Yasukuni 2010 – Just when I thought it couldn’t get any weirder

An unidentified man(?) poses with Shinichi Kamijo, Leader of Gishin Gokoku-kai
(Photo by Brett Bull , editor in chief of “The Tokyo Reporter“)

Anyone who lives in Japan knows that  August 15th marks the anniversary of the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II. Every year thousands of people flock to Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni shrine to pay their respects to the war dead interred there, including 14 class A war criminals.

Every year thousands of police and Uyoku Dantai (right-wing groups) turn the area surrounding the shrine into a  finely choreographed pantomime of a riot which is completely unreported in the main stream Japanese media. The  millions of yen of tax payers money it must cost to police the area alone surely enough to make it newsworthy.

It has become something of a ritual for me too and I’ve been every year since I moved to Japan and written about my various experiences, here and here, as well as posting a gallery of photographs over on the main Uchujin site.

But, I digress, a simple google search will turn up numerous explanations and photographs by foreign journalists reporting (at no small risk to themselves, see for example Damon Coulters post from this years Yasukuni here) what goes on.

This year however, was particularly weird for me.

I arrived at the shrine around 11am, sweating profusely in the 35 degree 80% humidity heat.
I had arranged to meet several friends with whom to enjoy the festivities and so made my way into the shrine past the thousands of people – war veterans, cosplayers and right-wing groups protesting about numerous bigoted causes numerous among them.
Once inside I made my way to an area to the right of the main shrine, close to the revisionist  war museum, to meet Brett Bull editor in chief of “The Tokyo Reporter”.
We had arranged for him to introduce me to Shinichi Kamijo the founding member of Gishin Gokoku-kai, a right-wing ultra nationalist group.
(Mr Bull wrote an excellent article on Kamijo san and the Yasukuni riots which you can read here)

Kamijo san is an imposing man, over six feet tall, built like the definitive brick outhouse, wearing a blue jump suit with the Japanese flag on one arm and a nazi swastika on the other and sporting a tattoo that reads “Death 4” (4 in Japanese is “shi” also the sound of the kanji for death) on the back of his shaven head. The scar leading from the corner of his mouth onto his left cheek completing the visual effect of someone you simply would not like to be on the wrong side of.
I have seen him at Yasukuni and around Tokyo on numerous occasions and he is not easy to forget.

So it was with some trepidation that I offered my politest greetings as Brett introduced me to him and we exchanged business cards.
The first question he asked me ( the most common opening question of the ultra rightist’s) was where I was from. After, that is,  he stopped laughing at my uchujin business card and showing it to the 5 other members of his group decked out in the same blue jump suits. He even found time for a pop culture reference introducing me to one of the other members who he called “Predator” a reference, one assumes to the recent Alien vs Predator movie.
My answer seemed to be one of the correct ones because he then went on to ask me if I was a photographer, if I was married and how long I’d been in Japan, simple friendly normal questions , delivered with a smile.
I was almost speechless at the conversation I was having with this man who wears his ultra right politics literally on his sleeve. I’ve had less friendly chats with my co-workers!

The time for the minute’s silence in remembrance of the war dead arrived and everyone turned to face the shrine with bowed heads.
Kamijo san and the other members displaying a genuine reverance, motionless and eyes closed for the full minute.

The silence over and the meeting and greeting of other right-wing group leaders and various members of the Yakuza completed (including a priceless moment when one of them gestured towards us and asked who we were, Kamijo san replying that we were “his photographers”), Kamijo san nudged me and said “Lets go and have a beer”.
Despite the sauna like heat and my hangover I thought that “No, thanks” would not be an appropriate answer so we moved off towards the outdoor cafe located just outside the main Tori gate of the shrine.
I asked him as we walked if it was really ok for us to drink with him, “You’re not Chinese or Korean, so its fine” he replied.
He politely refused my offer to pay for my beer saying it was “on the company” and added that this didn’t mean I should think they were a gangster organization (a reference to the common practise in Japan of the higher up Yakuza paying for their juniors).

For the next 30 minutes we sat drinking beer and talking with Kamijo san and the other members of the group (who were all drinking water or fruit juice, a much more sensible choice in the heat).
The conversation was so normal, so friendly that it was easy to forget who it was we were talking to. Kamijo san seemed to know everyone and various other scary looking gentlemen stopped by to sit and converse with him not batting an eyelid at the presence of several white boys. Their conversations often turned to politics and my Japanese let me down somewhat as I was only able to catch 50% of what they were saying, probably a good thing.
Only once did Kamijo san ask my opinion, after a particularly heated exchange with another right-winger about Futenma, the U.S. army base in Okinawa.
Luckily my judgement was working well despite the heat and I said I really didn’t have an opinion about it, to which he laughed, understanding full well that I was being diplomatic.

Beers drunk I headed off to explore outside the shrine, where a lot of the action takes place on the 15th, promising to meet with Kamijo san and his group later in the day when he would show me “what we are really here for”.

A few hours later I met up with the Gishin Gokoku-kai again as they waited about 1km from Yasukuni shrine itself for the left-wing peace march to pass by . In the last few years the Peace march has grown in size much to the annoyance of the right-wing groups who along with thousands of police in full riot gear line the route of the proposed march.
A lot of the right-wing groups do little more than stand on top of their large trucks adorned with ultra nationalist slogans and the Japanese imperial flag and shout abuse at the protesters as they pass by surrounded by a heavy police presence.
The Gishin Gokoku-kai and a few other groups however have a different agenda, they intend to do the members of the peace march physical harm.
These more physical groups have always seemed to do little more than make posturing and half-hearted attempts to reach the peace marchers, easily held back by the police whom they seem to have a very friendly relationship with. Attempts by the right wingers to break through the police cordon often ending in laughing and smiles from both parties.
The Gishin Gokoku-kai however seem more seriously intent on breaking through than most of the groups. As I threaded my way through the packed sidewalk trying to keep pace with the group, they made many attempts to break through the police lines often requiring 4 or more officers to hold each of them back, tussles that ended in sprawling heaps on the ground with no smiles or laughing. These were  real displays of violence and palpable hatred for the  peace marchers who they shouted streams of abuse at, Kamijo san even climbing on a barrier to spit at them at one point.
If this was pantomime then these boys need an oscar.

It was a stark reminder that the mild-mannered polite gentlemen I had been having a beer and looking at photos of their children with earlier in the day were not be taken lightly or confused with the reasonable, intelligent human beings that they had appeared to be.


August 15th at Yasukuni shrine offers a window into a part of the Japanese psyche that is dark and scary, far far removed from the Hello Kitty image Japan would like to project to the world. The simple outnumbering 10 to 1 of right wingers to left wingers and the media blackout  should tell us something that though unpleasant and unpopular to hear we would do very well to pay heed to in our dealings with the land of the rising sun.

Kamijo san and his ilk are in a minority only because they wear their views with pride, out in the open.

As abhorent as their views are at least they have the courage of their misguided convictions, not something that is that common in a people that pride themselves on their two-facedness (建前 – tatemae and 本音 – honme).
It troubles me slightly to admit it, but I respect them for that.

And with that, some photos.

p.s. The “unidentified man” from the lead photo, after much internal dialogue decided it was best to pixelate out his face in the photo. In these days of the inter-webs , probably not the best idea to have a photo of you with a famous right winger floating around out there to be taken out of context.

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