Flame Out

Suicidal Anti-war Protest Shocks Japan as It Rethinks Pacifist Constitution

Prime Minister Abe’s push to reinterpret the constitution and prepare the country for wars sparks a suicidal protest.

Yuya Shino/Reuters

TOKYO, Japan — A middle-aged man wearing a gray suit, a dark tie and glasses climbed up the superstructure of a bridge in the middle of a busy district in Tokyo on Sunday and began speaking calmly to the hundreds of pedestrians passing beneath him. He wanted to warn them about Japan’s drift toward militarization under the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

This week, tens of housands of demonstrators are expected to take to the streets in opposition to Abe’s proposed reinterpretation of the country’s pacifist constitution. But Abe is not expected to listen. And the man in the gray suit on the bridge was all alone. Then he adopted the zazen, or sitting meditation position, on one of the girders. He doused himself with two plastic bottles of flammable liquids, and he set himself on fire.

“He had a megaphone, and was trying to convince the people that they should die with him or something,” said 22-year-old pedestrian, Miya Kobayashi, who was in the area before the man burst into flame. “I didn’t imagine he’d do something like that. Disturbing.”

Indeed. It was a rare act of extreme defiance in a country where most political protests are orderly and non-violent, and it had an impact on the public.

A YouTube video uploaded Sunday shows the man being hosed down with water by firefighters who had been waiting nearby. Onlookers are screaming in the background. The man topples from the girder, still in flames. Finally they are put out and he is carried away.

Reports in the Sankei Shimbun quoted police sources saying that although the man, believed to be in his 50s or 60s, has serious burns, none of his injuries are life threatening. The police plan to interrogate him after he recovers. He faces possible charges for setting a fire in public and other minor infractions.

The attempted suicide comes shortly before the government will present the final draft of a cabinet decision to reinterpret the constitution, which currently renounces Japan’s right to wage war. And it comes after protests against the administration’s proposed remilitarization of Japan that have gone on for several weeks now. There was even a sex-strike in May in which a group of women refused to make love with any man who supported the Abe Administration’s aims. Yet little of this has made the national news.

After images of the self-immolation and the YouTube video had spread across the Internet in a viral frenzy, some of Japan’s major media finally did take note, drawing attention to the volatile debate at the center of the controversy.

Under the new draft of the constitution, the Japanese self-defense forces would be allowed to go to the aid of any allies who are attacked in an armed conflict or if the rights of the country’s citizens are in danger. This sounds reasonable enough, and it might be, but Abe’s critics see an unsettling subtext in his designs.

Abe is the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, who became prime minister of Japan in 1957 after having been held in prison as a Class A war criminal following World War II. Kishi had been accused of brutally exploiting Chinese labor in Japan’s puppet state of Manchuria and also served as Minister Of Munitions from 1941 until Japan’s surrender in 1945. Kishi greatly resented the American occupation and wished for a return to an Imperial Japan. Abe is very much his grandfather’s heir.

Abe has ended Japan’s long held ban on the export of arms , something his grandfather, the last Minister of Munitions would have been proud of. He has written several times that he’d like to scrap Article 9, the anti-war clause of the constitution. He has been unable to do that and has proposed reinterpretation as a means of getting as close as he can to making Japan a nation able to wage war on its own terms.

His most severe critics, many of whom are among the protesters, portray Abe as a nationalist fanatic who lives in an alternate historical universe—-one in which Japan was trying to liberate Asia from white imperialist rule, didn’t commit war crimes, was tricked or forced into war by the United States, and then suffered a democratic constitution imposed on it by the victors.

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In the face of such attitudes, desperate people sometimes take desperate measures, like the man in the gray suit on the bridge.