Introduction by Christopher Smith, University of Floria.
Mishimia Yukio 三島由紀夫 (1925-1970) was one of Japan’s premier postwar novelists, and led a varied and interesting life. He was, most scholars agree, a closeted gay man who burst onto the literary scene in 1949 with his Confessions of a Mask (kamen no kokuhaku 仮面の告白), a masterfully written account of the struggles of the protagonist (who is very close to Mishima himself) growing up in wartime Japan as he grapples with both his own adolescent homosexuality and the expectations of military masculinity. He produced many more celebrated novels and was often expected to win the Nobel Prize in literature. He gained international recognition, and for many years he was considered the representative Japanese author. He also enjoyed a stint as a bodybuilder and actor, performing in several films, and was called one of the leading men of the world by Esquire Magazine.
As his star rose, however, so did his commitment to conservative politics. In 1960s Japan, one of the central goals of the Japanese far-Right was the restoration of the emperor to his wartime position as both legal sovereign and spiritual center of the nation. Before 1945 the Japanese state operated by the so-called tennōsei 天皇制, or “emperor system,” where the emperor held the only legitimate sovereignty over the nation due to his direct descent from the sun goddess Amaterasu, and all functions and bodies of government were legitimate because the emperor had willed them, directly or indirectly. This was true even of the powers of Japanese parliament, which could legislate because the emperor had called on it to do so. As a living god, the emperor was the object of religious veneration, and it was loyalty to and respect for the emperor that bound the nation of Japan together in solidarity, as he was the head of the national body (kokutai国体) and father of the national family. It was in his name that Japan’s imperial expansion had taken place, and the disastrous war with America had been fought.
After Japan’s defeat in 1945, a new constitution was promulgated during the Allied occupation in 1947. The new constitution was written or heavily guided by lawyers and bureaucrats from the United States, although Japanese officials were consulted. In it, the emperor is demoted from sovereign to a mere symbol of the nation. This provision made the constitution unacceptable to the far Right, which wanted the tennōsei restored and the emperor returned to the center of national life. This constitution also contained the still-contentious Article 9, which states that “Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation” and that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” Many have embraced this commitment to pacifism, yet by the early 1950s the Cold war was ramping up and the US began to desire a militarily strong Japan in the region to counter China, North Korea, and other communist nations. Since the constitution forbade Japan from maintaining a military, a new armed forces called the “Self-Defense Forces” (jieitai 自衛隊) was formed with the justification that the constitution could allow for the maintenance of armed forces as long as they could not be used for aggressive war. Although the SDF maintains some traditions of the Imperial Japanese military, it is modeled after Western and particularly US professional armed forces. It is very divorced from the military of imperial Japan, in which soldiers and sailors not only had a special connection with the emperor they served directly, but were also reserves of spirituality and morality. Soldiers and sailors were supposed to represent ideal Japanese masculinity, inheritors of the samurai warrior ethic (bushidō 武士道) and always ready to lay down their lives because they lived a life of fulfilled purpose in service to the nation and emperor. (This was, of course, a lofty ideal that often did not match the lived reality of soldiers and sailors.) That the SDF is not a “military” with this moral focus continues to vex the Japanese Right. These are the main issues that come up in Mishima’s manifesto, below.
In 1968 Mishima formed the “Shield Society” (Tate no Kai 盾の会), consisting of himself and a few young men who shared his devotion to restoring the emperor and the values of wartime Japan. Together they underwent basic training with the SDF. Then, on November 25th, 1970, Mishima and four of his Shield Society members entered the office of the commander of the Ichigaya SDF base in central Tokyo and took him hostage. Afterwards, Mishima went to the balcony of the office and tried to incite the SDF officers gathered below to stage a coup. The text below is from his planned speech. He was, however, booed and jeered by the officers and had to rush through it. Before he departed for Ichigaya, however, he had mailed the text of the speech to several newspapers, and that is the text translated here.
After he failed to incite a coup, Mishima reentered the commander’s office and committed seppuku, the ritual suicide by self-disembowelment that samurai of Japan’s premodern period had practiced. The act—a complete anachronism in 1970—was sensational, and became the object of intense media scrutiny both in Japan and internationally. Some have speculated that Mishima never expected, or even desired, the coup to succeed, and simply wanted an excuse to carry to conclusion a lifelong fetish with sharp blades piercing male bodies that is already apparent in Confessions of a Mask. In support of this claim is Mishima’s 1966 film Patriotism (Yūkoku憂国), based on his own short story, in which Mishima himself plays a young army officer who commits seppuku with his wife after a failed coup in the 1930s, with much attention to the visuality of blood and death. Perhaps he acted out death in one failed coup to prepare for death in a real doomed coup.
Whatever Mishima’s obsessions, the below translation will show that his devotion to conservative politics and ideology was not casual or insincere. He brings up the leading issues that aggravated the Right in his day, including the ambiguity of the SDF as a military that cannot be called a military, rising Left-wing activism, and Japan’s lack of a moral center. He wants the SDF to stage a coup to overturn the constitution that has dethroned the emperor, because the absence of the emperor at the center of Japanese moral and spiritual life has led to what Mishima sees as all the ills of the present: corrupt politics, greed, lack of purpose, dissolution, etc., as well as more practical issues like the uncertainty of national security. He writes that a true Japanese military (unlike the SDF) must be devoted to "protecting Japanese history, culture and tradition centered on the emperor."
While it seems unlikely that Mishima desired a return of Japan’s expansionist empire (i.e., the colonial control of other nations and peoples), this document shows just how powerfully the emperor-centric ideology built to support that empire resonated with many even in 1970 (and it still does, in some fringe groups, even today). For the generations brought up during the wartime years when this ideology was in full swing, the emperor and the military were central to what it meant to be a good human, a good Japanese person, and especially a good man. Some, like Mishima, seem to have been unable to accept the loss of that moral grounding.
How does Mishima conceive the glory and misery of Imperial Japan? What does the SDF represent to him?
How are the objectives of the Japanese Right today different from or similar to the desires and attitudes expressed here? Why do you think some things shifted or managed to stay constant?
How does this document resonate with other calls to return to traditional or earlier values? How is it similar and how is it different?
Mishima, Yukio. “Mishima Yukio no ‘Geki’ zenbun.”Asahi Shinbun. November 26, 1970. 4.
Mishima Yukio’s Manifesto
Captain of the Shield Society, Mishima Yukio
We, the members of the Shield Society, were raised by the Self Defense Forces, and for us the SDF is our father and older brother. So why have we repaid that debt with this act of ingratitude?
Looking back, during the four years—three years for my students—we spent as a reservists within the Forces, we received an education that contained not a hint of mercenary self-interest, and we in turn loved the SDF. Here we saw the dream of a "true Japan" that no longer exists outside the Forces, and here we finally knew the tears of true men, unknown since the end of the war. The sweat we shed here was pure, as we ran about the plains below Mount Fuji with comrades who shared our patriotic spirit. On this point there can be no doubt. To us, the SDF is our homeland, and the only place in today's listless Japan where we could breathe a rigorous, bracing atmosphere. We received incalculable love from the instructors and assistant teachers. Why, then, have we come to take this action? Although it might beggar belief, I declare to you that we have done it precisely because we love the SDF.
We have watched as postwar Japan became infatuated with economic prosperity and forgotten the foundational principles of the nation. Citizens have lost their solidarity, they rush ahead without correcting fundamental problems, they have fallen into stopgap measures and hypocrisy, and have cast their own souls into a state of emptiness. Politics is just a facade over a mass of contradictions, self-preservation, lust for power and hypocrisy. Any long-term plans for the nation a hundred years from now have been consigned to foreign countries. We have watched with clenched teeth as the shame of defeat has been ducked and avoided rather than wiped away, and as Japanese themselves sully their own history and traditions.
Even now we dream of the SDF as the only place where the true Japan, true Japanese, and the true soul of the warrior remains. Furthermore, it is clear that, legally, the SDF is unconstitutional. The fundamental issue of the nation's defense has been weaseled around with an opportunistic legal interpretation, and we have seen how having a military that does not use the name "military" has become the source of corruption of Japanese souls and the degeneration of morality. The military, which should hold the loftiest honor, has been subject to the basest of deceits. The SDF continues to bear the dishonorable cross of a defeated nation. The SDF is not a national military, has not been accorded the foundational principles of a military, has only been given the status of a physically large police force, and even the object of its loyalty has not been made clear. Postwar Japan's long slumber enrages us. We believe that the moment the SDF awakens will be the same moment Japan awakens. And we believe that if the SDF does not awaken itself, Japan will also fail to awaken. And we believe that our greatest duty as citizens is to exert all our effort, however feeble, to work towards the day when, through constitutional reform, the SDF can be made into a true national military and stand upon a military's foundational principle.
Four years ago, I entered the SDF alone with this ambition. The next year I formed the Shield Society. The fundamental principle of the Shield Society is the resolve to sacrifice our lives so that the SDF might awaken, to make it into a national military, a national military with honor. Since constitutional reform is difficult under the parliamentary system, a domestic security operation* offered our only chance. So we planned to cast aside our lives as the vanguard of a domestic security operation and become the keystone of the national military. A military protects its nation, a government is defended by the police. When we arrive at the stage where the government can no longer be effectively defended by the police, a deployment of the military will make it clear just what the nation is, and the military will revive its foundational principle. The foundational principle of a Japanese military can only be "protecting Japanese history, culture and tradition centered on the emperor." In order to correct the twisted foundation of this nation, we, though few in number, trained ourselves and volunteered ourselves to this task.
But what happened on October 21st of Showa 44 (1969)? The demonstrations that reached their peak prior to the prime minister's visit to America ended fruitlessly under overwhelming police power. Watching the situation in Shinjuku, I came to the bitter realization that the constitution would not change with things as they stood. What happened that day? The government ascertained the limits of the far left's power, they ascertained the response of a populace faced with police power that amounts to martial law, and gained the confidence that they could control the situation without taking up the burden of constitutional reform. A domestic security operation became pointless. The government gained the confidence that it could maintain the political system through constitutional police power alone, and the confidence to continue ignoring the fundamental problems of the nation. With this, left-wing power has continued to suckle at the pacifier of constitutional preservation, hardening their strategy of abandoning their principles for practical gain, and have gained the advantages that come with positing themselves as champions of constitutional preservation. Abandoning their principles for practical gain! That's fine for the politicians. But those politicians cannot have failed to notice this is a fatal blow to the SDF. And so the hypocrisy, cover-ups, flattery and deceit began again even worse than before.
Take heed! The truth is that October 21st of Showa 44 was a day of tragedy for the SDF. For the SDF, which has been waiting for constitutional reform for the 20 years since its founding, that was the day that its hopes were decisively betrayed, and constitutional reform was removed as a political agenda. At the same time, it was the day that the Liberal Democratic Party and the Communist Party, which insist on party parliamentarism, expunged the possibility of extra-parliamentary means. Logically, that was the day that the SDF, the bastard child of the constitution, was recognized as a "military of constitutional preservation." Could there be any greater paradox?
Ever since that day, we have been watching the SDF carefully, moment by moment. If, as we had dreamed, the soul of the warrior still remained in the SDF, how could it ignore this situation? Protecting the very thing that negated it, surely that is a logical contradiction. If you are men, how could a man's pride allow this? Even after enduring and enduring, rising up with firm resolution once the last line of what you are supposed to protect has been crossed: that is what it means to be a man, what it means to be a warrior. We desperately strained our ears. But from nowhere in the SDF did we hear a man's voice rise in response to the humiliating order to "protect that which negates you." Now that it has come to this, with the awareness of your own power, you knew that the only path forward was the correction of the twisted logic of the nation, but the SDF has been as silent as a canary with its voice stolen.
We were sad, angry, and finally enraged. Gentlemen, can you do nothing without being given an order? But, sadly, the orders given to you will ultimately not come from Japan. It is said that civilian control is the basic principle of a democratic military. However, in England and America civilian control means financial control over military administration. Unlike Japan, it does not mean that the military is castrated without even the right to make personnel decisions, manipulated by treacherous politicians, or used as a pawn in partisan politics.
Furthermore, it seems the SDF has swallowed the flattery of politicians and is walking the path of ever deeper self-deceit and self-desecration. Where has the soul of the warrior gone? How will you go on? As nothing but a giant armory whose soul is dead? During textile negotiations, textile workers called the LDP traitors. Yet although it is clear that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which concerns the long-term security of the nation, is the rebirth of the 5:5:3 Unequal Treaty,** not one general from the SDF has cut his stomach in protest.
What does the return of Okinawa mean? What does the defense of the mainland mean? It is clear that America does not want Japanese territory being defended by a truly autonomous Japanese military. If we cannot revive our autonomy within the next two years, the SDF will end forever as, in the left-wing's own words, mercenaries for America.
We waited four years. This last year we waited with particular passion. We can wait no longer. We cannot wait for those who would desecrate themselves. But another thirty minutes; let us wait the final thirty minutes. We rose up together and together we will die for righteousness. To return Japan to Japan's true form, that is why we die. Is it enough to insist on the sanctity of life, even when the soul is dead? What sort of military holds nothing above the value of life? Gentlemen, we are now going to show you a value even greater than the sanctity of life. That is not freedom, nor democracy. It is Japan. The country of history and tradition that we love, Japan. Is there no one here who will throw their bodies against this degenerate constitution and die? If there is, stand with us and die with us now. We have undertaken this action in the fervent hope that you, gentlemen, who have the purest of souls, may be reborn as individual men and as warriors.
*治安出動, a domestic deployment of the SDF in order to maintain security or civil order in a crisis.
**A 1921 treaty which set the battleship ratio between the United States, Britain and Japan at 5:5:3 respectively.
(Translated by Christopher Smith)
[Selective secondary sources]
Maruyama, Masao. “Nationalism in Japan: Its Theoretical Background and Prospects.” In Thought and Behavior in Modern Japanese Politics., edited by Ivan Morris, translated by David Titus, 135–56. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.
Kersten, Rikki. “Neo‐nationalism and the ‘Liberal School of History.’” Japan Forum 11, no. 2 (January 1, 1999): 191–203.
Smith, Christopher. “Database Nationalism: The Disaggregation of Nation, Nationalism and Symbol in Pop Culture.” In The Representation of Japanese Politics in Manga: The Visual Literacy of Statecraft, edited by Roman Rosenbaum, 203–22. London: Routledge, 2020.
Doak, Kevin Michael. A History of Nationalism in Modern Japan: Placing the People. Handbook of Oriental Studies. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2007.