Encounter in a Tokyo park

Joe Slater, Going Postal

In early December, I went to Tokyo for a week, for personal reasons. As it involved somebody who was gravely ill, I did not have the inclination for sightseeing. But I did see some old faces. That provided an excuse for a brief exploration of one of Tokyo’s least-known corners, a place I had long meant to visit. I had agreed to meet a Chinese friend at his place of work in Sugamo, a nondescript quarter on the northern side of the Yamanote Line, the railway loop that informally defines central Tokyo. Sugamo is perhaps best-known for one thing: it was where Hideki Tojo, Japan’s prime minister in World War II, was jailed and executed by hanging, in 1948.

I knew the jail had been torn down, but I thought I would try to find the site after dining with my Chinese friend. As this is not the kind of attraction the host city of the 2020 Olympics is keen to promote to overseas visitors, and Sugamo does not have a tourist office anyway, I had to start the search at a police box. There was one close by the Yamanote Line station. Wondering how this query would go down, I strode up to the door and entered the little room.

Nan deshou? (Yes? What is it?)” said the young officer brightly. He rose from the desk.

Unfortunately, I had forgotten the official Japanese term for “Sugamo detention centre.”

“Excuse me, could you tell me where the Tojo place is?”

He looked at me for a moment.

“Where does this Mr. Tojo live?”

“I mean, Hideki Tojo.”

“Yes, but where does he live?”

“Hideki Tojo, Japan’s wartime leader, who was executed in Sugamo in the late 1940s. I’m looking for the site.”

He just looked blankly at me. Bear in mind that, in an East Asian context, this was like inquiring of a Berlin copper where Hitler’s bunker had been, and being asked “which Mr Hitler?” This twenty-something guy did not know who I was talking about. In disbelief, I mumbled, “You know, wartime leader .. executed in Sugamo … (to myself) every fule know that … surely I am not the first person to ask this .. “

He said nothing and went to the back to summon a superior. After a long, unsettling wait, the boss emerged.

Oh dear, a gaijin hater. After ten years in Japan, you recognise the type immediately — no smile, curt, gruff manner, no use of polite verb forms, reluctance to meet your eyes. Especially that. He was around 60.

“You want Tojo?” he said. “The Class A war criminal Tojo?”


“The Class A war criminal?”


He looked at me with distaste. Not just a gaijin, but a bloody rightwing gaijin.

“The jail wasn’t here,” he said. “The books are misleading. You want Ikebukuro” — the next station west, pronounced icky-bookuro, and one of Tokyo’s major hubs. “The police box guys there will know.”

I got back on the train. And, as promised, the police box guys did know. The site I was looking for was smack bang in the middle of Ikebukuro, right next to the Sunshine 60 tower, a Tokyo landmark. It was a five-minute walk.

And what a curious site it was. Instead of the unmarked concrete ruin I had been half-expecting, the site of the Sugamo Prison was a neat shady little space amid the shopping arcades called the Higashi Ikebukuro Chuo Koen (East Ikebukuro Central Park). If you search for online images, you get pictures of cats, for it is a gathering place for feline fans. Much of it is paved over. Its main feature is a gentle cascade tumbling down a kind of slab stairway, backed by a screen of trees rising from a rockery. The effect is truly transporting — you forget that one of Tokyo’s tallest skyscrapers is a stone’s throw away — and conducive to reflection.

Joe Slater. Going Postal
Memorial to Hideki Tojo

The real surprise is tucked away unmarked in a corner hidden by shrubs. Here a single smooth boulder, like an upturned grey ice-cube, rises out of a square plot that looks awfully like a grave, an impression reinforced by the flowers that have been placed by the rock. I wandered over and read the long inscription on the back, relating how the military tribunal in Ichigaya in Tokyo handed down various retributions on “war criminals.” On the front, it said simply, “Praying for eternal peace.” The date on the stone was 1978.

But what caught my eye was the collection of personal memorabilia left at the foot of the stone, and obviously renewed regularly. It wasn’t just fresh flowers. There was also a Japanese flag, a snack in a tupperware box, a pack of lollies, incense sticks, a half-smoked cigarette, a bottle of sake, and a tray with one-yen coins — traditional offerings of the kind you find left at graves all over East Asia. There were also five small black and white photos of Tojo in uniform, looking astonishingly like Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army after a serious diet. Nowhere in the park was the name Tojo mentioned, but this was clearly an informal memorial.

I asked a park warden if right-wing groups gathered here. Occasionally, he replied. Unlike the Germans, the Japanese were never taught to despise and disown the generation that fought in World War II, and as a result, groups like the Japan War-Bereaved Families Association remain powerful players in Japan’s political scene. They back conservative parties, and insist on a hard line in the never-ending dispute over the Yasukuni shrine, which, China and South Korea argue, honours war-mongers and perpetrators of atrocities. They also provide at least tacit support for a multitude of very vigorous “patriotic” groups who career around Tokyo streets in intimidating sound-trucks playing 1940s marching music and shouting out nationalistic slogans. These well-funded activists have all but drowned out the left in Japan, which had its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, when there was broad-based opposition to the security pact with America. Though left-wing ideologues long retained a stronghold in the school system, the hard right, which has a violent fringe and links with organised crime, took over the streets. In Japan, it is now the right-wing extremist groups that give the police headaches. Things could hardly be more different to western Europe today.

As I wandered around the small compound, I noticed that the park maps had been defaced — a very rare thing in Japan — though I could not figure out exactly why. It wasn’t hard to see why there should be controversy, however. I have some fairly strong views on the Pacific War myself, though this perhaps isn’t the place to go into them, especially as I suspect a good few Postaliers would disagree with me. Might come back to it in another piece, though.

Anyway, thinking about it later, I found it interesting that the site of the Sugamo jail had not been simply bulldozed and turned into a multi-storey car-park, as the Germans would have done, leaving no trace whatsoever. The date on the stone, 1978, was curious too. It had clearly taken a long time to reach consensus on what to do with the site. And equally obviously, somebody important had wanted to leave some kind of physical monument to Tojo, even if anonymous. Hardly one in a hundred Tokyo residents know about it. But then again, if some Tokyo cops do not even recognise the name Tojo, perhaps it’s not so surprising.

From my pdf book Uri Nara (Our country), about Korea and Japan

© Joe Slater 2017