Venerated by militarists and marinated in over a century of militarism and war, Yasukuni Shrine may well be Japan’s least friendly venue for a demonstration by pacifists.

Still, every Aug. 15, a motley crew of Christians, radicals and antiwar campaigners come here to stage what has traditionally been a token protest against visits to the shrine by prominent politicians.

The activists range in age from 19 to 90 and seldom carry anything more dangerous than white flags and placards, which is why they were stunned last month when the police waded in and arrested six of their members.

Dressed in full riot gear, the police behaved aggressively, swinging batons, feet and fists against people who were posing no threat to anyone, claim the activists.

“One of our members was 90-year-old Mr. Oshima, and he was handled very roughly,” says Rev. Kyoko Hoshiyama, who is a member of Japan’s largest protestant group, the United Church of Christ, which led a protest of about 150 people.

“We approached from Chidori-ga-fuchi Park and the police just blocked our way. It was very surprising because the police know we just walk around the shrine holding white handkerchiefs.

“We negotiated to walk on the footpath but another group of police surrounded us and prevented us from moving.

“So we started speeches there, with speakers from Korea and America. And the police grabbed two of our group.”

A separate group of about 50 activists came up from Kudanshita Station to find “a sea of police” in riot gear blocking their way.

“It was more police than we had ever seen,” says Tomoko Amakasu.

The protesters claim they were jostled, kicked and punched as they tried to get to the shrine, where they intended to shout antiwar slogans during the traditional one-minute’s silence at noon; four — including a law student and a musician — were grabbed and held with the other two arrestees, without charge, for 12 days.

Inside the shrine grounds, about thousands of people listened to speeches by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, LDP acting General Secretary Shinzo Abe and other nationalist politicians; the Yomiuri and Sankei newspapers had pushed for 200,000 people to pay their respects on the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII.

As always on Aug. 15, the shrine was serenaded by martial music from dozens of ultranationalist sound trucks and heavily ringed by thousands of police.

Hardly a venue, in other words, likely to be seriously threatened by at most 500 mostly middle-aged pacifists, but the authorities disagree.

“The people we arrested carried placards and were shouting as they approached the shrine,” said a spokesman for the Kudanshita. “That makes it a demonstration, for which they did not have permission. There were hundreds of ‘uyoku’ at the shrine, so we moved in to prevent a riot.”

Most of the campaigners, however, have difficulty accepting the police acted to protect them from ultranationalists.

“The peace group has been going to Yasukuni for 10 years and nobody has been arrested,” says Konosuke Watanabe, who works for a nongovernment legal resource center that is helping the activists.

He says the protesters have been repeatedly attacked by the ultranationalists but the police have never intervened. “The police know the rightists from judo and kendo clubs. They’re only interested in us.”

One of the arrested six, Wataru Yagi, says he was shocked by the behavior of the police, and the way the incident was reported afterwards. “The newspapers said it was an illegal demonstration, but we were just walking from the station when the police came. They hit us with their shields, punched us and grabbed our throats. People were screaming.”

He claims that after his arrest he was interrogated for 5 hours. “The police said we were insulting those who died in the war, that our activities were meaningless because the shrine wasn’t going to go away. The shouted that they knew where I worked and threatened to arrest me again next year.”

The police deny any verbal abuse. “Why are you investigating such a trivial incident when there are much more serious things to attend to,” said the spokesman, clearly irritated at the question.

The Yasukuni arrests follow the successful prosecution of Masaki Kinoshita last year after he sprayed a public toilet wall in Suginami-ku in Tokyo with antiwar slogans. The prosecuting judge in the case said that Kinoshita had “spoiled the beauty of the toilet, making users uncomfortable and unhappy.”

In December last year, three peace activists narrowly escaped six months in prison for distributing handbills arguing against the dispatch of Self-Defense Force troops to Iraq in an SDF housing complex in Tachikawa.

The public prosecutors argued that it was illegal for the activists to have “entered other people’s property without permission from the management,” an accusation that distributors of fliers for pizza parlors and hair salons across the country quaking in their boots.

The three activists were held for 75 days, earning them a “prisoners of conscience” label from Amnesty International, before Hachioji district Judge Kenichi Hasegawa dismissed the charge.

Hasegawa called the arrest “questionable” and said freedom of expression was guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution.

What explains this sledgehammer approach to Japan’s dwindling ranks of middle-aged pacifists — the three activists were members of a tiny, 7-member Tachikawa-based group that has been leafleting the SDF complex for over two decades?

Activists believe someone, somewhere in government has decided to get tough, pointing for instance to the fact that the Tachikawa case was pursued by the public security division of the Metropolitan Police, and not the local police.

“The government is trying to make a point, that they can get a people like us,” says one of the Tachikawa-7, who said his life was put on hold by the investigation and requested anonymity.

“We believe it is aimed at destroying the remaining citizens’ peace movements and laying the groundwork for the revision of Article 9 of the Constitution. We’re a small thorn in their side.”

Rev. Hoshiyama, who helped launch the Yasukuni Tenno-sei Mondai Joho Center (Information Center to deal with Yasukuni and the Emperor System), around the time of the death of the Showa Emperor, in an attempt to help force Japan’s undigested historical issues into the open, believes this year’s clampdown was very significant.

“So much has happened since we did this 10 years ago for the 50th anniversary: the flag and anthem law, the dispatch of the SDF, the attempt to revise the Constitution. These people want to remake Japan, and Yasukuni has such huge significance for them.

“Even the so-called liberal Asahi led with a full-page story on the end of the war, and mostly ignored us. We have to fight back otherwise they will have it all their way.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.