world history The Tale of The Japanese Author Who Botched A Coup D'etat And Committed Seppeku  

Christopher Myers
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Far from your everyday crazy person who pines for notoriety, Yukio Mishima was one of the most influential authors of post-war Japan. And here's fact number one you didn't know about him: Yukio Mishima is a pen name. His given name is Kimitake Hiraoka and he was born in 1925. By the time he died in 1970, Mishima was as famous as he was prolific, achieving international acclaim for his novels and plays. So how, exactly, does a successful writer come to commit public seppuku?

It may come as no surprise Mishima was a deeply conflicted writer. Many of his works, such as Temple of the Golden Pavilion, were tragic tales. In that novel, a monk becomes so obsessed with the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto he decides to burn it down to free himself of its beauty. It's a dark, disturbing book that presents a world largely devoid of hope and meaning. In one scene, a drunk American soldier pays the protagonist two cartoons of cigarettes to stomp his pregnant Japanese girlfriend's stomach as a means of inducing a miscarriage. 

These crazy Yukio Mishima stories illustrate the complex life of a great author who, like so many troubled artists, ended in suicide. The true motives behind Mishima's seppuku remain a mystery, but these facts provide clues to what he was really trying to accomplish with that last, grand gesture.

He Committed Seppuku Following A Failed Coup


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Photo: Photographer Unknown/Dutch National Archives/CC BY-SA 3.0 NL

On November 25, 1970, a series of events unfolded in Japan that later became known as the Mishima Incident. With four students from his private militia, the Tatenokai (Shield Squad; more on that later), 45-year-old Yukio Mishima visited the eastern headquarters of the Japanese Self Defense Force in Tokyo. There, he and his squad attempted a coup d'etat. They tied up the commandant, barricaded his office, and issued a list of demands.

The first demand was for the garrison to gather outside the main building, so Mishima could deliver a speech from the balcony of the commandant's office. In this speech, he implored the Self Defense Force to rise up, throw out the Western-imposed constitution, and restore the emperor to his divine station. He was met with boos and jeers, and only finished seven minutes of a planned 30-minute oration before giving up. 

Having failed his mission, Mishima went back into the commandant's office to commit seppuku. Also known as harakiri (disemboweling), this method of ritualized suicide involves cutting open you stomach with a sword. You're assisted by a kaishakunin, who finishes the job by decapitating you after you've disemboweled yourself.

In Mishima's case, the kaishakunin failed several times, and a second member of the Tatenokai had to take over to finish the job. The failed kaishakunin then committed seppuku, with the second Tatenokai member again assisting. The three living Tatenokai members surrendered and were arrested.

He Formed A Right-Wing Militia To Protect Traditional Japanese Values


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Photo: Asahi ShinbunPublic Domain

Partly as a reaction to the leftist siege of Tokyo University, Mishima created the Tatenokai (Shield Society) in 1968. He gathered right-wing students at odds with the leftist student movement and created a private "spiritual" army. Its purpose was to "oppose communism, maintain the national spirit, and defend the emperor." The group followed the bushido (samurai) code and trained rigorously.

Due in part to Mishima's celebrity, the group was allowed to train with the Japanese Self Defense Force. Top brass viewed the militia as a valuable political tool and largely agreed with Mishima's ideals. Mishima was even allowed to fly a fighter jet.

In March 1977, seven years after Mishima's suicide, four members of Tatenokai took a dozen hostages at the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations to denounce big business. The hostages were released unharmed after a protracted stand-off with police. 

He Wrote An Autobiographical Novel About A Closeted Homosexual


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Photo: Spetsnaz/Youtube

Yukio Mishima was married to a woman and had two children, yet was keenly interested in homosexuality, and may well have been gay. Many consider his novel Confessions of a Mask to be autobiographical. The book is about an adolescent boy, Kochan, who is attracted to men and adopts an alternate persona to hide his homosexuality.

Among other things, Kochan courts a woman to avoid speculation about his sexuality. Some suspect Mishima's own marriage was more for respectability than love. His prenuptial demands for his wife were simple: she must respect his privacy, not interfere with his writing or bodybuilding, and be shorter than him (he was super short - 5'1").

Mishima also spent a great deal of time frequenting Tokyo's gay bars, supposedly while researching his novel. His later involvement in kabuki and Noh Theater introduced him to many onnagata (men who play women), some of whom he became close friends and, purportedly, lovers. One of Mishima's American friends, academic and writer Faubion Bowers, recounts that Mishima told him a love affair with such an actor was boring because it was just like being with a woman.

His Grandmother Kidnapped Him As An Infant


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Photo: Photographer UnknownPublic Domain

When Mishima was only a few weeks old, he was essentially kidnapped by his grandmother, Natsuko Hiraoka. She was the granddaughter of Matsudaira Yoritaka, the daimyƍ of Shishido in Hitachi Province, and was raised in the aristocratic lifestyle. Through Yorikata, Mishima was a direct descendent of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate and one of the most important figures in the history of Japan.

Mishima learned much of his reverence for traditional Japanese values and history from his grandmother. He also learned about his family's direct ties to esteemed leaders and warriors, which no doubt influenced his interest in samurai and militarism. 

Despite his military heritage, Mishima lived a relatively sheltered life with Yoritaka, who was prone to violent outbursts. Mishima was not allowed to play with other boys, participate in sports, or even go out in the sunlight. He spent most of the time isolated with his ailing grandmother until she relinquished him back to his parents at age 12, pretty much because she was dying.