Man on Fire


As I was leaving for Haneda Airport, a friend switched on his computer screen and showed me a series of photographs of an incident in progress, taken by bystanders with their cellphones.

First, a middle-aged man wearing a suit & tie sits cross-legged atop a bridge in the middle of the most congested area in Tokyo (Shinjuku). He is holding a megaphone and speaking into it. Next to him are a couple of gallon-sized plastic bottles partially filled with orange liquid. A few people are looking up at him.

Then, the man douses himself with the liquid and sets himself on fire.

The figure is consumed in fire and smoke. It’s impossible to decipher his expression of pain, let alone the degree of his scalding burns.

My friend said he was protesting the “right of collective self-defense” — an Orwellian euphemism for national remilitarization that the Abe administration is pursuing with reckless abandon and that his cabinet has just approved. The day after the attempted suicide, tens of thousands of protesters flooded the streets and likened Abe to Hitler.

That very morning, when I woke up in an unfamiliar apartment after a night of drinking in Shinjuku, I had seen Abe Shinzo on TV.

Abe was making a speech in Okinawa, where the U.S. military bases are concentrated more highly than anywhere else in Japan and the memory of forcible collective suicide at the end of World War II still smolders. Abe said to the Okinawans that the militarist “right of collective self-defense” was nothing short of “active pacifism”. None of the interviewed Okinawans was persuaded and rather expressed concern for the historical amnesia that this proto-fascist buffoon of a prime minister was mouthing.

U.S. soldiers daily fly their widow-killer Osprey helicopters and jet planes over the sky of Okinawa. Their extreme noise forces conversations to stop, enclosing the very ability to communicate on a daily basis. Under such semi-colonial occupation where rape, assault, and murder by U.S. military personnel are regular occurrence, the long years of anti-militarist sit-down struggles at the wooded ecology of Takae and the beach of Henoko have made both places the backbone of the Japanese peace and environmental movements. To listen to Abe’s speech was thus like witnessing a serial killer who goes to the grieving families’ hometown and tries to convince them that the new set of torture instruments he has acquired will surely give them peace. A sick fucking joke.

On June 25, 1975, Funamoto Shuji set himself on fire in front of Kadena U.S. Military Base in Okinawa. His final words: “I’ve attempted to assassinate the crown prince but, given the situation, this has become objectively impossible. Therefore, I’ll protest not with a struggle risking death but with my own death. Comrades in Sanya and Kamagasaki! Do not die on the streets silently! The future belongs to the proletarian multitude, the final victory belongs to the workers who struggle. Go forward with certainty!”

Funamoto was a twenty-nine-year-old militant menial laborer, on the run from the authorities who framed him for the battery-geared explosive that went off at the Airin Welfare Center in Kamagasaki on December 26, 1972. They feared his effective role in organizing the day laborers in the slums of Sanya and Kamagasaki, particularly in fighting back the gangster recruiters who beat up workers and shipped them off to do the most dangerous, unsanitary work in construction, waterfront, nuclear plants. This was revolutionary suicide. Eldridge Cleaver only talked about it. Funamoto actually did it.

On June 9, I was standing in front of the Airin Center and waited for the light to turn green. I had spent several nights in Kamagasaki (the lodging is the cheapest and the down-to-earth urban scenery comforts me).

A recruiter shouted at me, “Hey, dude, are you looking for work? I got something for you!”

With flip-flops, sunglasses, bandana around my head, I look the type.

“Not today, man.”

Then I heard a clash in the back, metal screeching and loud commotion. A sunglass-wearing man who looked like a yakuza was on his bicycle. He was screaming at an old man who was talking back. While he kept screaming unremittingly like a frenzied animal, the yakuza man got off his bike, walked up to the old man, and punched him in the face. The quick, ferocious jab sent the old man sprawling on the ground. I looked to see if there was any blood. There was none. The light turned green and I walked on. I had a train to catch.

Before going to “Kama”, I had made a brief stopover in Kyoto to visit Kimijima Akihiko, leading peace studies scholar at Ritsumeikan University. Kimijima noted that many of the young people are sympathetic to the idea of repealing Article 9 of the postwar Japanese

Constitution, which has made it an eponymous “Peace Constitution”. Their view of war is idealized and heroic, as if they are seeking to fill — to modify Gavan McCormack’s apt phrase for Japanese consumer capitalist conformity — the emptiness of post-affluent, post-311-nuclear society, in short a society in moral, biopolitical shambles.

I taught for ten years in the US Midwest, whose post-industrial rust-belt desolation may very mirror the future of Japan. Many of my students were poor, up to their neck in student debt, working long hours outside of class. Those who were thinking of going into the military, as the war in Iraq and Afghanistan raged on, had no illusions about it. They didn’t like the war, some were even opposed to it, and dreaded getting maimed or killed in action. But they needed money to pay their ever-increasing tuition.

Only those who haven’t eaten from the tree of experience can afford to idealize, dream of military heroism. In fact, this is the proverbial theme of modern war literature, from All Quiet on the Waterfront to Born on the Fourth of July. The Japanese youths will find out soon enough. A young boy from Hibbings, MN, born six months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, wanted to go to West Point and dreamed of heroic death in a battle. But he grew up, found out, and wrote:

“Come you masters of war,/You that build all the guns/You that build the death planes/You that build all the bombs…//You fasten all the triggers/For the others to fire/Then you sit back and watch/When the death count gets higher/You hide in your mansion/As young people’s blood/Flows out of their bodies/And is buried in the mud//…And I hope that you die/And your death’ll come soon/I will follow your casket/In the pale afternoon/And I’ll watch while you’re lowered/Down to your deathbed/And I’ll stand over your grave/’Til I’m sure you’re dead.”

I delivered a lecture on the author of “Masters of War” in Nagoya, where Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has aerospace facilities that manufacture “death planes”, submarines, and bombs for the Japanese Self-Defense Force. After Nagoya, I got off the train in Tokyo, where I picked up a copy of HAPAX Vol. 2, hot off the press from the independent publisher Yakosha: http://tsubamebook.com/images/d906944040.pdf. In it I found a piece by my friend Tomotsune Tsutomu, social historian of the Burakumin (literally “village people”, the outcaste community), entitled “Mobility — Underclass — Worker”, where he addresses Funamoto Shuji’s contemporary relevance. On the basis of his experience as a “tramping artisan” in the construction trade, Funamoto redefined the potentially most revolutionary sector of the working class as “mobile underclass workers”. Their experience is grounded in the circulation process and corresponds to the capitalist need for spatial expansion, wherein surplus extraction is compressed most intensively — a theoretical intuition that, according to Tomotsune, echoes Antonio Negri’s contemporaneous Marx Beyond Marx, which stated that “the analysis of circulation develops the theory of class struggle into a theory of the revolutionary subject”. “Mobile underclass workers” can seize the new momenta for working-class self-valorization and dissolve the ever-changing flexible regime of labor discipline inside-out. The social category of “mobile underclass workers” remains more relevant than ever in our age of Walmartized precariat who know no borders and circulate everywhere (as can be observed, for example, from the recent fast-food workers’ strikes across 156 U.S. cities, with international solidarity actions in 36 countries).

Tomotsune especially stresses the itemized virtues for the “success of armed struggle” in Funamoto’s last testament. Funamoto’s words inspired the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front, an urban guerilla group that carried out bombings against Japanese corporations (including Mitsubishi) during the 1970s in a highly methodical manner that rejected internal fighting, the self-destructive downfall of many New Left groups: “The secret of successful armed struggle is to do it silently”, “to do it anonymously, to not release any statements”, “to do it in such a way that the people can understand, to not make contacts with each other in the realm of public activity but to work together in the de facto act” (quoted in HAPAX Vol. 2: 43). Anonymity as an antithesis to political calculus, whose economic equivalence is the machinery of surplus value (e.g., corporate campaign money greases the wheel of electoral democracy). To not take personal credit or profit but seek to inspire the creation of popular imagination through “propaganda of the deed”: however unrealistic and deluded their prospects may have been, these are noble qualities born in a proletarian act of self-immolation and, when conditions are objectively right, transform themselves into insurrectionary legends and folktales. A year after Funamoto’s suicide, in 1976, E.P. Thompson, who studied eighteenth-century English commoners’ “anonymous letters” and “propaganda of the deed”, wrote: “The motions of desire may be legible in the text of necessity, and may then become subject to rational explanation and criticism. But such criticism can scarcely touch these motions at their source” (“Postscript: 1976” in William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, 807).

When I stayed in Midorimachi (located five miles northeast of Kadena Air Base) for a couple of weeks in the middle of June, I had the habit of going to a nearby supermarket, buying generic Top Value malt liquor, and drinking on the storefront bench. While waiting for the tsuyu (early summer rain) to let up, I scribbled a few bad poems. Here’s a passage from one of them:

Having lived double the age of Fred Hampton,

Who was murdered by American state power,

I am unemployed,

Scrawl indecipherable, worthless poems,

And entertain the all too righteous delusion

Of my fellow American soldiers in U.S. military bases throughout the world

Putting a gun to their temples one day

And simultaneously committing selfless collective suicide

Because I am a traitor

Because I am “anti-American”, that fascist concept,

I am America itself

It’s always the wrong people who commit suicide. In an irrational world — Woody Guthrie called it “a funny old world” where “If you work for wages, you support the rich capitalist,/If you don’t work, you’re lumpen to them” — suicide sometimes seems like a rational choice. All too often the conjoined twins of war and money render the motions of our desire illegible and prod us to kill ourselves. The day when Abe Shinzo wraps his bloated body in a Japanese flag, sets himself on fire, and crashes through the gate of Kadena Military Base as an honorable suicide bomber, we the lumpens will celebrate and memorialize it as “Funamoto Shuji Day”.

Manuel Yang is an independent writer and translator based in West Covina, CA. He can be reached at: newreasoner@gmail.com.




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