Born in 1925, Yukio Mishima was the greatest Japanese writer of the postwar era and a serious candidate for the Nobel Prize. A brilliant novelist, he was also a playwright, stage actor, director, movie star, and orchestra conductor. But he was not content with artistic fame and became a political activist. In the aftermath of the defeat and destruction of Japan, he was disgusted with the decay of the national spirit and the loss of traditional values. For all his scorn of modern life, he was also adept at public relations. He established a glamorous public persona, arranged his own publicity with an adoring press, and created his own legend. An expert swordsman, he aspired to be a military leader and founded a rightwing paramilitary cadre, the Shield Society, whose members he dressed in handsomely designed uniforms. His personality was pathological, morbid, and masochistic, and his whole narcissistic career seems to have been driven by a death wish. But he did not succumb to depression nor surrender his life to drugs or the gas oven. When he could not rally the masses to his point of view, he decided to stage his own spectacular suicide, in a traditional seppuku, or ritual disemboweling. Many modern writers have killed themselves, but Mishima's was an unusual and politically motivated act. He did not want to die as a literary man but, by uniting art and action, as the warrior he had never been but always wished to be. Like the Buddhist monk who immolated himself in Saigon in 1963 to protest the corrupt Diem government, Mishima hoped his death would spark a revolution in thought and conduct. What was the effect of Mishima's suicide? At the time it certainly drew attention to the writer and his work-it was "a good career move," in the famous words of the poet Anne Sexton-but it did not find favor with the Japanese military
or people. Recently I had the opportunity to record the response of an eyewitness to this strange episode: Tetsuo Oe, who was a thirty-nine-year-old major at the time. On November 25, 1970, Mishima and four members of his militia entered the headquarters of the Japanese Self-Defense Force (JSDF) in Tokyo. Previously Mishima had used his privileged position to secure permission for his group to go on maneuvers with the army. He was well known to the high command and readily admitted to the building. His men immediately captured, bound, and gagged the commandant, General Masuda, and barricaded his office. They threatened to execute him with a sword if he did not order his eight hundred soldiers to gather in the courtyard of the building to hear Mishima's speech. He would exhort them on the need to revive, in what he considered the spineless postwar democracy, the noble samurai spirit of ancient Japan that had been extinguished after the humiliating defeat in World War II. (This same spirit, which had inspired the disastrous militarism of the 1930s, also led to the Rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, and, finally, to the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) His planned half-hour speech did not go over well, and after seven minutes he was jeered and shouted down by the angry troops. In his story "Patriotism," Mishima gave a morbid foreshadowing of his own seppuku. The hero draws a short sword across his own abdomen and disgorges his entrails, like a picador's horse in a Spanish bullfight: "The vomiting made the fierce pain fiercer still, and the stomach, which had thus far remained firm and compact, now abruptly heaved, opening wide its wound, and the entrails burst through, as if the wound too were vomiting.... The entrails gave an impression of robust health and almost disagreeable vitality as they A slipped smoothly out and spilled over into the crotch .... After his speech failed, Mishima raw smell filled the room." returned to the general's office and turned his violent impulses against himself. He committed the seppuku he'd imagined in his story and exemplified the militaristic spirit that the army had failed to uphold. In this agonizing ritual, he drew a dagger with both hands across his stomach and spilled out his intestines like a mass of bloody snakes. After this vivisection, one of his followers-using an ancient, well-tempered
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long sword and needing three full strokes-slashed off his head. Major Oe had entered the JSDF as an officer cadet in 1954, and in 1970 was chief of the Intelligence Unit, specializing in the Vietnam peace movement, at the East Defense headquarters. He retired in 1984 with the rank of lieutenant colonel. In June 2010, forty years after Mishima's death, he answered my questions in an interview in Tokyo with his daughter, Ayumi Littlewood, who translated his responses into English. A professional soldier, born six years after Mishima, Colonel Oe, unlike the crowd of angry soldiers, was sympathetic to Mishima's Shield Society. He believed that Mishima was disappointed in the rebellious students of the new left, who worshipped people like Che Guevara but weren't committed enough to accept martyrdom. He saw his private army as part of the attempt to restore the spiritual health of Japan. Originally it was called the National Defense Army, but this was later changed to avoid confusion with far-right organizations, which usually had yakuza (criminal gang) connections. His army didn't really take off, but it was some sort of achievement that Masakatsu Morita, who was a rebel student, worshipped Mishima and died alongside him by seppuku. On that fateful day, Colonel Oe recalled, I heard a brief conversation inside the general's room, but was not sure exactly what was said, and also heard Mishima's aborted speech. I still clearly remember the scene when I looked through the broken window in the general's office and saw Mishima's body soon after the incident. Mishima's face was so pale that he scarcely looked alive. Morita was shouting something and walking round the room like a bear in a cage. General Masuda was tied up in the armchair, and Chibi Koga was holding a dagger to his neck. I saw the accountant-general running along the corridor to his office with a sword gash on his back. Colonel Oe thought the army officers, though taken by complete surprise, had performed as well as they could under difficult circumstances:
Mishima acted in the belief that the JSDF would support him, and his move was completely unexpected. The JSDF couldn't have predicted it. Mishima was ready to die, and his men took the general hostage. If the JSDF had forced its way in, the general would probably have lost his life. It wasn't perfectly handled, but at least no one was killed by Mishima and his associates. Colonel Oe believed General Masuda had acted honorably, but was wrongly held responsible for the disaster: As it happens, General Masuda had witnessed a colleague's seppuku in 1945 (and he himself later died during an operation for stomach cancer). He was a great man. In spite of being taken hostage, he gave orders after the incident that the eyes of the dead should be closed. He took responsibility and resigned, even though he had no idea of what Mishima intended to do on that day. The two generals who arranged Mishima's visit to headquarters escaped any fallout from the incident. They are really the people who should bear responsibility. I remember an air force captain in tears, saying how sorry he was for Masuda, who had known nothing about it. According to Colonel Oe, Mishima was not a self-destructive madman, but a self-sacrificial patriot: No one was more genuinely concerned about the state of the nation than Mishima. The more Japan prospered after World War II, the more the spirit of the Japanese people degenerated. Mishima felt this and cared about it. He couldn't change society, but I admired his passion and the belief that made him give his life to try to restore the spirit of the Japanese people. Mishima's suicide/seppuku was an expression of his anger. I thought so at the time and still think so. The immediate results of Mishima's suicide were negative, and his army and political movement ended with his death. But Colonel Oe felt the long-term effects would be regenerative: What Mishima did might be seen as a bizarre act in peacetime, but it came from his belief that people's moral and spiritual values were drifting in the wrong direction. He wanted to stop this. A hundred or two hundred years from
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now, there may be people who will look back on his act as a purifying force. Colonel Oe's remarkably clear recollections throw new light on this crucial event in modern Japanese history. He vividly recalled-like images in a movie-Mishima's pale dying face, the dagger pointed at General Masuda's neck and the sword gash on the back of the officer who dashed down the hallway. Oe defended the army's restrained response to the bizarre situation, and praised Masuda for nobly taking the blame for his colleagues' mistakes. Unlike most Japanese, then and now, he felt that Mishima was an idealistic leader rather than a deranged megalomaniac and that his sacrificial action would one day be seen in a more positive way. To one soldier at least it had meaning and value.
Author: Meyers, Jeffrey Title: Mishima's Suicide Source: Mich Q Rev 49 no4 Fall 2010 p. 606-10 ISSN: 0026-2420 Publisher: University of Michigan, Michigan Quarterly Review Michigan Quarterly Review, 3032 Rackham Building, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1070
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