Assassination of Inejiro Asanuma, 1960

October 12th, 1960.

It’s election season in Japan. Three thousand people crammed into Tokyo’s Hibiya Hall to hear socialist party chairman Inejiro Asanuma debate the incumbent Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda. Ikeda, inspired by the Nixon-Kennedy debates, which had taken place a few weeks earlier, decided to hold his own against his opponents. 

Uncropped version from the archives of Mainichi Shinbun

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. It was a turbulent period: although the predominantly right-wing audience reacted strongly to Asanuma’s opposition to the treaty, there was also a large contigent against the treaty. The clause which would base US troops in Japan for long term was so unpopular that strikes and clashes followed the ratification, President Eisenhower had to cancel his state visit, and the prime minister responsible for the treaty Kishi Nobusuke resigned (thus paving way for Ikeda).

The debate was rowdy and the police rushed in. 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.

Although many reporters, TV crews and photographers were present, only one man managed to take the photo of the decisive moment: Yasushi Nagao, staff photographer for the Tokyo Mainichi Shinbun 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).

LIFE magazine also printed photos from The Kyodo News of the first moment Asanuma was stabbed, combined with several frame grabs from Asahi Newsreel.

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.

The Socialists attempted to make the assassination a top issue in the upcoming election, parading Asanuma’s widow around hoping for sympathy votes. After Yamaguchi’s death, the Socialists pointed out that the fact that an important criminal was able to commit suicide exposed the utter irresponsibility of the authorities in charge and 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 “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.

An alternative take, by a Tokyo Shimbun photographer, taken a split second before Yasushi

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0 thoughts on “Assassination of Inejiro Asanuma, 1960

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  2. Proof-goofs:
    “…they called Asanuma’s killing as “a heaven-sent punishment.”…”

    Should either be:
    “…they called Asanuma’s killing “a heaven-sent punishment.”…”
    “…they referred to Asanuma’s killing as “a heaven-sent punishment.”…”

    “…the treaty was sure controversial…” (are you a Hatfield or a McCoy?)

    Should either be:
    “…the treaty was surely controversial…”
    or better still:
    “…the treaty was certainly controversial…”


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