Self-Immolation and Suicide as Protest in Japan

Many in Japan were shocked by the attempted suicide by self-immolation of a middle-aged protester in Shinjuku on June 29th.

On a weekend full of many liberal and leftist demonstrations against the imminent passing of the government’s controversial collective self-defence law revision — changes which opponents say are pulling Japan away from its constitutional pacifism and further down the path to militarism — at around 1pm the man climbed the girders above a pedestrian footbridge connecting the Shinjuku Station complex with its South Exit area.

Sitting alone on a black mat and holding a modest megaphone, he then began to call down to the crowds below, saying he was going to sit himself on fire in protest at Shinzō Abe’s policies. Fire services began to gather on the footbridge and below, trying to coach him down. When he saw a ladder being produced, he poured gasoline over himself and then set himself on fire.

Rescuers quickly worked to douse the man with water, pulling him off the girder and then extinguishing the flames while he lay on the footbridge. He was then taken to hospital with severe burns but apparently still conscious.

Although this extreme example of protest did not get the major news coverage it deserved — yet was picked up readily by many international media outlets — other local leftists instantly tried to claim the man as a martyr, giving out leaflets at the spot, laying flowers and then eventually even scrapping over what was appropriate political action and what was simply disrespectful. Police reportedly soon had the flowers removed and the scene was cleaned of evidence. That odd Sunday afternoon of shopping and suicide in Shinjuku was then closed off with a rain shower. It was as if nothing had happened.

The man, so-far anonymous, recalls several other suicide-protests. In fact, there is a skein of such actions in the canon of Japanese radical and civic movements, including self-immolation. Many were quick to compare the man with similar acts in the Arab Spring, Tibet, or the remarkable spectacles by Buddhist monks in Saigon in the early 1960’s.

self immolation shinjuku tokyo protest government collective self-defense

The self-immolation protest in Shinjuku on June 29th, 2014, in protest at the government’s collective self-defence policies.

However, for me, the man’s sacrificial act immediately recalled two other men.

On March 30th, 2002, Kōyū (Takao) Himori burnt himself to death in Hibiya Park. Himori was a passionate campaigner for the Palestinian cause and had a remarkable career. He was one of the first Japanese radicals in Lebanon, along with Tsuyoshi Okudaira. (Technically he was never part of the Japanese Red Army. It did not come into existence until late 1974, nor were all of the early activists actually from the original Sekigun-ha in Japan.)

He helped recruit some others like Kōzō Okamoto and Osamu Maruoka. However, after the death of one of the activists in a swimming accident, Himori returned to Japan with the body in early 1972. He did not return to the Middle East and so lost out on the chance to join his comrades in their picaresque lives of hijackings, embassy-stormings and renditions. He was arrested and served time in prison, but later became a key member of the JRA’s supporters in Japan. Fusako Shigenobu, often cited as the leader of the JRA, dedicated a section of her last book to Himori. His final act that proved that despite having ended up with a far less dramatic role in the JRA chronicle, his protest was just as committed and sincere. He self-immolated in 2002 at the age of 54.

koyu takao himori japanese red army self immolation suicide

Kōyū (Takao) Himori, who committed suicide by self-immolation in 2002 in a protest for the Palestinian cause.

On November 11th, 1967, Chūnoshin Yui killed himself by self-immolation. Like Himori, he was far from being a young man (he was 73) but he was not from the same far Left ilk at all. Yui was actually an Esperantoist and his act was more related to Thich Quang Duc’s — as well as the Shinjuku 2014 protestor’s — in that he chose to burn himself in front of the Prime Minister’s home as a demonstration against the Japanese government’s logistical support for the war in Vietnam. American bases in Japan were central to the conflict, as were Japanese commercial contributions: Japanese corporations made huge amounts of money by supplying arms, food and more to the ultimately fruitless efforts to stamp out communism in Southeast Asia.

Yui inspired one of the major performance art groups from the era, Zero Jigen (Zero Dimension), to take part in a parade wearing gas masks in Shinjuku. Under the label Kurohata (Black Flag), Zero Jigen and their peers even then also re-staged Yui’s self-immolation (with an effigy) at Shinjuku Station’s West Exit, a frequent “liberated zone” and protest site in Tokyo in the late 1960’s. Yui’s self-immolation was followed by that of 17-year-old Kazuo Shirakawa in April 1968 in front of the US Consulate in Osaka.

An Okinawan, Yasutaka Uehara, crashed his motorbike into the front gates of the Diet, the Japanese parliament, in May 1973, one year on from the controversial restoration of Okinawan sovereignty to Japan. He was 26 years old.

Shūji Funamoto, a veteran activist of many leftist causes and associated with members of one of the cells from the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front, also committed suicide by self-immolation in front of Kadena Air Base in Okinawa in June 1975. At the time he was wanted by police in connection with a bombing in Kamagasaki, the slum district in Osaka. He was 29 years old.

yukio mishima suicide seppuku

Suicides like those of Yukio Mishima seem to play into our notions of “Japanese” attitudes towards death.

It can sometimes seem that libraries have been written about Japan’s apparent penchant for suicide. Kamikaze pilots flying off to self-doom. Cherry blossom petals floating in the wind. Ethereal spring blooms. And so on. At the risk of adding to these myths — and suicide as a political protests is obviously very much not an exclusively “Japanese” concept — there are even more examples if we do not confine ourselves to self-immolation.

A twenty-one-year-old Chūkaku-ha activist called Kōhei Oku killed himself in 1965. He had been hurt in a clash with riot police over protests over the Japanese Foreign Minister’s visit to South Korea in 1965. At the time, there was a large protest movement against the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea, which normalised relations between the neighbours. Shortly after leaving hospital, Oku committed suicide.

These kinds of martyrs were very potent symbols in the pantheon of Japan’s protest movements in the 1960’s and 1970’s, joining the ranks of other young victims and models of sacrifice such as Michiko Kamba, the University of Tokyo student who died in the 1960 Anpo protests, and Hiroaki Yamazaki, the Chūkaku-ha protestor killed during violent skirmishes with riot police at Haneda Airport in 1967.

In 1968, following the violent land expropriations by the state to seize land from local farmers in the Sanrizuka area for the future Narita International Airport, a young protestor called Fumio Sannomiya hanged himself. Many others would die or suffer serious injuries during the next few years of the Sanrizuka campaign.

However, most people would likely initially assume that suicide as protest would be more the preserve of the Right in Japan. And so it often is. Ultra-nationalist Shūsuke Nomura shot himself in a meeting at the offices of the Asahi Shimbun in 1993 to protest the left-leaning newspaper’s mocking of him.

Otoya Yamaguchi, the teenaged assassin of the Japan Socialist Party’s Inejirō Asanuma, hanged himself in prison in 1960 after he murdered the elderly liberal politician in public. (This kind of act swings both sides of the political spectrum. Tsuneo Mori, one-time leader of the Rengō Sekigun [United Red Army], hanged himself in prison around a year after he was arrested in early 1972.) Veteran right-wing figure Yoshio Kodama was bizarrely targetted by a nationalist minor actor called Mitsuyasu Maeno in the late 1970’s due to Kodama’s part in the Lockheed scandal, which saw even the Prime Minister at the time embroiled in bribery. Maeno flew a plane into Kodama’s residence in Setagaya, west Tokyo, in a suicide protest stunt-cum-assassination bid. He hit the house but Kodama miraculously emerged alive.

But the ultimate “Japanese” form of suicide is, of course, ritual disembowelment, or seppuku, and this was Yukio Mishima’s choice of death, as part of an elaborate coup attempt (or at least, coup-like stunt), at a Self-Defense Forces base in Ichigaya in central Tokyo in November 1970.

inejiro asanuma assassination public otoya yamaguchi

Otoya Yamaguchi assassinating Inejirō Asanuma in 1960. Yamaguchi killed himself in prison soon afterwards.

Political radicalism can often escalate sectarian thinking and extreme attitudes that those of us in the more cynical post-Cold War age find hard to stomach. And when forced into a corner by the state and police, radical groups and activists often respond with increased aggression. The results tend to mean a lessening in regard for the value of individual life, not only in terms of suicide-protests but also in other general acts undertaken as part of an acceptable campaign.

Many cite the attack on Lod Airport (now Ben Gurion Airport) in May 1972 by three Japanese PFLP volunteers as “kamikaze” mission. This interpretation is actually disputed but it is clear that the three knew they were very unlikely to survive, even if death was not the fixed final goal. Who shot whom is also highly contested but the basic facts remain the same: after the guns stopped firing, there were 28 dead in the terminal, including two of the Japanese. To the Palestinians, they were martyrs. To Israelis and many others around the world, they were nihilists. When the stakes are high enough, humanity (their own and others’) inevitably finds itself laid to one side by protestors.


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