During a political debate at Tokyo’s Hibiya Public Hall in October, a 17-year-old rightist, Otoya Yamaguchi, broke free from the assembled crowd, rushed the stage, and stabbed Asanuma with a small sword two times before being apprehended. He committed suicide three weeks later while being incarcerated in a detention cell.
Right-wing groups had strongly opposed Asanuma, who criticized the Liberal Democratic Party and the United States, proclaiming the latter to be the common enemy of the Japanese and Chinese peoples during a speech in Beijing one year before.
Since the assassination was telecast live on public broadcaster NHK, the incident received substantial attention. But more notably, just before Yamaguchi plunged his weapon into Asanuma for the second time, Mainichi Shimbun newspaper photographer Yasushi Nagao pointed his camera at the pair and clicked the shutter — the resulting image of which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961.
Very rarely, if ever, are the perpetrators of political assassinations later celebrated in a public forum. Yet on two occasions at the end of last year that was the case for Yamaguchi.
In the very same hall where the gruesome killing took place, right-wing groups held a Shinto ceremony to commemorate the assassin on the 50-year anniversary of when he hung himself with a bedsheet.
Just before that final act, Yamaguchi famously opened a container of toothpaste and smeared the concrete wall of his cell with the message: “Seven lives for my country. His Imperial Majesty the Emperor, banzai!”
“It was a moment that marked a change in the course of Japanese history,” said Shohei Okada, director of the Otoya Yamaguchi Appreciation Society, at the Shinto event, held on November 4 and presided over by three priests.
The previous month, on October 12, various right-wing members, including Okada, gathered with a Japanese flag and memorial photos of Yamaguchi on the stage where 50 years before (to the very minute, 3:03 p.m.) the boy had made his run for Asanuma.
“Just like a swift wind, he went after the country’s enemy and delivered justice,” said the director. “For a human being to sacrifice one’s life at the age of 17 to save a country from crisis is something truly dignified.”