The Political Afterlives of Yukio Mishima, Japan’s Most Controversial Intellectual And Global Icon Of The Far Right

The writer Yukio Mishima, who took his own life fifty years ago today, remains one of modern Japan’s most important cultural figures. Mishima’s eccentric and contradictory political stances have also gained him a devoted following on the international far right.

Yukio Mishima in 1953. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Human life is limited, but I would like to live forever,” wrote Yukio Mishima in a short note placed on top of his final manuscript, left in the office at his Tokyo home, on November 25, 1970, precisely fifty years ago. Later that day, this remarkable figure of modern Japan would lead a small paramilitary organization called “The Shield Society” (Tate no kai) — complete with snug uniforms designed by Tsukumo Igarashi, the tailor for Charles de Gaulle — in a peculiar, rather contrived coup d’état at the headquarters of the Japanese Self Defense Forces in the Ichigaya neighborhood.

On the pretense of a simple visit, Mishima and his young militants took the local commander hostage. After barricading themselves in his office, they demanded the assembly of the garrison to hear Mishima deliver a brief manifesto for the spiritual restoration of Japan and specifically the emperor.

Largely uninterested and even annoyed by this staged and confusing harangue, the soldiers more or less shouted him down, and Mishima retreated to the commander’s office where, along with his alleged lover Masakatsu Morita, he committed ritual suicide, stabbing himself in the abdomen with a knife, before being decapitated by one of the Shield Society militants.

Mishima’s Afterdeath

This episode was remarkable for many reasons: it arrived amid a season of radical politics, the sequence between 1955 and 1973 in Japan, which had given rise to an exceptional organizational and cultural force of the Left. An ostensibly far-right organization, Mishima’s Shield Society directly addressed the peculiar political status of the emperor in postwar Japan, a point of significant tension, complexity, and frequent silence. The moment itself was captured on live television, radio, and in the print media, making it a remarkably visible spectacle, and creating genuine social shock, even in a moment of widespread political violence.

Perhaps even more remarkable than Mishima’s own exceptional role in postwar Japanese history has been his afterlife — or we might even say his “afterdeath,” in the sense that it is above all his death that has been continuously responsible for his many returns all across the world. After all, beyond the event of his suicide and its political gestures, Mishima remains Japan’s most-translated novelist into European languages, one of its best-known cultural figures of the twentieth century, and an extraordinary presence during his life (1925–1970) in every aspect of postwar Japanese culture, literature, film, politics, and public discourse.

Mishima wrote on nearly every topic imaginable: from modern European philosophy to classical Chinese ethics, from the underground gay scene of Tokyo to a rethinking of samurai culture as a mode of life, from short pieces in mainstream women’s magazines to vast, philosophically driven novels. He wrote modern theater, updated Noh drama, screenplays for kitsch action films, lyrics for pop songs. He posed for highly sexualized photographs, was a friend and interlocutor of major figures of the avant-garde, the literary arts, and social thought, and engaged in extensive political debates from the Left to the far right.

Yukio Mishima delivering a speech in during his failed coup attempt just prior to performing seppuku, November 25, 1970. (Wikimedia Commons)

Today, Mishima is an internationally iconic figure for the cultural politics of the “new right,” an avatar placed into a confused pastiche of figures “against the modern world,” from Italian screwball mystic Julius Evola to German thinker of the sovereign “anarch” Ernst Jünger. He is venerated by a young and very male right-wing audience, from the online “alt-right” in North America to the new fascist militants of Italy’s CasaPound (where in completely eclectic and even incoherent fashion, befitting their absurd politics, he is enshrined alongside Tolkien, Plato, Gabriele D’Annunzio, and a panoply of others), and from genuine neo-Nazis in Germany, inebriated with fantasies at the crossroads of Orientalism and Aryan mysticism, to the traditionalist Catholic right in France, among whom he is seen as a guardian of “culture.”

But who is this new Mishima, fifty years after his suicide-performance guaranteed another symbolic life to come, who could be assimilated to so many peculiar positions in the global resurgence of the Right? And if he was a fascist, what sort of fascist could he possibly be?

Samurai of the West

In an episode of NBC’s television drama Law & Order: Criminal Intent, broadcast in the spring of 2002, two detectives pursue a copycat murderer enthralled with sadomasochistic aesthetics. After obtaining a search warrant for the suspect’s apartment, the detectives rummage through a closet, where they find something hidden beneath a pile of clothes on a shelf. We are treated to a parade of bondage magazines, sex toys, harnesses, and other items testifying to an interest in “extreme” and “dangerous” sexual practices, before we finally get to the key discovery.

Pulling out a few worn paperbacks from among the BDSM gear, the first detective solemnly states, “novels by Yukio Mishima . . . !”, to which the second detective replies, with a wink to the camera: “That’s just domination porn for intellectuals.”

On May 21, 2013, Dominique Venner, a well-known French far-right historian and committed fascist, shot himself at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris in protest against the passage of a gay marriage bill, sponsored by the Socialist administration of François Hollande. When asked about this spectacular suicide, his editor, Pierre-Guillaume de Roux, portentously suggested that it would be wrong to link his suicide solely to the same-sex marriage affair: it went “far beyond” such mere earthly trivialities, he insisted, instead calling into question the status of culture tout court.

De Roux told Agence France-Presse that Venner had been working on a final testament, soon to be published, called Un samouraï d’Occident: le Bréviaire des insoumis [A Samurai of the West: Handbook of the Unsubdued]. Venner’s death, de Roux continued, should not be seen as simply a sordid and bizarre death in a famous public site, but ought to be compared rather to that of Yukio Mishima for its ritual, symbolic weight, and nobility.

Venner, a far-right, traditionalist Catholic, was no newcomer to fascist politics, but the son of a member of the Parti populaire français, an explicitly Nazi-adjacent political organization. He grew up immersed in the 1930s French fascism of the milieu of Drieu La Rochelle and his ilk. Venner volunteered to fight for colonial rule in the Algerian War in the mid 1950s, and later served as a member — like his admiring colleague Jean-Marie Le Pen — of the Organisation de l’armée secrète, an influential fascist paramilitary group that used terrorist methods in a bid to stop Algeria from gaining its independence.

Venner, in other words, was steeped in the peculiar nexus of racial nationalism, fascist politics, Catholic aristocratic reaction, colonial rule, and masculine worship of violence that constitutes the story of the French far right for much of the twentieth century. Why would such a figure revere Mishima — an avowedly gay, avant-garde, culturally polygamous, anti-conservative and heretical writer?

A Certain Idea of Japan

Frankly speaking, there are many Mishimas and this polyvalent feature of his, a kind of emblem for the structural overlapping and complexities of twentieth-century Japanese cultural life, makes otherwise unbelievable filiations possible. Venner’s Un samouraï d’Occident, published just after his suicide, is a completely incoherent and purely gestural admixture of amateur history, characterized by love of guns and weaponry of all kinds, worship of cruelty, hatred of women and anyone not white or European, and vigorous defense of the family against the global-multicultural-homosexual matrix.

Instead of revealing a weary, noble intellectual who fears for the cultural future, a psychoanalytic analysis of this constellation would more likely produce a diagnosis of permanent adolescent boy syndrome: fixated on titillating and discrete historical trivia without any structural features, guns that go “boom,” ninjas and geishas, and soldiers who get to brag about their exploits. In other words, it is nothing but “Trumpism with Pétainist characteristics.”

We should note the incoherence of seeing Mishima as any kind of ally in the defense of the Catholic traditional family. Mishima had zero interest in the aesthetic embarrassment of worshipping the family as the “backbone” of the “ethnic nation.” The fourth chapter of Venner’s book — the source for his interest and that of his co-thinkers in Mishima — is an ode to “Japan,” or some version of it, at any rate, a hallucinatory hodgepodge of Orientalist tropes about flower-arranging, martial arts, elegance, cultural purity, swords, honor, dignity, kamikaze pilots, temples, literary vignettes from antiquity to Mishima, and so on.

The connection that the European far right feels to an “idea of Japan” is so strange and juvenile, divorced from all reality of the Japanese nation-state, and subtended only by mystifications, that it is hard to even briefly envisage it as threatening. Yet this kind of kitsch Orientalism was a conscious element that Mishima himself played with, and one that he utilized — in some ways successfully — as a vehicle for his own eternal “afterlife.”

Producing a modern commentary on the famous eighteenth-century century text of Yamamoto Tsunetomo, the Hagakure, Mishima transformed this rather solemn manual of late-feudal bureaucratic ethics into a riotous, exhilarating send-up of modern alienated social relations, seeing it as a document of transgression and self-creation, instead of a paean to a rule-bound order or some “Japanese essence.” Mishima’s Hagakure commentary goes so far as to sever permanently any serious link to Japan itself, when he writes that the book merely speaks of an “ideal land,” and that “if such an ideal land were ever to materialize, its inhabitants would be far happier and freer than we are today.”

But while Mishima refused to be solely encapsulated by forms of cultural continuity, his readers around the world happily received this and other texts as messages in a bottle from the “alien world” of Japan, produced by “the last Samurai,” Mishima. This purely kitsch Orientalism with which he has been received by the global right appears as an enormous performance-art hoax of Mishima from beyond the grave.

Fascism as Aesthetic Style

In another decidedly strange outcome of the historical process, longstanding crypto-fascist post-industrial folk crooners Death in June, for instance, produced multiple albums inspired by Mishima in the mid-1980s, including an entire set of spoken-word tracks, pompously intoning from Mishima’s Hagakure on their 1985 LP The World that Summer.

Charmingly decorated with its SS Totenkopf logo, Death in June as a musical-cultural act, with their flirtatious semi-Nazi ambiguity (dangerous enough to be titillating, cryptic enough to not be outlawed), perhaps understood the specific character of Mishima’s fascism better than simple fascists like Venner. This would not be fascism as a concrete political option, with policy directives and measures for governing, but fascism as aesthetic style.

Yukio Mishima at age thirty in his garden, 1955. (Wikimedia Commons)

The literary critic Hidemi Suga has pointed out the complex relationship between Mishima’s thought and the culture of the radical left of 1968 in Japan. Mishima famously debated the student militants of the University of Tokyo in 1969, when it was under occupation by the Zenkyoto movement, and told the Marxist students that he agreed with them about everything, except for the fact that they did not recognize the importance of the emperor.

This statement has often been seen merely as a joke, as a kind of humorous moment in the often-fractious debate, but it can also be read in a different way. Early in 2020, new archival footage of this confrontation emerged, only cementing the complexity of the moment. The Zenkyoto militants themselves clearly respected Mishima: they brought him into the campus in an atmosphere of near-total occupation, police violence, and constant battles. Mishima himself was relaxed, even at ease, making light of being an “enemy” of the student movement, a line at which everyone laughed.

Perhaps the secret is that he wasn’t really an enemy of the student movement at all. As Suga points out, in one of the most iconic moments of the University of Tokyo struggle, militants ransacked the office of the great postwar intellectual Maruyama Masao; his books were destroyed, and Maruyama himself physically attacked. Maruyama was hardly a right-winger: in fact, he was close to the antiwar Beheiren movement and an intellectual upholder of postwar liberal democracy.

Maruyama famously described the destruction of research materials during the student occupation — specifically the notorious “Battle of Yasuda Tower” — as an act of “barbarism” befitting the Nazis, and was thereafter completely scandalized by any “passage à l’acte” on the part of the student movement. Mishima, however, who might have been expected to agree, did not, and instead appeared in the debate to endorse the students’ commitment to action, even to violence, emphasizing that he shared with them the total rejection of postwar democracy, and that such commitment from the movement was “thrilling.”

It’s in this context that Suga reminds us of how astute Mishima was — his positing of the importance of the emperor completely baffled the students, who did not really understand that in the aftermath of World War II, the emperor, under American hegemony, had become a crucial emblem of the postwar democratic compromise. By ignoring the emperor entirely as a somewhat embarrassing and weird remnant inevitably destined to wither away, they had not really considered how to overturn the real roots of the established order. This point is still deeply significant, and the status of the emperor remains one of the most volatile and complex points in the social landscape of the Japanese state.

An Artwork Called Yukio Mishima

“In general, I think that a philosophy or a form of social consciousness that tries to bring about a revolution is in all cases located in the two pillars of nihilism and mysticism,” wrote Mishima, just after this debate in 1969 and less than a year before his suicide. This revealing point of Mishima’s constitutes the essence of this most bizarre cultural figure: not concerned with politics as such, but with a metapolitics of stances and gestures, a style of engagement rather than an engagement for anything.

“Where the danger is, grows the saving power also,” wrote Hölderlin, the German Romantic poet most beloved of Heidegger. A meditation on the clarifying force of proximity, the ways in which inhabiting a moment on the precipice can produce insight, this phrase in cultural terms easily becomes something akin to the petty-bourgeois shopkeeper’s egoistic dream of adventure on a drunken weekday evening. We can subject a whole series of thinkers of the fascist canon — Jünger, D’Annunzio, Mishima — to an analysis centered on this love of running up against the limits, the worship of danger, the lure of catastrophe.

After all, the only way it is possible to really love danger, to find its instability seductive, is to already admit the pure stability within which such a statement is possible. The thinker who emphasizes to us the aesthetic-sexual force of danger, trauma, and so on is necessarily one for whom it is axiomatically excluded from the normal order — the secure and satisfied bourgeois existence. Faced with Mishima’s cultural politics and their contemporary afterlives, it is easy to agree with Walter Benjamin’s famous statement that humanity’s self-alienation “has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”

Mishima’s fascism in this sense has Trumpian aspects — the fetish of self-creation, the desire to control narratives — but we might say that Mishima also quite successfully subverted this fascist drive, with his own oddly vanishing performance. By making himself a kind of proof positive of his own thought, by insisting on this strange autobiographical foundation to his engagement, Mishima in some ways made himself “live forever,” as he hoped, but also made himself eternally disappear — an after-death more than an afterlife.

In the late 1980s, the novelist Shimada Masahiko remarked: “It is only through playing the role of Yukio Mishima that Yukio Mishima comes to exist. The proof of this tautology is the existence of the artwork called ‘Yukio Mishima.'”

This artwork called Mishima today travels the world, seducing the Right in particular. But it also contains the seeds of other conclusions, a kind of Trojan Horse within the fascist ranks.

Beautiful Mysteries

It may seem simply flippant, but in many ways, Nakamura Genji’s 1983 gay soft-porn “pink” film Beautiful Mystery: Legend of the Big Dick [Utsukushii nazo: Kyokon densetsu] is perhaps the greatest critical response, both to Mishima’s own work and to the portentous unintentional comedy that runs through far-right appropriations of Mishima. In Beautiful Mystery, a young student is initiated into a secret society at university, determined to restore the “manly” force of the nation through cultivation of the body, echoing Mishima’s manifesto-like text Sun and Steel (1968).

In an indirectly political tour de force of satire, Nakamura transforms the kitsch dimension of Mishima’s paramilitary fantasies into a literal farce, in which the “militants” screw each other and the Mishima-like leader figure practices an “ethos of the body” by selecting his favorite militants for sex. After their comedic coup d’état, the revolutionary group, rather than committing suicide, starts an all-out orgy.

Fifty years after his ritual suicide, this moment so credulously beloved of global fascism, there is a humorous sense to the far-right obsession with Mishima. They continuously take this performance-art trickster’s jokes at face-value, circulating Mishima’s own attempts to undermine them as if they were endorsements. But any further analysis of the politics of the contemporary right — for whom Mishima figures as a decisive member of the pantheon, perhaps even in ways that aren’t really clear in any openly “political” terms — must contend not just with the critique of fascism as a concrete mode of political and social strategy, but with fascism as an aesthetic style and cultural stance.

Mishima, for whom style (mysticism) and stance (nihilism) were practically the only political fidelities he upheld, is in some sense a perfect historical avatar for the “late,” “new,” or “crypto”-fascism in our midst today, half a century after his gesture of “self-determination.”

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Gavin Walker is associate professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of The Sublime Perversion of Capital (Duke, 2016), editor of The End of Area (Duke, 2019, with Naoki Sakai), Marx, Asia, and the History of the Present (a special issue of positions: politics), and editor and translator of Kojin Karatani’s Marx: Towards the Centre of Possibility (Verso, 2020). His new edited collection, The Red Years: Theory, Politics, and Aesthetics in the Japanese ’68 is now out from Verso.

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