***UPDATE*** There have been some unpleasant insinuations and comments about my morals and political views concerning the content of this post.
Please be sure to read my replies to the commenters.
I almost didn’t make it down to Yasukuni shrine for the anniversary of the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II this year.
It would have been the first time in 5 years that I hadn’t and therein lay the problem.
The pantomime is the same every year with mostly the same big players and even many of the extras returning year in year out, if you’ve seen it once then you’ve pretty much seen it all.
But, on reflection on the morning of the 15th I decided to go, if for no other reason to meet up with some friends and have a day out in the sun rather than spending the whole day sat in front of a computer screen.
As always I was glad I did.
I have written about my experiences over the years on numerous occasions (here and here) including last year’s particularly strange day meeting with Shinichi Kamijo and his Uyoku Dantai group the Gishin Gokokukai.
This year I planned, as usual, to meet up with a few friends, take some pictures, enjoy the madness and try not to get arrested or beaten up.
I arrived at the shrine just as the 1 minutes silence for the war dead was starting and quietly moved my way through the crowds of people stood silently with heads bowed, towards the main shrine where I expected to find @tokyoreporter, @damoncoulter and maybe twocutedogs .
Almost immediately after the silence finished I spotted the unmistakable shaven head and blue jump suit with a swastika on the arm of Kamijo san.
He recognised me immediately and as always was disarmingly friendly and suggested we go to meet @tokyoreporter for a drink in the shrine cafe.
We made our way down through the crowds of people exchanging pleasantries about our families etc, when he told me he had got divorced I unthinkingly joked “Congratulations” and his stare froze me for a second before he repeated, “divorced” and I backtracked and pretended it was my poor Japanese that had caused my error.
Soon enough I was sitting in the shrine cafe surrounded by a who’s who of Uyoku dantai and Yakuza sweating like a skinny white middle class boy drinking with 5 huge men with swastikas on their jump suits.
As always I was pleased for the presence of @tokyoreporter whose Japanese ability far outshines mine and without whom I would never have been introduced to this strange man, who repeatedly called me “his friend” and “his photographer” throughout the day.
With a few hours to kill before Kamijo’s favorite ‘matsuri’ (festival) really got started the drinks kept coming as did the food (even vegetarian soy beans for me, which appeared as soon as Kamijo san heard I didn’t eat meat) all courtesy of Kamijo san. Whenever anyone’s can was empty more money would appear and one of his group would rush of to buy more beer or chu-hi or another plate of fried noodles.
The conversation as always was disarmingly friendly (vegetarianism, my earlier “congratulations” joke which thankfully everyone laughed at and of course women) and the group were happy to answer our questions as well as asking us many, at one point one of them even asking me about the correct English pronunciation of a word.
It always rolled back around to politics though and I was surprised when Kamijo san talked to me about the recent riots in the UK, correctly identifying them as economic riots rather than the race riots they are being reported as on Japanese TV.
One of the biggest dilemmas as the beer and chu-hi kept following was to separate the very normal if a little politically slanted conversation, which could have been with any group of Japanese men if I had my eyes closed, from the reality of these men, sat in blue jump suits with swastikas and Japanese flags on the arms and knowing that under Kamijo san’s suit were tattoos of swastikas, Adolf Hitler’s name and the SS symbol.
If I was a journalist I’m sure all kinds of “journalistic ethics” alarm bells would be ringing at uncomfortable volumes, thankfully though in this instance at least, I was just there to try to document the day from their point of view and to enjoy being sat in the center of a group of gangsters and thugs that would normally not tolerate my presence.
Just when I thought I couldn’t possibly drink anymore in the heat it was time to head off out of the shrine down to where the left-wing peace march would be passing by, Kamijo and the Gishin Gokokukai’s favorite part of the day.
A brief stop to talk to some old men praising Kamijo and his groups for their efforts and we were on the move.
As we walked down Yasukunidori towards where the Left Wing Peace march would arrive, Kamijo and his group stopped to talk with many of the riot police lining the route and many of the undercover police, they all seemed to know each other. It was weird to see them joking around and chatting like this was just a lovely day out in Kudanshita in the sun. The Gishin Gokokukai even bought a big bag of Pocari Sweat rehydration drinks and handed them out to us and the undercover policemen.
It definitely seemed like Kamijo san, the Gishin Gokokukai, the other right-wing groups and the police were all on the same side and all were waiting for a common enemy to pass by.
The obviously close and friendly relationship between these violent right wingers and the police supposedly far removed from them just one more item to add to the list of strange dilemmas and ethical conflicts.
Then, the quiet before the storm, we waited for the left-wing protest march to arrive.
Despite the heat and the alcohol, you could almost taste the nerve tingling anticipation as Kamijo san and his group stood around joking with the policemen and smoking cigarettes.
We didn’t have to wait too long.
At the first sign of the police buses moving up the street ahead of the Left wing march the atmosphere changed completely.
This was what Kamijo, the Gishin Gokokukai, the other assembled right wingers (far less than last year), the Yakuza and wanna be Yakuza were really here for.
A show of force that seems most of time little more than scripted pantomime, but can at any given moment turn genuinely ugly, and at those moments Kamijo san and the Gishin Gokokukai are never far away.
And just like that Kamijo san’s favorite festival was over for another year.
Everyone said it seemed quieter this year and there definitely seemed to be a much smaller posturing right-wing presence outside the shrine.
The police however seemed more violent to us photographers, I got properly pushed a few times.
Kamijo san and the Gishin Gokokukai were definitely as genuinely violent as they were last year but all smiles and handshakes with us afterwards.
Before I wrap this post up, there are a few more pictures unconnected to the Gishin Gokokukai I’d like to share.
During the scuffles with the left wing march I spotted a Japanese girl dressed in the hippy uniform of muted browns and rough around the edges chic.
She seemed out-of-place in amongst the right wingers but it quickly became apparent she was firmly on their side as she battled to get through the police and even stood crying when she wasn’t strong enough to make it through.
Shortly after the next photo was taken the guy with her covered up her face with his fan to prevent me taking anymore photos and as she passed by she punched me. Luckily it was a pretty pathetic punch, the kind you’d expect from some obviously highly confused little Japanese girl. But still, hands down the most incomprehensible person I saw this year.
And so, just one more photo to share before I close off on Yaskuni August the 15th for one more year.
This is just for fun – As I was editing my photographs that night this one caught my eye, maybe it was the sunglass wearing right-winger wielding a rising sun flag megaphone or his place in the composition, I don’t know.
Anyway I opened it in Photoshop only to discover just below the megaphone the handsome(?) face of Mr Charlie Kirk a.k.a. two cute dogs, a good friend who I had no idea was anywhere near me when I took the shot. So this last one is for you Charlie ;-)
And that as they say is that.
See you there next year for the greatest pantomime in Japan.
I’ll be the white guy sat drinking with the big scary right-wing guys.