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July 13, 2011

Book Review: "Mishima's Sword" by Christopher Ross

Why did Mishima Yukio commit seppuku? And what happened to the sword he used for the deed? Questions Christopher Ross sets out to answer in Mishima’s Sword, Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend. The book is a pleasant read. It nicely hobbles along on its short paragraphs, like an extended but at the same time well laid out mosaic. But it is not easy to answer the many questions surrounding Japanese author Yukio Mishima’s gruesome and anachronistic death by seppuku, ritual suicide during what would now be called an act of terrorism.

On November 25, 1970, with a few members of his private army Mishima entered the Ichigaya headquarters of the Self Defense Forces, hijacked a general and tried to incite the soldiers to insurrection. He was only met with scorn and jeers and then carried out what he had in fact come to do: die a glorious death.

A pity for him that his way of dying would then and now only be seen as the “pathetic act of a very gifted buffoon” – the last stage appearance of a “suicidal dandy” (as Ian Buruma calls it in The Missionary and the Libertine). The story is presented by the author as a quest for the true circumstances of Mishima’s last day.

Christopher Ross comes to Tokyo in 2000 to travel back to the Mishima Incident. He has been in Japan before; he has studied aikido and speaks the language. Ross tries to meet people who knew Mishima, which is no easy thing, because Mishima is still taboo in Japan and most of the inner circle refuse to see the English author. No wonder: Mishima was a darling of the establishment, a Nobel Prize nominee, and his deed caused a huge shock. It was also shameful: Japan was right in the middle of the “economic miracle” and did not want to be reminded of skeletons in the closet. That still holds today. Mishima is too anachronistic and badly behaved to ever become a political role model.

So Ross mainly meets with biographers and critics, not any of the former friends and family. It is a cold trail full of digressions, from the theory of bushido to autobiographical tidbits, from ways to cut up a body with a sword to nosebleeds, from historical suicides as the one by General Nogi to famous acts of terrorism as the "2-2-6 Incident" before the war.

Ross also delves into Mishima’s literature (unfortunately obscured by the author’s all too spectacular death) and gives a detailed account of Mishima’s suicide. Failing the inner circle, next Ross tries to get closer via another path, that of the sword. He establishes the type of sword Mishima has used to commit suicide (in fact, the sword was used to hack off Mishima’s head after he cut his belly; this proved a painful disaster as the assistant in these decidedly non-samurai days could not get a good sweep at Mishima’s head) and how he obtained it.

Ross travels to Seki near Nagoya to see how these traditional swords are still made. He meets a famous sword master. He meets the man who gave the sword to Mishima. He shares a lot of sword lore with us. He even descends into an SM club where he has to wear a fundoshi (loin cloth) to see a Mishima acquaintance who after all is also rather uninformative.

Finally, Ross meets a person who wants to show him a rusty sword. Mishima’s sword, the man claims. Ross is not allowed to take photos. Is that piece of scrap metal indeed Mishima’s sword? The quest ends with a big question mark, but author and readers have gained a lot of philosophical insights along the way.

The most important one: authors should not mix art and fiction with reality. That is a recipe for true disaster. And the cultural lesson: in group society Japan, the person who brings shame on the group will never be forgiven.