One begins to understand how impossible it is for people of different cultures to cross that divide when one finds a Google ad for a “Belly Fat Cure” on a webpage offering the details of suicide by ritual disembowelment, or the Japanese tradition of hara-kiri, or seppuku.
Yukio Mishima, the pen name of Hiraoka Kimitake, born in 1925, was a frighteningly patriotic Japanese novelist, playwright and actor who committed seppuku after a failed coup attempt in Tokyo on 25 November, 1970.
Mishima and four other men barricaded the office of the commandant of the Eastern Command of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, and tied the commandant to his chair. Mishima then stepped onto the balcony with their manifesto and list of demands to address the soldiers gathered below. He meant to inspire a coup d’état restoring the powers of the emperor. Instead, he was mocked and jeered. He returned to the commandant’s office and committed seppuku. The man who was assigned the customary duty of lobbing off the head at the end of this ritual, the story goes, failed after several attempts. Eventually one of the other guys had to complete the ceremony. It reads like a scene from a Nagisa Oshima film (In the Realm of the Senses, perhaps more than Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, I think) rather than one from recent history.
The grisly act was symbolic, apparently, of Mishima’s strong opposition to “Japan’s close ties to the West in the post-war era (notably the new constitution that forbade rearmament)”, as well as his yearning to “preserve Japan’s martial spirit and reverence for the emperor”, who, according to Mishima’s ideology, was more than the reigning Emperor, and embodied the abstract essence of Japan.
In Eirei no Koe (Voices of the Heroic Dead), Mishima apparently denounced Emperor Hirohito for renouncing his claim of divinity at the end of World War II. I am not surprised that Hirohito did such a thing: the feverish adoration that came with the job (see above) must have been incredibly creepy. It would have kept me awake at night for sure.
Considering the gravitas of the event, I found Mishima’s choice of the date quite perplexing. November 25 is no more or less significant than any other day, really. It is the 329th day of the year (330th in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar, leaving 36 days in which to decide whether or not a new set of New Year’s resolutions will be helpful or defeating.
It has seen its share of famous natural disasters, with the Great Storm of 1703 killing 9000 people (more than swine flu ever will) in gusts up to 120 mph in the southern part of the UK. Apparently it blew like that for two days.
It was the birth date of Joe DiMaggio (1914), and the day on which JFK was buried at Arlington National Cemetery (1963). On this day in 1867 Alfred Nobel patented dynamite and Panama became a signatory to the Buenos Aires copyright treaty in1913. The first “systematic Hollywood blacklist” was created on 25 November 1947, the day after ten writers and directors were cited for “contempt of Congress” after refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and were promptly fired in an announcement that became known as the Waldorf Statement. The men were called the Hollywood Ten.
Considering Mishima’s disgust with the West, none of these events, auspicious as some of them might have been, should have (I would imagine) struck him as the appropriate moment for a spectacular and physical declaration of his daunting traditionalist beliefs.
In fact, I cannot imagine that ANY day of the year would be suitable for such a declaration. Think of the events that lead to his death: it seems that they were doomed from the start. The Free Dictionary suggests that Mishima “seized” the military headquarters. But conning your way into a military base, locking the door and tying up the commandant hardly seem to qualify as “seizure”. Surely he had some idea of what the response would be to his manifesto and demands? Or was he simply both a writer AND a dreamer? (I think they are not always coincident.)
Mishima’s former friend and biographer, John Nathan, suggested that the coup attempt “was only a pretext for the ritual suicide of which Mishima had long dreamed.” He composed the traditional jisei (death poems) and had planned the suicide for more than a year before the event. The men that followed him into that base on the 25th, however, really should have known what he had in mind, if he had hopes of being canonised for his imaginary patriotic zeal. (Or whatever they do in Japan.)
At this point, I would like to say that “I digress”. However, considering that I have not even achieved an entry-level paragraph on the subject that I wanted to write about immediately after the heading, I can’t. At the same time, to end here with Yukio Mishima, and to offer nothing else, might well cause a bit of “WTF?” in the minds of the netball team. Why do we care about this guy? (See how I have avoided calling him a nutcase.)
We don’t, I guess, seeing that most of us are not evolved Yogi’s with an intimate physical connection to all sacred living things (and people, probably) and inevitably, as a result, the history of misery and madness.
So. WTF is the story with the story of Yukio Mishima?
I wanted to write a blog about modern fiction being, (as I finally managed to formulate all by myself after multiple, determined attempts to read Kiran Desai’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Inheritance of Loss), the equivalent of examining one’s own entrails after committing hara-kiri.
And I can NEVER remember how to spell that. So I looked it up…. and then I found the story of Mishima… and then… well here we are. And now my blog time for today, in spite of it being Saturday, is over. But there will be more about Obsession, Lunar Park, Hanif Kureshi, Andre P. Brink, Tim Huysamen and Elmore Leonard tomorrow. Really. Now I have to gel down my hair and go and watch Wolverine.