Yukio Mishima’s search for meaning in post-war Japan

The novelist’s grand finale was unnerving but his quest for his people’s native spirit lives on.
Yukio Mishima
Yukio Mishima delivers a speech encouraging an armed insurrection prior to killing himself through Seppuku. Credit: BNA Photographic / Alamy Stock Photo.
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Roars of derisive laughter greeted the man making an impromptu oration from a balcony. It was 25 November 1970, at the Tokyo headquarters of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces. The speaker, dressed in a tight-fitting suit emulating a military uniform, was urging members of those forces to rise up on behalf of the emperor and take part in a coup d’état. 

According to Japan’s American authored post-war settlement, the emperor was now a mere symbol of the nation, wielding no executive power. The waging of war was forever forsworn. ‘Is there no one,’ boomed the man, ‘who will hurl his body against the constitution?’

Not, it appeared, among this particular group of people. They saw before them someone comically out of touch with the times, indulging in theatrics — complete with costume and the striking of demagogic poses. 

An hour later, however, the mood had changed. The speaker was Yukio Mishima, one of modern Japan’s greatest novelists. And after his speech was over, he went back inside the building to perform ritual suicide by disembowelment, and was finally decapitated by a member of his small private militia, known as the Shield Society. It was a rare modern instance of seppuku, associated more with great warriors of the past, from Minamoto no Tametomo – whose death in 1170 was hailed in Japanese epic literature – to Oda Nobunaga, whose legendary efforts at reunifying a divided Japan were cut short by his death in 1582.

To some extent, both speech and subsequent suicide were indeed a sort of theatrics. Mishima had long been determined to die young(-ish) and beautiful, controlling his own narrative in as much detail and with as much colour and style as he did those of his characters across more than 30 novels, 70 plays and 170 short stories. Among the greatest of those works were Confessions of a Mask (1949), the semi-autobiographical story of a young gay man adopting a mask as a means of fitting into a hostile society, and The Sea of Fertility: a tetralogy completed right at the end of Mishima’s life, and intended to fulfil the author’s search for meaning in his life and writing. 

Mishima’s politics had never been entirely for show, and this is what unnerved people in Japan in the days and weeks following his spectacular demise. Fearing a return to the hot-blooded ultra-nationalist violence of the 1930s, politicians went as far as issuing statements urging members of the Self-Defence Forces and the young of the country in general not to be influenced by what Mishima had done. Part of their concern was that Japan seemed ripe for a revolution of some kind. Despite the country’s enviable peacefulness and wealth, during the proceeding decade, large numbers of people right across the political spectrum began to ask of their country’s post-war trajectory: ‘Is this it?’  

The Japanese had been sustained for a while after 1945 by a shared sense of shock – at the desperate living conditions and total defeat in war through which an authoritarian leadership had put them; and at news, filtering in, of the brutality with which the Japanese armed forces had prosecuted their wars in the Asia-Pacific. 

This had soon given way to the urgent, existential task of rebuilding, resulting by the late 1950s and early 1960s in an economic recovery so impressive that it was dubbed a ‘miracle’ in the international press. Urban Japan, in particular, had boomed, with new apartment blocks, new lifestyles, and new hopes for the future. 

Still, a new generation in Japan eventually came through, too young to have fought or to recall that era with clarity, who regarded material success as a poor substitute for meaning in life – as individuals, and as a nation. 

Besides, they asked, what was the cost of that success? School and university education that was at once punishing and narrowly pragmatic, doing little more than fitting youngsters for the world of work. That world, in turn, was so all-consuming that only an impoverished family life seemed possible, scarcely less regimented than school life and work life — short holidays, wholesome books and films, everyone seemingly doing similar things. 

Political radicals of the 1960s, sharing many of the concerns of counterparts across the Western world, spoke disparagingly, sometimes desperately, of ‘everydayness’: a soporific drudge out of which Japanese society must somehow be awoken.   

Yukio Mishima developed an intense interest in this decade of disquiet. He observed the street protests against Japan’s close but subservient security relationship with the US, and talked with Tokyo University students railing against uninspiring teachers and curricula. Mishima did not share the latter’s politics, which generally trended leftwards where his were shaped by an extreme, romantic patriotism. But he understood well the hunger for meaning, and the fear that Japan was learning to live without it. 

Mishima’s life and creations were full of all of sorts of attempts at finding, or feeling meaning – love, friendship and travel, alongside altogether darker, volent inclinations. The Sea of Fertility was his last literary exploration of meaning. His death was an attempt to attain it.   

Mishima’s invocation of the emperor on the balcony that day ruined his writerly reputation for a great many critics in Japan and abroad. Too much dirty work had been done, in decades past, in the name of the imperial house. And yet Mishima’s vision was mystical as well as political. He distinguished between ‘the emperor who is’ and ‘the emperor who should be’: between the often rather disappointing flesh-and-blood incumbent, in any given era, and a godlike father figure, binding and stirring a nation, setting it apart. Here was Mishima’s answer to the meaning question, asked at the national level. 

Perhaps people found Mishima’s grand finale unnerving not just because it appeared to hark back to the bad old days of not so long ago, but also because they found something familiar in his sense of longing — something that resonated in his charge that post-war Japanese were ‘losing their native spirit, pursuing the trivial without correcting the essential… leading themselves into spiritual emptiness’. Mishima’s own answer all but died with him; seppuku is vanishingly rare in Japan, and ultra-nationalist politics confined to the fringes. The question he was asking, however, lives on.  

Christopher Harding

Christopher Harding is a cultural historian specialising in modern India and Japan. He is a senior lecturer in Asian history at the University of Edinburgh.

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