Not everyone knows that one of the foundations of the renowned Kyoto University is the Yoshida dormitory. It is a reality that is more unique than rare, a dormitory self-managed by students, which has existed for more than 100 years. Unfortunately, due to the tendentious neglect of the Japanese university authority, the dormitory buildings have become dangerous, especially in a highly seismic nation like Japan. An evacuation order was issued in September 2018, with the intention of demolishing the buildings, but a large group of students and sympathizers are struggling to get the authorities to take their responsibilities and set up unsafe buildings so as not to destroy this tradition centennial. I have had the pleasure of staying in this dormitory twice: in 2015, before the evacuation order and in 2019.
“The University is an autonomous institution that produces and critically transmits culture through research and teaching. To be open to the needs of the contemporary world it must have, in its research and teaching effort, moral and scientific independence from all political and economic powers.”Magna Charta Universitatum, Bologna
History and characteristics
Kyoto University is national (ex-imperial) and was founded in 1869. This means that it is the second oldest in Japan. It was initially founded as a Chemistry School, later becoming the Third Higher School. In 1897 the Kyoto Imperial University was established in the buildings of the Third Higher School. Over the years, several reforms have led it to some economic and administrative independence, but it still remains partially subject to the Japanese Ministry of Education.
It is considered one of the most prestigious universities in Asia, 26th worldwide and is a leader in Asia in research, especially for theoretical physics, mathematical sciences, primate research, marine biology and botany. It churned out 19 Nobel prizes, a Gauss prize and two Fields medals. Being accepted is quite difficult: it is necessary to pass with 92% of positive answers the 8 exams for public universities (called senta) and finally the specific admission tests for the University of Kyoto. The fee is decidedly high even if the government provides economic subsidies. Yoshida dormitory is an aid in this regard.
Built in 1913, this is the oldest student dormitory in all of Japan. It also boasts the distinction of being the oldest building on the Kyoto University campus. Another structure was built next to it in 2015 and when I had the pleasure of sleeping there in August of that year, it had just been finished. The old building has 120 rooms, with tatami flooring, in the typical traditional Japanese style. The new building has 60 rooms, with tatami as well. Bathrooms, showers, kitchen, laundry with washing machines are in common use.
The first building has been recognized for its architectural value by the Architectural Institute of Japan. The monthly cost is practically symbolic: 2500 yen a month! Which is about €21. Bills included. This also allows students in financial difficulties to afford a place to live, which is no minor thing considering how expensive Japan, especially Kyoto, is. Just to make you understand, the next dormitory (Yoshida International House) has prices starting from 38000 yen a month, about €316.
Self-management, activities and study
The dormitory is entirely self-managed by the students. Decisions are taken democratically during special meetings. Even non-residents can participate in management, activities and even sleep for a paltry sum (200 yen per night, not even two euro). Foreigners are welcome and there is no limit to the number of nights spent in the dormitory. The dining area hosts an innumerable series of events such as concerts, theatre performances, exhibitions, conferences, meetings, etc. Every Friday evening there is a disco night while on Saturdays there is a bar with gigs. Every year, in May, they organize the Yoshida Dormitory Festival, in which the Kamogawa Race takes place: the participants run from the Sanzyo bridge to the Demachiyanagi passing by the river, in the water. All accompanied by a costume party.
Part of the old dining room has become a rehearsal room in which every band formed by students can try in turn. The room can also be used by the outsiders, under prior approval of the dormitory. In the external area, which is quite green, you can meet several cats, hens and roosters raised by students. Despite the bohemian and libertine climate, the Yoshida dormitory is not only a place to express oneself freely on an artistic, cultural, scientific, political level; in fact, illustrious personalities like Nobel Prize winner Isamu Akasaki, Sunday Mainchi journalist and editor Takao Iwami and Shiro Ishii, surgeon in the Imperial Japanese Army and director of Unit 731 resided there. The complete list on the dedicated Wikipedia page.
Freedom and sharing
The true core of Yoshida dormitory is the spirit of freedom and fraternal sharing that one can breathe there. In the Japanese universities, as in most of the workplaces, the hierarchy is very rigid and strictly respected (as can be seen in many manga and anime). Yoshida dormitory destroys this ancient social concept, being based on democracy and freedom of thought that is unique in the Land of the Rising Sun. In fact, the dormitory is the seat of student movements (mainly of the left-wing), a receptacle of ideological, political, artistic and cultural exchanges that are poorly viewed by the Japanese traditionalist society.
In fact, in the Japanese universities, there are strict rules to follow, politics is totally banned and the teaching is based on memorising notions to the total detriment of personal reasoning. This is because the Japanese government and society want to create submissive minds that do not rebel against power. The fact is quite evident when looking at the turnout of the last national elections: only 40% of voters expressed their votes (voting the usual names, of course).
Yoshida dormitory today
“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties”John Milton
My first visit to the dorm
My first, totally fortuitous visit to the Yoshida Dormitory took place in August 2015, together with my inseparable adventure companion Emanuele Peruzzi. At that time I was travelling around Japan using the famous Couchsurfing app, which allows you to ask for hospitality for free so you can live the life of a local person, at least for a few days. Not having found any guests in Kyoto (a city with a very high number of tourists), one of these that I had contacted gives me advice that will change my view of Japan forever.
He tells me that there is a dormitory in the University of Kyoto that accepts outsiders for little money. He tells me the name, gives me the phone number and the email underlining that no reservation is needed. Finally, he warns me that it is a bit dirty and messed up. Having found nothing else and wanting to avoid spending a lot of money at the hotel, we call as soon as we arrive in Kyoto. Someone that could speak English tells us we can go there right away.
The old building
So we go on our way and what we see seems incredible: a wooden building that is uneven, smelly of mould, grimy, full of cobwebs, cigarette butts and endless junk. Someone comes to meet us and welcome us making us pay the first night (200 yen, just a bit more than € 1.50) because not being sure we want to stay more, we just say a night. They bring us in a large room with a bunk bed and so much sparse stuff that you can’t see the floor.
The walls are peeled off and full of writing. In the room, there are 3 monitors, connected to PS4, XBOX and another console that I don’t remember. We don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Trying to get over the shock, we take a tour of the buildings and what we see is difficult to describe: bathrooms that are so disgusting even in Tarantino’s films, corridors full of furniture, electric stoves, sinks and so on. We ask where we can take a shower and they direct us to another building.
The new building
This is new construction, practically the antithesis of the previous one. Solid, still quite clean, bright. The bathrooms are modern, like the showers and even the washing machines are technological with built-in dryer. The kitchen is large and already full of grease and food. In the laundry area, there are clothes on the ground left there for who knows how long. There is a lot of excitement, it is full of students who cook, drink, smoke, talk, laugh and joke. Although the new building is, in fact, just built, if it is treated in that way it will take very little for it to become like the other.
We are so stunned by what we see that we try to ask someone for explanations. We think of a student protest or something similar because it seems impossible to us that human beings want to live in those conditions (one thing is not having a choice, one thing is to do it on purpose). A guy, who speaks good English, simply tells us that it is a self-managed dormitory and that, you know, young people are so, eccentric, dirty, messy.
After getting washed and settled, we try to go to sleep, but in the room entrusted to us, which is the dormitory where the newly arrived visitors and students are seated, the light is always on and video game tournaments start in the middle of the night. So we decide to take our stuff and go to another room since, which we discovered thanks to our previous exploration, it was full of empty rooms. We choose one and we settle down. The smell of mould and damp was strong, but we can sleep well. No one comes to say anything to us. In fact, we stay in that dormitory for 3 nights. At that time I still didn’t understand the idea of what it was and, after my visit to Kyoto, I continued my journey remaining ignorant.
From 2015 to 2019: what has changed
During my second trip to Japan, although I had already widely visited Kyoto, I decided to go back there, this time alone, staying again in that mythical dormitory. I do an internet search to see if it still exists and I come across interesting articles. I contact the dorm and they tell me that I am welcome. As soon as I arrive I notice a considerable change immediately: the number of students is more than decimated.
I receive the same welcome and I am placed in the same room of 4 years ago, but this time there is an extra bunk bed and no monitor and no console. Mindful of the other experience, I immediately find another room to feel comfortable. I go to take a shower in the other building, which is more dirty and messy than 4 years ago. I am surprised about the silence: there is almost no one. The vitality of a few years before can no longer be breathed. In the canteen/rehearsal room, I see a flyer that says: Save Yoshida Dormitory. I take it and read it. And I begin to understand.
The Kyoto university authorities have issued an order that the dormitory must stop accepting new residents and must be totally evacuated by September 2018. This is because of the unsafe condition of the old building: they are worried that a violent earthquake will destroy it putting students’ lives at risk. For 40 years the university authorities have been afraid of this and trying to close and demolish Yoshida dormitory. In fact, the history of this place is very complicated, as can be read on Japanese Wikipedia.
But the students continue to fight. Many have left after the order, but a handful of around sixty continue to keep this place alive, helped by external supporters. Students are aware of the danger regarding the old building and have been asking for reconstruction interventions for years without being heard. The strange thing is that the authorities do not want only the old building to be evacuated, but also the new one of 2015, which does not present any structural danger. So, why the evacuation order?
The truth behind Yoshida dormitory
Demolishing the old dormitory is destroying 100 years of history and tradition. It is disintegrating an institution. Reporting the words of Watanabe, a resident: “I hope that a place like Yoshida Ryo will always exist in our society. The building itself and the spirit that inhabits the building are inseparable, so if you destroy one of them, you cannot rebuild them easily.” Students know very well that, beyond the promises of the university authorities to build a new dormitory, if this is demolished there will no longer be a place to express oneself freely within the University of Kyoto. Historical precedents for other dormitories are under the eyes of everybody. What the university authorities want to do is not to secure the students, but to eliminate an institution that is inconvenient for them.
Japan: universities and political movements
Without going into the complicated history of Japanese university revolutionary movements, let’s spend two words about the situation. Young people and youth movements have been culturally and politically active in Japan since the early 1900s. But it is in the post-war period that they begin to gather in a systematic way, creating real student unions. The most famous of all, still active, is the Zengakuren, abbreviation of All-Japan League of Student Self-Government, born in 1948.
Other movements are the Kyoto Gakusei Renmei, the Kakukyodo, the Marugakudo and the Shagakudo. These ones violently opposed the Korean and Vietnam war, mainly because the United States used Japan as a military base. They prevented the visit of the then American president Dwight David Eisenhower. They achieved greater respect and rights, such as the abolition of working free for a year for new medical graduates. They occupied the universities to demand more people’s participation in the government and the direct election of the president.
Fueled by the widespread anti-American fervour at the time (especially in America, ironically), these movements brought to light, by challenging them, all the problems and contradictions of the Japanese government and society. Unfortunately, there were episodes of violence in which there were dead and harmed people. But it is thanks to these movements that in the end, in the 1970s, important agreements were reached with the government. Unfortunately, the 80s and following years have seen the decline of these realities creating a society more and more dazed and unmindful of political manoeuvers and by starting an economic and cultural descent in which Japan finds itself having to face it today.
The importance of Yoshida dormitory
Faced with this reality, which sees the average Japanese as totally distant and inactive in political and social life, and therefore easily manoeuvrable, the Yoshida dormitory still represents a beacon of hope for young people. Japanese universities have very strict rules, the hierarchical system is extremely crystallized and freedom of expression is not cultivated, on the contrary. We can’t talk about politics and a new decree has recently come out that limits the use of signboards and banners. There is a phenomenon that in Japan is called by the name of tatekanban. Signboards are used to express ideas, concepts, ideals, protests but also information, events and so on. The current government has further restricted their use, reiterating the prohibition of ideological and/or political use. These accusations have also been raised against Yoshida dormitory.
Activism, petitions and support
For a year now, dormitory members, residents and non-residents, have been trying to make their voices heard, asking for justice and listening. They know that the problem is mainly ideological and political, and they are doing everything to make themselves known and attract support. They launched a petition on change.org, they created an archive of many university signboards to make them understand their historical and cultural importance in this website and they look for donations to support legal fees against the university authorities, who have decided to evacuate the dormitory without even consulting the residents. They also organize theatrical performances, concerts, leafleting, they try to bring awareness on social media to put the issue under everyone’s eyes. So the better we share articles like this, the better it is for them. This article of mine is my contribution to helping their cause.
When one enters that dormitory, one has mixed emotions: the first is the refusal in the face of so much disorder and so much dirt, neglect and indecency. The second is a sense of fascination, of mystery that one breathes while walking in those ancient corridors full of history. We perceive a depth that is difficult to explain. Finally, we are warmed by the welcome of students who say no to no one and are always kind and helpful. A place like this is a precious asset to defend in a traditionalist and hierarchical society like Japan, an oasis of freedom that gives the possibility to show new ways of living and sharing unthinkable for the average Japanese.
What, in my opinion, they should do to make themselves more credible before the authorities and become so unassailable, is to clean up all that crap that is around. The dormitory looks really bad and this gives detractors good arguments to demolish it. If instead it was kept impeccably, maintaining the spirit of freedom of expression and sharing, they would certainly have more supporters and an unassailable image to use against the authorities. The animated film From Up on Poppy Hill by Studio Ghibli could be a good model for them to follow.
Links about this topic:
Official Japanese website: https://sites.google.com/site/yoshidadormitory/kakuyaku
English website: https://yoshidaryozaiki.wixsite.com/website-9/
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