Out of Japan: Mystery of a terrorist's grand exit

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TOKYO - Only hours after Shusuke Nomura, a right-wing extremist, committed suicide in a Japanese newspaper editor's office last month, all Tokyo was abuzz with the news. It was not the act itself: suicide has a long history in Japanese politics, and the fact that he had blown his intestines out with two pistols fired simultaneously into his abdomen attracted little interest.

But in a culture where motives are notoriously difficult to discern, the reason Mr Nomura decided to take his own life has given rise to much speculation. Was it a desperate attempt to regain lost honour after unfavourable press coverage? Was he crushed by his failure to attract a broader political following for his extreme nationalist views? Or was he facing imminent physical debility and carrying out a macabre form of euthanasia?

Whatever the truth, the event has finally suceeded in focusing public attention on a man who was obsessed with his own image and with a vision of Japan which was shared only by hyper-patriots. He was a dark figure, even by the murky standards of Japanese right-wing extremists, and had a long prison record. Standing somewhere between Enoch Powell and the Baader-Meinhof gang, he was prepared to resort to violence, but also had well-argued views on Japan's national 'dignity'.

He had a fascination with guns, and only this year brought out a film about his life during which he is featured firing heavy machine- guns into sand dunes on a firing range in the United States. Guns were associated with potency: when interviewed by the Independent last year, his bodyguard was seen to be carrying a pistol, which is extremely rare in supposedly gun-free Japan.

Mr Nomura's background was poor, and his upbringing harsh: as a boy after the war he polished shoes outside a railway station and led a gang of street children who pilfered from US military camps. He came to resent the two pillars of post-war Japanese development: the US military presence; and the overwhelming power of big business over individuals in society.

He channelled this resentment into terrorist actions. In the 1960s he burnt down the house of a conservative politician, and after being released from jail for that offence, he masterminded an armed attack and hostage-taking at the Keidanren, Japan's most influential big business association. In total he spent 18 years in jail for his terrorist activities.

More recently he had turned to conventional politics, giving speeches and holding rallies, and even running for parliament last year. He failed to win a seat, but at 58 Mr Nomura was by no means too old to continue his political campaign. Indeed his ideas for a strong Japan, no longer dependent on a US military guarantee, and run by politicians who are not all in the pockets of big business, seemed broadly in line with the new conservative thinking that is advancing among younger politicians.

So his suicide came as a surprise. Around midday on Wednesday 20 October, Mr Nomura was admitted to the executive suite of the Asahi newspaper, Japan's second largest daily paper, which has a slight left-wing bias. In July 1992 in one of its associated magazines the Asahi had published a cartoon which Mr Nomura had taken as a grave insult. By a subtle alteration to one of the characters, his Party of the Wind had been transformed to Party of Lice.

The Asahi's pacifist, social- democratic editorial line was almost automatically hostile to Mr Nomura's firebrand right- wing militarist message, but to avoid further confrontation - possibly violent - the editors agreed to make a full apology to Mr Nomura for 'embarrassing' him with the cartoon.

But Mr Nomura had a different script in mind for the meeting. After spending some time in conversation with the president of Asahi, Toshitada Nakae, he pronounced unexpectedly: 'I and Asahi will die by the sword together.' He took two pistols from his robes, asked in which direction the Imperial Palace lay, bowed towards it, then shot himself.

In conversation Mr Nomura was polite, well-informed and good-humoured. He was missing the upper joint of his little finger on his right hand, sign of a debt paid in classic Japanese gangster style. For over a year he had been dropping hints in private that he was preparing for a grand exit. But although he was disappointed by not winning a seat in the 1992 upper house elections, and angry with the Asahi for their cartoon, neither of these factors seem enough to explain his suicide.

Some Japanese critics have written off his death as one of the last spasms of a desperate right-wing movement that has lost its raison d'etre since the end of the Cold War. But given the resurgence of neo-right politics, more nationalist than anti-Communist, this does not seem convincing. Perhaps more likely is the suggestion that he was suffering from cancer, which has been whispered by some journalists who knew him. Rather than die in a hospital bed, the theory goes, he preferred one final stab at honour and dignity by emulating the samurai code in the face of his 'enemies'.

Land of rising smoke, page 17