October 12: Fury

12Today, October 12 brings two photographs coincidentally taken on that date in the same year, 1960, and puzzlement about the value of photographs as evidence. 

One is a straightforward record of an horrendous event: a photograph of Otoya Yamaguchi assassinating Japanese Socialist Party politician Inejiro Asanuma. The other is of an event which may not have occurred at all.

Amid great political turmoil in Japan in 1960 the ruling party, the LDP, tried to pass the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan. The Japan Socialist Party tried in vain to stop the bill’s passage in the Diet;  even physically blocking LDP members’ access to the parliament chamber before being removed by police. Street protests forced President Dwight D. Eisenhower to cancel his visit. Riding on this anger, and inspired by the televised 1959 ‘Kitchen Debate’ between Nixon and Khrushchev,  Socialist leader Inejiro Asanuma held a rally for the upcoming Lower-house election. While he was being noisily heckled by rightists throwing objects at the stage while shouting, “Shut up, Communist” and “Banzai the U.S.A.”, Otoya Yamaguchi, seventeen-year-old son of a Self-Defense Force Colonel, part-time student and fanatic ultrarightist, rushed the stage and twice plunged a samurai blade into Asanuma.

Yasushi Nagao was a one of thirty-six photographers from Mainichi, a Japanese daily and was assigned to cover the election debate. Before he leaving for Hibiya Hall he clipped a twelve-exposure 120 film holder onto the back of his 4×5 Speed Graphic camera and pulled the dark slide. It held 12 frames. The smaller 2¼” square format meant that his standard lens was now framing a medium-long view. He was equipped suitably for the assignment.

Entering the Hall, thirty year old Yasushi Nagao scoped the crowded venue where 3,000 people had gathered for the rally, squeezing through the crowds to where fifteen other photographers had gathered below the speaker’s platform. As Asanuma had planned, twelve newsreel and television cameramen were recording the event from stands at the rear. Using an electronic flashgun which had replaced one-shot flashbulbs in the late 50s, Nagao shot 5 general views, 3 pictures of Asanuma, and 3 of the introductory speaker, leaving only one unexposed frame in the filmpack. Police attempted to quell the rowdy protesters and the other news photographers rushed over to record the action, but Nagao decided to remain in front of the podium, along with a cameraman from Kyodo Press and one from the Tokyo Shimbun.

samuraiAs Asanuma spoke Nagao glimpsed Otoya Yamaguchi’s slender figure rush up the steps of the speaker’s platfonn and out onto the stage toward Asanuma. Nagao quickly changed focus of his camera by “feel” from ten to fifteen feet. “I thought,” he later said, “that Yamaguchi was carrying a brown stick to strike Asanuma.” However the “stick,” proved to be a foot-long sword. Video of the incident shows Asanuma take fright, raise his hands and shut his eyes as the blade pierces his body. The Kyodo Press and Tokyo Shimbun photographers grabbed shots, but one’s picture was out of focus and in the other’s the podium hid the assault. Nagao however waited until the collision of the charging assassin with the victim burst the men clear of the podium. Asanuma crouched forward fearing another blow, hands still raised and spectacles falling from his grimacing face. Still just out of reach of the grasping hands of would-be rescuers, Yamaguchi pulled back for his second strike. Yasushi Nagao recorded that moment on his last unexposed frame.

Video of the attack available on YouTube from cameras trained on the stage shows just how sudden was the action. It reveals virtually nothing other than the collision, since the cameraman fails to pan; no single freeze-frame captures what Nagao’s photograph shows so concisely. What is more extraordinary is its precise framing. Against three vertical banners of political slogans in Japanese script, the assassin and victim are caught, Yamaguchi crouching for his second fierce thrust while figures and hands all around reach toward him. It has all the vivid, crowded dynamism of a Japanese samurai woodcut.

Yasushi Nagao with his photograph (which cannot be reproduced in full here as it is copyright – it can easily be found elsewhere)

At Mainichi the staffers were watching the Japanese World Series on TV which was interrupted by a news flash about the assassination. Three photographers rushed to meet Nagao who thrust his exposed filmpack in the driver’s hand, who rushed it to Mainichi as Nagao phoned them to let them know he “had the picture”, then they hurried to the hospital where Asanuma had been taken, only to find he had died en route.

The Tokyo office of United Press International was on the eighth floor of the Mainichi Building and, having exclusive rights to all Mainichi news pictures, immediately radiophotoed Nagao’s photo to the United States, where later Harold Blumenfeld, Executive News Pictures Editor for UPI entered it in various news photography competitions, and it captured every top award in the United States, including the Pulitzer Prize of 1961, the first a photographer from Japan had won. With the award Nagao left the paper and was able to travel around the world as a freelancer, something that was difficult for Japanese citizens at the time. He died of natural causes on May 2, 2009. Otoya Yamaguchi committed suicide in his cell and remains a nationalist-suprematist hero today.

khruschev_shoe_fakeOur other incident concerns Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on his desk during the 902nd Plenary Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly held in New York in 1960. During the session on 12 October, the story goes, Khrushchev pounded his shoe in protest at a speech by Philippine delegate Lorenzo Sumulong who claimed, “the peoples of Eastern Europe and elsewhere have been deprived of the free exercise of their civil and political rights and have been swallowed up, so to speak, by the Soviet Union”.

No photograph exists of the legendary shoe banging, even though it appears in Khrushchev’s memoires; “Remembering reports I have read about the sessions of the State Duma in Russia, I decided to add a little more heat. I took off my shoe and pounded it on desk so that our protest would be louder.” Others remember the incident too. “Enraged, Khrushchev jumped up again, his face beet red,” Peter Carlson relates, “He had something in his hand and he waved it like a club. It was his right shoe, a tan loafer. For a moment, Washington Post reporter Murrey Marder thought Khrushchev was going to throw it at the podium. But he didn’t. Instead, the premier sat down and began banging the shoe on his desk. His first blows were mere taps, but then he pounded harder and harder, louder and louder. Soon the other delegates were turning around, craning their necks to see who was making such a racket.”

TIME magazine, lacking any photograph of the event, included the above unconvincing montage in a recent story about the incident, but not even the original photo they used dated from October 12 1960. Italian public broadcaster RAI has footage claiming to be of the incident on their website, but it’s so tightly framed, the action so blurred, that it’s not clear that the Society leader is pounding with anything other than his fist.

Amherst College political science professor William Taubman originally believed the story but now follows the line of Times correspondent, James Feron, who was also at the U.N. at the time, who insists that the Soviet leader never banged it.

Wikipedia provides accounts of the various eyewitness reports and that of Khrushchev’s granddaughter Nina; all are at variance.

Wishful thinking? Mass hysteria? A conspiracy?

All we have is one rather matter-of-fact photo; that by Carl T. Gossett Jr., a staff photographer for The New York Times for nearly 40 years. There’s the shoe, there’s Khrushchev. He looks perfectly innocent, doesn’t he? What actually happened in the UN that day in front of any number of reporters, photojournalists and television cameras? It’s a pity Yasushi Nagao was busy elsewhere!


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