Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Facts about Mishima

This article in the Christian Science Monitor contains a rather odd mistake. It's about the new nationalism sweeping Japan, and so of course there's mention of Mishima Yukio (nee Hiraoka Kimitake) - easily Japan's most brilliant postwar writer. Mishima was also a closet homosexual and something of a rabid nationalist, so thoroughly politically incorrect that he's largely ignored in lots of Japan studies departments these days - despite being widely recognized as more talented than Kawabata Yasunari - Japan's first postwar Nobel Prize winner in Literature. (Kawabata was his literary mentor and himself famously stated that Mishima was the kind of genius who comes along once in 300 years - that his genius was of the whole world, and not just Japan.)

Anyway - the point is that one of the events in postwar Japanese history that has had a marked effect on the public psyche was Mishima's ritual suicide in the office of Japanese Defence Forces General Mashita Kanetoshi. Mishima and members of his gang of jackboots had taken over a building at JSDF headquarters (in what I've always considered a delicious table-turning on the actions of student protestors at Berkeley and Kent State - in fact, some of the soldiers who assembled to hear his speech initially assumed it was leftist radicals who had kidnapped the general and barricaded his office). Mishima spoke from a balcony, hoping to spark a coup d'etat restoring the monarchy and military government. Probably he knew he speech would fail, and he was well-prepared for ritual suicide via seppuku (slashing of the stomach with a sword, after which an attendant is supposed to cut off your head. In Mishima's case - the attendant tried three times and failed, which rumor has it is because he was secretly Mishima's lover - but is taken by many on the right in Japan as a symbol of the decline of Samurai culture: people are simply out of practice at "Kaishaku," the art of decapitating in a single stroke.). Mishima had put his affairs in order, leaving a substantial amount of money for the defense trials of the attendants (the person who failed to decapitate him also committed seppuku), having finished the last chapter of his last novel the night before, and having composed ritual poems before the takeover.

Probably Mishima's suicide stemmed from feelings of guilt at having essentially dodged the draft in WWII. He was called to fight in 1945 at the age of 20 - already suspiciously late for a citizen of a highly militaristic nation teetering on the brink of total defeat. Clearly, he had never tried to volunteer. Mishima was suffering from a cold at the time and misled the military doctor into thinking it was tuberculosis. (The doctor might not have really wanted him anyway: Mishima at the time was very weak, as he had been all his life. He beefed up starting in 1955, when he became serious about his fascism and undertook a thrice-weekly exercise regimine involving weightlifting. He was in good shape at the time of his death.) And so he joins the ranks of a long and sordid history of right-wingers who advocate war despite never having been willing to serve themselves (notable exception: Adolf Hitler, who was wounded and twice decorated in combat. However, he was never a proper soldier, being instead responsible for delivering messages to the front. In an interesting historical double-irony, Hitler was passed over for promotion because of "lack of leadership skills" - though one of his recent biographers speculates that it might have had more to do with his lack of German citizenship. Either way...). I have mixed feelings about whether his suicide lets him off the hook, but no doubts that his nationalism was genuine (i.e. he wasn't seeking power).

The point is, Mishima's suicide is a monumental event in postwar Japan. True, he was jeered off the stage by the assembled soldiers below and finished his planned 30-minute speech barely three minutes in. But the result was a media spectacle - still widely discussed in the press when I lived in Japan in the late 90s. The Christian Science Monitor, however, incorrectly identifies his method of suicide as "jumping to his death." In fact, they're wrong on several counts:

Photos in "Will" this year depicted fascist author Yukio Mishima standing atop the high command in 1970 in a military uniform, minutes before he jumped to his death. Mr. Mishima's private army had just failed to take control of the building.

Mishima's private army had, in fact, "taken control of the building," or rather of the general's office, though they knew they couldn't hold it for long. Seven men were injured trying to free the general - one nearly losing his left hand to Mishima's sword. And Mishima most certainly did not jump to his death (he might have survived the fall anyway - I'm not sure how high up the balcony was. The most exact description I could find was here.). It is well-known that he killed himself inside the General's office (the General watching in horror) by slicing open his stomach. Finally - a minor detail - Mishima's uniform was not really "a military uniform," but was rather the uniform of his own militia.

The Christian Science Monitor - it turns out - isn't the only major American publication to get important details wrong about the incident. Time, for example, reports that Mishima "stripped to the waist" (he did not - he killed himself in uniform) and that Morita Masakatsu decapitated him in one stroke. In fact, it is well-known that it was Koga Hiroyasu who finally decapitated Mishima (with one stroke) after Morita failed three times (once when Mishima leaned forward and was gashed across the back).

There is no excuse. The Christian Science Monitor is reporting on the revival of militarism in Japan. No postwar incident is more connected with this than Mishima's suicide, so you'd think they'd bother to do their homework. Even less credit goes to Time, whose article was 5 pages about the Mishima exclusively. Incredible.


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