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  • Writer's pictureTim Odagiri

That Time When a Novelist Tried to Take Over Japan

Mishima Yukio

On November 25, 1970, world-famous Japanese author, actor, and model Mishima Yukio (三島由紀夫) attempted a military coup d’état with the goal of ending Japan’s alliance with the United States, restoring the divinity of the emperor, and returning the nation to traditional Japanese and Shintō values. The “Mishima Incident” (三島事件), as it is now known, ended with Mishima committing ritual suicide that same day.

Mishima was born Hiraoka Kimitake (平岡公威) in 1925, into a politically connected family. During his formative years, Hiraoka was raised by his paternal grandmother, Natsu, who herself descended directly from Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康), the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan for nearly 300 years. Despite this powerful lineage, Natsu coddled her grandchild, keeping him away from other boys and rugged activities, but close to literature.

When he returned to his own family at age twelve, Hiraoka’s father applied military discipline as a restorative for his son’s earlier soft upbringing and obsession with the written word. The boy eventually excelled at boxing, kendo, and karate, yet he never wavered from his love of writing. Hiraoka published his first short story in 1941—still just sixteen years old—under his new pen name of Mishima Yukio, ultimately gaining world acclaim for his dozens of novels and short stories. Many of his writings lifted up traditional Japanese values, but also showed a fascination with suicide and death.

Mishima graduated school in 1944, but health reasons prevented him from joining the war effort. Given his strong nationalism and support of Shintō beliefs, Japan’s defeat in World War II devastated him, especially when Emperor Hirohito was forced to renounce his divinity. Over the next twenty-five years, Mishima watched as Japan receded from its military stature, giving itself over to what he viewed as Western materialism and subservience to the United States.

In 1968, Mishima founded tatenokai (楯の会), a private militia with allegiance to the emperor. Although he hoped to raise an army of 10,000 like-minded soldiers, the group numbered just 100 recruits two years later. But he believed that Japan’s official military and the greater population were as displeased as he was with what the nation had become. In November 1970, he entered a key Tokyo military base with four of his militia peers and read a manifesto to the assembled Self-Defense Force troops, hoping to spur them into overthrowing Japan’s 1947 Constitution and restoring the Empire of Japan. Instead of lining up behind Mishima, the soldiers mocked him and his beliefs. Realizing that his efforts would be fruitless, he committed seppuku, disemboweling himself before being beheaded by one of his associates.

The news shocked the nation, not so much for the violent way in which it ended, but for the idea that someone as renowned as Mishima still believed in a return to Japan’s imperialism. Japan’s “modern economic miracle” was well underway by the early 1970s, and some Japanese who I spoke with and who had lived through that era confirmed that the broader population had no interest in resuscitating the nation’s former militarism.

Mishima’s pro-military views are still a hard sell today, as shown through former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s inability to soften the anti-war language in Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution. But Mishima’s prose and poetry continue to be lauded as some of Japan’s greatest literary works of the twentieth century.

[Image Credits: Promotional still for “Mishima: The Last Debate”]


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