When most people tune into a political debate, they anticipate that things will quickly heat up — just not to the point where anyone dies.
But that’s exactly what happened in Tokyo on October 12, 1960, when the television cameras kept rolling as a leading politician was murdered on stage by a teenager with a samurai sword.
This shocking stabbing came at a tense time in Japan. The country was still defining itself after its defeat in World War II and the looming elections for the House of Representatives emphasized the deep divide between the left and right.
The victim, Inejiro Asanuma, was the leader of the Japanese Socialist Party, whose support of the Chinese Communist Party and criticism of U.S.-Japananese ties were extremely controversial.
In 1959, he had visited China and referred to the United States as “the shared enemy of China and Japan.” He then disembarked from the plane home wearing a suit styled after Chairman Mao Zedong — a bold fashion choice at a time when Mao’s People’s Republic of China was not recognized as legitimate in Japan.
So when Asanuma assumed the lectern in Hibiya Hall in front of 1,000 people on October 12, it was assumed that some of the crowd would have strong feelings on his candidacy.
Spectators were still shocked, though, when 17-year-old Otoya Yamaguchi rushed onto the stage with a traditional samurai sword and plunged it into the left side of the 61-year-old’s ribs.
Yamaguchi was tackled before he got in a second stab, but the damage was already done. Inejiro Asanuma died an hour later.
Still wearing his school uniform, the young ultranationalist smiled as police hauled him away.
Yamaguchi had been a member of the Great Japan Patriotic Society — an extreme right-wing group that vehemently opposed both Communism and Westernization. Approximately 100 members of the organization had attended the debate and could be heard heckling Asanuma throughout his speech.
Yamaguchi’s devotion to Japanese culture was evident in his weapon of choice — a foot-long yoroidoshi sword traditionally used by samurais in the 1800s.
After Asanuma was pronounced dead, an estimated 15,000 left-wing protestors converged on the city’s police headquarters demanding that the police chief resign for his failure to provide adequate security.
During the resulting unrest, 60 students and 22 policemen were injured.
As the footage of the incident spread — watched by millions in the days following the attack — the political effects were felt around the world.
“Privately, officials said that while Mr. Asanuma was an avowed enemy of the United States, no responsible American wanted him removed from the political scene in this way,” the Guardian reported. “Now it is feared in Washington that Mr. Asanuma’s viewpoint, as well as his person, has been martyred in a way which may strengthen the emotional appeal of his views.”
Yamaguchi became a martyr as well. Three weeks after the assassination, he squeezed out some toothpaste in his juvenile detention cell. He mixed it with water and wrote a tribute to the samurai Kusunoki Masashige: “Seven lives for my country. Long live His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor!”
He then used his bedsheets to commit suicide.
His violent act, however, lived on. Along with the video of the attack, the above photo was widely distributed. It captures the moment just after the stabbing as Yamaguchi prepares to strike again.
The image was taken by Yasushi Nagao, who, after instinctively changing the focus from 10 to 15 feet as Yamaguchi rushed the stage, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for photography in 1961.
After this look at the assassination of Inejiro Asanuma, check out the four strangest presidential assassination attempts in U.S. history. Then, discover the story of R. Budd Dwyer, the American politican who killed himself while TV cameras were rolling.