In Runaway Horses, Yukio Mishima’s portrait of a young right-winger and would-be assassin, the main character, Isao, is inspired by a pamphlet, The League of the Divine Wind, by Tsunanori Yamao”a work of pure imagination, albeit based on historical reality, which takes up all or most of Chapter 9. This is the story of the Shinpuren Incident of 1876, in which a band of rebellious samurai rose up against the “reforms” of the Meiji Restoration. These were radical traditionalists of a uniquely consistent sort: they disdained such Western inventions as guns and cannon, and wielded spears and swords to attack the local garrison.
It was a highly stylized gesture of defiance against the onset of modernity, just the sort of thing that would interest Mishima, whose aesthetics as well as his politics made him sympathetic to the motivations of the rebels, who chafed at the failure of the authorities to resist “foreign influence” and “expel the barbarians.” Mishima lists the outrages that inflame them, starting off with “In Meiji 3, permission was granted to an imperial prince to study in Germany.”
The traditions of the samurai class were being systematically dismantled: not only were their subsidies and subventions, which came out of the Imperial Treasury, dramatically reduced and eventually cut off, to add insult to injury they were told to cut off their top-knots and turn in their swords. It became a crime to carry a sword in public. For the followers of Oen Hayashi—who held white fans over their heads as they walked under electric wires for fear of contamination by Western emanations”that was the last straw.
Oen was a Shinto priest and scholarly defender of the old gods, whose zeal on their behalf inspires a group of young samurai. His views, propagated after his death by the League of the Divine Wind, are clearly Mishima’s, who sums up Oen’s politics thusly:
Cherishing as he did the ideal of glorifying the Imperial Tradition within the land and upholding the national honor in the face of foreign incursion, he was appalled by the vacillation of the Shogunate officials at the time of Perry’s arrival and also by the tactics of those who turned away from the policy of “Expel the Barbrians” but tried to use it to overthrow the Shogunate. He became a recluse and gave himself over to the contemplation of occult wisdom.
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Against the arrival of Commodore Perry and modernity, the leaders of the League approach the elder gods with a petition to act. The opening line of Tsunanori’s story sets the stage: “One day in the summer of 1873″the Sixth Year of the Meiji era”four stalwart men of high ideals gathered at the Imperial Shrine in Shingai Village.” They are there to consult the will of the gods in the ritual known as Ukei: in Mishima’s version, a fresh-cut peach branch festooned with paper pendants inscribed with questions for the gods is waved over the Sacred Mirror, and the answers drop from the branch like rain, or tears:
The first of these was in accordance with the wishes of Harukata Kaya and read as follows: “To bring an end to misgovernment by admonishing authority even to the forfeiture of life.”
Kaya was bent upon the use of argument, of subduing their enemy without shedding any blood but his own. He wished to insure that his admonition achieved its goal by emulating Ysautake Yokoyama, the samurai of the Satsuma Clan who, in Meiji 3, set the seal upon his heroic remonstrance by slaying himself with his sword as soon as he had delivered his petition. Kaya’s comrades, however, had misgivings about the efficacy of such a course.
The second appeal laid out before the judgement of the gods was “to cut down the unworthy ministers by striking in darkness with the sword,” i.e. a terrorist campaign targeted at the sell-outs and traitors who were delivering Old Nippon over to the foreigners. A poem written on the headband of the 16-year-old Tadao Saruwatari, sums up the feelings of the rebels:
Our land divided, sold to barbarians,
The Sacred Throne in peril.
May the gods of heaven and earth
Behold our loyal devotion.
The leaders of the League twice implored the gods, and twice the answer was the same: the time for action was not propitious. On the third try, however, the gods were apparently in a good mood”or, perhaps, a bad one”because they not only gave the go ahead, but deemed the League a divine army that was to spark a general rising. Their destiny sealed, the League set about making preparations. Nothing was done, of course, without consulting the Divine Will: the battle plan, the division of the forces and their various tasks, the timing”all were calculated according to the sanctions of tradition and the will of the war god Hachiman.
Numbering less than two hundred, they would take on the garrison of the castle of Kumamoto, defended by two thousand government troops. Perhaps some hi-tech firepower might have given them some advantage “ say, a cannon or two “ but, as Mishima notes, they hotly disdained using the weapons of the foreigners, and rode into battle with swords, spears, and halberds “ although they also made several hundreds primitive Molotov cocktails using two bowls packed with gunpowder and gravel.
With the advantage of surprise “ and surprise certainly describes the reaction of the garrison, as these oddly-garbed figures, bearing swords and spears, swarmed through the barracks “ the League achieved a victory as sweet as it was short: all two thousand defenders fled “like frightened women.” Yet they soon regrouped, and, heartened by reinforcements, went on the counterattack.
The League fought valiantly, but, in the end, they were overwhelmed by superior numbers, not to mention the modern weaponry of their opponents. The defeated army of the gods, gathered together in the sanctuary of a nearby Shinto shrine, determined to fight on, and yet it soon became all too clear that resistance was futile. Government troops swarmed over the countryside like ants in search of sugar. Driven to the ground, the survivors took the only honorable course: they committed seppuku, ritual suicide, one-by-one and in groups. Young and old, priests and samurai, commoners and nobility”yes, and even one woman!”they all went into the next life without hesitation or regret, slitting their throats, falling on their swords, and disemboweling themselves in the gruesome ritual known in the West as hari-kiri.
This, for them”and for the author—was the supreme duty, the proof of their purity, and any other course would have been unthinkable, under the circumstances, and they did it as simply, as easily, as naturally as a Westerner would close his eyes and go to sleep. Their fate prefigured that of the author, and, as he wrote Runaway Horses, Mishima was no doubt already planning his dramatic denouement, an act that would shock the world”but not yet.
Mishima was a writer of extraordinary talent, and so prolific that I cannot even get a handle on how many novels he actually wrote: the number we usually encounter is 40, but that’s not counting the serialized “popular” novels, some of which were never published between book covers, and not thought of as serious by the author. In addition, he produced such a quantity of short stories, essays, plays, screenplays, poems, and polemics that it seemed as if, behind his byline, lurked a literary team rather than a single author.
In his personal life, too, the same energy was evident: at the height of his fame, Mishima was everywhere, socializing with the high and the low, appearing on television, religiously going to the gym where he devoted himself to body-building and kendo, at one point starring in a gangster movie, and traveling the world from Bangkok to Manhattan, reveling in life even as he dreamt endless dreams of death.
Born Kimitake Hiroaka, a small, spindly Mama’s boy, he grew up in wartime Japan a bookish odd-man-out, burdened with a morbid imagination and a predilection for perversions that included but were not limited to homosexuality. Much of his best known earlier work is largely an attempt to work through and come to terms with his childhood demons. Taken from his mother after a mere week or so of life, and forced to attend to his witch of a grandmother in her sickbed, he was not allowed to play with other children, especially boys, and was forced to stay inside playing with origami and reading. He soon devoured all the books in his well-read grandmother’s library: the stories of Hans Christian Anderson, as well as Oscar Wilde, and the poems of Rilke and the Decadents.
His first novel, Hanazakari no Mori (“The Forest in Full Bloom”), was steeped in the spirit and history of Ancient Japan: it consists of profiles of aristocratic figures from widely disparate historical eras. The Japan Mishima evoked was a memory of a time when the grasping egotism and “modern” crudity of contemporary Japanese militarists was unthinkable: When it was a “forest in full bloom,” Japan was a courtly society, where ancient forms were followed to the letter as a matter of course. Mishima’s language, studded with rare words like polished jewels, was elegant, archaic, and yet precise. As one of his translators put it: “He knew the exact word for everything.”
Mishima’s literary debut was overshadowed, however, by the start of the war”an event that transformed everything for the seventeen year old author. As Japan’s fortunes took a turn for the worse, Mishima and his school-fellows lived with the prospect of conscription—and certain death—hanging over them like a tsunami about to crash onto their once-peaceful beach. For the first time since a fortunate wind blew the approaching Mongol fleet off course”that, by the way, is where the League of the Divine Wind got its name“Japan faced the prospect of foreign invasion. The idea that they would die young, and gloriously, was part of the air they breathed.
Mishima became associated with a group of nationalist writers, the Bungei Bunka, for whom the war was a holy task. Known as the Roman-ha (Japanese Romanticists), their goal, in literary-emotional terms, was “purity of sentiment,” as Henry Scott-Stokes puts it in The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima, while their politics consisted of an eclectic mix of Emperor-worship and Marxism: like Mishima, they pined for the Old Japan, which they idealized. They hated the zaibatsu (huge industrial combines that dominated wartime Japan) and Westernized politicians, valorized the samurai, and reveled in the “irony” that defeat, too, could be sweet if it was experienced as the denouement of a heroic gesture.
Mishima’s father, Azusa, was a demanding, unsympathetic character who had squandered the family’s money in an unsuccessful bid to become an entrepreneur: he regularly invaded the boy’s room and tore up his manuscripts, rationalizing his brutality with the view that writing was unproductive and could only divert his young son away from the straight and narrow. In spite of the boy’s literary prowess”he was already being praised by the Bungei Bunka as a genius”Azusa finally prevailed upon him to study law at Tokyo University. That in itself was a feat of some magnitude, since Mishima had always ignored his father’s hectoring as much as possible.
The reason for this unusual concession was no doubt because Mishima found the law intellectually challenging: but there was not much studying done that year. The war was moving rapidly toward its end, and air raids were constant. Students were yanked out of the classroom and mobilized to support the war effort: Mishima and his fellow future lawyers of Japan were put to work in a factory making kamikazee planes:
This great factory worked on a mysterious system of production costs: taking no account of the dictum that capital investment should produce a return, it was dedicated to a monstrous nothingness. No wonder then that each morning the workers had to recite a mystic oath. I have never seen such a strange factory. In it all the techniques of modern science and management, together with the exact and rational thinking of many superior brains, were dedicated to a single end: Death. Producing the Zero-model combat plane used by the suicide squadrons, this great factory resembled a secret cult that operated thunderously”groaning, shrieking, roaring.
This description of the factory appeared in Confessions of a Mask“the book that catapulted him to fame. Fame, however, was in the future: for now, he was just a lonely aesthete amid the unfolding disaster of wartime Japan. As he ran to the air raid shelter, he clutched the pages of what he thought of as his “last” novel, The Middle Ages, an historical tale based on the life and death of Prince Yoshihisa, the son of a Shogun who lived in the 15th century. Yoshihisa attempted a coup, but was killed in battle: what followed was a long period of chaos and fighting, known as the era of the Onin wars, that nearly destroyed Japanese society. Kyoto, the capital, was burned to the ground”a condition that was about to be replicated in contemporary Japan. The feeling of impending disaster was everywhere, and it was just like Mishima to translate this foreboding into a tale out of the fifteenth century.
Japan was slowly but surely being defeated, and as the Americans inched closer to the Japanese homeland, Mishima received the call to report for duty: he was being drafted. As it turned out, however, he was so sickly and thin that they rejected him, much to his relief: the military doctor mistakenly diagnosed him with incipient tuberculosis. Later, in Confessions, he would remark that he had been “forsaken even by Death.” He had escaped, and yet Death still haunted him: or, rather, the desire to embrace it haunted him. He had been denied a glorious death by the army doctor, but he believed he would meet his end in a final cataclysm, as enemy bombers dropped fire from the skies and Tokyo was aflame. “It was in death,” he wrote, “that I had discovered my real “life’s aim.””
As the Japanese government prepared for surrender, Mishima was immersed in his books, writing his first published stories, and making contacts with older authors who would prove instrumental to his career. Hiroshima was devastated, and then Nagasaki: the Americans dropped leaflets over Tokyo laying out the terms of surrender. The Japanese government capitulated.
Mishima was in shock: the Emperor went on the radio to declare that he wasn”t a god, after all. Of this time, he wrote:
The war ended. All I was thinking about, as I listened to the Imperial Rescript announcing the surrender, was the Golden Temple. The bond between the temple and myself had been severed. I thought, now I shall return … to a state in which I exist on one side and beauty on the other. A state which will never improve so long as the world endures.
The death of his sister, Mitsuko, underscored the end of the world he had known: she succumbed to typhoid in October, 1945. The old Japan was crashing down all around him, but to this larger catastrophe Mishima was numbed and oblivious: he simply withdrew into his own private world. He was determined to become a writer, and not only that, but a literary star: one senior literary figure, to whom he brought his work, criticized him for his extravagant Romanticism, and asked him if he wanted to be an original or a popular author: Mishima unhesitatingly chose the latter.
The “reforms“ of the MacArthur Regency, the economic and social tumult that surrounded him, did not, at the time, concern him: his family home had escaped any damage, and he hid himself away in what he called his “castle.” Amidst the physical destruction of Tokyo, and the disintegration of all the old values, including the aristocratic “courtly” literary traditions he and his fellows of the Roman-ha upheld, he wasn”t merely indifferent to it all, including the momentous political developments”he was determinedly oblivious. His focus was exclusively on the development of his unique literary imagination, and his efforts to break into the Bundan, the exclusive and inbred club of the Japanese literary establishment.
If Mishima was indifferent to such worldly concerns as politics, then politics weren”t indifferent to him. Postwar Japan was dominated by the Left, and the political trials and purges carried out under the occupation, with the full and enthusiastic cooperation of the Japanese Communist Party, extended into the literary realm. In the winter of 1945, as Mishima was gathering a book of stories for publication, a committee of leftist writers and critics issued an indictment of “literary war criminals,” among whom Mishima’s former mentors and sponsors figured prominently. This was followed by an official purge executed by the American occupation authorities.
Mishima’s effort to storm the castle of the Bundan met with intractable resistance: his association with the Roman-ha as well as his extravagant subjectivism, his stylistic archaicism, and his decidedly un-“progressive” subject matter all kept him out of print, albeit only temporarily.
Mishima was inwardly beset by all sorts of demons, which he mercilessly dissected in his famous Confessions, the book that made him as a writer. Yet he had a will of steel, and this was reflected not only in his ambition, but in his highly disciplined sensibility, which approached every task with a relentless concentration. Still a law student, he studied diligently and prepared for his entrance examination to the civil service with the same fierce concentration that produced reams of stories and a first novel, The Thieves, the story of a young couple that enter into a suicide pact, albeit not out of love for each other.
His career as a civil servant”he was accepted as a minor functionary into the Ministry of Finance”didn”t last very long, and Azusa bitterly opposed his decision to leave his job and become a full-time writer. But when it became apparent that Mishima would persist, his father turned to him and said: “Well then, go ahead, but make sure you are the best writer in the land.” Father and son, so unlike each other in every other way, shared a belief in this possibility. Mishima, for his part, was certain of his destiny: indeed, this certitude seemed almost fully formed from early youth.
Not long before his spectacular death, Mishima was asked by the Tobu department store, one of the biggest such establishments in Japan, to help put together a photographic exhibition of his life and work: it was displayed from November 12 “ 19, in 1970. During that time, one-hundred thousand visited the display with it’s black-draped photographs arranged around an antique samurai sword that was to be the instrument of Mishima’s death a few days later. The catalogue, bound in black, contained an introduction by Mishima, in which he said of the exhibition:
I made only one suggestion: that was to divide my forty-five years of life”a life so full of contradictions”into Four Rivers, “Writing,,” “Theater,” “Body,” and ‘Action,” all finally flowing into The Sea of Fertility.
The Decay of the Angel, which covers the period from 1912 to 1975, and can be considered his literary and philosophical testament.
The rivers of writing and action flowed together in the evolution of his political views, from the non-committal anti-political stance of his early works, which are steeped in the personal and the subjective, to his fulsome embrace of Japanese nationalism, albeit of a unique sort.
John Nathan, in his introduction to the new edition of his 1974 biography of Mishima, regrets that his analysis of the writer’s political ideology was overshadowed by Mishima’s personal pathology”the obsession with death revealed in Confessions, and in much of his fiction, rooted in sado-masochistic eroticism. In re-reading the work he hadn”t opened in many years, Nathan confides he was “troubled by the skepticism my argument required me to sustain. In declining to accept Mishima’s words or actions at face value, I failed to recognize the courage and unflinching honesty that are there to be observed.”
In a piece published on New Year’s Day, 1967, Mishima explained that his Westernized lifestyle”he lived in a Western-style house, wore Western clothes, etc. etc.”did not really contradict his nationalist sentiments because “My true life as a writer is in the pure Japan of the Japanese language I use every night in my study. Compared to this, “ he averred, “nothing else is of any importance.” Nathan writes:
In the biography, my commitment to reveal Mishima’s nationalism as specious, and as a device for achieving death, prompted me to dismiss this claim as “a lame and silly argument”…. Today, I am persuaded, indeed moved, by the same logic I once ridiculed.
Mishima’s fate, Nathan continues, “now appears as one of two historical moments” that seem to have underscored the predicament of modern Japan. Not that Nathan gives up entirely his tiresomely predictable way of looking at Mishima through the lens of amateur psychology: after all, Mishima’s work is the very exemplar of “psychological” fiction, in that the real action is taking place inside the characters” skulls. So that all the physical action “ and there is a lot of that, too”proceeds logically from a clear albeit unique motivation. Yet there was a growing political consciousness, a current that flowed from the merging rivers of writing and action, that represented Mishima’s mature thought.
As he outgrew his exoticism, and shed the skin of a sensitive youth, Mishima underwent a remarkable transformation. One of his critics once remarked that what scared him about Mishima is that he seemed to have sprouted up so fast as a writer that he was all flower and no leaves. And there was something distinctly unhealthy about his extreme aestheticism, with its overtones of Wilde, Raymond Radiguet
The Sound of Waves.
All that began to change, however, as he approached the pinnacle of his success: his novels were being made into films, and there was talk that he was up for a Nobel. For much of his youth, he had swum exclusively in the rivers of writing and theater: as for the body, the thin and sickly Kimitake Hiroaka, with his thin shoulders and pallid complexion, was banished, finally, like a ghost that has lingered too long on this earth, replaced by the chiseled physique of a dedicated bodybuilder. This led directly to the rising of the river of theater, especially when he posed semi-naked in a notorious series of photographs, one of which has him in the classic pose of St. Sebastian, tied to a post and stuck full of arrows. It was a most un-Japanese way of calling attention to himself, and this was made worse when he ventured onto the stage as an actor, appearing in a couple of cheap gangster movies. It was an embarrassment, but Mishima was clearly enjoying himself, and, for all his avowed traditionalism, his innate exhibitionism overrode the Japanese sense of propriety.
The last of the four rivers to swell from a stream into a rushing torrent was that of action, and it propelled him toward his fate. This was really, however, the river of ideology, which for Mishima was his own unique brand of Japanese nationalism: it might be called Japan’s version of paleoconservatism. He didn”t think of himself standing athwart history yelling “Stop!” Instead, he demanded that history must reverse course, and go back to that juncture where a wrong turn was taken.
For Japan, as far as Mishima was concerned, that juncture was located precisely. On February 26, 1936, when he was 11 years old, the young army officers of the Imperial Way faction, at the head of 1,400 troops, seized the Tokyo center and assassinated a number of government officials. They were rising against the power of the “Control” faction, led by Hideki Tojo and a group of old-line bureaucrats who would later come to be charged as war criminals and executed.
At the time, there was great division in military circles and the emperor’s court as to which direction Japanese expansionism ought to take: should they go eastward, and occupy China, or go north and take on the Soviet Union? The Imperial Way faction, being staunchly anti-Communist, wanted to make war on the Kremlin and build a Nipponese empire in the north. The Control group wanted to conquer the Chinese coastline and make its way inward to the Han heartland: this meant also taking on the colonial powers of the West”including the United States—whose interests in China and Southeast Asia were at stake.
The Imperial Way group believed that the Emperor had lost control to a cabal of bureaucratic technocrats, exemplified by Tojo, who had betrayed the traditions of old Japan in their rush to modernize. The Imperial Way solution was to appeal to the Emperor Hirohito to take direct control of the government, and dispense with his scheming ministers and other Westernizers: thus their name Koda-ha, or Imperial Way. They particularly resented to power of the zaibatsu, the great industrial combines that monopolized industry and extended their talons into the government and the Imperial Court. The Emperor, they believed, had been misled: their rebellion was a direct appeal to Hirohito “ who firmly rejected their entreaties. Indeed, the Emperor directed the army to put down the rebellion, even as some councilors urged him to compromise: the uprising was crushed, its leaders committed seppuku, and the February Incident went down in the history of Japan was yet another eruption of Nipponese irrationality and “extremism,” like the Shimpuren Incident.
Mishima, however, was sympathetic to the rebels, and it is easy to see why. If the Imperial Way had won, and Tojo and his group cast aside, Japan would never have gone to war with the West, and the devastation of Japan, the occupation, and the radical process of Westernization would all have been avoided. Japan would not have been relegated to the role of an international castrati, forbidden to have a real army, and locked into a mandatory pacifism in which the pecter of death had been banished, and, along with it, any sense of meaning, or so Mishima came to believe. “Surely some great God died when the Ni Ni Roku Incident failed,” he wrote. It figured prominently in his later works: the short story “Patriotism,” the prose poem “Voices of the Heroic Dead,” a play, Toka no Kiku, and also in Runaway Horses, where the hero, Isao, invokes it as the inspiration for his own plans for an uprising.
In “Patriotism,” the hero, Lieutenant Takeyama, is the commander of a unit that receives the order to move against the February rebels. As a friend and sympathizer of the rebel leaders, this puts him in a predicament: he will not take up arms against his comrades, yet is unwilling to disobey the direct order of the Emperor. He is shamed that he has been left out of the rebellion: The only way out is to commit seppuku. What follows is the longest, most detailed description of ritual suicide in Japanese literature, bloody and gory and yet strangely idealized. As Lieutenant Takeyama’s intestines are spilling out onto the floor, Mishima remarks: “It would be difficult to imagine a more heroic sight than that of the lieutenant at this moment, as he mustered his strength and flung back his head.”
“Voices of the Heroic Dead” was controversial with both the Left and the Right: the former because it valorized the kamikazee fighters as well as the rebel officers of Ni Ni Roku, and the latter because it criticized Emperor Hirohito for repudiating his own godhood and failing to support the Imperial Way. Here we are taken into a sÃ©ance, in which the voices of the perished kamikazee pilots and the coup leaders of the Imperial Way group reproach the Emperor Hirohito: “Why did the emperor have to become a human being?” The ghosts of these departed patriots echo this refrain throughout the text. Mishima disdains the second half of the Showa era “ Hirohito’s reign “ as a time of national listlessness and a “smiling full-bellied peace,” that led to boredom and nihilism. Lassitude had set in:
Strength is decried, the body disdained
Pleasure has lost its substance
Joy and grief alike vanish in an instant
Purity is marketed, dissipation enfeebled
Feeling is dulled, sharpness blunted
Virulent and manly spirits have fled the earth….
This anomie is what he had succumbed to in his youth, and now was learning to conquer. The sickly Kimitake Hiroaka, who cowered in his room and watched the destruction of Tokyo from a distance, as if it were a play, longed for action, for commitment, for belief”and this desire was manifested in his emerging nationalist politics.
The emergence of Mishima as an ideologue of the Emperor system is widely misunderstood: he was not an authoritarian, but rather a critic of Westernized Japanese democracy, which was merely the old bureaucratic zaibatsu-dominated system wearing a “democratic” mask. He saw the Emperor and the Shinto system of Emperor-worship as the essence of the Japanese spirit. The postwar order emasculated Japanese culture, which had previously been represented by both the Chrysanthemum and the Sword: after the Defeat, however, only the Chrysanthemum remained. The Sword was permanently sheathed, the American-imposed “constitution” forbade any form of military activity, and Japanese culture was represented by such pacifistic activities as ikebana (flower arranging), while the darker side was entirely missing.
This dark side, however, was about to reassert itself, Mishima was sure of it, and he did his own part to help it along with the creation of his Tatenokai group, or Shield Society, a group of young patriots he gathered around him in reaction to the tumult of the 1960s, when the Left made giant inroads in Japan (and around the world). This tumult reached a crescendo in Japan with the riots, in the spring of 1960, that greeted the ratification of the US-Japan Security Treaty, which was opposed by both the radical Left and the nationalist Right, albeit for antipathetic reasons.
The student leftists, who took to the streets and battled the police, fascinated Mishima, who admired them for their style if not the substance of their pro-Communist politics. He went out into the streets and reported on the riots for the Mainichi Shimbun. “Patriotism” was written about this time, and his political sensibility began to be more fully developed. The Tatenokai “ which he called “the world’s smallest and most spiritual army”—was the culmination of this trend in his thinking: together with these hundred or so patriotic young recruits, in their spiffy designer uniforms, he jumped head-first into the river of action.
Through his connections with influential Liberal Democratic Party mandarins, Mishima managed to get permission for the Tatenokai to participate in training sessions with the Japanese Defense Force. They spend weeks in the JDF training camps, and Mishima is in his element: the world of action. Yet that is just the beginning of his journey down this particular river ….
Mishima’s death is the most well-known aspect of his life, which seems somehow appropriate, given his life-long morbid focus on the subject. It is, however, unfortunate, because the irony is that he was such a creative force: his collected works fill some thirty-plus thick volumes. In his day to day life, too, he was a veritable tornado of activity: he did everything with high energy and intensive focus, whether it was his writing, his body-building, his extensive socializing with a wide network of friends and fellow writers. In the final months and weeks of his life, the pace of his normally hectic activity picked up: he rushed to finish the final volume of “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, which was published as The Decay of the Angel.
He had been planning his final gesture of defiance for years, and finally the day approached: he put all his affairs in order, and proceeded with his usual thoroughness and alacrity. Mishima’s initial plan was to somehow enlist the aid of the Japanese Defense Force, which, together with the Tatenokai, would occupy Parliament and demand the revision of the constitution. This fell through, however, when Mishima’s inquiries met with a total lack of interest on the part of JDF officers. The plan was revised: they would take a senior JDF commander hostage, force the authorities to gather the soldiers in a place where Mishima would address them, and then, together, the Tatenokai and the rebel soldiers would carry out a coup, place the Emperor in command of the nation, and reassert Japan’s signal cultural, political, and military identity.
It was a ridiculous scheme, sure to fail, and Mishima”who was no fool”must have known that. Yet he went ahead with it. We can only assume that he knew how it would have to end, and that he wanted it to end precisely as it did.
On November 25, 1970, Mishima was awake and up early with the songbirds. Yoko, his wife, was out of the house, having taken the children to school. He dressed carefully, donning a fundoshi and his Tatenokai uniform. He assembled the items he was taking with him: a brown attache case, which contained a number of daggers, some papers, and a long samurai sword. He placed the final manuscript of The Decay of the Angel on a table in the hallway, in an envelope addressed to the publisher: they were scheduled to come pick it up later in the day. He then made a few phone calls to friendly reporters, hinting that something big was in the works—without saying precisely what was going to happen—and told them to show up at the Ichigaya base of the Japanese defense force in the center of Tokyo. As the morning wore on, a young man in the uniform of the Tatenokai walked through the garden to the front door: Mishima greeted him, and handed him three envelopes, with instructions that these should be taken out to the waiting car and read by the four members of the Tatenokai who had been chosen to accompany him on his final dip in the rive of action. Then he gathered up his briefcase, and left the house.
General Mashita, commander of the Eastern Army, was waiting for his visitors when they arrived at the base, and they were led into his office. After a few preliminary pleasantries, Mishima took off his sword, hanging in its scabbard on his belt, and placed it against the chair as he sat down.
“Tell me,” said General Mashita, “what is this sword you have with you? Did anyone ask you about it on the way in? I am not very clear about the rules on swords, as we don”t carry them anymore ourselves.”
Mishima assured him it was okay, and began to talk about the sword: an antique, made in the seventeenth century by the famous classical smith Seki no Magoroku. “Would you like to see it?”
Mashita indicated that he would, and as he held it, one of the Tatenokai inched forward, according to the plan. Mishima said to the young man: “A handkerchief?” This was the cue, and Mishima’s young follower moved toward the General, who, oblivious to the hidden meaning of the scene playing out before him, returned to his desk to get a tissue with which to wipe the sword. There was more small talk as Mashita examined the blade after wiping it, remarking that he had never seen such a superb weapon in private hands. Mishima looked at his flustered acolyte, who took the hint and moved toward the General, stepped behind him and reached for the General’s neck ….
Mishima and his followers moved quickly: after binding and gagging Mashita, they barricaded the door with heavy furniture. What they didn”t realize, however, was that they were being observed through a peephole in the office door, which allowed anyone outside in the anteroom to look in and see what was happening. The gig was soon up.
Twice unarmed officers tried to break into the room and free the General, and twice they were repulsed by Mishima, who slashed at them with his sword, wounding several. At this point, the Japanese officers”who were confirming by the minute Mishima’s contemptuous dismissal of contemporary Japanese men as all chrysanthemum and no sword”asked what Mishima’s demands were. He readily complied with a written statement slipped under the door: the soldiers of the garrison must assemble in front of the headquarters no later than the hour of noon. Mishima would then be allowed to address them from the balcony outside Mashita’s office window. A ninety-minute truce would be declared, during which time Mishima and his men would not face attack from the JDF. If the officers would not agree, Mishima said he would kill the General and commit suicide. After some urging from Mashita, the officers radioed their commanders, who told them to handle the situation as they saw fit. They agreed to Mishima’s demands.
The soldiers gathered in response to an announcement over the loudspeaker system”and a siren wailed, as if in terror at what was to follow. The news media”already alerted by Mishima”was there in droves, and Mishima crowed: “What a lot of people for the party!”
The four Tatenokai appeared on the balcony, bearing banners that spelled out the conditions under which Mashita’s safety was assured. Mishima’s manifesto, printed as a leaflet, was dropped, and carried by the wind to its intended recipients, who glanced at it with curiosity but hardly any understanding: in it, Mishima appealed to the armed forces to stop being a “toy,” as mandated by the pacifistic Constitution, demanded the restoration of the Emperor to his rightful place as ruler, and complained “we have waited in vain for the Jieitai [JDF] to rebel. If no action is taken, the Western powers will control Japan for the next century!”
The manifesto ended with these stirring words (yes, stirring even to a foreigner):
Let us restore Nippon to its true state and let us die. Will you value only life and let the spirit die? … We will show you a value which is greater than respect for life. Not liberty, not democracy. It is Nippon! Nippon, the land of history and tradition. The Japan we love.
The toy soldiers of the Jieitai read this with incomprehension. Their bafflement only grew as Mishima himself appeared on the balcony. By this time the noise level, already high with the helicopters whirling overhead and the soldiers shouting to each other, reached a crescendo of abuse rising up from the ranks of the men Mishima had hoped to inspire. His plan was to speak for 30 minutes: seven minutes into his speech, however, he gave up. The Jieitai were rebelling, alright”against him. There was nothing to be done but carry out the final act of the drama that had been so long in rehearsals.
Mishima had jumped atop the parapet to be seen by the troops, and now he dropped down back onto the balcony. Inside Mashita’s office, the General’s gag had been loosened, and, as it became apparent what Mishima was about to do, Mashita yelled: “Stop!”
But there was no stopping him. Mishima stripped down to his loincloth, and knelt on the floor, expelling the air from his stomach and shouting a last salute to the Emperor. Then he forced a dagger into his stomach, and cut crosswise, in the prescribed manner. Seppuku is not butchery: it requires precision. As his entrails spilled out, he bent his neck to receive the death blow from Morita, his chief acolyte, who brought down the sword with much force”but missed his mark. Twice more Morita tried, and failed, to decapitate Mishima, instead wounding him grievously. One of the others came forward, who had experience in fencing and kendo, took the sword, and divided Mishima’s head from his body with a single clean stroke.
Today Mishima is looked upon as a fanatic, a crazy person, at best a talented yet flawed writer whose personal demons devoured him in the end: his politics are considered a diversion away from what he was really about, a mere faÃ§ade for the darkness in his soul. Yet his view of Japan has been vindicated by the gradual rearmament of the Japanese military, and the rise of a new nationalism in Japan, which”while it has hardly inspired a new Shimpuren Incident, or a replay of the February rising of 1936″is reasserting itself. He wanted to live in a nation that had regained a sense of its self, its true self”not the consumerist imitative ikebana-Hello Kitty caricature, but the real, historical Japan, whose origins are lost in the mist of Mount Fuji, the dwelling place of the gods.
Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com and is a contributor to Taki’s Magazine.
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