Britain feared a revival of militarism after Mishima’s suicide

by Yasushi Funatsu

LONDON — The dramatic suicide by Japanese writer and nationalist Yukio Mishima after his failed attempt to foment a coup in 1970 triggered British concern about a revival of militarism in Japan, according to 30-year-old declassified British documents released on New Year’s Day.

The papers, dispatched by the British Embassy in Tokyo immediately after Mishima’s death to the Foreign and Defense ministries in London, pointed to Mishima’s appeal against the Nonproliferation Treaty, which took effect only eight months before his failed effort to stage a coup.

“The most interesting part of (Mishima’s) appeal may be the reference to the Nonproliferation Treaty,” the embassy wrote in one of the documents, suggesting a close watch be kept on how rightists reacted to the treaty.

The embassy noted that the NPT was perceived by some Japanese as being equivalent to a prewar treaty that had given the U.S. and British navies a fixed size advantage over Japan’s.

In the afternoon of Nov. 25, 1970, Mishima — heading a group of four followers — committed ritual harakiri and was subsequently beheaded by one of his young colleagues, ending his life at 45 at the Ground Self-Defense Force Eastern Army Headquarters in Ichigaya, Tokyo.

Mishima killed himself after making an unsuccessful plea to the Self-Defense Forces to take action to shake off the constitutional constraints on the SDF and re-establish the prewar spiritual virtues of self-sacrifice for the Emperor and country.

Another document revealed that the commanding general of the GSDF in Kyushu had made “frank remarks about military frustration with civilian control” shortly before the Mishima incident in the presence of Lt. Gen. Kanetoshi Mashita, commanding general of the Eastern Army, who knew Mishima well.

Mashita was taken hostage when Mishima and his four young disciples of the Tate no Kai (Shield Society), a paramilitary organization he led, managed to enter the Eastern Army Headquarters.

Mishima established himself as a highly acclaimed novelist with the publication of highbrow novels such as “Confession of a Mask” and “The Golden Pavilion.”

He was also a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature, but failed to win because — many believe — he was too young.

In his ultranationalistic appeal, Mishima said, “Where is the samurai’s soul? Where are you, a colossal arsenal without soul, going? There were some businessmen who called the government’s politicians traitors after the textile negotiations (with the United States). However, since the NPT was related to the grand strategy for the nation and it was obviously the reproduction of the prewar unequal treaty (with Britain and the U.S.), there appeared no SDF general who committed ritual suicide in protest.”

An embassy document dispatched Dec. 1, 1970, paid special attention to these remarks, saying, “It is not unusual for many Japanese in conversation to compare the NPT with the naval agreements of the interwar years as perpetuating Japanese inferiority.”

The naval disarmament treaty signed at a conference in Washington in 1921 put the ratio for major warships for Britain, the U.S. and Japan at 5:5:3. The treaty caused frustration among Japanese naval officers committed to expansionism.