On Sunday afternoon, June 29, 2014, at Shinjuku Station in central Tokyo, a man set himself on fire. Photographs and videos posted online by witnesses show, in graphic detail, a middle-aged figure in a suit addressing the crowd with a megaphone before dousing himself in flammable liquid and setting himself alight. The incident is the most recent and perhaps most dramatic act of protest against the policies of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe.
According to witnesses, the unnamed man specifically addressed Abe’s latest attempt to reinterpret Article Nine of Japan’s Constitution, in which “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation.” In spite of his act and the street protests that followed on Monday and Tuesday, Abe and a coalition of ruling parties agreed on a policy of “active pacifism” on Tuesday. Contrary to Japan’s current policy, which limits its military role, Abe’s changes would allow for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to exercise “collective self-defense” and fight overseas. The United States government supports this move, while it strains Japan’s relationships with China and South Korea. Popular opinion in Japan, however, remains opposed to a more forceful military stance.
Sunday’s self-immolation was a rare act of extreme protest, but voices from various sectors of Japanese society echo the anonymous man’s critique. Civic groups, trade unions, and professional guilds have issued statements opposing the reinterpretation of Article Nine, and the crowds on the streets this week have been estimated at between 10,000 and 40,000. The unidentified man, who has allegedly survived his self-immolation and could face criminal charges for his acts, does not express the views of a radical fringe, whether people agree with his tactics or not. Public opinion polls conducted by newspapers across the political spectrum consistently demonstrate opposition to revising Article Nine of the Japanese constitution. In spite of the foreign origins of the Japanese Constitution during the Allied Occupation of Japan (1945–52), the “Peace Constitution” continues to enjoy widespread support. An online petition campaign started on behalf of Article Nine by a civic group in Japan even gained the nomination for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Opponents to constitutional revision have adopted various tactics; a group called “Women Who Don’t Have Sex with Men Who Love War,” for example, insist that their 349 followers refuse to have sex with men who support Abe or are involved in producing or selling arms.
The self-immolation incident made headlines around the world on Sunday, prompting foreign observers to speculate on Japan’s history of political suicides. The Washington Post concluded its discussion of this public suicide by mentioning the 1970 political suicide of author Yukio Mishima; the comparison has also traveled back to Japan, where it was repeated in an article by the Tokyo Broadcasting System. But Mishima donned the uniform of his private right-wing militia, the Shield Society, and delivered a speech to the Japan Self-Defense Forces just before his suicide with the intent of inciting a coup d’etat. His manifesto was met with laughter and jeers.
A more apt comparison than Mishima’s militarist performance would be the actions of Chūnoshin Yui, a man largely forgotten by history. Yui set himself on fire in front of the prime minister’s residence on November 12, 1967 to protest American military involvement in Vietnam. His words of protest: “As I am not Vietnamese nor American, I may become a laughingstock for setting myself on fire. But I believe that those who desire real world peace and a quick resolution to the conflict in Vietnam will not let me die in vain.”
Chūnoshin Yui’s final act was to set himself on fire; his gesture shocked the nation, but it also resonated with popular sentiment at the time. His lifelong work, however, was to transcend Japan’s borders and bring it into the international community. Yui had lived and worked in Japanese-occupied Manchuria during the Second World War but had a personal interest in the study of Esperanto that predated the war and informed his postwar pacifism and activism. In Japan in the twentieth century, as elsewhere, Esperanto promised a radical internationalism. Yui translated survivors’ accounts of the atomic bombings into Esperanto, making them available to a global audience, and in the 1960s exchanged correspondence with Esperantists in Vietnam, which he translated into Japanese. As the United States escalated its military involvement in Indochina, and particularly after Lyndon B. Johnson ordered a sustained bombing campaign of North Vietnam in spring 1965, the antiwar movement in Japan intensified. In the autumn of 1967, groups of students and citizens demonstrated against then Prime Minister Eisaku Satō’s support for American military policy. On October 8, 1967 an eighteen-year-old college student, Hiroaki Yamazaki, died in clashes with police. The most dramatic moment of the ensuing November 12 protests was the self-immolation of seventy-three-year-old Yui. One young woman at Tokyo University recalled her shock at the power of his act, which also inspired her to become more active in the student movement at her university.
There is no doubt that Sunday’s anonymous protester, who survived his self-immolation after firefighters doused him with a hose, will affect the protest movement in Japan as well. Less than twenty-four hours later, images have been posted online of bouquets at the spot on the pedestrian bridge at Shinjuku Station where the immolation took place. Sympathizers are turning the site into an altar.
Several citizens’ groups were already set to march in a mass demonstration on Monday, June 30 in Tokyo, before the self-immolation at Shinjuku Station. In the wake of Sunday’s events, however, the site of the protest took on another layer of significance: it was the spot where Esperantist Chūnoshin Yui immolated himself.
Tweets encouraging people to go to the streets included historical photographs of the mass demonstrations in June 1960 in front of the Japanese Diet building, against the efforts of Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi to revise the United States–Japan Security Treaty. That protest movement attracted tens of thousands of demonstrators, resulted in many injuries and the death of a young woman during clashes between right-wing groups and the police. Although the protests succeeded in forcing Kishi’s resignation, they failed to prevent the treaty’s automatic approval.
The cycle of affirmation and renunciation allows politicians to curry favor and even encourage ultra-nationalists in Japan while technically toeing the line of what is permissible in global politics.
Much like those protests waged over fifty years ago, this current protest—coming after a year full of anger and disappointment at what many perceive as the Abe government’s erosion of civil liberties in Japan—also centers on questions about the role of “the people” in governance. One oft-tweeted video opens with the word “sovereignty” in both English and Japanese, while a voice declares, “the people have the right to the final word in Japanese politics.” And the prominent support Abe’s forceful tactics enjoy among American officials raises questions about who he sees as his key political audience. Late last year, while Abe’s state secrets bill met with opposition from the Japanese Federation of Bar Associations and Reporters Without Borders and tanked in popular opinion polls, Caroline Kennedy, acting as the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, hailed the new law.
In the meantime, public protests in November 2013 against the bill, which the Economist described as “some of the free world’s most orderly and also the most heavily policed,” prompted the secretary-general of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Shigeru Ishiba, to compare demonstrators to terrorists. He retracted those comments, in a political strategy common among Japanese politicians who are called out for their offensive statements. For example, just last summer, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso retracted his comment, made in front of supporters, that perhaps “we can learn some tricks” from the Nazis. The “trick” he suggested learning was the quiet transformation of the Weimar Constitution into the “Nazi Constitution.” Much like Ishiba, Aso lamented the “noise” of contemporary Japanese politics. Most disturbingly, Japanese politicians continue to believe that, even though they act as public officials, their comments—whether on domestic demonstrators or on topics of international sensitivity such as wartime “comfort women”—remain private and retractable. The cycle of affirmation and renunciation allows such politicians to curry favor and even encourage ultra-nationalists in Japan while technically toeing the line of what is permissible in global politics.
In that context, it’s not surprising that protesters in the streets and online are likening Abe and his administration to fascists. Alongside signs emblazoned with the English-language phrase “Anti Fascist” are others that compare Abe to Hitler. A group of students that formed against the state secrets law (Students Against Secret Protection Law) has a prominent presence both at the demonstration and on Twitter, but the crowd in front of the prime minister’s residence on Monday evening represented many generations. Although participants drew courage from the many people that poured out to bring their voices to the streets, some expressed feelings of powerlessness as well. Abe pushed through his agenda without addressing the concerns of the protesters. Instead, he forced the idea that allowing for collective self-defense will “not fundamentally change the interpretation of the Constitution in the future,” and that “as time passes the fear that Japan will get dragged into war will go away.” However, this change comes in the context of Abe and the LDP’s gradual movement toward increased state authority. Is it really “fear” that Abe hopes will dissipate, or simply the voices of dissent?
Chelsea Szendi Schieder is a doctoral candidate in modern Japanese history at Columbia University.