Behind the camera: Yasushi Nagao
Where: Stage of Hibiya Hall, Tokyo, Japan
Photo Summary: Otoya Yamaguchi thrusting his sword into Socialist party leader, Inejiro Asanuma
Picture Taken: October 12, 1960
1960 saw great political turmoil in Japan as the ruling party, the LDP, tried to pass the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan. The Japan Socialist Party tried in vain to stop the bill’s passage in the Diet even physically preventing LDP members from entering the parliament chamber before being removed by police. Failing to stop the bill the Socialists and their supporters took to the streets in sometimes violent protests that even forced President Dwight D. Eisenhower to cancel a planned trip to the country. Hoping to capitalize on the anger that the bill was passed on June 19 Socialist leader Inejiro Asanuma planned an American style televised rally for the upcoming Lower-house election. It was at this rally that an ultra-nationalist member Otoya Yamaguchi rushed the stage and twice plunged a samurai blade into Asanuma’s stomach. The picture captured by Mainichi photographer Yasushi Nagao was published around the world and eventually went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for photography the first time someone from Japan had won the award. With the award, Nagao was able to travel freely around the world, something that was difficult for Japanese citizens at the time. He died of natural causes on May 2, 2009.
Taking the photo
Yasushi Nagao was one of thirty-six photographers that worked for the daily Japanese newspaper, Mainichi. On that day he was assigned to cover the election debate at Hibiya Hall. Before he entered the Hall he slipped a twelve-exposure film pack into his 4×5 Speed Graphic camera. As Asanuma started his speech right-wing hecklers started throwing objects at the stage while shouting, “Shut up, Communist” and “Banzai the U.S.A.”
As police moved in to remove the hecklers most of the press covering the event followed them in hopes of getting some good crowd shots. Nagao chose to stay at the stage. The young Yamaguchi dressed in his high school uniform slipped past the police and ran onto the stage. Out of the corner of his eye saw Yamaguchi jump on stage and Nagao by instinct changed the focus from 10 to 15 feet. He initially thought that the boy “was carrying a brown stick to strike Asanuma.” Running full speed across the stage the young assassin slammed the blade deep in the belly of Asanuma, the impact forced the two to spin apart. Nagao had waited until this point as the impact had pushed Yamaguchi and Asanuma out from behind the podium. Nagao snapped the moment as Yamaguchi prepared to thrust his blade a second time into Asanuma’s belly. The photo was his last unexposed negative.
Realizing that he had a great image Nagao rushed his roll of film to the Mainichi building. By agreement, UPI had exclusive rights to all Mainichi news pictures and they radio-photoed Nagao’s image back to the States where it was published in numerous newspapers and magazines including the October 24, 1960 issue of LIFE magazine. The image won every photo award in America including the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in 1961.
17-year-old Otoya Yamaguchi was a member of an ultra-right-wing nationalist group. His father, Shimpei Yamaguchi, was a colonel in the Japanese Self-Defense force. Even though Shimpei Yamaguchi was forced to resign his commission he defended his boy saying: “A rightist is better than a leftist.”. When Otoya was arrested police records record that he expressed regret that he was only able to kill Asanuma. He had planned to kill three people: Communist member Sanzo Nosaka, Japan Teachers’ Union Chairman Takeshi Kobayashi as well as Asanuma. The sword he used is called a wakizashi which is a small blade that the samurai used to wear. It was found by Otoya in the bottom of his father’s closet a week before the assassination.
On November 2nd, while in a juvenile detention center, Otoya used toothpaste to write a message on his wall: “Seven lives for my country. Ten thousand years for His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor!”. He then tore his bedsheet into strips which he used to make a rope to hang himself in a Japanese ritual called owabi. Owabi is a samurai tradition in which one commits suicide to apologize to those inconvenienced by Asanuma killing.
The 225 lbs (102 kg) politician was the left-wing leader of the Japanese Socialist Party. He often enraged the Japanese conservatives by publicly supporting communist China. In 1959 he visited Red China and even went so far to say, “the United States is the common enemy of the Japanese and Chinese peoples.” To prevent the passage of the Japanese American mutual defense pact Asanuma organized large snake-dancing demonstrations that eventually prevented President Eisenhower from visiting the country. After his assassination, the Socialist party paraded his widow in hopes of generating sympathy votes from the Japanese public. Even with the support after Asanuma’s murder during the November 20, 1960 election the LDJ won with 296 seats compared to 145 seats of Socialist party down from 166 seats they held during the 1958 election.