This Day In History: Mishima Commits Suicide After A Failed Coup in Japan (1970)


On this day in 1970, one of the most famous Japanese writers of the 20th century commits suicide. He committed suicide in the traditional manner of a samurai in an act that was both deeply symbolic and political.

Born in 1925, Mishima was from a very early age a very talented writer. During WWII he had managed to avoid being drafted into the Japanese Army for service in China by feigning an illness. This was to haunt him for the rest of his life. Mishima disliked Post-War Japan and unlike the majority of Japanese did not see anything great in the economic miracle that transformed the country and made it one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Mishima saw Japan and a spiritual wasteland that had no values or honor. He much preferred pre-war Japan with its traditional culture and its values. Mishima wanted a return to the old patriotism and the martial code of the samurai. He hated the crass materialism of modern day Japan which he believed was a betrayal of Japanese history and culture. For him, the ideal was the samurai and their  code that stressed loyalty, bravery, and patriotism. There was a small minority of right-wing Japanese who had a desire to return to the values of the past. The vast majority of Japanese people had become pacifists and they had embraced liberal democracy and believed that it was compatible with traditional Japanese values and culture.

Samurai in 1880s

Mishima wanted his country to return to it’s spiritual traditional and way of life. He found the Shield Society, a private militia comprising 100 students. They were committed to defending the Emperor in the event of a communist uprising. During the 1960s as in many other nations, many young people in Japan were drawn to communism.  The Shield Society received some backing from right-wing- businessmen and some elements in the army. Indeed, the members of the society actually trained with the Japanese army. Mishima despite all his claims to cherish traditional values was secretly gay and had a bizarre private life.

On November 25, Mishima delivered to his publisher the last volume of his great series of novels about Japan in the twentieth century. This series of novels are considered by critics to be masterpieces of modern Japanese literature.

Grave of Yukio Mishima (1927-1970)

After this, he went with some followers from the Shield Society and he seized a military building in Tokyo. Then he went out to the balcony where an army unit was assembled and he gave a speech to the men. Mishima condemned the corruption and materialism in modern Japanese life and called for them to start a coup and overthrow the Japanese government. The soldiers were bemused but listened politely. It was soon apparent that Mishima did not have any chance of inciting a coup against the democratic government. The author committed seppuku, or ritual suicide, by silting his stomach open  with his samurai sword.

Not many in Japan shared his beliefs and were unsympathetic to his aims, but they regarded the death of a remarkable writer as a tragedy.