Tokyo Stabbing

October 12th, 1960. It’s election season in Japan. Three thousand people cram Tokyo’s Hibiya Hall to hear socialist party chairman Inejiro Asanuma debate the incumbent Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda. Ikeda was inspired by the Nixon-Kennedy debates, and decided to hold his own with his opponents. Asanuma critcized the government for its mutual defense treaty with the United States and right-wing students in the audience began to heckle and throw pieces of paper at the burly chairman.

Police rushed in, and one student 17-year-old son of a Self-Defense Force Colonel, Otoya Yamaguchi ran out of the police cordon carrying a samurai sword. Before anyone could stop him, he plunged his sword into Asanuma, pulled it out and speared Asanuma again — through the heart. Less than three weeks after the assassination, while being held in a juvenile detention facility, Yamaguchi used his bedsheet to hang himself. He lived his samurai tradition to the end: his suicide was owabi—or an apology to those inconvenienced by his assassination.

An assassination’s aftermath was always traumatic. The Socialists have tried to make the assassination the top issues in the election. They paraded Asanuma’s widow in hope of a sympathy vote. After Yamaguchi’s death, the Socialists pointed out that the fact that an important criminal was able to commit suicide exposes the utter irresponsibility of the authorities in charge and jadedly noted that Yamaguchi had the only detention cell in Japan with a light fixture strong enough for hanging oneself. They also tried to link Yamaguchi with the ruling party, the United States and the CIA. Yamaguchi, in fact, belonged to an ultranationalist group called the Great Japan Patriotic party, which reportedly worships Adolf Hitler as well as the Japanese Emperor. Although the Great Japan Patriotic party was quick to distance itself from Yamaguchi, they called Asanuma’s killing as “a heaven-sent punishment.” Perhaps of all the coverages, none is more telling of prejudices and sensations of the time than this article from TIME magazine.

Despite all the benefits of democratic government. Asia’s highest literacy rate and the world’s fastest-growing economy, Japan still often seems a nation with one foot planted in the fanatic past. Chief worry of responsible Japanese is that Asanuma’s murder may be only the first of a renewed wave of political killings in a country where, before the war, political assassination was almost a tradition.

Although the predominantly right-wing audience reacted strongly to Asanuma’s opposition to the mutual defense treaty, the treaty was sure controversial. The new treaty on long-term basing of US troops in Japan signed in January 1960 was so unpopular that strikes and clashes followed the ratification. President Eisenhower canceled his state visit, the prime minister responsible for the treaty Kishi Nobusuke had to resign.

Although many reporters, TV crews and photographers were present, only one man took the photo of the decisive moment: Yasushi Nagao, staff photographer for the Tokyo Mainichi newspaper, who took this picture with his last remaining shot in the camera. The United Press International widely distributed the photo under the title, “Tokyo Stabbing” and it was reprinted in many American newspapers. Life magazine dedicated a spread. Nagao became the first non-American photographer to win a Pulitzer in photography.

See the youtube clip for what happens when photographers flock in after a major event.