TOKYO – With his broad shoulders rippling beneath his dark blue jumpsuit, Shinichi Kamijo has taken a sidewalk position on Yasukuni-dori, not far from Jimbocho subway station in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward.
It is 2 p.m., and given that he is about to engage in battle, Kamijo is surprisingly calm as he leisurely sips from a bottled drink on this hot summer day. “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 started at the age of 26.
His 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 1 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 made obvious by the imposing grills 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 throughout the streets. Each trooper is outfitted with a shield, heavy black boots, shin guards, and a helmet — the required equipment needed to oppose the throng of gathered 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 is as the events unfolded just prior to this year’s pacifist demonstration in Kudanshita on August 15, the anniversary of the conclusion of World War II. The protest highlights the one day of the year where downtown Tokyo could nearly be confused for Pakistan or Tibet during times of political unrest; it literally turns into a riot zone as right- and left-wing groups oppose one another.
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 will be enshrined should they die in battle fighting heroically for the Emperor. For South Korea and China, two countries that suffered at the hands of Japan’s military over a half-century ago, a crucial point of criticism is the existence of 14 Class-A war criminals, including wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, within the enshrinement roster. A heated debate on an average day, Yasukuni and its surrounding area is like a spark landing in a tinderbox on the anniversary.
The morning hours saw a separate one-hour demonstration in the streets west of the shrine’s grounds – this one led by the Anti-War Joint Action Committee, which assembled in front of Hosei University in Ichigaya.
For right-winger Kamijo, who we last left on the street in Kudanshita, he paid his respects at Yasukuni just before noon. As he faced the memorial’s imposing façade, a hinomaru flag proudly stitched upon his upper back side, 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 within the compound.
Afterwards, the burly Kamijo made his way back to a few rows of shaded tables filled with members of other right-wing groups. Kamijo explained that he started Gishin Gokoku-kai because of the way China and South Korea view Japan.
“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,” says Kamijo of Japan’s Official Development Assistance program, whose work over the past few decades 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, cannot be intimidated.
He explains that he is driven by the problems he sees in modern Japan’s passivity. “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 is not in top form since having dropped 11 kilograms following an illness, but there is little doubt that he means business. The back of his neck is tattooed with the English letters “DEATH” — as a warning to foreigners — and the numeral 4, whose Chinese kanji character (pronounced “shi”) has the same morbid meaning. Appearing on his meishi (business card) are the lyrics to “Kimigayo,” Japan’s national anthem.
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 a separate meeting be held for all the gory details to be conveyed. Certainly on this day his actions make such claims seem very plausible.
Carrying large red balloons, colorful flags, and painted banners – including one featuring the image of revolutionary 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 protesting enemy. When rebuffed by the officers, he stabs his right index finger to the sky and screams.
Unbowed, he quickly follows the crowd down the street with one of his cohorts. Together they leap over a planter yet find themselves pushed back by a flurry of helmets and forearms. Amid the chaos, Kamijo winds up getting flipped onto his back, with flower beds being dumped and their contents spilled. Shop 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, right-wingers with portable loudspeakers blast their righteous messages as their bolder brothers continue to make attempts at breaking the police lines. Every time, however, each is tackled, dragged off, or pushed away by one or two of Tokyo’s finest.
Confused onlookers stand by as the sidewalks and the center of the street become a swirling display of swaying protest 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 as far as positioning, 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 police 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 volumes.
By the time the mob approaches an area within view of Yasukuni’s gates, a sense of hatred has infiltrated the entire scene. Standing outside of shops and offices, a few typical salarymen and older ladies 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.
In the end, however, Kamijo is nowhere to be found.
A phone call placed to the right-wing leader not long thereafter revealed that he had made it out intact. He then excused himself as he had to hang up and deal with a situation involving North Korea that was unfolding on the east side of Tokyo.