As Corona both helps to come to terms with reality and fosters local and global neototalitarianism, a remarkable cultural event took place in Japan. March 20, a documentary including 45 minutes of Yukio Mishima’s debate with 1,000 New Left students, anti-war activists and worker unions at the Todai’s (University of Tokyo) Komaba campus on May 13, 1969 was released.
The film looks like a visualization of the interwar articles by Ernst Jünger, who welcomed the alliance of the Left and the Right and, despite his reputation of the national-revolutionary, was considered by an international communist leader Karl Radek as the would-be bigger victory for the Left than a parliamentary majority. Born on this day (March 29) 125 years ago, Jünger is remembered worldwide as a philosopher whose gloomy yet empowering forecasts can be read today as an instruction to survive.
A renowned novelist by that time, Yukio Mishima, however, was invited by the Zenkyoto (All Campus Joint Struggle Committee) precisely as an “anachronistic gorilla” known for his support for the Emperor and right-wing ideas. Mishima accepted the challenge, having attended the event with a bodyguard from Tatenokai (Shield Society) militia founded by him and trained with the Japan Self-Defense Forces. Other members were scattered among the crowd, probably for the first time side by side with their ideological opponents. Leaders of this loose alliance of various factions, united by their discontent with the war in Vietnam and the renewal of the Anpo (post-war Japan-US Security Treaty) obliging Japan to assist the US war effort, like Mishima himself, were not sure about his safety during the meeting.
After all, in the atmosphere partly resembling the one at the Deutschlandhalle during Klaus Kinski’s 1971 performance of his unorthodox interpretation of Jesus Christ’s figure, “Jesus Christus Erlöser” (Jesus Christ the Saviour), which gathered far left students and Christians alike, everything could happen. Indeed, one of the attendees, Masahiko Akuta, who would later become an acclaimed avantgarde theater explorer and was the only interlocutor more or less matching Mishima’s intellectual capacity, at one point of their 15 minute solo debate exclaimed, “This is all philosophical nonsense! I’m here to see Mishima get beaten up!” On the other hand, Mishima declaring onstage that he is “pro-violence,” be it left-wing or right-wing, would hardly object against this argument – as long as it was the battle of words as they agreed.
Starting as a protest against the embezzlement of university funds, indecent working conditions and a lack of the reforms, the Zenkyoto revolution, culminating in the occupation of the Yasuda Auditorium of Todai with the protesters hurling molotovs and worse at the policemen, ended after the introduction of stricter measures by the government that successfully renewed the treaty. In 1960, similar protests have already taken place, resulting in Michiko Kanba’s, undergraduate female leftist activist, murder by the riot police and the resignation of Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, grandfather of current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Today’s revival of Mishima’s figure in Japan, which has resumed its patriotic and, most importantly, security policies since the beginning of new tensions with North Korea and China, means that the dialogue of two camps is going on. It was him who for the first time not only criticized the US-Japan post-war treaty forbidding Japan to maintain an army, let alone its own nuclear weapons, as unequal but loudly called for the restoration of the Japanese Armed Forces and rebuking American imperialism which leaves Japan defenseless and soulless.
The message of film director Keisuke Toyoshima, despite his obvious sympathies, is not that simplistic, though. Just 18 months after the intellectual duel at the University of Tokyo, on November 25, 1970, Yukio Mishima made a failed attempt of coup d’etat – above all, failed at engaging the Self-Defense Forces. Immediately thereafter, he committed a ritual suicide, seppuku, and these two events are not unrelated. “The reason I included the footage [from just before his] suicide at the end of the film is because I felt there was an interesting juxtaposition to be made between the 1,000 students in the hall during the debate, when his words really seemed to be reaching them, and the 1,000 members of the Self-Defense Forces, who did not accept his message. I thought that comparison could be very interesting,” explains Toyoshima.
Such a move is not unsubstantiated. According to an eyewitness of Mishima’s address to the soldiers of the Japan Self-Defense Forces from the balcony of its Tokyo headquarters, he said the following: “There was a radical student movement last October, but why didn’t the Jieital [defense force] act? What kind of army is this? What does twenty years of training since the end of the war mean? What Japan needs is a real army! You must revise the constitution and build a real army! The Jieitai is too lax to be able to preserve the Imperial way! Corrupt postwar politics have departed from the imperial way!”
On the other hand, it is hard to identify a precise shared message, for both the New Left students and the Self-Defense Forces stayed deaf to Mishima’s call to bring back the rule of the Emperor. According to his reflections on the debate, it was rather the point of disagreement with the former: “I found we had much in common – a rigorous ideology and a taste for violence. Both they and I represent new species in Japan today. I felt a friendship for them. We are friends between whom there is a barbed wire fence. We smile at one another but we can’t kiss. What the students and I stand for is almost identical. We have the same cards on the table, but I have a joker – the Emperor.”
Yet those interpreting Mishima himself as a “Joker,” including the film director, seem to be correct, so his curiosity about Mishima’s possible stance on modern left-leaning emperors, in fact, is not so interesting. Interviewing the listeners of the debate, Toyoshima came to realize that the movie was about Mishima’s overwhelming impact on their lives rather than his ideas. Indeed, in his 1966 interview, Mishima underlines that individualism is “wrong” simply because modern people are not strong enough to “live for themselves.” Expressing his fears over the death in a bed similarly to the author of Hagakure whose dreams of the former glory have never come true, Mishima makes it clear that the traditional order provided the Japanese with the noble cause worthy of dying for, which made their lives beautiful and full-blooded. “I believe in your passion. Nothing else, but I believe in your passion,” Mishima said during the debate, and he knew that his pointing at this ability to “auto-generate” the noble cause was a time bomb.
It also seems to be a real reason why this debate, discussed as an unattainable ideal in a modern polarized society by another award-winning novelist Keiichiro Hirano, took place in such a gentlemanlike manner despite the intellectual threats to Mishima. As Thomas Garcin argues in the article entitled “’We are all nihilists.’ Mishima Yukio, political activism and the student New Left,” a solid yet limited basis for such a comparison is an insightful way to reconstruct the existential, that is, metaideological and philosophical, approaches to politics which keep influencing our transitional societies. No doubt, a debate between distinguished antagonists, less congenial and more passionate than Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson, is a long overdue today.
Abstract of the article by Thomas Garcin:
Several intellectuals, such as Suga Hidemi and Oguma Eiji, have emphasized the similarities between Mishima’s conception of politics and the radical activism of the New Left in the late 1960s. For both the novelist and the young revolutionary group, political activism seems to have been motivated by a form of disillusionment and/or nihilism. The purpose of this article is to reconsider the parallel drawn between Mishima and the New left by highlighting its limits and virtues. Although comparing one writer with a collective movement certainly implies analytical shortcuts, I argue that this parallel also provides a better understanding of the motivations of their radicalism and brings to light various existential approaches to political activism. To this end, the comparison has been extended to other writers such as Ōe Kenzaburō (1935-) and Takahashi Kazumi (1931-1971).
Before the full footage of the debate has been discovered and restored to 4K, Azsacra Zarathustra did a great job highlighting Yukio Mishima’s dialogue with the Japanese New Left and combining rare video clips of the debates and the 1968-69 Tokyo protests in philosophical short movies stored on his YouTube channel.
- The Joker Instead Of The Emperor (Version 1)
Videos dedicated to preceding riots, “Japanese Paris 68,” farmers’ protests against the construction of the Narita airport and Yukio Mishima’s path may be also found there.