Until the Great East Japan Earthquake, social media didn’t have much purchase on Japanese social life. But disasters are transformative, and in a country where the mass media is cautious about its role vis-a-vis the authorities, social media came into its own after the tsunami and meltdown.

People wanted to know what was going on, and newspapers and TV weren’t supplying them with information as quickly and candidly as they wanted.

When a besuited middle-aged man set himself ablaze on a pedestrian overpass outside Shinjuku Station’s South Exit on June 29, there were no reporters or camera crews on hand, but there were thousands of witnesses, many of whom had mobile devices with image-capture capability that could be instantly linked to the Internet. By the time the national newspapers reported the incident on their websites several hours later, most people had already seen raw videos of the incident online that took in every conceivable angle. The newspapers’ sketchy Web reports and the cautious TV bulletins seemed inconsequential in contrast.

Except for the Asahi and the Sankei, all mentioned that the unidentified man protested Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to allow Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to participate in collective military activities overseas despite the seeming prohibition to activities as outlined in Article 9 of the Constitution, but they didn’t elaborate; though TV Asahi did air some footage of the man on fire.

That evening social media were abuzz with talk of why the press was not treating the story with the gravity it deserved. A man had set himself on fire in one of the busiest public places in the world. Wasn’t it news? Many suspected that the media didn’t want to publicize what appeared to be a political act, but most did report it, and the next morning all the wide shows covered the incident fully, even the political angle. But there was one gaping hole in the coverage that everyone cited: NHK, the nation’s public broadcaster, which didn’t mention the incident on its news programs that night or the next day.

Some people consider NHK to be the propaganda arm of the government, owing to controversial statements made by several executive appointees, so the anti-Abe component of the story, they said, made NHK nervous. But others believed the broadcaster’s restraint had more to do with self-imposed guidelines regarding the reporting of suicides. Since 2000 the World Health Organization has been urging media outlets throughout the world not to cover suicides in a sensational manner and not to air or publish related death scenes or suicide notes, because troubled individuals are sometimes pushed over the edge when these stories become news. NHK may have felt a responsibility to hold back on the story.

In his Independent Web Journal, reporter Yasumi Iwakami rejects this theory by pointing out that NHK does cover suicides, and mentions the recent case of a policeman in Fukushima who killed himself. What made that story newsworthy and the Shinjuku incident off-limits? In the Fukushima case there was intimidation involved, which suggests a crime. A number of people on Twitter have said that the man in Shinjuku, who survived, may be mentally ill, so it would be unethical to report on his situation. This argument takes for granted the notion that a person not in his right mind is incapable of rational thought, so his reason for setting himself on fire — to get people to question the government’s move toward militarism — was itself not newsworthy. Thus, some social commentators say NHK’s decision was not politically motivated.

Iwakami claims that NHK “admitted” to holding back on the story for political reasons, but since he provides no attribution and there is no other available source for the claim, it’s difficult to take it seriously. (He describes NHK, perhaps facetiously, as being a “state broadcaster” [kokuei hōsō] rather than a “public broadcaster” [kōkyō hōsō].)

Nevertheless, NHK’s decision to not air the story can’t help but be political. According to the Chunichi Shimbun, the man climbed up on the pedestrian overpass at Shinjuku Station’s South Exit with two containers of flammable liquid and talked about how Japan had enjoyed 70 years of peace thanks to Article 9 and politics should be kept out of education. Then he quoted Akiko Yosano’s famous antiwar poem, “Don’t Lay Down Your Life.” When police and firemen tried to bring him down, he set himself on fire. The man’s psychological state, however empirically you assess it, becomes incidental at this point. He chose to draw attention to his statement in the most shocking way imaginable. Symbolism was paramount. As almost every foreign media outlet has reported, though suicide is relatively common in Japan, suicide for political reasons is rare, and usually carried out by persons on the right.

But not with fire. We associate self-immolation with spiritual-minded martyrs in Vietnam and Tibet who are protesting oppressive regimes. The Shinjuku man may have been mentally ill, but he knew what he was doing: By staging his demise in one of the most public places in the world, the symbolism would have its intended effect, even if it wasn’t covered by the mass media, because now there are other ways to spread news.

It’s impossible to measure what effect his act has had on the consciousness of his fellow Japanese, but in any event it didn’t stop the Abe administration from authorizing Japan’s participation in collective self-defense. By all rights the story is over, but this sort of incident can take on a life of its own. Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire in Saigon in 1963 to condemn the persecution of Buddhists by the government of Ngo Dinh Diem, but that demonstration subsequently became a powerful symbol with regard to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Only time will tell if the Shinjuku man’s act will take on a similar meaning, but for what it’s worth, Yosano’s poem has gone viral.

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