With his broad shoulders rippling beneath his dark blue jumpsuit, Shinichi Kamijo has taken a sidewalk position on Yasukuni Dori, not far from Jimbocho station in Chiyoda Ward.
It is 2 p.m. and, given that he is about to engage in battle, Kamijo is surprisingly calm. “We must stop them from advancing to the shrine,” implores the 38-year-old member of Gishin Gokoku-kai, an "uyoku dantai" (right-wing group) that he founded when he was 26.
Kamijo’s target is the Anti-Emperor Activities Network, a "sayoku" (left-wing) organization that is about to begin a protest march through Kudanshita and toward Yasukuni Shrine, the controversial Shinto monument that effectively serves as a symbol of Japan’s wartime past. The group of 150 members is assembling at nearby Nishi Kanda Park, a small concrete and gravel square about a kilometer east of the shrine. Before the protest begins, the leader announces that the group’s battles with the uyoku are a usual occurrence. “But we are doing this for the people of Japan,” he says.
As Kamijo waits, convoys of his brethren in black trucks descend upon the area, their presence reinforced by the imposing grilles welded to their fronts, the gold-painted chrysanthemum crests upon their sides and, of course, the unmistakable nationalist jingles booming from their sound systems.
Thirty minutes later, hundreds of riot police officers materialize on the streets. Each trooper is outfitted with a shield, heavy black boots, shin guards and a helmet — the equipment needed to oppose the throng of rightists now stationed on the pavement.
“I want to show the strength of the uyoku power,” Kamijo says, readying his stance, “but we are under the control of the police.”
The above scene unfolded just prior to last year’s pacifist demonstration in Kudanshita on August 15, the anniversary of the end of World War II. The protest, which will be repeated this week and preceded by various other marches near the shrine, highlights the one day of the year where downtown Tokyo could nearly be confused for Pakistan or Tibet during times of political unrest — the city literally turns into a riot zone as right- and left-wing groups stand off against one another.
Yasukuni like a spark in a tinderbox
Perhaps Japan’s most notorious rallying point for nationalist sentiment, Yasukuni confounds its left-leaning detractors and inspires patriots due to its honoring of roughly 2.5 million military men, many of whom were encouraged by the belief that their spirit would be enshrined should they die in battle fighting heroically for the emperor. For South Korea and China, two countries that suffered most heavily at the hands of Japan’s military over a half-century ago, a crucial point of criticism is the enshrinement of 14 Class-A war criminals, including wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo. A heated debate on an average day, Yasukuni and its surrounding area is like a spark landing in a tinderbox on the anniversary.
Last year, the morning saw a separate one-hour demonstration in the streets west of the shrine’s grounds led by the Anti-War Joint Action Committee, which assembled in front of Hosei University in Ichigaya.
“On the anniversary, the uyoku begin working from early in the morning,” says the committee’s 64-year-old representative, Misumi Tadashi. “Not only around Yasukuni, but all throughout Tokyo, they blast their messages from speakers mounted atop their trucks. This is the most appropriate day of the year for them to appeal their existence to the public. The police cannot control them, and we cannot let them continue with these harsh activities. We have to do something.”
The Anti-War Joint Action Committee, which is funded through the sale of publications and plans on marching again this year, was established in 1992 to oppose the dispatch of the Japan Self-Defense Forces to Cambodia. Today, the war in Iraq is one of the group’s raisons d’etre.
The procession left the Hosei campus and moved up towards Iidabashi and back down Sotobori Dori to Sotobori Park, near Yotsuya. All through the route, police officers walked pace for pace with the over 100 protesters as uyoku members attempted to physically disrupt the march.
“It seems like the police are trying to stop them, but in reality it is very easy for the uyoku to break through,” believes Tadashi. “We can’t rely on the police, and the uyoku know that we have the skills and power to fight back — so that is why they don’t attack so aggressively.”
The proceedings were decidedly more subdued inside the shrine’s compound. Kamijo, the right-winger, paid his respects at Yasukuni just before noon. As he faced the memorial’s imposing façade, a hinomaru flag proudly stitched on the back of his clothes, beads of sweat poured down from his shaven skinhead on this mercilessly muggy day. He performed a few bows, tossed some coins, and clasped his hands in remembrance of Japan’s fallen soldiers.
Behind him, veterans sporting camouflage military uniforms and tourists, cameras in hand, emptied from tour buses onto the baking concrete.
Afterwards, as the burly Kamijo made his way back to a few rows of shaded tables filled with members of other right-wing groups, he explained that he founded Gishin Gokoku-kai because of the way Japan’s neighbors view the country.
“China and South Korea educate their children to hate Japan. They don’t want the younger generation to stop being angry and want to continue receiving money from the Japanese government,” he says of the Official Development Assistance program, whose work has included a subway project in Seoul and programs to improve the environment and public health in China. “I am tired of their complaints. They do not appreciate our efforts.”
By midday, most of the right-wingers had, like Kamijo, completed their patriotic duties at the shrine and returned to their fortress-like vehicles for the eventual move down the road to Kudanshita for the clash with the pacifists.
In Kudanshita, the tension is increasing. Cordons of police officers are now lined up face-to-face with the uniformed rightists. Kamijo, however, won’t be intimidated.
“Japanese have been way too quiet,” he explains. “And since we don’t have a nuclear weapon, they [China and South Korea] can be aggressive.”
Kamijo admits that he’s not in top form since having dropped 11kg following an illness, but there is little doubt that he means business. As a warning to foreigners, the word “DEATH” is tattooed on the back of his neck, as is the numeral 4, whose kanji (pronounced “shi”) has the same morbid meaning. Appearing on his meishi are the lyrics to “Kimigayo,” Japan’s national anthem.
History of brawling with mobsters, foreigners
A carpenter by trade, Kamijo says that his history of brawling with mobsters and foreigners in Roppongi while a member of a "bosozoku" motorbike gang is so extensive that he suggests we have a separate meeting so he can convey all the gory details. Certainly, on this day, his actions make such claims seem extremely plausible.
Carrying large red balloons, colorful flags, and painted banners — including one featuring the image of Che Guevara — the Anti-Emperor Activities Network makes the turn toward Kamijo’s corner. Their chants are loud and clear: “We are completely against all the people who go to Yasukuni!”
As if rushing a quarterback, Kamijo tries to wedge his massive frame between a pair of police shields to get at his enemies. When rebuffed by the officers, he stabs his right index finger to the sky and screams.
Unbowed, Kamijo quickly follows the crowd down the street with one of his cohorts. Together, they leap over a flower bed yet find themselves pushed back by a flurry of helmets and forearms. Amid the chaos, Kamijo winds up getting flipped onto his back, with planters being dumped and their contents spilled. Advertising flags fall to the sidewalk.
Reports of uyoku-sayoku clashes commonly claim that the police firmly side with the right. But on this day, the sayoku are generally being protected. As the procession moves along, right-wingers with portable loudspeakers blast their righteous messages as their bolder brothers continue to make attempts at breaking the police lines. Each time, however, the protester is tackled, dragged off or pushed away by Tokyo’s finest.
Confused onlookers stand by as the sidewalks and the center of the street become a swirling display of swaying flags, mashing bodies and deafening noise.
In spite of Kamijo’s claims of wanting to display the spirit of the uyoku, much of the violent activity appears staged, which matches with the observations of Tadashi from the Ichigaya demonstration. Though visually surreal, many of the punches seem feigned, and the multiple clenched fists merely come across as elaborate street theater. Further, given the clear planning on the part of the police, it is clear that the protest route, starting time and participants have been coordinated well in advance.
The opposition continues to show relentless zeal, yet the chants from the marchers do not stop: “We are not going to forgive the government at all! No more war! No more Yasukuni!”
In the surrounding area, right-wing groups have parked their trucks at police barricades established at many of the large intersections. The cops hold their ground as the members stand by and scowl outside their vehicles, whose sound systems are still smothering the area with the military anthems at ear-splitting volume.
By the time the mob comes within view of Yasukuni’s gates, an atmosphere of hatred permeates the entire scene. Standing outside of shops and offices, a few salarymen and older women have decided to join in and verbally condemn the lefties for their presence.
The march then turns up Mejiro Dori — not onwards toward the shrine — which most certainly was the plan all along. The protesters file into a small brick smoking area that includes a bathroom. Many right-wingers surround the premises and continue their screaming and pushing routines.
Down narrow side streets, a few overly aggressive rightists can be seen getting hauled away by small groups of police. It is now clear that the ranks are thinning, and when a caravan of right-wing trucks breaches one of the police blockades and makes a final sonic blitz past the assembled protesters, it almost signals a last gasp.
The atmosphere should be no less heated on the anniversary this year. This spring anger raged over the release of "Yasukuni," a documentary by Chinese director Li Ying that multiple theaters in Japan refused to screen following threats from right-wing groups, who saw the film as being “anti-Japan.”
Kamijo, who was not arrested last year, expects a similar scene in Kudanshita, and once again he is excited. “We have to stop them,” he says bluntly. “We must force them to cancel the demonstration.”
The Anti-War Joint Action Committee, too, sees the scene unfolding much as it did 12 months earlier, and promises to be ready. “We have confidence to fight back,” Tadashi says. “We have guts and pride, and I am sure they will be coming after us.”
The Kundanshita demonstration will get underway along Yasukuni Dori on Aug 15, just after 2:30 p.m. Access via Jimbocho station (exit A1 or A2) or Kudanshita station (exit 5 or 6). The Ichigaya demonstration will start from Hosei University at 9 a.m. Nearest stn: JR Ichigaya. Due to police activity, routes and times may change without notice.
A panel of journalists and other interested parties will be holding a meeting about the Yasukuni issue at Sendagaya Kumin Kaikan on Aug 15 at 5:45 p.m. 1-10-1 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-3402-7854. Nearest stn: Harajuku or Meiji-Jingumae. See http://tinyurl.com/senkumin for map.
For more information about the Anti-Emperor Activities Network, see www.ten-no.net. For more information about the Anti-War Joint Action Committee, see www.anti-war.jp/english/index_e.htm.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp)© Japan Today