Commentary / Japan

The assassination attempt of Nobusuke Kishi

Politically, 1960 was one of most tumultuous years in Japan’s postwar history. It was also one of the most violent. Assassination attempts were made on at least three major political figures, with one succeeding. In addition, one of the attempts, fortunately unsuccessful, was against a sitting prime minister, Nobusuke Kishi, the grandfather of Japan’s current leader, Shinzo Abe.

The day Prime Minister Kishi was stabbed was a chaotic one, but more so due to the intra-party dynamics over the election to choose a successor as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. U.S. Ambassador to Japan Douglas A. MacArthur II’s telegram captured this chaos of that time, important because the party president almost automatically became the prime minister (upon nomination and voting) due to the ruling party’s majority in the Diet.

Heavily divided between many factions, the wheeling and dealing, favors and broken promises, started months if not years before. MacArthur ended his July 13 telegram to U.S. Secretary of State Christian A. Herter with: “To summarize, the situation is so confused this evening that no qualified political observers are willing to risk their reputation by predicting outcome.”

But the next night (July 14) became chaotic for another, more serious, reason. As outgoing LDP president and prime minister Kishi was leaving the prime minister’s residence where he was attending a garden party for Hayato Ikeda, who had been successfully elected party president, he was knifed six times in the left thigh. Although the knife missed important arteries and nerves, the 64-year old Kishi bled profusely, leaving a large puddle on the entrance way floor. He was carried out and rushed to nearby Maeda Hospital, a short distance away on present-day Aoyama Dori. Reporters raced to the hospital and set up stepladders to try to look into the operating room. Nurses and attendants angrily shut the curtains as the doctors stopped the bleeding and affixed 30 stitches.

Many readers are likely aware that Kishi’s resignation was the price for ratification of the revised security treaty with the United States, but few may know a lot about the near simultaneous assassination attempt that required three months of hospitalization, in part because it was not so widely reported at the time or really discussed afterward.

Even Kishi’s memoirs do not really talk about it, with the exception of two lines in which he states he does not know the reason for the attack. Furthermore, his own brother, Eisaku Sato, who was serving as finance minister in the Cabinet, did not even record the event in his diary entry for that day. The silence, or lack of curiosity, is well, curious, to say the least.

Another odd aspect was the fact that the perpetrator, Taisuke Aramaki, later denied his attempt to kill Kishi. “Yeah, I stabbed him six times,” he told an interviewer, “but if I wanted him dead, well, I would have just killed him.” He apparently used an Imperial Japanese Army-issued bayonet, although other reports suggest it was actually a knife.

There are different theories as to why he did it. Court records note that he himself said he was unhappy with Kishi’s handling of the ratification process and wanted to punish him. To the above interviewer, he also explained that he had met with the parents of Michiko Kanba, a student protestor who had been killed the evening of June 15 during the demonstrations, on the grounds of the Diet building.

Aramaki, who had served as the secretary general of the nationalist group Taikakai (Great Cultural Society), founded in 1920, somehow got into the party to celebrate the formal election of Ikeda as LDP president and tried to approach Kishi to talk to him. He was next to him ready to speak when someone came up to Kishi and started a conversation. He decided to use that opportunity to stab him.

Aramaki, who was wearing a dark jacket and white shirt with an open collar, was immediately apprehended, and smiled throughout his arrest mumbling incoherent things. Balding, with a thin moustache, Aramaki, originally from Wakamatsu, now part of Kitakyushu, in Fukuoka Prefecture, was 65 at the time, living in Ikebukuro and unemployed. He was found guilty in May 1962 and sentenced to three years in prison. He had somehow been able to post a substantial bail during those first two years.

Kishi’s daughter Yoko, 92, who is Abe’s mother and lives with him, does not believe the commonly told tale. In her 1992 memoirs, she wrote it was clear that Aramaki was “a paid assassin, who knew how to use a knife, who was hired by someone who hated my father and wanted to hurt him.”

She did not explain whom she thought it was, but one of the rumors, including that spoken by Kishi associate Hanji Ogawa at the time, was that another important LDP political figure, Banboku Ono, had ordered it because he was bitter that Kishi did not help to make him prime minister. The fact that Kishi raises Ono’s name, albeit in a different context on the following line in his book — immediately after his brief allusion to his own missed assassination — lends credence to this theory. It was well known that Ono was very bitter about being denied the prime ministership. I tried to confirm this recently with Yoko Abe but was told she was too old to meet.

Another theory is that he had a falling out with some of the rightists, including behind the scenes kingmaker Yoshio Kodama.

Like many aspects of Japanese society, and the mix of politics, money, and the underworld, we may never know what actually happened. This is true of other countries that have experienced political violence, where much remains unknown and opaque.

Kishi, who remained concerned about the welfare of the assailant (suggesting that he knew that the person was used only as a tool of someone else), did say at the time that it might take 50 years before people truly understood and appreciated the revision of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. It, in fact, did not take that long, but his point is well taken, especially in light of the divisive nature in which the ratification was completed and over how Kishi and his ruling party handled the Diet deliberations.

Japan’s foundations for economic growth and political stability, thanks to the security provided by the bilateral alliance, were truly solidified at this point with a treaty that was far more sustainable. It is too bad that it was born amid the political violence at the time, including that against Kishi, but his wisdom in pursuing the revision starting in 1957 should be favorably looked at as should the country’s progress afterward.

Robert D. Eldridge, a former tenured associate professor of Japanese political and diplomatic history at Osaka University, is the translator of “Japan’s Backroom Politics: Factions in a Multiparty Age” and “The Prime Ministers of Postwar Japan: Their Lives and Times,” both from Lexington Books.

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