top of page
  • Chiu Chien-Cheng (James)

Anti-Emergence: The Forgotten History of Student Autonomy in Komaba-Ryō

Back when I lived in the Komaba International Lodge and the rent was still a benevolent 42,200 yen, I always referred to the dormitory as komaba-no-ryō or komaba-rojji rather than the more natural-sounding komaba-ryo. Komaba-ryō translates to “Komaba dorm” in English. Komaba-no-ryō, on the other hand, translates to the rather convoluted expression “the dorm in Komaba,” and komaba-rojji to the somewhat eccentric official name “Komaba Lodge.” I avoid referring to the Komaba International Lodge as komaba-ryō because komaba-ryō was a dorm nestled within the Komaba Campus until the 2000s. The splendid and profound history of komaba-ryō remains unknown to many, buried deep under the skeletons of futile resistance.

In the Komaba Campus, the area consisting of the cafeteria, co-op shop, and library appears much newer and more modern. Its facilities are advanced and its designs are simplistic especially compared to the rather shabby (“historic,” some might argue) Building 1. If you observe carefully though, you will notice a relic of an arch standing alone in the shadows of the trees. This Gothic-style arch, surrounded by the modern minimalist buildings, looks rather uncanny, as if trying to assert its own existence amid the hectic, whimsical stories of a long-forgotten past.

A lone arch stands in the middle of the library-cafeteria area, one of the last remnants of komaba-ryō. (Photo by James)

This arch-like ruin was part of the komaba-ryō, built in 1935. At that time, the Komaba Campus was still the First High School (daiichi-kōtō-gakkō), but komaba-ryō was demolished in 2001 after the Komaba Campus had become the College of Arts and Sciences. If you are courageous enough to step into the tall grasses and read the introduction written on the monument, you will notice that the komaba-ryō does not quite fit into modern expectations of a “dorm.” The introduction tells you that back in the years of the First High School, the komaba-ryō was an autonomous dorm governed by students with independent executive and legislative systems. Indeed, the political system of komaba-ryō paralleled the political system of Japan, and the debates that took place during its meetings were said to be as intellectual as those that took place in the Diet. However, the text on the monument ends abruptly, explaining that after the First High School was abolished in 1949, the Komaba Campus became the University of Tokyo’s College of Arts and Sciences, and “the autonomous governing by the students persists in the komaba-ryō as part of the University of Tokyo.” You do not have to be a professional historian to sense the oddness in this abrupt conclusion. The written story ends in 1949, but the history of komaba-ryō obviously does not end there. What happened after 1949? Why was the komaba-ryō demolished, and by whom? Most importantly, what happened to the “student autonomy” (gakusei jichi) when its inevitable death was decided?

Put simply, the komaba-ryō was full of vitality and charged with intellectualism even after 1949. The stories of komaba-ryo demonstrate to me a group of college students who did not treat studying as simply a task to fulfill, nor were they single-minded in the pursuit of internships or jobs. They possessed a sincere curiosity to learn, an energetic mind to critique, and a persistent concern for values rather than wealth or social status. They served as an antithesis – for me, an ideal one – to the university students today. In the 1990s, however, the university decided to demolish the komaba-ryō, a decision which the students heavily resisted. Unfortunately, the university was determined in its decision. In 1996, the university cut off the power and water, hired security guards to shatter the windows, and destroyed the furniture of the remaining students. Eventually, the university sent in excavators to tear down the buildings altogether. The Gothic architecture, built two years after the construction of Building 1 (which is now designated as a cultural heritage site), vanished from the Komaba Campus along with the dormitory’s culture of student autonomy.

Modern building after the demolition of komaba-ryō (Photo by Ohyun)

I cannot help but feel a sense of insincerity in the introduction written by the university. The text affirms the student autonomy represented by the pre-1949 komaba-ryō while simultaneously evading the university’s own violence against the post-1949 komaba-ryō. In doing so, the university confines the notion of student autonomy to a distant past that we can only treat as a spectacle. The underlying message is this: “student autonomy is good, but it belongs to a past that is no longer relevant, so don’t try to imitate it!” When the text on the monument avoids mentioning the violence conducted by the university, the connection between the past and the present is lost. We are encouraged to treat the history of komaba-ryō as an artifact of the past rather than a useful tool to critique the university’s violence and power which persists today. What I intend to propose here is, therefore, the notion of “anti-emergence.” Its rationale is simple: one thing is new because something else has disappeared, been replaced, or been demolished. The modern-looking buildings in the cafeteria-library area do not only stand for the new or the modern; they also hint at a past that is buried underneath them. With emergence comes disappearance. With construction comes demolition. With the new comes mirages of the old. With a memorial of something comes a loss of the memory of other things. “Anti-emergence” thus asserts the need to be careful of the new and cognisant of the disappeared.

This notion is not limited to the case of the komaba-ryō. The demolition of buildings and the transformation of space are often intertwined with our memories and evaluations of the past. The renewed, stylish Miyashita Park in Shibuya puts a veil on the relocation of homeless people who had lived in its previous form. The construction of the large road, Subsidiary Route 54 (hojyo-gojyūyon-gō-sen) in Shimokitazawa is likely to one day conceal the memories of the protest movements against its realization.

A written plague introducing the history of the komaba-ryō (Photo by James)

As Milan Kundera puts it, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Remembering is not easy. Memory is, itself, a form of resistance and can entail rediscovery of the past. To remind myself of this, I will continue to refer to where I had lived as the convoluted komaba-no-ryō or the eccentric komaba-rojji.

One thing is new because something else has

disappeared, been replaced, or been demolished.

Note from the author: For those who are interested in more history about the komaba-ryō, refer to the 2015 book Tōdai Komaba-ryō Monogatari (The Stories of the Komaba-ryō in the University of Tokyo) by Hirofumi Matsumoto, or the 2016 article “Memories of Komaba Dormitory” written by Naoki Mizutani on the Komaba Times blog.

bottom of page