The Time a Politician was Assassinated with a Samurai Sword on TV
How a 17-year-old Ended the Closest Attempt at Socialist Government in Japan
12 October, 1960. It all happened in a split second at the red-brick Hibiya Hall. Heckling crowds. Journalists shoving each other at the shoulders. As photographer Yasushi Nagao of the Mainichi newspaper changed his Speed Graphic 4x5 camera’s focus to ten feet, a teenager with a face twisted in fury charged the stage and slammed into the man speaking at the lectern. Half a moment later, the boy pulled back, and the gleam of a short sword reflected the auditorium light onto the stupefied crowd. Even that was covered instantaneously by the swarm of reporters who then closed in on the action like flies to honey.
What the bewildered spectators witnessed in that single moment was the gruesome culmination of a thousand years of warrior tradition bred with the misguided political extremism of the post-Meiji era (when Japan adopted a parliamentary, constitutional government). Perhaps, they also witnessed the bloody miscarriage of Japanese socialism — or something close to it. The man who had been speaking at the lectern that day — Inejirō Asanuma — was as close as any man had ever been to steering Japan to socialist governance and simultaneously sending shock waves into the post-war alliances of East Asia.
Asanuma seemed to have been destined for a life in public service. A broad, towering figure (nicknamed ‘the human locomotive’) with a booming, somewhat raspy voice to match, the Miyakejima native was first elected to the Diet in 1936. When war with the United States loomed at the Pacific horizon, Asanuma unequivocally voiced his dissatisfaction with the Japanese leadership and retired from politics in 1942, only to return three years later as a Socialist activist, once again elected to the Diet by an exasperated Japanese people whose lives had been uprooted by the war while industrialists, the ones who had so enthusiastically plunged Japan into war, had hardly suffered a loss. Their anger had manifested in the voting booth.
By 1947, the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) was the largest standing party in the Japanese House of Representatives, holding a plurality majority of 143 (of 466 total) seats. Socialist Tetsu Katayama became the first post-war Prime Minister. Unfortunately, JSP’s domination only lasted two years due to a failure to consolidate lasting support from both within and without their faction. Katayama was replaced by the famous Shigeru Yoshida, a staunch anti-communist and pro-American politician who laid the foundation (see: Yoshida Doctrine) for Japan’s rise as an economic power and defined her role as the democratic, capitalist “role model” of Asia. More importantly, Yoshida dispersed the socialist elements in Japanese politics to the point where they would never mount a serious opposition again. To this day, Yoshida’s ideological children almost uninterruptedly held Japan’s House of Representatives in the form of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
Yoshida is mentioned in school textbooks across Japan, but what is not stressed is how hotly contested Japan’s postwar fate was — her Cold War policy is often taken for granted, but men like Asanuma have many times threatened the East Asian power balance which for so long rested on the pillar that is the Japan-United States alliance. As the 1950s were nearing their end, most of Japan had, in appearance, recovered from the devastation of war, but the nation was still in the midst of an arduous self-searching for a lasting postwar identity. It was a turbulent time full of student rioting (which would increase in the next decade) and farmer’s and factory workers strikes. The charismatic Asanuma would attempt to hedge this wave, opposing conservatives like Nobusuke Kishi (grandfather of current Prime Minister Shinzō Abe) during parliamentary debates at every opportunity he could. Particularly telling of his foreign policy leanings, Asanuma showed his typical firebrand against the 1960 Mutual Security Treaty, a military alliance with the United States heavily favored by Yoshida and Kishi. Riots from the student-led zengakuren and trade unionists brought chaos onto the streets of Tokyo, causing a cancellation of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s scheduled visit (whose purpose was largely in ceremony of the treaty).
Japan doesn’t really have a long-standing tradition of popular movements. The Europeans, whether tracing back to the French Revolution or even further back, the German Peasant’s War of the 16th century, have historically had movements of regime or policy change truly led by the people. Japan, on the other hand, has never had a true popular revolution — the Imperial family has been the same, unbroken hereditary line since the ascension of Emperor Jimmu in 660B.C. The reasons are many: a culture that values harmony; feudal values which hold sacred the relationship between lord and vassal; above all, an overwhelmingly voluntary loyalty to the Emperor’s role as a symbol of the nation. People-led revolutions to topple even local lords rarely happened, most of them being spurred on by a rival domain’s noble as part of a power ploy. It was after the Meiji constitutional reform of 1868 when a modern parliament and political parties began to form that translations of Western political literature (of all spectrums) became widely available and circulated among the Japanese students. Many of them were inspired by the French and German socialists of the pre-WW1 decades and would lead agrarian and union movements in the 1910s, when a handful of large industrial conglomerates (see: zaibatsu) began to dominate the Japanese economy. While being silenced and purged by the militaristic government which dominated the 1930s and 40s, when the Japanese socialists resurfaced again in a democratized, economically liberalized, postwar Japan, they did not like what they saw. Much of Japan’s postwar government and bureaucracy were dominated by the exact same individuals who had steered her to war. Many of the industrial conglomerates which had prospered and expanded during the days of empire now had representatives in the Diet. The more extreme members of the Japanese left saw the alliance with the United States as a threat to peace in Japan and East Asia — they instead called for Japan’s alignment with Communist China and the Soviet Union, two countries which Japan did not yet have official diplomatic relations with. Asanuma famously visited Beijing in 1959, giving a speech in front of a Chinese Communist Party banquet in which he called the United States the “shared enemy of China and Japan”. This speech received a standing ovation in China, and Asanuma later appeared wearing a suit in the style of Mao Zedong. Naturally, it provoked an angry reaction in Japan, where even many socialist allies distanced themselves from Asanuma. It stirred, however, a special passion in a teenage political youth.
Otoya Yamaguchi, born in the dying days of Imperial Japan, was the son of a colonel. Little is known about his brief life; perhaps a militaristic upbringing had destined him for an interest in right wing activism — by the age of seventeen, he had been a member of several uyoku dantai (literally, ‘right-wing organization’). It was with this mob that Yamaguchi went to the debate at Hibiya Hall on the night of 12 October, 1960. Most of them were there to jeer and distract — Yamaguchi had brought along his yoroi-dōshi, a type of short sword carried by samurai which literally translates to ‘armor piercer’. As Asanuma began a sentence on discarding all policies unpopular with the people, Yamaguchi, blade bared, plunged into his side with a force and speed unseemly for his small stature. Asanuma’s broad, farmer body crumpled on the spot.
Japanese socialists, reeling from the shock and tragedy, had one silver lining: they now had a martyr. Quickly, they began to draft campaign messages on the dangers of the right-wing extremism and, utilizing his widow, painted Asanuma as political extremism’s victim whose hopeful reforms were cut down. Less than three weeks after the assassination, however, Yamaguchi hung himself in his jail cell with strips of bedding which he had used to create a noose. On the cell wall, written in a mix of tooth powder and blood: “Seven Lives For My Country, Long Live His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor!” These last words were a poignant reference to the final utterances of a legendary 14th century samurai as he lay dying on the battlefield. While Yamaguchi was deprived of a blade in his jail cell to commit the ritual seppuku, his suicide was nonetheless an act of owabi — apology —to those he inconvenienced through the assassination, including Asanuma’s family. With this ceremonial suicide in the samurai tradition, together with his young age and the weapon used for the killing, the Japanese right-wing now had their martyr and poetic hero. As Time reported, a “group of them went to the jail, presented the boy’s parents with a burial coat, kimono and belt, then escorted the body of their hero home.” Taking this symbolic victory for the nationalist right, the adolescent had given one last strike at Japanese socialism. To this day, some fringe groups of the Japanese right visit Yamaguchi’s grave.
Neither man was much good for votes. Asanuma didn’t garner as many ‘sympathy’ votes as the JSP expected; the uyoku dantai and the Great Japan Patriotic Party, their main representative in the Diet, didn’t see much increase in popularity either. But the assassination, which was to be the last major assassination in Japanese politics, is rarely studied in Japanese classrooms. Yet it is one of the most important events in Japan’s postwar history. It was a fitting welcome for the decade of the 1960s, riddled with rioting and popular discontent, but also defined by the victory of Japanese-style socialist- capitalism which drastically improved the lives of citizens of every class. More importantly, it cemented Japan’s alliance with the United States and other nations following the liberal market economy model.
Japan wouldn’t establish formal relations with the People’s Republic of China until 1972 — then too, there were muted protests from the Japanese right. The legacy of the Asanuma assassination last to the present day through Japan’s relation to her neighbors, and in the geopolitical alliance system of East Asia. Through a bloody and cruel twist of fate, Japan was saved from becoming an East-Asian Hungary or Yugoslavia. Instead, the 1960s became the decade in which Japan would truly re-join the world community, host a successful summer Olympics, and witness an economic rise that eventually would bring her to the become world’s second largest economy. The Japanese bureaucracy did a good job making sure that the prosperity that came with the rise was shared among all levels of society — largely eliminating the wide support that socialist movements in Japan enjoyed in the late 1940s and 50s.