UNTIL THE GREAT EAST Japan Earthquake, social media didn’t have much purchase on Japanese life. But disasters are transformative, and social media came into its own after the tsunami and meltdown. People wanted to know what was going on, and the newspapers and TV weren’t supplying them with information as quickly and straightforwardly as they wanted.

When a besuited middle-aged man set himself ablaze on a pedestrian overpass outside Shinjuku Station on June 29, there were no reporters or camera crews on hand, but there were thousands of witnesses, many with mobile devices. By the time the national newspapers reported it on their websites several hours later, people online had already seen raw video of the incident from every conceivable angle. The newspapers’ sketchy web reports and the cautious TV bulletins seemed inconsequential in contrast. Except for the Asahi and Sankei papers, all mentioned that the unidentified man protested Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to allow Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to participate in collective self defense (CDF) despite Article 9 of the Constitution, but they didn’t elaborate.

That evening, social media were abuzz with talk of why the press was not treating the story with the gravity it deserved. A man had set himself on fire in one of the busiest public places in the world. Wasn’t it news? Many suspected that the media didn’t want to publicize what appeared to be a political act, but most did report it, and the next morning all the “wide shows” covered the incident fully, even the political angle, in a manner some might find sensational. But there was one gaping hole in the coverage: NHK, the nation’s public broadcaster, didn’t mention the incident on its news programs that night or the next day.

Some who consider NHK to be the propaganda arm of the government said the anti-militarization component of the story made NHK nervous. But others believed the broadcaster’s restraint had more to do with self-imposed guidelines regarding the reporting of suicides. Since 2000, the World Health Organization has been urging media outlets throughout the world not to cover suicides in a sensational manner and not to air or publish related death scenes or suicide notes, because troubled individuals are sometimes pushed over the edge when these stories become news. NHK may have felt a responsibility to hold back on the story.

In his Independent Web Journal, reporter Yasumi Iwakami rejects this theory, pointing out that NHK does cover suicides, including the recent case of a policeman in Fukushima. What made that story newsworthy and the Shinjuku incident off-limits? A number of people on Twitter have said that the man in Shinjuku, who survived, may be mentally ill, so it would be unethical to report on his situation. This argument takes for granted the notion that a person not in his right mind is incapable of rational thought, so his reason for setting himself on fire was not newsworthy.

Police watch the unknown man address people in Shinjuku before his self-immolation.
Photo courtesy of Instagram user “ywrg”

Iwakami claims that NHK “admitted” to holding back on the story for political reasons, but he provides no attribution and there is no other available source for the claim. He describes NHK, perhaps facetiously, as being a “state broadcaster” (kokuei hoso) rather than a “public broadcaster” (kokkyo hoso). According to NHK does not publicly discuss how it determines news coverage. In any event, the broadcaster’s decision to not air the story can’t help but be political. According to the Chunichi Shimbun, the man climbed up on the pedestrian overpass at Shinjuku Station’s south exit with two containers of flammable liquid and talked for more than an hour about how Japan had enjoyed 70 years of peace thanks to Article 9 and how politics should be kept out of education. Then he quoted Akiko Yosano’s antiwar poem, “Don’t Lay Down Your Life.” When police and firemen tried to bring him down, he set himself on fire.

The man’s psychological state, however empirically you assess it, becomes incidental at this point. He chose to draw attention to his statement in the most shocking way imaginable. Symbolism was paramount. Many foreign media, such as Reuters, picked up the story as an international news item and used it as a means of explaining the Abe administration’s decision on CDF. Other foreign media outlets, such as AP, mentioned that while suicide is relatively common in Japan, suicide for political reasons is rare, and cited novelist Yukio Mishima’s suicide in 1970 after a failed coup attempt as the most famous example.

But Mishima killed himself the old-fashioned way, by means of ritual disembowelment, not with fire. We associate self-immolation with spiritual-minded martyrs in Vietnam and Tibet protesting oppressive regimes. The Shinjuku man may indeed have been mentally ill. As of this writing he is still in the hospital, and though his name has not been revealed, several media have reported that he is in his 60s, unemployed, and lives alone in an apartment along the JR Saikyo Line. Tokyo Shimbun quoted a neighbor as saying he keeps to himself. But whatever his state of mind, it’s safe to assume he knew what he was doing: By staging his demise in one of the most public places in the world, the symbolism would have its intended effect, even if it wasn’t covered by the mass media, because now there are other ways to spread news.

It’s impossible to measure what effect the act had on the consciousness of his fellow Japanese, but it didn’t stop the Abe Cabinet from authorizing CDF. By all rights the story is over, but this sort of incident can take on a life of its own. Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire in Saigon in 1963 to condemn the persecution of Buddhists by the government of Ngo Dinh Diem, but that demonstration subsequently became a powerful symbol with regard to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Only time will tell if the Shinjuku man’s act will take on a similar meaning, but for what it’s worth, Akiko Yosano’s poem has gone viral.

Philip Brasor is a freelance writer who lives in Chiba Prefecture. This article first appeared in the Japan Times.