by Colin Dickey
Nevertheless, whenever one sought after the ultimate sensation, the
moment of victory was always an insipid sensation. Ultimately, the opponent—the“reality
that stares back at one”—is death. Since death, it seems, will
yield to no one, the glory of victory can be nothing more than a purely
worldly glory in its highest form.
Each failure is a masterpiece, another branch of the rhizome.
—Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze
By 1970, Yukio Mishima was among Japan’s most celebrated writers. In the span of twenty-five years he had written over two-dozen novels and as many plays, several volumes of poetry and essays. Forty-five years old, he had won nearly all of the available literary prizes in Japan, and had been short-listed for the Nobel Prize three times. Before becoming a national disgrace, he was a national treasure. As the Sixties drew to a close, his politics veered radically to the right and he founded the Tatenokai, or Shield Society, a proto-military organization dedicated to protecting the Emperor and reawakening nineteenth century samurai values in Japan’s new hyper-consumer culture. On November 25, 1970, he and four cadets took the Commandant of the Japanese Self-Defense Force hostage, and demanded that the garrison stationed in Tokyo assemble to hear a speech. His stated intention was to incite the Army to rise up and take control of the government by military coup, turn out the leftist elements controlling Japan, and reinstate the Emperor as a sovereign divinity and political ruler. Standing on a balcony overlooking the crowd, surrounded by media helicopters, Mishima delivered his speech. He had intended to speak for a half an hour, but the troops before him jeered at him and refused to listen, and after only a few minutes he returned to the Commandant’s office and committed seppuku, ritual suicide in a bizarre mixture of political protest and reactionary ideology. This essay is an attempt to assess what value (if any) Mishima has in terms of the nature of his protest and its relationship to his aesthetics as they developed through his writing. Mishima as a historical figure remains both disturbing and compelling, because the nature of his protest suggests a sharp critique not only of capitalism and Western aesthetics, but also of some of the roots which lie beneath them.
Discussions of Mishima’s legacy in the years since 1970 have by and
large attempted to distance his writing from his politics. Primarily this
was because Mishima’s politics—a return to the samurai ethos,
a call to Japan to regain its former imperial status, a desire to reinstate
the emperor as a sovereign and divine being—were deeply offensive to
a country still trying to get over the shame of its defeat in World War II
and still coming to grips with the aggressive militarism that had driven
it. The ideological myths of Japan had been dismantled, the Emperor had revealed
himself to be a normal man, and no one was in a mood to see these myths rebuilt.
While his image as a literary genius remains relatively intact, this is because
it has been divorced from the political ideology that increasingly preoccupied
him in the 1960’s.
Likewise contemporary reappraisals of his politics often ignore his literary
legacy, seeking instead to write Mishima into the pre-history of WTO protests
and anti-American fatwas. Indeed, his politics lend him to this history quite
easily, and though Mishima’s protest predates much of the anti-globalization
movements by two decades, his anti-American, intensely nationalist stance
(however distasteful it seemed at the time) anticipates much of contemporary
global resistance. As John Nathan writes,“Mishima’s life is properly
seen as a paradigm of the cultural ambivalence that has plagued Japan since
the country was pried open 140 years ago. I refer to the national struggle
to find an authentic‘self’by reconciling two disparate and often
irreconcilable cultures—one native, inherent, and grounded in tradition,
the other foreign and intractable.1”Furthermore,
Marguerite Yourcenar, in her book Mishima: A Vision of the Void, ties Mishima
more explicitly into the anti-Western movements which were just burgeoning
at this time, and which eventually coalesced around radical Islam as the
main force of resistance against American-style global capitalism:
We have seen too well how many countries, believed Westernized, or about to become Westernized, and apparently content with being Westernized, are full of surprises, and how, in each case, the upheavals are the work of small groups at first disdained or treated with irony. If a national and reactionary revolution ever triumphs, even briefly, in Japan—as has happened now in certain Islamic countries—the Shield Society will have been its forerunner.2
This perspective is valid, and important, but it threatens to obscure what separates Mishima from other anti-globalization protests, namely his literary legacy, and the ideas laid out in his books. Mishima’s action would not be the first suicide for political reasons, nor the last. What separates him from other such protests (including the recent suicide of a Korean farmer at the Cancun WTO meetings) is that Mishima’s suicide is almost entirely formed by the literary and aesthetic ideology he had developed. It seems clear that Mishima came to see his political action as the next stage of his literary project. Rather than see Mishima as one more protest against American Imperialism, it seems necessary to view Mishima’s suicide as an outgrowth of his literary aesthetics, informed as they are by Western philosophy and literature.
Mishima’s metaphysics fall squarely in line with traditional Western divisions between the world of things and the world of ideas. This dualism was first articulated by Plato, in the Republic, famously dividing the world between the abstract world of forms and the lived reality of experience. Descartes’Meditations, the founding text of Modern Western philosophy, is based on this cleavage between the mind that perceives and the corporeal world of objects which are perceived, and the thrust of philosophy since Descartes has involved the gradual recognition that the actual world itself may not be reachable, that we may not be able to escape the world of abstract forms or language. In the twentieth-century, Jacques Derrida has been bent on overturning this dualism, but his preoccupation with it only shows the extent to which it still animates Western metaphysics. Mishima was well versed in Western philosophy and his aesthetic ideas reflect this. He saw at the core of his personal and artistic dilemma a conflict between a physical reality and the language used to describe that physical reality.
When I examine closely my early childhood, I realize that my memory of words reaches back far farther than my memory of the flesh. In the average person, I imagine, the body precedes language. In my case, words came first of all; then—belatedly, with every appearance of extreme reluctance, and already clothed in concepts—came the flesh. It was, as goes without saying, sadly wasted by words.3
His project, as he described it, is a search for a way to transcend the
sickly world of words he felt trapped in, a way to experience the world of
action that lay beyond it. Much of his writings belie a deep distrust of
language, that language not only fails to capture the world of flesh but
also actively destroys it.“Words are a medium that reduces reality
to abstraction for transmission to our reason, and in their power to corrode
reality inevitably lurks the danger that the words themselves will be corroded
too. It might be more appropriate, in fact, to liken their action to that
of excess stomach fluids that digest and gradually eat away the stomach itself.4”
In Western literature, a similar belief in the failure of language or art
to represent reality led to the birth of modernism. The realism of the nineteenth-century,
epitomized in the novels of Balzac and Zola, or in the plays of Ibsen and
Shaw, was based on a core belief that words can accurately and vividly represent
the reality of experience, that there is a one-to-one correspondence between
the two without problems. In the wake of World War One, though, a new generation
of writers emerges, writers who no longer accept the possibility of any direct
correlation between words and experience. The high modernism of Faulkner,
Joyce, Kafka and Mann, of The Sound and the Fury or Ulysses, is characterized
by the way language comes to represent its own inability to represent the
thing-in-itself, the world of things which are put forever out of reach of
the world of words.
In and of itself, then, there is nothing new in Mishima’s point of
view. What separates him is his response to this dilemma. Despite having
the same suspicion of words, Mishima, writing in the wake of World War II,
doesn’t adopt the same formal aesthetic. Though he cited Thomas Mann
as his favorite Western author, his writings are hardly modernist, and bear
closer resemblance to nineteenth-century realism than Mann or Joyce. Faced
with the irrevocable separation of words and things, Mishima does not, as
modernist authors had, seek to document this schism; his move to action is
motivated by a need to overcome it.“Somewhere within me,”he wrote
in 1969,“I was beginning to plan a union of art and life, of style
and the ethos of action.5”
Just as it seems necessary to differentiate Mishima from WTO protesters
who are not motivated by aesthetics, it also seems necessary to set him apart
from those writers who took, for various reasons, political action. The turn
to action is, after all, not particularly new among writers or intellectuals.
Foucault and Sartre protested along with everyone else in the May 1968 riots,
Derrida has written letters to Bill Clinton to get Mumia Abu-Jamal released,
and Jean Genet’s life among the Palestinians is well documented. Edward
Said’s act of throwing stones at an Israeli bulldozer on the Lebanon
border is probably one of the most recognized events in recent times that
blurred intellectual and political action. Mishima stands apart from these
writers in two respects. First, the actions of Foucault or Said run parallel
to their writings, and may be applications of their writings. Mishima’s
suicide, however, seems to be above all else an act of protest as a solution
to a literary and metaphysical dilemma. It is a text, in and of itself.
Second, Mishima turns to politics only nominally for the purpose of effecting
change; his real desire is failure. He doesn’t want change, he wants
death. In the Shield Society’s manifesto, written by Mishima in 1969,
We consider ourselves the final preservers, the ultimate representatives and the essence of the Japanese culture, history and traditions to be defended…The kamikaze squads based their actions on the principle that they were the personification of history, that the essence of history was manifested in them, that they…were the End, the last ones….Effectivity is not a concern.6
While he invokes the kamikaze pilot, his aim is quite different. The kamikaze
knew that even in death he might have some effect of disabling his target,
that there was still a purpose involved in his reasoning. Mishima, however,
stated explicitly that the aim was no“effectivity.”Though there
might be action, accomplishing anything with that action was not the point.
The point was the action itself. Rather than judging an action by efficacy,
as a means to an end, Mishima posits the action as the end itself, to be
judged solely as an aesthetic gesture. John Nathan notes this in his description
of a Shield Society meeting in October of 1969, as Mishima and his cadets
began outlining possible scenarios of revolution and military coups,
Finally [Mishima] expressed his view that the Self-Defense Force could not be expected to stand up and fight for its rights as a national army. This is important. It is evidence that Mishima knew all along from firsthand experience that there was no possibility of a coup d’etat originating in the ranks. It means that the appeal to the Self-Defense Force to rise and join them which Mishima and Morita [Mishima’s favored pupil and probable lover] now began to plan and finally executed a year later was conceived by Mishima as merely formal, a gesture without meaning or value in the logic of the warrior, unless it was ratified by seppuku7.
What is fundamentally non-Western about Mishima’s death is his suicide—there is no glory or meaning for this act in the West. The suicide bomber, like the kamikaze pilot, kills himself for strategic and tactical gain, but in Mishima, that same force is directed entirely inward. We cannot even say that there is a symbolic victory in his futility—he is not the lone Chinese student blocking a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square. Whatever it meant to him, Mishima’s suicide meant little to a Japanese public embarrassed by his reactionary sentiments, and this act of bravado was quickly effaced. Little is gained, and that may indeed be the point. Mishima responds both to Western capitalism and Western metaphysics by the decidedly non-Western action of suicide. In doing so he opposes the logic which underlies both systems. Mishima’s suicide is neither pessimistic nor fatalistic; it is a resistance to logic itself, as it is understood in the West. It assaults the systems that seek to marginalize his protest through rationalization and reason. Most importantly, though, by interrupting these systems so dramatically, it keeps the logic open, unclosed, refusing to be finalized. The discussion remains in play, and without a logical explanation to Mishima’s suicide (for none exists that is entirely satisfactory), it remains an open wound. In this sense we can return to literary modernist writers like Faulkner, who saw language as a failing apparatus and wrote novels which highlighted and denuded this failure. In the literature of modernism, language can do nothing but point to its own failure to represent the world of flesh: full of sound and fury—it signifies nothing, it is an end in itself. Mishima responds with the failure of action, of an action full of fury and political rhetoric which accomplishes nothing and signifies nothing. The union of art and life he had been seeking appears as this political action that has taken the form of a literary aesthetic.
This is not an endorsement of suicide, or any of Mishima’s political ideas, many of which remain deeply problematic. Mishima poses an alternate form of resistance, one which is not random or anarchic—one which instead operates outside and against logic. Certainly Mishima’s legacy is uncertain, even thirty-four years later. But it may not be appropriate to ask,“What impact did Mishima have?”or“What did he change?”It’s hard to label him success or failure: if an action is conceived of as futile, and then it in turn accomplishes nothing, is it failure or success? What took place that day in 1970 was another kind of political action: one not meant as a means to some goal, but as an end in and of itself. The Emperor was not raised to his former glory as a result of Mishima’s action, but thirty years later Mishima remains anomalous, a wound on the unblemished skin which troubles our notion of art, language and the role of the artist. Like the self-immolating Falun Gong monks: we know they achieve nothing, but we look and look and can’t look away. I’ve been reading Mishima and about Mishima for ten years—I see him on the balcony, from the helicopter above, a tiny figure above a sea of tiny figures, I know what’s going to happen, I know there’s no point to any of it, and I can’t bring myself to look away.
1Nathan,Mishima(Da Capo, 2000), p. xback
2Marguerite Yourcenar,Mishima: A Vision of the Void, trans. Alberto Manguel (Chicago, 1986), p. 124.back
3Yukio Mishima,Sun and Steel, trans. John Bester (Kodansha, 1970), p. 8.back
4Ibid., p. 9.back
5Ibid., p. 47.back
6Quoted in Nathan, p. 241-242.back
7Nathan, p. 261.back