised to end the meeting. The lead ouendan (cheering group) at Waseda, Shunji Nagasawa, shouted with “powerful vocal cords” a call to attention as well as an apology on behalf of the Waseda students who were not on the side of Tachiya. Nagasawa then came onto the stage and everyone sang the school song. Nagasawa’s arm gestures were large and dramatic, and as Robert and Ethel were leaving the stage, Nagasawa accidentally punched Ethel in the stomach. She recovered, and finally it appeared the event had concluded. One Waseda professor, relieved, said to Kennedy, “Something I am glad of is that there was no violence.”

Not against people, at least. But there was destruction. As Kennedy wrote, many of the protesting students “broke all the chairs in the place on the way out.”

Later in the week, Nagasawa met Kennedy again, perhaps to apologize for the event and his accidental punch to Ethel. Kennedy was impressed by the young man, “democracy’s effective, quick-witted” opposite to Tachiya, and gave him “a copy of Carl Sandburg’s book Abraham Lincoln.”

The trip’s legacy

After returning to America, Kennedy wrote a book about the experience, titled Just Friends and Brave Enemies. Kennedy set up his publishing contract so that any royalties or profit he made from the book would go toward scholarship funds at Waseda and Nihon University.

Kennedy’s bullhorn moment at the Okuma auditorium that day remained in the minds of millions of Japanese for years and helped turn public opinion more favorably toward the United States. The poise Kennedy showed as he was heckled also became legendary. In 1974, six years after Kennedy had been assassinated in Los Angeles after winning California’s Democratic primary, the Japanese prime minister at the time, Kakuei Tanaka, mentioned the Waseda incident after being asked by the media how he’d handle “anti-Japanese campaigns” during his visit to Bangkok, Thailand. “Like Robert Kennedy at Waseda University,” Tanaka told the press, “I am prepared to meet the Thai students.”

Our next Japan Yesterday feature will be centered around singer Marian Anderson’s historic trip to Japan in 1953.

Other stories in the Japan Yesterday series:

Volume 2 (September 2019 – present)

Volume 1 (November 2018 – May 2019)

Patrick Parr’s second book, One Week in America: The 1968 Notre Dame Literary Festival and a Changing Nation, will be released on March 2, 2021, and will be available through Kinokuniya and Kobo. His previous book is The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age, now available in paperback.

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What a good read.

Thank you JT for putting it on your site.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Ironic that the policies RFK was promoting, if you look into them, would put him in the far left of the American political spectrum, a communist for lack of a better term, from both Republicans and centrist Democrats nowadays.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I think Robert Kennedy changed after his brother's assassination and became much more likeable and appealing to blacks, Hispanics and Asian-Americans. He made some profound speeches and had a huge appeal in 1968. I think if he had lived, he would have defeated Nixon in the 1968 presidential race and been a great president. Imagine how different the world would have been in the late 1960s and 1970s if he ad been president.

3 ( +3 / -0 )


That may well be.

So the obvious question is- Who are the people who ordered the hits on JFK, Robert Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald, MLK, etc.?

Does a meaningful democracy exist if these people ultimately still steer the ship?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

So the obvious question is- Who are the people who ordered the hits on JFK, Robert Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald, MLK, etc.?

How sad you assume someone ordered those assassinations. Years of investigations are not enough for you? Sirhan Sirhan is still alive and has openly stated the reason he shot Mr. Kennedy was his support of Israel and his promise to send Israel 50 fighter jets if elected. Sirhan was a Palestinian albeit a Christian though he had become a Rosecrucian by the time he murdered Mr. Kennedy. He pled guilty to the murder at his trial. Sirhan's journal detailed his planning and preparations for the murder and his hatred of Mr. Kennedy for his support of Israel. He had even told the garbage collector he wanted to kill Mr. Kennedy. Sirhah had been in training to be a jockey but suffered a severe head injury in training and was unable to ride horses afterwards. But none of that is enough for you and you cling to this notion absent any evidence of any kind that someone else ordered Sirhan Sirhan to kill Mr. Kennedy.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I remember the night RFK was shot like it was yesterday. I was a kid and my parents let me stay up late to hear his speech. I was barely tucked back into bed when my parents rushed to my room to tell me he had just been shot. I will never forget it. He was this beacon of hope for those of us who were young that maybe things would be better than the poop sandwich our parents had created. How to know then that my own generation would eff the world up worse than our parents generation could have imagined.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Bay of Pigs asides, the Kennedy's were absolutely in a different league than any other 20 century US Presidents in terms of potential and ability if they had been given time. But personally I think it is too much of a coincidence that RFK was planning a clampdown on the Mob. I am not saying he did or didnt pull the trigger. I would ask how he got to that stage of actually doing it. If he was telling everyone,even the garbageman he was going to assasinate RFK, then, in those times someone would have reported it, surely and he should heve been watched 24/7? Its just too many coincidences: JFK; RFK; MLK; LHOswald: Ruby.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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