Striking up a Debate with The Right-Wing Activists Outside The Yasukuni Shrine on August 15th Might Not Be a Very Good Idea After All
By Avi Landau
You could say that I was ASKING FOR IT, or even that I was an IDIOT. You would probably be right. I will certainly admit that I had been pushing my luck.You see, for the past several years I have been visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine (Yasukuni Jinja, 靖国神社), on August 15, the anniversary of the end of The Second World War. Each time, I have also engaged the various Right-Wing activists standing outside the shrine`s precincts in interesting (and always civil) discussion, and have also always followed the impassioned and often violent encounters between the Right and The Left which rage in the neighboring streets and alleys.
And though Japanese friends who know about my Aug. 15th Yasukuni habit have always worried about my safety, I had never felt personally threatened in any way. It had always been an incredible and fascinating JAPANESE experience for me, with a combination of solemnity, intensity, passion and CAMP, all in and around the beautiful setting of the shrine. All personal encounters had also been amiable over the years. UNTIL THIS YEAR, THAT IS! This past Saturday, not only was I boxed in by a group of raging Rightists shouting provocatively into my face, but I was also physically attacked on two seperate occassions (during the demonstrations), and had my camera grabbed from me.
Please do not be alarmed. I was not injured at all by my physical assailants ( I believe they did not intend to injure me), and I even got my camera back. And though I was quite surprised by how the starting up of a simple conversation led to my being mobbed, intimidated and then verbally abused as the police helped me get away ( and even when I thought I was well away from the mob ,one gentle-looking old man came up to me and said GET THE HELL OUT OF JAPAN – Nihon kara dette ike), I never really felt frightened or insulted.
In fact, the experience helped me to see how, in contemporary Japan, REAL VIOLENCE IS AVOIDED between groups with passionately held and diametrically oppossed views by the setting aside of a special TIME (Aug 15th) and PLACE (in and around Yasukuni Shrine) for dressing up, posturing, and cathartically LETTING IT ALL OUT- mostly through intensive vocalization, but also with MOCK ACTS OF VIOLENCE. Surely in most other countries such a gathering of ENEMY PARTIES would result in more than a few serious casualties. At these Yasukuni events I have yet to see an ambulance called in.
Let me quickly tell you the whole story from the beginning to end. If you`d like a little background information please read:
Here we go-
After passing through the ticket gate of the KUDANSHITA STATION at about 10 am, I headed for the exit which would take me closest to The Yasukuni Shrine. Underground it was pretty much like any other day in the Tokyo subway system except for the band of riot police which had taken position by the exit which I was approaching.
When I emerged at the top of the stairs, it was a whole new world, abuzz with political excitement (and the humming of cicadas). The short walk between the station and the entrance to the shrine was lined with activists for various Right-Wing Causes. First there were THE USUALS- the group fighting to keep foreigners from obtaining political rights, the groups who promote independance for certain regions of the People`s Republic of China, the groups that want to revise the school text-books ( to give them a more nationalistic, pro-Yasukuni tone), AND a group that I had never seen at that particular spot before, displaying a portrait of wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, who were asserting that his having been declared a war criminal was unfair.
Immediately approached by the first group of activists (those fighting against foreigners rights),I learned something very interesting ( and important).When I told them that I lived in Tsukuba, which has a foreigner as a city council member, they quickly corrected me by saying that NO- the city councilman in Tsukuba has become a naturalized Japanese and IS THUS JAPANESE. They had NO PROBLEM WITH THAT. In other words, this group does not use race as a standard for judging who is Japanese-they use CITIZENSHIP. They are worried about non-citizen foreign residents getting to have a say in Japanese politics. In other words, they are saying to us- NATURALIZE! (and this was surprising for me).
Passing under the main torii gate and entering the shrine along its main approach I saw the familiar August 15th scene. Thousands and thousands of USUAL EVERYDAY people, conservatively dressed, standing patiently in the sweltering heat, waiting for their turn to pay their respects to Japan`s war-dead. Then, there were the FEW who get all the attention- the extreme right wing paramilitary style groups dressed in clearly and instantly recognizeable costumes.
There were also the cos-players, who dress up as soldiers, sailors, nurses, kamikaze pilots etc, and around them the photographers and gawkers (most of them foreigners,- basically the same faces every year) who give these people the attention they crave. Of course , there were also the police, in GREAT NUMBERS, with plainclothesmen dilligently photographing and taking notes on each member of each of the extremest groups as they queued up for the shrine.
- Rightists in uniform
Suddenly, something happened that I had not experienced before at Yasukuni. There was an announcement calling everyone to attention. The Gyokuon Hoso, the August 15th 1945 radio broadcast in which the Showa Emperor (as he is referred to now) announced the end of the Japanese war effort, would be played over the PA system. I found this moment to be truly moving at first, but the atmosphere was unfortunately shattered as the police began to repeatedly page someone over their own PA system and virtually drowned out most of the latter half of the Emperor`s historic speech.As you can imagine, people were not very pleased by this.
See an English translation of the Gyokuon Hoso`s text here: http://www.japanorama.com/surrendr.html
I spent the next couple of hours within the shrines precincts, revisiting the museum, the various monuments etc., all of which I have described before in previous articles. As usual , I and the other foreigners there, were treated with politeness, and often with great friendliness, even by uniformed members of extremist groups.
It was when I left the confines of the shrine that the FIRST trouble occured. Passing under the great torii gate once again, this time headed back towards the station , I stopped by to listen in on a conversation between a passerby and the group which was demanding the rehabillitation of Tojo Hideki (who was convicted as a war criminal at the Tokyo Tribunals after the war). I was surprised and deeply interested to hear the calm tone of the debate, in which a young Japanese man was insisiting to this group that the Japanese military had been brainwashing the populace during the war, and that Tojo was no different from Asahara Shoko, the leader of the murderous Aum Shinrikyo Cult. Bold statements indeed, I thought, to be making at this particular venue, on this particular day.
Since in Japan it is rare to encounter such a debate, let alone participate in one, I thought I would join in, if not for anything else, than just to hear what this group`s positions were. When I started out saying that I couldnt understand why they would be so concerned about what was aid of the former Prime Minister, who had led Japan down the road to TOTAL DESTRUCTION and also put the life of the Emperor in great danger (and into the hands of the enemy). Suddenly, a great transformation in mood took place. A signal must have been given, because I was very quicky completely surrounded, ringed in by men of various ages who proceeded to shout at me, so loudly that their arteries seemed about to burst- WE WONT FORGIVE YOU FOR HIROSHIMA ( Hiroshima yurusanai !!).
I stayed as STILL as possible, making sure that I didnt touch any of them (that might have really set them off), and tried to ZEN OUT, but they just went on and on and in fact their numbers grew. Then, lieka DEUS EX MACHINA ,a man in a black suit, in a manner not unlike that of a concierge at a fine hotel, suddenly broke into the circle, and whisked me away with a big smile saying- lets get away from here. He was a plainclothes policeman and he proceeded to apologize for what had happened and said that it looked like I had become THE SYMBOL OF AMERICA for those people (the activists). It was at this moment, that the old man that I mentioned before snuck up and snapped at me, telling me to get out of the country.
I cannot say that I had been frightened, but I certainly was surprised and overwhelmed by what had happened. As you can imagine, my confidence was also shaken a bit.I was in no mood for any more debating, thats for sure ! And as I had planned to stay in the area for a few more hours, and I didnt want to meet that particular bunch again, I did my best to avoid them and did not walk past their spot again. The only problem was that- I DID RUN INTO THEM , later- at what was probably the WORST POSSIBBLE MOMENT !
The Procession of anti-Yasukuni Shrine, anti- Emperor System ( among other things) demonstrators was scheduled to begin at 4pm. The riot police had already taken up positions along the designated route. At the point where the demonstrators would be closest to the shrine, nationalists, determined to defend the honor of the shrine, had also gathered in force, literally kicking away traffic cones that the police were setting up to control pedestrian traffic( the police eventually gave up doing this, letting the rightists have their way).
As the demontrators marched (protected by a phalanx of riot police on both sides), chanting ABOLISH YASUKUNI, ABOLISH WAR, and carrying such provocative banners as those which read ABOLISH THE EMPEROR SYSTEM etc , they were continuously harrassesd by counter demonstrators who shouted things such as GO BACK HOME TO NORTH KOREA, etc. This would have made for a dizzying racket in itself , but in fact , all human voice chanting was drowned out by the tirades blasting from the huge loud-speakers mounted on the trucks and buses of the ultra-nationalists. The noise was numbing, and the chanting helped work people up into a frenzy. Occassionally rightists would make a show of trying to break through the police lines and get at the demonstrators.When the police stopped them they would shout, struggle and rage, but they were not arrested. It is important to note , however, that no one threw any bricks or bottles, or other objects, which would have been a more effective way of GETTING AT the demonstrators. The scene seemed to me more like a mosh pit than a riot.
After turning the corner which brought the demonstrators to the closest point they would get to the shrine , things started to get out of hand and more and more counter-demonstators rushed at the marchers. When the procession turned right and crossed a narrow bridge TOTAL CHAOS ensued- rightists , leftists, police , tourists all merged- and some people were knocked down, or had their noses bloodied, though no one seemed to have gotten seriously injured. I climbed up on a railing for a better view and tried to take some pictures. It was so crowded that it was nearly impossible to move, but when I took my eye off the camera viewfinder I recognized one of my tormentors from early in the day glaring at me. When our eyes met, he rushed me, growling with fury and pulled me down from off the rail. We grappled for a second before he grabbed my camera and started to make off with it. I called out to him (I cant recall exactly what I said), and he dropped my camera to the ground. He turned around and stopped ,shook my hand as I approached him, and indicated where he had dropped it.
With hardly any time to have thought about what had happened, another man grabbed me, though he was quickly restained by the police, who then, much to my chagrin, released him right in front of me as they ran off to deal with other problems. This man ,too, came up to me and shook my hand, saying- This is amazing isnt it? Where else but here could you see energy like this?
I thought about it for a second, looked around, and said- at just about ANY TRADITIONAL MATSURI (Japanese Festival). My assailant and some other people standing nearby who had been listening in, laughed and said…. hey, you are right!
The more I think about it, the more that thought rang true. The surge of primieval energy, the cathartic release of a years worth of tension, the bloody noses, and noise and exhaustion……it was just another Japanese Matsuri. And all those of us who experienced it were completely SPENT……until NEXT YEAR !
And though I WILL be back again to take everything in, I will surely think twice before opening my mouth!