Yukio Mishima’s enduring, unexpected influence

As the country marks the 45th anniversary of the prolific postwar novelist’s death this week, we take a step back 
to examine his ongoing legacy

by Damian Flanagan

Special To The Japan Times

Forty-five years ago this week — at just after 10 a.m. on the bright, cold morning of Nov. 25, 1970 — a telephone rang at the Tokyo home of popular enka singer Hideo Murata. On the line was author Yukio Mishima, a man who in the short space of his 45 years had lived life more fully than perhaps seemed possible for one human being.

Unfortunately, Murata was not home to take the call but he would have surely been thrilled. Mishima was, after all, arguably the best-connected man in Japan, hobnobbing not just with all the literary elite, but also with politicians, generals, newspaper editors and foreign celebrities. He had written 80 plays and 25 novels, starred in movies, directed plays and produced his own film. He had even conducted an orchestra and flown an F-106 jet.

Yet when Mishima was told that the singer was more than 350 km away in Gifu Prefecture, he persisted and asked for Murata’s telephone number there. Mishima dialed the number in Gifu, but still couldn’t get through. The great author had only met Murata twice, once for about half an hour 4½ years before and then once more two years later. Why would Mishima be calling?

Mishima apparently had a fondness for Murata’s song “Battle of Souls” and, that morning, the singer had been included on a list of artists who would appear on “Kohaku Uta Gassen,” NHK’s popular annual music competition that is screened on New Year’s Eve. Murata had been chosen for a 10th successive year and Mishima was calling to extend his congratulations.

The phone call was not in itself unusual, but this was no ordinary day. Mishima’s telephone call was to be the writer’s last civil and civilian act. In a seemingly impossible leap of logic, less than an hour later, Mishima and four members of his private army, the Shield Society, had gagged and bound the general of the country’s Eastern Army at his Tokyo headquarters before demanding that Ground Self-Defense Force members assemble in front of the building to listen to a call to arms. The “Mishima incident” — the never-to-be-forgotten “JFK moment” of postwar Japanese history — had begun.

Within two hours of his attempted phone call to Murata, Mishima had stood in military uniform on a balcony at the headquarters and addressed about 1,000 servicemen on the need to revoke the country’s pacifist Constitution before being shouted down in a sea of jeers.

Then, together with his probable lover Masakatsu Morita, he committed an excruciating ritual suicide and was decapitated. Mishima’s severed head, still sporting his “Seven Lives for the Nation” headband, would come to rest on the red carpet and eventually be snapped by an Asahi photographer for the front-page of that evening’s edition, the biggest selling evening edition in the country’s history.

In the intervening 45 years, countless words have been written about the incident, with writers managing to find a host of literary, psycho-sexual and narcissistic reasons why Mishima died that morning. Like the famous Akira Kurosawa period drama “Rashomon” — in which an incident is recounted through the eyes of different witnesses, producing radically different versions of the same event — the Mishima incident that took place on Nov. 25, 1970, would be constantly reinterpreted according to the viewpoint of the person struggling to make sense of it.

On the day of his death, from the highest echelons of power, everyone in Japan began to feel its impact. Mishima had timed his assault to occur on the same morning as the official opening of the Diet, with the Emperor himself in attendance and the prime minister delivering an important speech on the government’s agenda for the coming year. The contents of the speech would, however, be completely crushed into insignificance by overwhelming media coverage of Mishima’s actions. When the news hit the Diet, the secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Kakuei Tanaka (who two years later was to become prime minister), mumbled, “What stupidity!” Tanaka lived near Mishima’s father-in-law, Yasushi Sugimura, and had personal contact with the writer.

Yasuhiro Nakasone, then-minister of Defense and also a future prime minister, heard news of the general being taken prisoner while changing out of his morning suit. A leading proponent of constitutional reform, he had enjoyed warm relations with Mishima. That morning, fearing his political career had been put on the line and wishing to resolve the situation quickly, Nakasone ordered his deputy chief of staff to arrest Mishima and his accomplices. However, his deputy refused, arguing that it was strictly a police matter.

Reactions amongst the literati, meanwhile, varied dramatically.

“My perspective is completely different from Mishima’s but I can’t understand it, can’t make sense of it,” said Kozon Fukuda, who had been Mishima’s colleague a decade earlier in a literary cabal called the Potted Tree Group. “I don’t know what actually happened and, going forward, I probably never will understand.”

In contrast, Mishima’s political sympathizer, Fusao Hayashi, in an article called “Eulogy,” published in 1971, wrote, “I firmly believe that the principled death of Mishima and his young accomplice was an important human sacrifice, the first and greatest attempt to stop Japan’s landslip, to shake out of lethargy the ‘spiritually old men’ who, sitting contentedly on the mountain of deceit about the ‘pacifist Constitution’ and the ‘Economic Superpower,’ have caused the country to collapse to the very edge of destruction and turned the beautiful (or, at least, what should be beautiful) nation of Japan into an ugly pit of “economic animals” and “free riders.'”

On the day of his death, an old friend, Atsuko Yuasa, visited Mishima’s house and went into his study. She observed open packets of senbei rice crackers and peanuts, four or five Peace cigarettes extinguished in water, and a cutting from a newspaper that Mishima had probably re-read the day before.

In an interview in the Asahi on Sept. 22, Mishima had been asked, “What is the passion that drives you?” He replied, “Being brought up during the war and being told at the age of 20 that everything until then had been a mistake — that’s all.”

A public memorial service for Mishima took place at Honganji Temple in Tsukiji on Jan. 24, 1971, and attracted a crowd of around 10,000 people. Middle-aged men threw ¥1,000 and ¥5,000 notes onto the altar. They fluttered off in the wind and had to be returned by clerks, while housewives with babies on their backs had tears in their eyes. A black cloth was laid on the altar with Mishima’s photo in the middle surrounded by white chrysanthemums. A private service inside the temple earlier that day had been led by novelist Yasunari Kawabata as chief mourner, who regretted that he had won the Nobel Prize for literature instead of his erstwhile protege.

For several years afterward, the specter of right-wing extremism hovered around Mishima’s legacy. Someone sent chrysanthemums to Mishima’s home on the 25th of every month, and statues to Mishima and Morita started appearing as early as January 1971.

Reports of high school student suicides inspired by Mishima soon appeared. Mishima’s ashes were stolen in 1971 before being recovered in December. The literary world, flummoxed at how to respond to events, had largely stayed away from the funeral service but turned up in force for a first anniversary ceremony.

In 1975, when four right-wing militants, including several former Shield Society members and worshippers of Mishima, stormed the offices of the Japanese Business Federation and took 12 hostages, it was Mishima’s widow, Yoko, who personally intervened and talked them into releasing them.

By the 1980s, wherever you lived in the world, you did not have to seek Mishima out — he was pretty hard to avoid. The photos of him posing with bulging muscles, sword aloft, bandana in place and a steely glare had burned into the world’s consciousness forever. As one of the first writers adept at manipulating the media and stage-managing his image in an age of celebrity, he was the one Japanese writer that everyone in the West had heard about, albeit not always for the best reasons.

From the mid-1990s, though, things began to change. Mishima was gradually displaced by Haruki Murakami as the one Japanese writer with whom everyone was cognisant in the West. Intriguingly, Murakami’s novel “A Wild Sheep Chase” begins on the day of the Mishima incident, as if signaling that Murakami’s Japan begins on the day that Mishima’s ended. While Murakami’s novels may be filled with mysteries and riddles, the Mishima incident looms large as a haunting enigma of modern Japan

And not just Japan. Mishima’s influence manifests itself in the most unexpected of places. For example, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs during the Bosnian war — Radovan Karadzic, currently charged in the Netherlands with 11 counts of war crimes, including genocide and crimes against humanity — was a passionate fan of Mishima, compelling novelist Taro Miwa to investigate how Karadzic’s appreciation of Mishima connects to the unfolding of modern Serbian history.

Renowned poet Mutsuo Takahashi, an associate of Mishima back in the ’60s, believes Mishima actually exemplifies a common condition of Japanese youth today: disaffected, desperately looking for a sense of identity and inclined toward fantasy.

“Mishima anticipated the weak sense of identity in today’s youth; you could say he laid down his life for them,” he said in 2011.

Scholar Susan Napier even sees strong ties between Mishima and anime director Hayao Miyazaki.

“Mishima and Miyazaki are intriguingly similar in their disillusionment with modern Japan, even modernity in general,” Napier said. “Both offer aesthetic visions as critiques of or compensations for the bleakness of the modern condition.”

In today’s Japan, the debate about the potential need for constitutional revision is at the top of the agenda of many mainstream conservative Japanese politicians. Yet fearing to be tarnished by association, few dare to mention the name Mishima, who was making many of the same arguments then as they are now.

Some, however, aren’t afraid of speaking out. TV celebrity and renowned film director Takeshi “Beat” Kitano, for example, has noted that nothing encapsulates the quagmire of contemporary Japan better than Mishima’s “Declaration of Protest” leaflet that was distributed on the day of his death.

Mishima once famously told his wife that “even if I am not immediately understood, it’s OK because I’ll be understood by the Japan of 50 or 100 years time.”

But even now, 45 years after his death, there is still little consensus in analysis of Mishima’s life and motives. It has been observed that many who feel love and respect for Mishima’s writings try to see in his actions a social critique, whereas critics see in them only a narcissistic romanticism.

The diversity of viewpoints on Mishima is partly due to the fact that his own behavior was completely schizophrenic.

For example, less than a month before the Mishima incident, on Oct. 29, 1970, Mishima had dinner with the boss of the Seibu Department Store and reportedly told him that “Literature is impotent. In the end you have to act.”

In the week before his death, however, he provided a different insight.

“To me, finishing this (his four-volume ‘The Sea of Fertility’) is nothing more than the end of the world,” he wrote on Nov. 18, 1970, in a letter to his old mentor, Fumio Kiyomizu. “I once wrote about the great temple of Bayon in Cambodia in the play ‘The Terrace of the Leper King,’ but this novel itself is my Bayon.”

Depending on who he was addressing, Mishima would switch from declaring that his life’s work meant nothing to him to pronouncing that it meant the world itself.

That Mishima’s literary oeuvre will continue to inspire is beyond question; the interpretation of his final act, however — and the purported political motives behind it — is still subject to as much difference of opinion and controversy now as it was back in 1970.

Damian Flanagan is author of “Yukio Mishima,” published by Reaktion Books. A new edition of Eikoh Hosoe’s “Ordeal by Roses” has just been published by Asuka International.