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Yukio Mishima: Japan’s Cultural Martyr

Mishima’s reputation has grown in the new century and today there is more serious interest in his work than ever before.

· 11 min read
Yukio Mishima: Japan’s Cultural Martyr

The enthusiasm with which the people of Japan recently celebrated the enthronement of their new emperor, Naruhito, indicates the extent to which Japan has regained confidence in its imperial institution. Not coincidentally, in recent years Japan has also seen a resurgence in the reputation of Yukio Mishima (1925–1970), the writer and activist who most forcefully asserted the cultural importance of Japan’s emperor system at a time when it was considered inflammatory to do so. Though he remains controversial, not least for his notorious samurai-style suicide, Mishima is finally receiving the serious critical consideration he deserves.

Mishima was a formidable presence in Japan’s cultural scene in the years following the nation’s catastrophic defeat in World War II. Immensely prolific, he produced hundreds of works in almost every genre. His novels Confessions of a Mask (1948) and The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956) were among the first works of modern Japanese fiction to win an international readership. As a playwright, Mishima achieved success with his modern adaptations of plays from the classical Noh repertoire and his witty comedies for the Kabuki theater. He also worked as a filmmaker and actor.

In the early part of his career Mishima presented himself as an aesthete concerned only with beauty, haughtily indifferent to the world beyond art. After 1960, however, he turned his attention to Japan’s growing sociopolitical malaise. Though the extraordinary success of the nation’s postwar economic recovery was already evident, many Japanese were troubled by a sense of cultural confusion. Japan’s postwar constitution, written by American military lawyers, had renounced forever Japan’s rights to maintain armed forces and wage war. In the land of the samurai it was now unconstitutional to be a warrior. Japan’s military had accordingly been restyled as a “self-defense force” and the status of Japan’s security treaty with the United States had become a fiercely contentious issue.

Meanwhile, Japanese intellectuals were debating the extent to which “Westernization” was undermining Japan’s cultural integrity and traditional ways. On Japan’s university campuses there were prolonged and sometimes violent protests by students complaining of a lack of meaning in the new mass society. On top of all this, communism had gained believers in Japan, and the most radical spoke of leading a revolution and dismantling the emperor system.

Mishima threw himself into the midst of these issues and promoted a staunchly reactionary agenda. He scoffed at the pacifism of the postwar constitution; in defiance he learned martial arts and underwent military training. He visited the besieged university campuses (a bold move under the circumstances) and tried to persuade the students of the importance of their cultural inheritance. Against the “selfish individualism” of Western culture, Mishima hailed the “samurai spirit” of heroic self-sacrifice and praised the “tragic beauty” of the kamikaze squadrons. In his short film Patriotism (1966), Mishima himself played the role of an army officer who commits suicide rather than disobey an imperial command. To many observers it appeared as if Mishima was willfully taunting Japan by lauding aspects of its past that it was now eager to forget. The flippant aesthete had somehow become a dedicated subversive.

With his often outlandish antics, Mishima succeeded in alienating himself from both sides of the political spectrum. Those on the Left objected to what they saw as his crass glorification of Japanese militarism and emperor-centered fascism. Yet, while he asserted the importance of the emperor system as the supreme symbol of Japanese cultural continuity, Mishima was daringly critical of Hirohito, the wartime and postwar emperor, whom Mishima blamed for Japan’s slide into fascist totalitarianism and for “allowing Nazi-inspired villains among our military leaders to begin an unstoppable march to war.” On more than one occasion, Mishima needed police protection after receiving death threats from Japanese far-right groups, who regarded any criticism of the emperor as blasphemy.

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In 1968, when the “global revolutions” were at their peak and riots were breaking out in Japan, Mishima founded a civilian defense group he called the Shield Society. He dressed his men in paramilitary uniforms (which he had designed) and paraded them in front of reporters. The purpose of the group, he explained, was to assist government security forces in the event of a revolution by Japanese communists. Mishima had hoped to die fighting in an epic battle for the soul of Japan. When the revolution failed to occur, he revised his plan for martyrdom.

On the afternoon of November 25, 1970, Mishima and four of his men caused a disturbance at a Self-Defense Force base in central Tokyo. On a pretext of paying a social visit to the base commander, they took him hostage and barricaded themselves inside his office. Mishima used a sixteenth-century samurai sword to fight off rescue attempts by SDF officers and staff. After issuing a demand that all personnel at the base must assemble in front of the main building, Mishima spoke to them from the roof balcony for several minutes.

In his speech Mishima rebuked the SDF for their passive acceptance of a constitution that “denies [their] own existence” and challenged them to join him in trying to overturn it. “Where has the spirit of the samurai gone?” he shouted at them. Mishima’s other complaints were rather less specific. Japan had lost sight of its fundamental principles. The people had forsaken their history and traditions. The emperor was not being properly revered. The whole nation had sold its soul for money and materialism. All that lay ahead was spiritual emptiness. Receiving only boos and jeers in response, Mishima returned inside the building and committed suicide in the old samurai manner by cutting open his stomach and allowing himself to be decapitated by an assistant. Another of his men, the captain of the Shield Society, then killed himself in the same manner.

Mishima’s “failed coup,” as it was initially characterized, generated headlines around the world. Japan’s embarrassed leaders felt obliged to offer reassurances that Japan was not regressing toward the bellicose ultranationalism of its past. Mishima had surely gone insane, they said, and his bizarre stunt represented nothing that was true about Japan or the Japanese people. After a burst of nervous analysis this was also the consensus among Japan’s intelligentsia. For many years thereafter Mishima’s name was virtually taboo in his native country.

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When scholars and critics began to write about Mishima, many searched for explanations in his biography. Yet the events of Mishima’s formative years had not been extraordinary by the standards of his day. He was born in Tokyo in 1925, the first son of a civil servant with a modest claim to samurai ancestry. A sickly child, until the age of twelve Mishima was raised mainly by his grandmother, a neurotic and controlling woman. With his adoring mother he developed an intensely symbiotic relationship that never waned. Mishima published his first book, a collection of lyrical stories, in 1944.

In the same year, certain that he would soon be killed in the war, he wrote his last will and testament. He duly received his conscription notice but failed the army fitness test, a humiliation that almost certainly saved his life. After the war, Mishima earned a degree in law from the University of Tokyo and worked briefly at Japan’s Ministry of Finance before turning to writing full time. He married in his early thirties and had two children. Other than a few trips overseas, he spent his whole life in Tokyo.

It is easy to see that the samurai persona Mishima created for himself in his maturity was predicated on qualities he had lacked in his youth. The sickly, delicate, bookish boy, smothered in female power and too weak to join the emperor’s army, transformed himself into an athletic, dominant, hypermasculine warrior who now claimed to be too strong for the emperor’s army. It is equally clear that Mishima’s sanguinary death was the fulfillment of a morbid eroticism, something Mishima had done little to conceal. Confessions of a Mask describes, with a savage candor unprecedented in its day, a lust for sadomasochistic bloodletting directed at handsome male bodies. Virtually all of Mishima’s works are governed by a decadent aesthetic, according to which beautiful things (and, above all, beautiful young men) radiate their most intense beauty at the moment of their destruction.

These obsessions were not wholly idiosyncratic. Japanese boys of Mishima’s generation had no choice but to ruminate on death and to imagine how they were going to die. Most took it for granted that they would not live long past the age of twenty. Japan’s militarists had promoted an ideology of glorified death, exalting the virtue of “shattering like jewels” on the battlefield. For boys who absorbed this ideology yet who, like Mishima, did not actually go to war and who lived on after Japan’s defeat, the war years remained in their memory as an intoxicating encounter with danger and doom, an experience they could never recapture during the subsequent years of peace.

Such intoxication is at the heart of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. This novel chronicles the volatile feelings of a young monk toward the famous temple in Kyoto, where he serves an apprenticeship during the war. In the monk’s eyes, the temple appears most beautiful at the height of the war, when there is a possibility that it will be destroyed in an air raid. The temple becomes a symbol of his tragic longing, manifesting in sensuous form the evanescence of all things. When the war ends, however, the temple is undamaged and the monk seethes with resentment. This ultimately drives him toward an act of destruction that resembles a religious sacrifice.

Driven in part by such quasi-religious yearnings, Mishima had always dreamed of becoming a martyr. The challenge was to find a noble cause. Mishima believed he had found one in the fight against the infiltration into Japan of yet another foreign-born totalitarianism. He declared his position in the manifesto of the Shield Society:

  1. Communism is incompatible with Japanese traditions, culture, and history, and is contrary to the emperor system.
  2. The emperor is the sole symbol of our historical and cultural community and our racial identity.
  3. In view of the threat posed by communism, the use of violence is justifiable.

The emperor system has been a natural focal point for Japanese nationalism. Japan’s most ancient documents contain mythical genealogies of the first emperors, who are said to have founded the nation some 27 centuries ago. Largely isolated from political power, the emperors have long been revered as sacred figureheads of Japanese nationhood, and as mediators between the Japanese people and their many deities. One of Mishima’s complaints was that, with the spread in Japan of what he called “the hell of relativism,” emperorship was losing its sacred dimension. Soon all that will remain, Mishima grumbled, is “an emperor for the weekly tabloids.”

Mishima linked Japan’s “identity crisis” to wider trends toward globalization and the universalization of capitalist values. Mishima’s contention was that a culture can flourish only if it possesses a unified form of life. Yet Japanese culture, like cultures elsewhere, was being corroded by the West. Mishima’s final statements were full of doom and gloom:

I no longer have any great hopes for Japan. Each day deepens my feeling that Japan is ceasing to be Japan. Soon Japan will vanish altogether. In its place, all that will remain is an inorganic, empty, neutral, drab, wealthy, scheming, economic giant in a corner of the Far East. I will not listen any longer to people who are content with that prospect.

Japanese terrorists had already caught the world’s attention. Early in 1970, a group of militant Japanese communists calling themselves the Red Army Faction had begun an international campaign of violence using the sorts of methods that have come to typify modern terrorism: hijackings, kidnappings, and indiscriminate bombings and mass shootings of civilians. Mishima had angrily condemned the Red Army Faction, and with his own actions he intended to demonstrate a contrary spirit, a noble spirit he claimed was fading from Japan and from the modern world. Compared to the murderous terrorism of the Red Army Faction, Mishima’s outburst at the SDF base was carefully self-contained. The Shield Society used no firearms. Even the SDF officers later testified that Mishima had used his antique sword on them in such a way as to avoid causing serious injury.

The literary project that had occupied Mishima during his final years was a quartet of novels entitled The Sea of Fertility, a beautiful if ultimately inscrutable saga of redemption and rebirth. Mishima arranged for the final pages of the manuscript to be delivered to his publishers on the day of his death. He had wanted his death to constitute an event of historical importance, and it could perhaps be said that he accomplished this goal. Emperor Hirohito outlived Mishima by nearly two decades, passing away in 1989. As some Japanese commentators then felt able to admit, however, there was already a feeling that the spirit of Hirohito’s reign had faded away with Mishima. It was even suggested that Mishima’s theatrical masochism had functioned as a symbolic execution of the wartime emperor, and was thus a cathartic expiation of guilt that had helped the Japanese to move on from the past.

Mishima’s reputation has grown in the new century and today there is more serious interest in his work than ever before. Several new English translations of his works have recently appeared. In Japan, Mishima’s warnings of apathy toward tradition, of declining literary standards, of corporate greed and bureaucratic indifference to arts and culture, and other problems, strike a powerful chord among today’s readers, who recognize how much of Japan’s beauty has been lost.

Despite his most dire predictions, however, Japan has recovered from its identity crisis. Crucially, the radical ideas that erupted during the 1960s did not succeed in pervading the whole of Japanese society. Since then, decades of efforts by anti-nationalists to debunk Japanese claims of cultural uniqueness and racial homogeneity, to deconstruct Japan’s modern myths about its foundational origins, and to persuade the Japanese to feel more guilt about their past, have not produced significant results. Japan and its people remain strongly ethnocentric and, as in other East Asian nations, patriotic pride is a widespread default sentiment.

Japan’s imperial system is intact and Emperor Naruhito enjoys a high level of affection from his subjects. Japan’s political leadership is dominated by conservatives. They say they are committed to reforming Japan’s constitution so as to acknowledge plainly the nation’s right to defend itself with armed forces. They work to strengthen commonality and bonds of loyalty among the people by promoting awareness of shared cultural heritage. They encourage reverence for the imperial household, and respect for the national anthem and the national flag. Their popular slogans are effusions of patriotism: “A national character of beautiful traditions for tomorrow’s Japan.” If Mishima could see how Japan is faring, he might not be too pessimistic about its future survival.

Andrew Rankin is a British writer based in Tokyo. He earned his Ph.D. from the Japanese Department at Cambridge University. He is the author of Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist: An Intellectual Portrait (University of Hawai’i Press, 2018).

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