Photographing in the crowds of angry nationlists at Yasukuni Shrine on Sunday, as I do most years, but this year was by far the angriest I’ve ever seen them and I had to be pulled to safety by the police.
That is not an overstatement!
I wish it was, but the mass of people, within whom I was positioned and you might say “trapped”, were being prevented from directly expressing their anger to the left wing protest that had just gone passed by the police. Stuck there behind riot shields unable to take out their disgust on the group of what they consider traitors was a situation that was causing tempers to really boil in the already oppressive heat of that afternoon; which is probably why a couple of old men had a go at me for taking photos. I was not even taking their photos just the lines of police and a few of the more vocal protesters that were trying to push through the riot shields and attack the left wing.
I had been in a similar situation last year and that was the first time I had ever felt scared at Yasukuni because usually this display of nationalist ire is all bluster and almost a pantomime. Even as other foreigners had been singled-out in the crowd and been pulled and pushed about a bit, it just seemed a general letting-off of steam and I had managed to keep my head down and not become the target of any direct animosity. This year I was not so lucky and the old men who took umbrage at my photography; my position among them (though this something it was difficult to correct in the crush of people) and quite possibly my very existence on the planet were busy yelling abuse at me me and trying to hit me with flag poles and their fists, when the police pulled me out of the scrum.
The men, emboldened by my new distance from them, carried on screaming at me that I had been taking their picture and didn’t even know their names. They didn’t know mine either or anything about me other than the obvious fact that I was not Japanese but irony was unsuitable at that point. This was a day when normal rules don’t apply: like the police not arresting people for assaulting me and instead asking me to leave!
Never felt so much hatred directed at me before and all of it so very irrational because in this year, more than any other, I could have been absolutely anyone: I could have been, for example, a member of the BNP visiting to cheer along with the other racists and construct some kind of international collective of nationlists. Oh well guess racism is not the most nuanced of beliefs at the best of times but really the level of hate was shocking, really really shocking and it is taking a while to recover from the bad feeling I have.
Because I have lost a lot of faith in humans from that experience, I knew the madness was there of course but never really got the level before, the fact that it’s not fear or even a basic dislike of outsiders; or an understandable cultural protectionism, or even the fact that they may have had bad experience with ignorant and rude foreigners before; the fact is some Japanese people really do hate other people for not being Japanese. And I just can’t get my head around that much passion in your accident of identity.
Granted emotions were high on that day but cannot quite believe I share any special (speee-shal as in an adjective of the same species) links with people who feel like that. They of course have no problem with that idea; as far as they are concerned, I don’t come close to being as evolved as them.