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When the Emperor Is a Void: Yukio Mishima and Fascism Today

Mishima’s Patriotism reveals the drives operating behind political movements and how ultranationalistic ideas become deeply entangled in the personal

白人至上主義 White supremacy

I was in Japan when the Charlottesville Rally happened in August of 2017.

It had been a number of years since I last visited my family and the feeling of stepping out of time was compounded by the tense atmosphere of the news cycle. Each day we were conscious of the possibility of a bomb flying over Japan en route to Guam, a situation brought on by the egos of two erratic statesmen. But amid the concerned talking heads discussing the escalation between the United States and North Korea came another breaking news chyron scrolling below the smartly dressed NHK anchors. Charlottesville, white supremacists, rally.

My grandfather and I watched the news in disbelief as white men with torches marched through the darkness, chanting things that made it feel as if we were watching a moment of history that did not fit. I listened to the anchors struggle to describe what was on screen while they remained as professional as always. In the quiet of my grandfather’s condo, the rally and the anger behind it felt like a sharp reality check, a sense that I had missed something important.

As I sat watching the rally unfold from abroad, my mind wandered to another moment of nationalistic anachronism, one I heard about growing up in a Japanese family and one that inevitably came up throughout my work in Japanese Studies: the suicide of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima in 1970. The story of his suicide is as well-known as his actual body of work, as was possibly his intent. After hearing about the suicide for the first time, I remember reading snippets from a transcript of the speech Mishima gave just before he cut himself open. And I remember coming across one line in particular that stuck out to me: Tennōheika banzai.

Long live the Emperor. A phrase that had ties to World War II and an honorable death for the emperor, for the sake of the nation; a cry that houses in it the nationalist propaganda machine that sought to bring meaning to the deaths of so many young men in the Pacific War and to encourage still more men to give their lives for the cause. In its syllables lies the wartime echo that so many wanted to forget. Did this phrase feel as out of place in the ears of those listening to Mishima as the chants in Charlottesville did to mine?

There is a long-standing discussion within Japanese studies about whether or not Japan can actually be considered fascist or whether we should call it statist or something else entirely. Kevin M. Doak argues that “there is no question that wartime Japan increasingly turned authoritarian and conservative. There is, however, plenty of room for questioning whether the imperial state was ‘fascist’.” It is true that what happened in Japan during WWII differs from classic examples of fascism in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. But while Japan itself was not fascist, there were indeed fascists in Japan and there was a broad nationalistic emphasis that we now recognize as a key element of cultural fascism.

Like the Charlottesville rally did for me, Mishima’s theatrical attempted coup d’état and subsequent ritual suicide felt alarmingly, confusingly out of sync to many people at the time. In 1968, Japan celebrated the centenary of the Meiji Restoration of 1868, considered the beginning of Japan’s rapid modernization and Westernization. The protests against the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between the United States and Japan in the early 60s, as well as the student riots of the late 60s, had seemingly died down by 1970. Japan seemed to be celebrating one hundred years of modernization and its successful recuperation from it’s brief detour from modernization in WWII. Mishima’s anachronistic calls to action fell on mostly unsympathetic ears.

After the 2016 election, many in the United States took note of commonalities between the rhetoric of the alt-right movement, along with the reactionary politics of the Trump White House, and European fascism. While there were overt links between white supremecist groups, neo-Nazis, and the White House, as with the infamous endorsement for Trump by David Duke, Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan, the alt-right discourse online slipped into grayer areas to avoid detection. Richard B. Spencer, one of the speakers at the Charlottesville Rally, has been recorded saying that white supremacy needed new branding to step away from its old aesthetic. Because of the shift in optics, it is easier for a fascist to deny that they are a fascist simply by pointing out how they deviate from the neo-Nazi norm. Looking at clear-cut European examples of fascism can therefore only get us so far. The examples where lines are blurred reveal where it is easier for a fascist to feign innocence.

As Umberto Eco wrote in Ur-Fascism, “even though political regimes can be overthrown, and ideologies can be criticized and disowned, behind a regime and its ideology there is always a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives”. Though the dressings of fascist ideas change over time, there are things that remain consistent—features that reveal a fascist vein cutting through a number of ‘nationalistic’ movements.

In this way, Mishima is a helpful example as his dabbling in nationalistic and right-wing politics can’t be taken at face-value. While he took an interest in certain types of fascist imagery near the end of his life, his work cannot be written off as the ravings of a nationalistic madman. In his work he tries to point out the complexities and anxieties of postwar Japan, a thinking through of something in the modern world that does not feel right to him. Mishima’s slippages into fascistic imagery and ideas can tell us something about our own time and the nationalisms-slipping-into-fascism of the post-Trump United States.

切腹 Seppuku

On November 25th, 1970, Mishima and four members of his private civilian defense group, the Tate no Kai (The Shield Society) descended on the grounds of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and took the commanding general hostage. Once the general was subdued, Mishima went out to the balcony with the SDF gathered below and attempted to make a grand speech, before he was mocked off his stage after a mere seven minutes. He returned to the general’s office, prepared himself and, exposing his abdomen, purposefully inserted his sword into his own body, piercing his left side and slicing across his body from left to right. Ritual dictates that the kaishakunin then beheads the one committing seppuku. At this moment, the kaishakunin knelt beside Mishima and followed suit according to tradition: disembowelment, beheading. This was not a spur-of-the-moment break with reality, but a meticulously planned performance years in the making. And in just under an hour and a half, the famed writer was dead.

One thing that immediately became clear in the weeks following the event was the symbolic nature of his death, though what the act actually symbolized was up for debate. Was the symbolism purely personal—a fantasy that Mishima first enacted through literature, then film, before finally living it out for himself?

Or was the death a political act? A protest against the way Japan was in the postwar era, an act that would shock Japan into renouncing the American-imposed Constitution of 1947, and Japan’s inability to have a standing army? Modern Japan, as Mishima saw it, was a far cry from the noble, heroic Japan of samurai tradition. More than that, though, Mishima expressed concern that Japan had lost its soul and its sense of national identity in the face of globalization. The speech Mishima gave to the unsympathetic SDF crowd was peppered by vague nationalistic language: accusations of corruption in politics, hypocrisy and greed running rampant, and accusations of Japan leaving behind tradition. By dying a samurai death, he would force those left behind to reckon with what Japan had become, to return to its history and long-standing traditions, now swept aside by Westernization and modernity. That was one possible interpretation of intent, at least. 

The image of seppuku and its long cultural tie to fealty, of dying in order to show one’s loyalty to someone and die nobly, revolved in Mishima’s mind for decades, returning in various iterations. Patriotism, written in 1960, is the most famous example of Mishima’s fixation on this type of gruesome death. It began as a short story that he eventually made into a film he starred in as the male protagonist who commits seppuku as part of a dual suicide with his wife. Although it is simply translated as Patriotism in English, the original title, 憂国 (Yuukoku), includes a slight temporal and affective emphasis. The term doesn’t hold the same sense of loving one’s country that the term has in English. Instead, it is a patriotism borne from a concern for the future of the nation, designated by the first character 憂, which relates to anxiety, lament, and even grief.

Patriotism is one of three stories Mishima wrote based on the February 26th Incident of 1936, a failed coup by a group of young officers in the Imperial Japanese Army. The impetus for the uprising was a sense that Japan had strayed from its path and, more specifically, strayed too far from the traditional relationship between the Emperor and his people. Removing those governmental and military figures who stood between the people and their Emperor, the coup would put the Emperor in his rightful place as head of Japan, returning the country to its former glory. In doing so, Japan would finally be rid of the negative effects of the rapid Westernization it experienced from the Meiji era onwards. In many ways the group was influenced by ultra-nationalistic ideas already in circulation, but there was also something else behind their concern, a kernel of something that is not as easy to brush off as fanatical nationalism—a sense that there was something wrong with the world and that, somehow, they needed to try to fix it.

As Damian Flanagan notes, “The insurgents of 1936, disgruntled at political corruption, cuts in military funding and rural poverty, believed that their loyalty to the emperor would be recognized…and that a new ‘cleansed’ government would be set up with the interests of the imperial nation, rather than corrupt factions, at its heart.” Rather than a nebulous angst or even a set political manifesto, the drive propelling the group forward stemmed from genuine social problems and a desire to remove the corrupt elements in politics, to drain their own swamp for the benefit of the nation.

Here we have the makings of a gripping political story centered on a group of insurgents who have a genuine, if not misguided, moral high-ground. But that is not the focus of Patriotism. Instead, Mishima’s story chronicles the suicide of Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama and his wife, Reiko, amid the events of the February 26th Incident. Though the violence of the incident hangs as a backdrop to the story, the focus is on the couple’s relationship and their mutual determination to die once the events of the incident begin to unfold. The most visceral moments of the story are the intimate moments between the couple: their passionate lovemaking the night before they both commit suicide and the gut-wrenching depiction of seppuku itself. While ‘patriotism’ makes sense as the title for a story about the young insurgents, the myopic focus on the couple and the drawn out seppuku scene feels over the top, even self-indulgent. 

But as Andrew Rankin highlights in his reading of the story, “Patriotism does not represent anything. It is an enactment of intense emotion.” Rather than being an apolitical narrative, Patriotism reveals the drives operating behind political movements and how ultranationalistic ideas become deeply entangled in the personal. If anything, Patriotism reveals how difficult it can be to disentangle the personal from the political and how the political can become a catalyst for personal action. Takayama is in many ways a politically ambiguous character; his suicide is framed as his way to avoid betraying his compatriots who participated in the uprising. When he returns to Reiko after the uprising is set in motion, he says,

There may be an Imperial ordinance sent down tomorrow. They’ll be posted as rebels, I imagine. I shall be in command of a unit with commands to attack them…I can’t do it. It’s impossible to do a thing like that.

In this context, the lieutenant’s suicide is noble and can be read as participation in the larger political drama. However, immediately preceding his declaration to die, the lieutenant states that he had not been invited to be part of the uprising, nor had he been aware of what was going on. In fact, the lieutenant became aware of the incident only after a bugle call wakes him from sleep on the morning of the uprising. For an undisclosed reason Takayama was not asked to join, though he guesses it is because he was newly married. Mishima writes of this moment: “In the lieutenant’s face, as he hurried silently out into the snowy morning, Reiko had read the determination to die.” Death, regardless of specific circumstance or impetus, was already on the lieutenant’s mind. If death was already a foregone conclusion, then the political motive and apparent loyalty to his fellows seems to be a convenient after-thought.

But rather than being an indecisive failure of both the political and the personal, Patriotism reveals their very embeddedness. It is impossible to separate the personal from the political because the political gives meaning to the personal in ways that extend beyond a single individual, particularly when it comes to ultra-nationalistic and fascist ideas. For instance, by ascribing to a larger community with anti-immigrant ideas you are no longer just a racist, you are simply concerned about the economy or about national security. Rather than focusing on the concrete heroism of Takayama’s refusal to take charge of a unit set out by Imperial ordinance to cut down the mutiny, Mishima glorifies the private act of seppuku. Within the text, Takayama himself understands that his death might be politically meaningless; after deciding to go through with the ritual suicide he reflects:

Listening to [the noises of the city] he had the feeling that this house rose like a solitary island in the ocean of society going as restlessly about its business as ever. All around, vastly and untidily, stretched the country for which he grieved. He was to give his life for it. But would that great country, with which he was prepared to remonstrate to the extent of destroying himself, take the slightest heed of his death? He did not know; and it did not matter. His was a battlefield without glory, a battlefield where none could display deeds of valor: it was the front line of the spirit.

For Takayama, ritual suicide is less about making a clear political statement and more about acting out a personal drive couched in grand, cosmic terms. In Takayama and, later, with Mishima, the personal, aesthetic, and the ostensibly political blend together into action. The personal provides the emotional inertia for the political theatre, as with many fascist leaders tapping into strong human emotions to propel their cause forward: fear, anger, frustration. It is difficult to rationally address these emotions when you truly believe the country is in a state of crisis.

It is little wonder that the February 26th Incident would resonate with Mishima. In it he finds the same ideological thrust, the same emphasis placed on the figure of the Emperor as standing in for something that was lost to modernity and can now possibly return. For Mishima, it was the sense that Japan has had a spiritual crisis in the postwar era, a time where he believed much of Japan’s unique identity was cast aside as a means of moving forward after the war and as a way to join the rest of the world on its path to globalization. Rather than dying for a specific human emperor, it seems that both Mishima and the insurgents of 1936 were willing to die for what that empty marker meant for them. For many in Trump’s base, perhaps what he stands for is important enough to blindly follow, regardless of broken promises and criminal indictments.

天皇陛下万歳 Tennōheika banzai

When the Emperor is a void he can be used as an empty signifier for any number of drives. Who the Emperor was as a man was not important for either Mishima nor the insurgents of February 26. 

What remains at the core of their ideas is the concern for the future of their country and a desire to return to an idealized, imagined past in order to secure the country’s future. The Emperor was a short-hand figure who readily referred to all-that-Japan-once-was, regardless of what that presumed greatness actually looked like. For both Mishima and the insurgents, the Emperor was enough of a signifier to latch onto, but equally enough of a void to fill with whatever meaning they desired. 

Peeling away the uniforms, the pomp, and the hyper-masculinity on the surface of many fascist movements, much of fascism can be expressed as a concern for the future of the country. Trawling through think pieces by the alt-right reveals a boilerplate rhetoric: anti-multiculturalism, a handy list of those we can blame for all our problems, ultra-nationalism that draws from an idealized past, constant manufactured crises to keep their followers in heightened emotional states. A desperate return to past “values” to create a future and, by extension, a rewriting of that history—a mythologizing—that has a tenuous link to reality.

And that is what always chills me when I think of the ways Mishima brackets the uprising in Patriotism and the way he himself chose to die. The lieutenant slices into himself, his insides bursting out, for an idea that is rooted in a void, an emptiness that only reflects the one looking into it. Likewise, the insurgents placed their faith in a figure they believed would solve the problems of the present by returning to an imagined past when, in reality, that figure ordered their capture and trial. Presently, those who support Trump place their hope in a man ostensibly outside of political circles, only to find that he is as self-serving as the other elites that he so adamantly promised to drain from Washington.

Long live the Emperor.

Mishima’s work and death has often been exoticized as something specifically Japanese. But stripping away the lens of seppuku reveals existential concerns that were already in circulation in Europe and the United States, too. Many thinkers were fussing with the contradictions of modern living and the problems with a rapidly globalizing, capitalist world. His sense that something was not right in Japan at the time and his existential fixation on the past is something I can begin to understand. I do believe that there is something not right with the way the world is right now. 

Mishima’s political fantasies provide a way to discuss the wave of global fascism currently sweeping many countries, including the United States. The point is not whether Mishima was ever a card-carrying fascist (he was not), but rather that there was something in this iconography and worldview that resonated with him and that resonance led to an action. Looking through Mishima and his emphasis on the figure of the emperor as a lens, it’s clear that little of what we see in the alt-right is about Trump as a person or even as a political figure. It was never just about the political—it was very much always about the personal and what Trump gives people permission to feel, and what personal drives can be elevated to the national level under the guise of patriotism. 

But the sense that ‘these things shouldn’t be happening now’ cuts both ways simultaneously. The sense of anachronism galvanizes both those who seek a new future through progressive reform and those who fear the world they see now and retreat into the mythologized past. So many of us feel that what is happening shouldn’t be happening now. What can those of us who naively felt caught off guard by the election, the rally, the continued corruption in the White House learn from these moments? We can realize that things are rarely as anachronistic as they seem. There were plenty of voices throughout the early days of Trump’s presidential campaign, particularly critics of color, who warned of the dangers of believing that the contemporary was somehow wholly cut off from the past. While Mishima’s death, like the Charlottesville Rally, seemed to be a disorienting return to the past these apparent sudden breakages in time reveal a crack that always lingered below the surface. Without learning from what appears as anachronism, we could easily fall prey to another trick of time: repetition. It is important to keep our eyes on the path that these minute cracks in time take, learning to anticipate how the past could impact our present and adjust our actions in the hope of working towards a world that looks different from where we came from and where we are now.