Kichijōji is a placid, well-to-do area in one of the wealthier suburbs of west Tokyo. It remains best known for its expansive park and Studio Ghibli museum. But one Sunday afternoon, as couples and families gathered to enjoy the autumn leaves and fine weather, hundreds of riot police officers struggled to keep dozens of ultra-nationalists away from a handful of protestors making their way through the streets around the station.
The unprecedented television broadcast by Emperor Akihito on August 8th, where the reigning monarch of Japan confirmed his desire to step down, has had two tangible repercussions so far: pressure on the ruling LDP to implement constitutional change so that the ageing and hard-working emperor can have his wish, which is widely supported by voters; and a flurry of articles, events and discourse from the far Left in Japan, which opposes the emperor system and seized the occasion to argue that the real issue is not the particulars of the abdication but abolishing the entire Imperial Household.
The Japanese Communist Party has markedly softened its anti-emperor stance of late, even attending the opening ceremony of the Diet for the first time in nearly 70 years. Previously the JCP’s lawmakers had always boycotted the event since it is presided over by the emperor and thus a remnant of a discredited, pre-war Japan. The main opposition to the emperor system and advocation for republicanism comes today from a scattering of smaller leftist groups, including Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction) and Hantenren (Anti-Emperor Activities Network).
For mainstream society and the media, the so-called Chrysanthemum Taboo holds sway. All members of the Imperial Family are spoken about in highly respectful language and any perceived transgression can result in threats from ultra-nationalist groups or the far-right netizens know as the netto uyoku, for whom the emperor is sacred. In the post-war period, publishing material deemed offensive to the emperor led to violence and even murder.
As such, it takes a brave person indeed to organise an anti-emperor public demonstration in Japan. The right to protest is protected and it is rare for police to ban demonstrations outright, though they may restrict where certain rallies and marches happen. Almost all left-wing demonstrations are given a heavy police escort. At times, though, the police presence is not to intimate or control the protestors but actually shield them from outside attack, which is a real possibility in the case of an anti-emperor event.
On November 20th, a small anti-emperor demonstration was held in the serene surroundings of Kichijōji. The protest was technically organised by a committee named after the demonstration itself, though the main activists seemed to come from Hantenren and Tachikawa Self-Defence Forces Monitoring Tent Village, a veteran anti-war watchdog group.
It was met by a counter-protest of several ultra-nationalist groups, most of whom were typical uyoku in their make-up: males wearing faux military outfits and carrying national flags. Minus the nationalist trappings, many could easily have been manning the doors to a certain kind of establishment in Kabukichō and not looked out of place.
As soon as you got off the train, you could see the telltale blue and white police trucks and squads of riot officers hanging around. By the time you arrived at the Sankaku Plaza, on the edge of Inokashira Park, you encountered hundreds of officers in full riot gear. The entrances down to this section of the park are usually quiet, narrow residential streets, but now they were manned by police at every corner.
I counted less than 100 protestors, though there were reportedly around 700 police, both contingents of security police and riot officers (Kidōtai). The few ultra-nationalists who went down towards the area where the speeches were taking place were kept well away, surrounded by dozens of cautious police. Unable to get near to their ideological enemies, the ultra-nationalists made do with haranguing the protestors, using megaphones in an attempt to drown out and disrupt the speeches.
I had an appointment back in town so had to leave before the actual march started at 2pm. By chance the alley I chose to head to the station suddenly became a miniature battleground as a group of 30 or 40 nationalists tried to rush into the park. A police car sprang into action; the siren blared and it screeched forward and blocked the alleyway. An officer reassured passing residents that they could still cross the street to go about their business. However, I unwittingly found myself caught between the police and the charging nationalists, who nonetheless completely ignored this non-Japanese observer (whatever happened to “Revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians”?) as they played chase with the army of police descending on them from all sides. This was largely performative: they knew they could never get past the now completely solid wall of police, but wanted to express their anger at the protest through the appearance of violence.
The march itself was more difficult for all parties. The protestors proceeded down an agreed route on the main road towards the station, the way led by a small truck. Hundreds of police formed a protective ring around them as the parade inched forward. The rightists jostled with the police throughout, screeching their sound and fury over megaphones, trying and at times succeeding in pulling down the placards of the protestors.
No arrests were reported but there were the usual scuffles between the three sides. More seriously, protestors said that several demonstrators suffered injuries and the windscreen of the protestors’ truck was smashed by some of the ultra-nationalists. The sound truck’s speakers were also damaged and other items, such as a banner, megaphones and placards, destroyed. There are numerous videos flooding YouTube, some of which clearly show the windscreen glass being broken.
As Emperor Akihito’s abdication looms in the near future, we can surely expect an increase in small anti-emperor demonstrations like this — and which will be met with this kind of aggression from ultra-nationalists, or even worse.