The Riddle of Yukio Mishima

“Does this make sense?” We must ask that question when we look across cultures and times. So, how to explain Yukio Mishima and his brand of literate right-wing fanaticism?

Born into an old Samurai family in 1925 in Tokyo, the boy was essentially kidnapped by his paternal grandmother. She kept him isolated in her apartments, forbade him to go out into the sun, and only permitted him to play occasionally with female cousins and their dolls.

She encouraged him to read and write. He adored Hans Christian Anderson and Oscar Wilde, cherished European culture and philosophy, especially Nietzsche and the late Romantics, as well as Samurai classics.

He was clapped back to his father’s side at age 12. Concerned that his mother had sissified the boy, Daddy did things such as holding Mishima up to the side of speeding trains.

Mishima attended the most prestigious boy’s school in Japan, still writing in secret. When the War in the Pacific (WWII) was announced, he burned to fight for the Empire and die for the Emperor. But he was so scrawny that even when virtually anyone was being drafted, he was unable to lift the 100-pound bag of rice that proved your worthiness. Instead, he worked in a plant manufacturing Kamikaze aircraft.

Emperor Hirohito’s radio broadcast surrendering to allied forces in 1945 made Mishima vow to protect Japanese culture and the Emperor. He would first create a serviceable body, and began wildly rigorous training, including weights, karate, and Kendo (the Way of the Sword)

Mishima published a novel in 1950, Confessions of a Mask. Steeped in patriotic historiography and homoeroticism, it blazed across Japanese best seller lists and onto many European ones as well. Disciplined and prolific, he churned out well over 20,000 pages of popular fiction, high literature, essays, dozens of traditional Noh plays, as well as writing, directing and starring in a feature length movie, all within a 20-year span.

Death, blood, and suicide figure in much of his work. Not the suicide of a barbiturate bottle or a sudden cry of “Oh, happy dagger!” No, this was seppuku, the tightly planned ritual that denotes an act of honor, or broad protest.

In 1968 he recruited right wing college students into the Tatenokai (Shield Society). It was a private army of about 100 men, formed from Mishima’s deeply unsettled alarm over the direction of the country. With left-wing protests nationwide, he feared a replication of the violent 1960 riots that brought down a conservative government and repudiated traditionalist cultural elements. Tatenokai’s stated purpose was to assist the army in the event of a communist revolution. And as “an experiment in purity.”

Tatenokai engaged in rigorous physical training, including kendo.  Mishima’s sway as a literary Lion and his growing political influence meant Tatenokai were allowed to train with the nation’s armed forces.

On November 25, 1970, Mishima and four Tatenokai, including his lover Masakatsu Morita, seized control of the Force’s headquarters and attempted to rally the soldiers to stage a coup d’état and restore Imperial rule. Everyone was stunned when Mishima’s men seized and threatened to kill the general unless all base personnel were immediately summoned to hear the author speak.

Mishima strutted out onto a large balcony and addressed 2,000 military staff on the parade ground below. Some 24 years earlier, this had been the venue for the International Military Tribunal where dozens of high-ranking Japanese officers and politicians were tried for war crimes.

Mishima shouted this was our home and the only place where we could breathe in today’s Japan, which wallows in consumerist hypocrisy, forgetting the fundamentals of the nation, and they must join him in re-establishing the Emperor’s political supremacy. He was heckled and booed. He retired to the general’s office and began his meticulously prepared seppuku.

Plunging a short sword into his abdomen and then agonizingly pulling it across his stomach, his lover Morita Masakatsu then attempted to behead him, thus ending the torment and providing a seal for the act. Too unskilled, the decapitation was made by another. Masakatsu then performed his seppuku, and was likewise decapitated. The two men’s heads, already beautifully made up, were set side by side..

10,000 people marched behind Mishima’s coffin as it made its way to a Shinto shrine. In the years since, many memorial cenotaphs and even a shrine have been erected to honor him.

Mishima’s final act was a political protest – but also death as art.