February 23, 2001

Yukio Mishima and the sinking of the Ehime Maru

For months, Japanese officials have been denying it: but now, the signs are all too apparent. Mt. Fuji, the sacred symbol of Japan – which some still worship as a god – is on the verge of erupting. The long dormant volcano is awakening, say scientists – and the news is not at all welcome to the 11 million inhabitants of Tokyo, which is some 60 miles away. But, more than the physical danger – after all, Japan has some 86 active volcanoes – is the psychological shock: the towering majesty of the snow-covered mountain has long been a symbol of the Japanese nation. That this natural monument to national stability is getting ready to blow its top has its socio-political parallel in the gathering head of steam that could blast Japan's political establishment to smithereens and shake the foundations of the US-Japanese overlord-vassal relationship. A long series of tremors – the rape of Okinawan women by US soldiers, including incidents of child molestation, and the recent arson fire in Japan in which a US serviceman has been charged – have culminated in what is turning into the seismic shock of a major US-Japanese rupture: the sinking of a Japanese fishing vessel, the Ehime Maru, by a US Navy submarine off the coast of Hawaii.


It was, of course, not the incident itself that sparked the anger of the Japanese public, but its disgraceful aftermath. In Japan, the most civilized nation on earth – the country with the lowest crime rate, the highest technology, and an aesthetic sense far older and more evolved than Western culture at its peak – form reigns supreme. This is the aesthetic and moral basis for the widespread revulsion among ordinary Japanese at how the Ehime Maru tragedy was handled by US government and military officials. A formal apology from the US came swiftly – but getting truthful information out of them was like yanking teeth.


At first, Pentagon officials purported to be "puzzled by the collision," according to CNN, "saying that U.S. submarines regularly surface in the area – and information about such surfacings are given out to commercial vessels." Then we were informed by Adm. Tom Fargo, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, that the submarine was on the way back into port, after a long hard day patrolling the Empire's Pacific frontier, when – for some as-yet-to-be explained reason – it was suddenly necessary to carry out what the Admiral referred to as an "emergency main ballast tank blow." Say what? "This is an operation that we do on a regular basis," he explained. The procedure is performed "for demonstration and to check the proper operations of these systems." Is that clear?


Well, not quite: Hisao Onishi, the captain of the Ehime Maru, began to ask a few questions: why did the submarine suddenly surface, without warning? What's up with that? An official of the Japanese Maritime Defense said that such a thing was "unthinkable." Onishi added fuel to the smoldering embers of Japanese resentment when he told a Feb. 11 press conference that the Greeneville crew just watched him and his crew as they scrambled to locate and rescue survivors. "I could see several people on the [submarine] tower," said Onishi, fighting back tears. "They lowered a rope ladder from the conning tower, but none of our crew members were rescued by the submarine. They were just looking until the Coast Guard arrived." Admiral Fargo retorted that three-to-four-foot waves precluded the possibility of opening hatches and jumping into the rescue effort. Onishi, however, disagreed, insisting that conditions may not have been perfectly tranquil, but they were calm enough for life rafts. Then, slowly but surely, the official story began to unravel. . .


As hopes faded that the missing Japanese fishing students and their two teachers would ever be found, the families of the lost ones and the Japanese government appealed to the US to raise the Ehime Maru and recover the bodies, but US officials refused to even consider it: National Transportation Safety Board investigator John Hammerschmidt declared that he saw no reason at present to raise the ship. Reuters reported that "he did not believe it was necessary to bring the ship up to discover accident details, but he added he might change that view as the probe progressed." Once again the barbarous gaijin had demonstrated their unreconstructed barbarity for all the world to see! Savages – – at least, the modern kind – do not take death very seriously, because for them human life is cheap – especially the lives of those they consider enemies, or, in this case, former enemies. And what, after all, are nine Japanese in the face of nearly 5,000 children a month who die in Iraq as a direct result of the US-imposed sanctions? What with the perpetual bombing, we knock off more than nine Iraqis in a few hours!


One hallmark of savagery is its unconsciousness, and this invincible ignorance was on full display in Hammerschmidt's remarks: failing to understand or appreciate the distinctively Japanese sense of profound awe at the phenomenon of death, he failed to grasp the cultural imperative of recovering the bodies. But what can one expect from barbarians, whose ancestors were still living in mud huts – and, in some cases, trees – when the Japanese tea ceremony was already a high art and a living god sat upon the Chrysanthemum Throne?


As if this shocking arrogance and disregard for the spirits of the dead were not enough, the US government was still suspiciously tightlipped about the details, days after the accident, and already going into full obfuscation mode. On Feb.12, ABC News reported, as the furor picked up, that "there is no evidence that the crew of a US Navy submarine did anything wrong as they practiced an emergency surfacing maneuver that resulted in a collision with a Japanese fishing vessel, but there will be 'an absolutely clear and transparent investigation,' National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice said today." But something wasn't right, and the Japanese knew it: "It is so troublesome that the navy of our military ally is in such a mess," quipped Shizuka Kamei, the influential Liberal Democratic Party leader, and the sting in this remark was in its subtlety. But of course the navy of the mighty United States of America could hardly be in that much of a mess – so much so that one of its submarines, equipped with the most sophisticated equipment imaginable, could have failed to detect the Ehime Maru. Was such a thing possible? This was the question that Japanese were asking – but it was taking forever for the US government to answer.


Meanwhile, the emotional tremors sweeping over Japan put Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori in a seismically dangerous position. The report that, on hearing the news, he had simply continued his golf game, seemed emblematic of the dithering impotency of Japanese officialdom in the face of the Supreme Superpower's depredations. Disarmed after the war, disintegrating economically after the burst of the 1980's inflationary bubble, and disoriented culturally in the face of globalization, for Japan the pain and humiliation of the Ehime Maru disaster seems emblematic of the social and political malaise that permeates Japanese society. They may have lost their empire, a good deal of their wealth, and their sense of cultural rootedness, but why, they wondered, has Japan also lost its dignity?


As the clamor in Japan rose, President Bush finally called Mori personally, instead of just issuing a press release, and the US relented, somewhat, and decided that it would "consider" raising the sunken fishing vessel and possibly recovering the bodies, a typically graceless gesture that only piled injury on insult. Then came the ultimate insult: the news, leaked by an anonymous Pentagon official, that a civilian – among 16 aboard – had been at the helm of the sub when it surfaced and crushed the Ehime Maru. But don't worry, said the official, "the civilian was under careful supervision at the time" and "the move was not highly unusual and apparently had no influence on the collision." Now the whole structure of lies and "spin" began to crack apart at its foundations, and come crashing to the ground, as the news hit the wires that no less than two civilians had been at two out of three control boards! Oh, what a tangled web we weave – as they say in the West – when first we practice to deceive!


Forced to finally admit the truth, US military authorities stubbornly maintained that there was "no evidence" that having 2 civilians at two of the steering wheels had anything to do with the tragedy, and refused to say whether or not the civilians aboard might have been a distraction; although, they averred, it was possible. But the esteemed editors of Time magazine told us, definitively, that "Civilians at Sub's Controls Had No Significance in Killer Crash," as the headline on their story put it. We also learned, from Time's Pentagon correspondent, Mark Thompson, that these civilian joyrides, far from being unusual, are a regular feature of our naval operations: "Like the other services, the Navy routinely takes batches of so-called 'opinion leaders' on tours of their operations, to show off their various platforms," he said. "And an emergency blow is a neat time to be aboard a sub." Like children showing off their "neat" and highly expensive toys, the US military was engaged in courting political support among "opinion leaders" – which it refuses to name – in order to buy more. The Navy has a whole program, called "Operation Tiger," which amounts to an open invitation to "friends of sailors" and "VIPs" to "Come play with us!" And that is why nine Japanese, including six teenagers, had to die.


In spite of growing questions, authorities continued to deny that the presence of civilians was a contributing factor in the accident, insisting that the commander of the vessel had control of the sub at all times. When it turned out that the joyride had been arranged by retired Admiral Richard C. Macke, however, the irony and serendipity of this coincidence was almost too much for the Japanese to bear. Admiral Macke, once the commander of US forces in the Pacific, had been forced to retire after declaring that the US soldiers who raped a young Japanese girl in Okinawa in 1995 should have gone to see a Japanese prostitute instead. Such a development seems almost too poetic for reality: one might expect to see it in a work of fiction, perhaps in a novel by Yukio Mishima, but to see it enacted in reality is to witness that rare and delightful event: when life imitates art.


I cannot help but think that the restive spirit of the tumultuous Mishima must be rolling over in his grave. Here in the ritual humiliation of Japanese pride is his worst nightmare and dire warning come true. Mishima was a prodigiously talented novelist, whose books were bestsellers both in Japan and in the West: he is the author of Forbidden Colors, Confessions of a Mask, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, and The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, among others. He was also a poet, dramatist, essayist, and man of action, a Japanese nationalist whose critique of Japan's "smiling full-bellied peace" was succinctly summarized in one of his long poems:

"Strength is decried, the body disdained
Pleasure has lost its substance
Joy and grief alike vanish in an instant
Purity is marketed, dissipation enfeebled
Feeling is dulled, sharpness blunted
Virulent and manly spirits have fled the earth. . . ."


Japanese modernity, he declared, would kill them all (slowly) with its "tediousness" and "insipidness": what was missing was a "sense of peril." Mishima traced the fatal decadence of his nation to that fateful day, in the ashen aftermath of World War II, when the Emperor declared that he was, after all, just another mortal, and not a god at all. In his famous unclassifiable work – is it a story, an essay, a polemical vision? – "Voices of the Heroic Dead," the departed spirits of the kamikazee pilots come back to haunt the Japanese, complaining that their sacrifice was in vain and plaintively asking, in a constant refrain, "Nadote Sumerogi wa hito to naritamaishi?" ("Why did the Emperor have to become a human being?") In the person of the divinized Emperor, held Mishima, was the union of the sword and the chrysanthemum, the nation and the culture of Japan: with the passing of this national myth, and its replacement by the Western institution of constitutional monarchy, the spirit and culture of Nippon was betrayed and abandoned in favor of all-out Westernization. Mishima's political stance was dramatized in many novels, as well as argued in essays: read today, his stories can be put in the category of prophetic fiction.


The novel Runaway Horses depicts the young Isao, who is inspired to join an officer's rebellion by a pamphlet written issued by the "League of the Divine Wind": the pamphlet, which takes up a full fifty pages of the novel, tells the story of the 1876 Shinpuren Incident, the romantic revolt of the old samurai against Westernization. It was the era of the Meiji Restoration, and the last partisans of traditional Japanese culture – the last "virulent and manly spirits" – were in despair. They implored the Shinto gods for guidance. Should they rise up and fight for the Old Japan?


Twice the answer was no, but finally, when all samurai were commanded to turn in their swords and trim off their traditional top-knots, came the last straw: this time, the gods reported back favorably. The samurai band prepared for battle – by praying. They disdained Western weapons, and armed themselves with swords and spears. When, on their way into battle, they had to pass under Western telegraph wires, they shielded their heads with white fans, lest they become contaminated by Western emanations. (A nice touch!) While the samurai are not totally ineffectual – a general and a couple of politicians are killed – against the guns of the local garrison their spears and swords are ineffectual. Faced with this failure, they all – but one – commit seppuku, ritual suicide, with a whole group of them ascending a mountain and performing this ancient rite as perfectly, solemnly, and bloodily as it was meant to be carried out. Mishima loved the purity of these men and their doomed, heroic action: it was, to him, a shining example of how action can embody and give meaning to life, even as that life snuffs itself out of existence.


Isao, too, is inspired by this vision of purity, and joins a conspiracy to overthrow the government, and restore the authority of the emperor: but he is betrayed in the end by the corruption and baseness that is already infiltrating Japanese culture. At his trial he and his comrades are matter-of-factly unrepentant: this was their Shinpuren Incident, an act of purity in an impure, corrupting world. Runaway Horses, and also Mishima's famous short story "Patriotism" – a long, involved and very bloody depiction of ritual seppuku – are Mishima's homage to an actual historical event, the Ni Ni Roku Incident of 1936 – a key turning point in the history of modern Japan. It was the occasion of the final struggle between the two principal factions of the Japanese armed forces: the Kodo-ha, or Imperial Way faction, which favored going to war with the Soviet Union; and the Tosei-ha or "Control" faction, which wanted to strike south against the British, French, and other European colonialist powers. The conflict came when a large number of Kodo-ha soldiers were ordered shipped out to Manchuria – leaving Tokyo in the hands of the "Controllers." In a preemptive strike, Kodo-ha officers seized the center of Tokyo after killing three prominent members of the government. In spite of their proclamation that they were doing it for the Emperor, who had been led astray by evil, traitorous advisers, Hirohito denounced them and demanded they surrender. The Kodo-ha rebellion was crushed in four days, its leaders imprisoned, and executed. Japan's fate was sealed.

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com. He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against US Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (forthcoming from Prometheus Books).



What would have been Nippon's course had the Imperial Way faction triumphed in their revolution, and attacked the Soviet Union, leaving the West unmolested? Perhaps the sad truth that Mishima proclaimed in vain to the Japanese people – that Japan had been literally castrated, and transformed into a eunuch among nations – might have been avoided. However, as we now know, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was determined to get America into the war by the "back door." As Robert Stinnett points out in his widely-discussed bombshell of a book, Day of Deceit, the American President knew all about the planned attack on Pearl Harbor – the Japanese code had been broken, and their messages had been intercepted – and thus actively collaborated in the "day that will live in infamy." That some Japanese are now mustering the courage to say, in public, what every historian knows as virtually incontrovertible fact – that Roosevelt "lied us into war," as Clare Boothe Luce famously put it – is a sign that the spirit of Japan is not dead, just sleeping. Perhaps, soon, it will awaken.


In the summer of 1969, a young Japanese who thought of himself as a patriot and was not tied to any extremist organization, either of the right or the left, tried to stab the American secretary of state, William Rogers, at Tokyo airport. As the perpetrator explained it, while he had no personal grudge against Rogers, his action was in retaliation for the bayoneting of Japanese who had taken part in demonstrations against American military bases on Okinawa. Writing in the London Guardian [September 24, 1969], Mishima deplored the general heaping of abuse on the would-be assassin, by both the left and the right. While declaring straightforwardly that he did not support this terrorist act, or its terroristic spirit, he nevertheless sought to explain it as a phenomenon, to analyze it without looking through the distorting lens of hysteria. Just as Japanese intellectuals sought to bury the history of the Shinpuren Incident as something shameful, an example of "Japanese fanaticism and irrationality," so, said Mishima, they failed to understand that the action of the youth at Tokyo airport was also a "strikingly pure act of resistance," a symbolic protest against the price of modernity. "Japan," he wrote, "has tried to show only one side of herself, one side of a moon, to the West, while pushing on busily with modernization." It has shown only the "light side" – the Apollonian spirit, rational and pacifistic. But this required the "great sacrifice" of the "totality of culture," which, he averred, "must embrace lightness and darkness equally."


Is it now time for the dark side of the Japanese to reassert itself? It is a development that Mishima would have cheered, and indeed did his best to inspire. Alas, it wasn't enough. For his fictional works were a map of his life course: in real life, he followed his imagined destiny to the letter, reenacting the recurring plot of his fictional creations, in which purity is martyred in a signal act of defiance. On November 25, 1970, Mishima and a few of his followers walked into the Tokyo headquarters of the Japanese Defense Force and took its commanding officer, General Kanetoshi Mashita, hostage: then they made their demands. The troops must be called out to gather beneath a balcony, where Mishima would have the chance to address them unmolested. The shocked authorities – Mishima was a famous writer, and it was as if Ernest Hemingway had taken over the White House – allowed it. The soldiers gathered, and Mishima stood on a parapet and exhorted them to throw out the "peace constitution" that had disarmed the nation, reunite the sword and the chrysanthemum, and restore the status of the Emperor as the living repository of Japanese culture and national independence.


Of course, these were not the samurai of the Shinpuren Incident, or the heroic army officers of the Ni Ni Roku rebellion, but the decadent scions of the "smiling, full-bellied peace," the sons of timid clerks and "office ladies" – they had joined a "defense force," not a real army, but a pretense and a shadow. The shadow warriors booed Mishima, and it is doubtful that they even heard his message, shouted hoarsely over their jeers. He urged them to rise up, to take back their country and their tradition: to reclaim their heritage as the key to building a meaningful future. The jeers grew louder. He had planned a half hour speech – oh, the naïve conceit of writers! – but after about ten minutes of booing he withdrew with his followers – and you know the rest. The ritual suicide of Mishima and two of his followers shocked Japan, and stunned the world. Foreshadowed in his work, the end of his life was a radical protest against the insipid pleasures of a fat and happy Japan, content to export cheap goods to the US and live without honor or meaning. Now that Japan is no longer quite so fat, and is chafing under the rude "protection" of its Imperial overlord, Mishima's attempt to act as the conscience of Japan, to play the role of the ghost come back to haunt his betrayers, seems prescient. "Nadote Sumerogi wa hito to naritamaishi?" It is a question that translates, today, into: when will Japan get up off its knees?


Mishima's very own Shinpuren Incident – a romantic attempt to awaken the conscience and the spirit of Japan, to give it back its soul – was misunderstood and ridiculed, especially by his enemies on the left. He died at the height of his mental and physical powers, having written over 100 novels, plays, poems, and short stories, not counting his literary and political essays: and, besides that, he was an athlete, and even acted in films. He was famous in Japan, nominated three times for a Nobel Prize (now those lefties will never give it to him!), and his heroic act was generally derided as the act of a madman. In a world gone mad, the hero is inevitably considered demented. In retrospect, Mishima's analysis of the Japanese dilemma gives us insight into the current spiritual torment endemic in Nippon – if such a word as "torment" can be used to describe the long, slow absorption of a unique culture into the miasma of global McCulture. Japan, said Mishima, is a country occupied by a foreign power both culturally and militarily: today, it is plain to see, it is an Imperial protectorate ruled directly from Washington. But Mishima hoped it would not always be so. "In the first twenty years of my life," he wrote,

"National culture was controlled by the unnatural Puritanism of the militarists. For the past twenty years, pacifism has been sitting heavily on the samurai spirit . . . The hypocrisy of the authorities has permeated the minds of the people, who can find no way out. Wherever national culture seeks to regain its totality, almost insane incidents occur. Such phenomena are interpreted as the undercurrent of Japanese nationalism, intermittently bursting out like lava through cracks in a volcano."


The arrogance of the World's Only Superpower is what is striking about this whole shameful episode, and this is bound to produce a Japanese reaction: if it isn't today, then perhaps it will have to wait for the next time some grunt grabs a Japanese girl and has his way with her. In any case, the news that Mt. Fuji is about to erupt is, perhaps, not so surprising: for it could be that in nature, as in art, the future is foreshadowed. When oh when will the volcano erupt? I am personally looking forward to it – and to the final vindication of Mishima's martyrdom to a Japan that deserves to be.


I saw the news that about 20 protesters showed up at a demonstration protesting the Ehime Maru incident, and I think you guys are going to have to do better than that! Come on, now, get it together: get up off your knees, Japanese! Isn't it time to throw the Americans out of your country, and throw out the "peace" constitution that forbids self-defense and leaves you wide open to the possibility of Chinese or, more likely, North Korean aggression? And while you're at it, demand a seat in the United Nations Security Council, and rejoin the community of nations as an equal. The world war is long over, but in their zeal to exact a 100-year vengeance, it seems the "Allies" of yesteryear are doing their best to provoke another one.

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