Japanese radicalism and the absurd was certainly not only the preserve of the Left. Yukio Mishima was the most famous living Japanese writer in the Fifties and Sixties, even better known than the older Yasunari Kawabata, who ultimately nipped him to the coveted Nobel Prize. But Mishima wore many masks. He was a novelist, a playwright, an actor, a dandy, a narcissist, a homosexual. And also an ultranationalist hated both by the student radicals of the time, as well as the more straightforward rightists, whose own simplistic branch of patriotism did not match with Mishima’s esoteric ideals. Mishima, believing that a left-wing revolution was imminent in the chaos of the anti-war riots and campus struggles, started a private army with the help of his elite network. While radicals were turning Shinjuku and Haneda into battlefields of Molotov cocktails, Mishima and his Tatenokai group were training in the countryside for an event that Mishima planned meticulously but kept secret from everyone.
In November 1970 Mishima went to the Ichigaya headquarters of the Japanese Self-Defense Force with four trusted members of the Tatenokai, including the much younger Masakatsu Morita. Morita and Mishima were enamored with each other, though it remains to be proved that they were actual lovers. The plan was to initiate a coup, to incite the SDF to rise up and restore the Emperor to full power. Needless to say, this was an utterly preposterous idea and Mishima must certainly have known it. It was not an attempt at revolution so much as an empty sign, a ritualistic gesture expressing Mishima’s warped ideals of beauty, heroism and sincerity. At first everything went like clockwork. They took a senior commander hostage in his office, blocked the door and demanded the soldiers gather in the courtyard below. Then Mishima stepped out onto the balcony to give what was expected to be a remarkable, valedictory exhortation.
No one was listening. The soldiers jeered. A police helicopter hovered overhead. His passionate and long-prepared speech was drowned out. Cutting it short, he then stepped back inside to cut himself open. Naturally, seppuku was the perfect means for Mishima to complete his gesture and naturally, the kaishaku – the beheading that is meant to end the suffering of the seppuku as quickly as possible — was to be performed by Morita. Again, they had prepared rigorously, even blocking their colons with cotton in case their bowels evacuated during the process. But the best laid plans of Mishima and Morita went very much awry. The former conducted himself splendidly, plunging the blade deep into his side. However, the pain was too immense and he could not write the customary calligraphy as he’d hoped. Mishima writhed in torment as Morita raised his sword to terminate the would-be revolutionary’s life. But he was no swordsman. Depending on the account he took at least two or three strokes yet Mishima’s head was obstinately still very much attached to his neck. It was left to another of the gang to fully decapitate Mishima and then also just as swiftly dispatch Morita, who was said to have barely penetrated his body when he performed his own “seppuku”.
Many of the activities of right-wing and ultranationalist activities are performative – done to be seen and heard as much as with expectation of real political influence – and the charging, blaring caravans of their black trucks that regularly race through Tokyo are still chilling, even if the locals are not paying attention. Occasionally they commit shocking acts of violence. In 1960, Inejirō Asanuma, chairman of the Japan Socialist Party, was stabbed and killed live on television by a teenage zealot while he was giving a speech. And in 1990, Hitoshi Motoshima, then Mayor of Nagasaki, was shot in the back for daring to suggest that Emperor Hirohito bore some responsibility for the atomic bombings. Violent confrontations and attacks still happen today.
But it is the absurd that seems to capture the imagination, to loiter in the memory. Yoshio Kodama, the shadowy figure from the wartime generation of old-school rightists who moved easily between the ranks of the Yakuza and the ultra-nationalist sphere, was implicated in the Lockheed scandal in the Seventies. The American aircraft manufacturer had paid out large “consultancy” fees to secure contracts and Kodama was hired to help put pressure on All Nippon Airways to accept the deal with them. It was later commonly believed that the Prime Minister at the time, Kakuei Tanaka, also benefited from bribes. But Kodama was not just corrupt; he was also a tax-dodger and this was what infuriated one particular nationalist, a minor porn actor called Mitsuyasu Maeno.
Maeno hired a plane from an airport just outside Tokyo. Perhaps the rental staff should have been worried when he arrived in the uniform of a kamikaze pilot. Taking off he soon enough turned the plane towards his destination – Kodama’s house in Setagaya. In what is surely the most eccentric assassination attempt of a public personality in Japanese history, Maeno flew the plane suicidally straight into Kodama’s home with commendable accuracy. Unfortunately for the porn star, though, the elderly Kodama emerged miraculously unscathed.
In the same way that, in contrast to European courts, the Japanese Shogunate and Imperial palace was devoid of jesters, contemporary Japanese television or mainstream comedy lacks any real alternative performers or “edgy” talent. But is that role being filled by high-profile pranksters like the art unit Chim Pom?
From the schoolboy “humour” of their name – a penile reference, just in case you missed it – to the provocative stunts like drawing comic book explosions in the skies of Hiroshima, they have offended and amused in at least equal measure. Their “dangerous” videos made in the Fukushima exclusion zone immediately after the nuclear disaster and their addition to Taro Okamoto’s The Myth of Tomorrow mural generated a vast amount of hype. There are problems here. Chim Pom are a commercial enterprise, a mini factory of “controversy” issuing art events, fashion collaborations, books and merchandise. Their work has been claimed to be anti-art world, anti-consumerist, to be gleefully subversive – but all I see are formats that work within or even prop up the status quo. Their stunts are clearly publicity campaigns, regardless of whether you feel their work has artistic merit (the jury is decidedly out on that). The press coverage of their Fukushima exhibition translated into a major show at Parco and their bandwagon is not slowing down any time soon. Being tongue-in-cheek but actually fully located in the mainstream is perfectly acceptable as well, but no one can claim you are then the Fool to the zeitgeist’s Lear.
It would be fatuous, not to mention tasteless, to try to use a neat trope to tie up all the gaudy panoply of postwar Japanese extremism. There is nothing absurd or ironic in the death of Michiko Kamba, crushed by police during the 1960 Anpo protests, or that of Hiroaki Yamazaki, like Kamba a student and still a teenager, who was killed by a vehicle – which may or may not have been driven by fellow protestors or police – at tumultuous protests at Haneda Airport in 1967. In 1972, the Asama-Sansō incident shocked the nation when New Left revolutionary terrorists massacred each other in the mountains before taking a hostage in a lodge and killing two police officers in the resulting siege. The event remains chilling today, even in these hardened post-9/11 times.
Jean Baudrillard was similarly criticized for his lack of humanity, for just being too pat with his theorizing, when he applied a post-modernist reading to the first Gulf War. People were in fact dying while he claimed the war was not real; it was hyper-real, a war for television, for image, like a simulacrum of war (or a war-game). It “did not take place” in the words of his book title. But only the bourgeois armchair intellectual has the daring and arrogance to throw out such pithy truisms.
While much of the Japanese right-wing extremists are more ridiculous than absurd, you mock them at your peril, as many have found out. Perhaps then it is that the extremism is more shocking precisely for its weirdness. Fanaticism is impenetrable and frequently risible, but its total obliviousness to how it appears to outsiders can make the violent actions then even more horrific. Shōkō Asahara, levitator, visionary and leader of the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyō, between plotting the murder of 13 people with sarin gas on the Tokyo subway in 1995, also found time to record songs and appear in a very jolly promotional anime. One of the former is a kind of peculiar “counting song” including the line “I did not do it”, which is really the most untruthful of lyrics when you consider what happened.
During much of 2012 the Prime Minister had thousands of demonstrators outside his doorstep every week. The July 29th rally outside quondam PM Noda’s home attracted perhaps as many as 150,000 protestors (the police estimate was much more conservative 17,000). Meanwhile somewhere between 170,000 (organizer numbers) and 75,000 (police figures) attended a July rally in Yoyogi Park: labour unions, veteran campaigns and plenty of ordinary shimin (citizens) too.
We have yet to see any absurdity in the newly ignited civic activism Japan is experiencing post-Fukushima – but then, we also have yet to witness any radicalism. So far the protest movement seems very motley, a ragbag army of tweeting hipsters, office workers, ex-student activists, and the elderly. The dignified aspects of the movement – candlelit vigils outside the Diet and the PM’s residence – contrast with loud concerts and rallies angrily channelling past the TEPCO headquarters. In their apparent inclusive ambit of the social spectrum it is hard not to join the dots to the Anpo protests of 1960, though, thanks perhaps in part to social media, unlike Anpo, the new anti-nuclear power activists are not reliant on small group organizations to mobilize and organize them. People are shocked and angry at how they were treated as a nation, yet they are perhaps guilty of only earnestness, rather than violence, whereas the 1968 movement had both.
The tragedy now would be if the protests did not metamorphose from just an anti-nuclear power movement into being also a pro-renewable energy campaign. The real absurdity, though, lies in the Japanese government’s continuing efforts to ignore them and to squander this unique opportunity to create a green and better Japan. The announcement recently of the construction of the world’s largest offshore wind farm in Fukushima is a step very much in the right direction.
Farce, though, is a refrain that this writer at least welcomes. To single it out amongst a pantheon of incidents is not a form of mocking. The absurd is vital to a society, whether in peacetime or the most stringent of crises. The absurd brings us perspective on an uncanny platter. It reminds us how close we can get to revolution but yet how far away we always seem to remain.
In the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim:
And where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns.
Well, maybe next year.