Early in the afternoon of November 25, 1970, a forty-five-year-old writer named Yukio Mishima committed suicide in front of an audience of 800 members of the Japanese Army Self-Defense Force. That morning, Mishima had led four university students into the office of the Army’s commander, General Masuda, and these students had gagged the general, roped him to a chair, and barricaded all the entrances to his office. Using Masuda’s life as leverage, the group demanded that the entire Eastern Division of the Army, as well as all the members of their own militia (the Shield Society), be assembled in a plaza below the office’s balcony. When the SDF soldiers arrived, Mishima urged them to overthrow the current Japanese government, which, he said, had defiled Japan’s history by signing a postwar constitution that deprived the Emperor of a real fighting army. “Grinding our teeth we had to watch Japanese profaning Japan’s history and traditions,” he told them. “Rise with us and, for righteousness and honor, die with us. We will restore Japan to her true form, and in the restoration, die…”
When his speech ended, Mishima stepped back into the office, removed the jacket of his uniform, plunged a sword into the left side of his abdomen, cut open his stomach, and gave the signal for his followers to decapitate him. It took three blows to separate the head from the body. Once it was done, one of the students, Masakatsu Morita, sat down next to Mishima’s corpse and repeated his actions: again the belly-cutting, again the decapitation. Mishima had ordered the other three students to remain alive. They set the two severed heads on the floor, bowed to them, untied their hostage, and began to weep. “Cry it all out,” Masuda urged them, as if they were small children waking up, alone and frightened, from the darkness of a nightmare.
Dramatic, violent, public, the Shield Society Incident would have captured headlines no matter who its perpetrators were. In fact, Yukio Mishima (né Kimitake Hiraoka) was already known internationally not only as a novelist and playwright, but also as a provocateur, a homosexual, a narcissistic bodybuilder, a boastful masochist, and a friend of the West. His very presence, it has been said, “transmitted a palpable energy of brilliance and wit and even playfulness.” By the time he sliced open his stomach, he had completed forty novels, twenty volumes of short stories, eighteen plays, and hundreds of essays. Fifteen of his novels were made into movies. All of his plays were staged. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize three times. Yet, in the suicide note he left behind for his family, Mishima instructed his father not to commemorate any of these accomplishments after his death. “I have thrown the pen away,” he wrote. “Since I die not as a literary man but entirely as a military man I would like the character for sword—bu—to be included in my [posthumous] Buddhist name. The character for pen—bun—need not appear.”