Poetry written with a splash of blood
Examining the failed "Mishima Incident" in the post-war century provides tremendous insight into the nature of future successful reactionary ideological proliferation and terror in the decline.
On November 25, 1970, Yukio Mishima and four members of the Tatenokai, a private right-wing militia formed by Mishima, captured the commandant of the Eastern Command of the Japan Self-Defense Force, hoping to force a coup— he addressed the assembled soldiers to incite them to mobilize in service of a culture war, and ultimately, committed suicide.
“The very concept of "revolutionary violence" is somewhat falsely cast, since most of the violence comes from those who attempt to prevent reform, not from those struggling for reform.” wrote Michael Parenti, and so it was the case in, what is now known as, the Mishima Incident in 1970. Yukio Mishima, notably opposed to not only the occupation government after the war, but also disgusted with the emperor’s disavowal of his divine right to leadership, along with others trained by Defense Forces, attempted a coup of the military in Japan; this piece isn’t so much about Mishima, or even real neoliberal tolerance of fascism in the service of anti-communism, but more about the idea that winning a war, a “successful” (by the metrics of the occupation) occupation programme of reforms, and simply time passing (which, as we see, causes these wounds to fester, rarely heal) producing zealots and extremists in the service of combatting reforms, rather than instituting new ones or more just ones.
The United States is no stranger to crimes of empire, but arguably this begins with the post-war occupation of Japan, which directly leads into the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, having witheld former colonies lost by Allies during the war (France, notably), and itself standing in for imperial power against interests of self-determination (which is why, in both of these cases, the conflict was between organic communist movements, and a puppet government whose heart wasn’t in it, but too deeply invested by the West to quit). This is what is so compelling about the Mishima narrative—a patriot, albeit a deeply fascistic one, so committed to the empire that he returns to the factory he just left due to illness upon hearing news that surrender was imminent, is well-positioned to manufacture a narrative favorable to the idea, at least in revisionism (which is what he ended up doing in 1970— characterizing the failure of his coup as a failure to overcome the American boot of imperialism in Japan, a la Korea and Vietnam).
I bring up Mishima to illustrate a pretty straightforward point: if you look at a culture’s extremists, and for the most oppressive frameworks possible (in this case, a war-mongering empire responsible for untold ethnic oppression, also allied with leaders responsible for mass genocide in Europe), and what they seek to glom this ideology onto as a part of the national identity, these movements can quickly gain traction. The problem was that, between fascism and neoliberalism, the latter was much more placid for the populace conditioned after a post-war decade marked by decay, mass death, and material insecurity, and all of it successfully (and arguably, correctly) attributable not to the Allied occupation, but solely that of their own government. Only at the end of Emperor Hirohito’s life was he ever seriously re-evaluated by the public for his role in Japan’s worst war crimes; General MacArthur, content to lay the entire blame solely on Tojo (who, again, Mishima considered overly-deferential to Hirohito, who he now considered weak) and the civilian government, felt it important for continuity in the 40’s and 50’s that he remain held unaccountable, and Mishima’s extremism is an example of why this token gesure was going to produce reactionaries, rather than successfully sell a public on occupation as a good thing— it only provided ammunition.
An example of this is something that I’ve written about before, and one you can fairly lambast the Allied occupation for as erasing cultural self-determination in the process of disempowering a vicious imperialist tendencies by the state, but also can view as easily manipulated to advance an extremist, nationalistic agenda:
Taking this discussion to the real world, we can look to the example of non-fiction like Shutting Out the Sun, which is one American businessman’s exploration of Japanese subculture ofmillennial hikikomori; young men (usually) who self-withdraw from a society they feel ill-equipped to participate in. Michael Zielenziger, the author, wildy speculates that Japan's tradition-steeped society, its aversion to change, and its distrust of individuality are “stifling economic revival, political reform, and social evolution” are key factors in this, but almost the exact opposite is true if you consider the actual cause, rather than seek to ascribe blame exhonorating your role in these factors’ impact.
Post-WWII during the occupation, the US-led occupation government imposed extreme economic and political reforms, offering a new social framework for the rights of their citizens, and in effect, normalized a complete rejection of traditional Japanese culture, at least in any meaningful quotidian way, to become a stable, if entirely repressed, corporatized state that offered its citizens a more robust state in return than the occupation was willing to provide its own citizens; it’s no wonder, following the model of Western capitalist thought, albeit deliving on many of the promises of capitalism while remaining neglectful in many concrete ways, younger people, borne of generations unfamiliar with how to cope with this, were left behind and produced a generation of maladjusted hermits.
Zielenziger, in this text, ignores the American role in shaping this highly conflicted culture in presupposing this is a matter of traditional Japanese values leaving these young people behind, rather than the inverse, where the new careerist ambitionism that, in the 40’s and 50’s was the only road out of decimation (for example, Japanese pilots after the war ended had no possessions except their flight suits, and this was a common fashion on the streets of Tokyo until 1948 when a lot of programs for housing and job placement fully ramped up). Whatever you make of the appropriateness of sanctions post-WWII, the occupation was about manufacturing a compatible market of consumers, adjacent to its newly-acquired colonies in Southeast Asia, not rebuilding a state (as was the case in West Germany, at the time).
In the absence of any solidarity-building of the public, it leaves these actions and reforms open to coopting by extremists like Mishima to characterize as being victimized by imperialists, while seeking a cultural and political restoration of the imperial order of pre-war Japan. We see this play out all the time— the mainstream social democrats in any country’s political economy trend conservative to prevent the spread of socialism, and in the absence of any coalitioning happening among the public in its own interest, far-right reactionaries can exploit these as vulnerabilies, and the psychology is simply just not that complicated to follow from there. The problem was, however, that the Allied powers did more for solidarity in crafting Japan’s new constitution than any of them had in their own, so while they are steeped in western ideals of capitalism, forcing Japan’s economy into the global marketplace: land reforms were put into place to combat feudalism, labor unions were encouraged (more on this in a moment), and civil liberties were expanded, which brought the new occupation in favorable light with a population marginalized by its own government’s actions. Where MacArthur left this new set of programmes vulnerable was seeking not only to reform, but out of the context of reform as a factor in occupation of a defeated power, sought to crush a labor strike— a blow against the nominal strenghts of the new democratic order in the nation, and one that undermined the credibility of the occupation government.
Zielenziger, like [David Foster] Wallace, takes the approach here from authority, while paternalistically diagnosing a problem they, themselves, are projecting as a cause onto; this pathological desire to identify a problem, without the acknowledgement of your/your class interest played in what causes said problem. The motivations are fundamentally different in scale, but similar in opportunism; laughing at rubes in a self-aggrandizing essay, pathologizing a culture as repressed while your industry colonizes their economies, it’s really all the same mentality, with varying levels of social acceptability as analysis. Their conclusions that something singular is happening are correct, but their premises for why are ultimately self-serving.
The outcome of this programme that, reasonably, could not accomodate everyone, was the production of an economy that emulated the prevailing ethos of corporate America at the time— megacorporations employing everyone, in predictible sectors like elections, finance, and defense, all running 386 droneware in their cubicles by the end of the 1990s- and the intentionality of all of this is no more apparently than in the markets that began to crop up in the 1950’s to service the interest in westernization.
The story of consumer fashion in Japan, for example, is the exemplar of Western occupation influence that went as well as it could have; every sphere of influence that can come from style was influenced, commoditized, and streamlined into production for consumption by Japanese audiences living in this new Westernized utopia. Jazz, blue jeans, Ivy League aesthetic, business aetheticism, etc. The phenomenon of Japanese people embracing these styles is couched in terms of the styles being that iconographic, while the reality is that colonialism has that effect on populations; what is available will, ineveitably, coalesce into some complete form of itself when it’s completely divorced of context.
The assumption being made in this kind benevolent occupier mindset, even more than half a century later, is that we masterminded a utopia, when the reality is that this is the natural progression towards postmodernism; it’s more aggressively that thing than the original thing, itself, in its commoditized form. It’s something everyone recognizes, and because it’s so readily its own signifier in others, social critics like these are able to ignore its significance to themselves.
It’s not hard to see how imperial apologia could have survived, even in the small corner that it did after the war, when the “worst” impulses of western capitalism were suddenly the new sociopolitical regime. For the average Japanese civilian, the war was not only traumatic, but even today remains a cultural touchstone that taps into now intergenerational trauma; the occupation, one could imagine, is only anodyne in the sense that it meant this was over, suffering at the hands of your own government as well as that of your liberators. This is where I believe MacArthur failed to consider the role of solidarity, and where, ironically, he had more in common with Mishima, and the anti-communist undercurrent of their political movement’s recruitment, some solidarity in the public could have prevented this anger from festering.
Consider that, if Mishima’s coup lacked legitimacy and humanistic endeavor, what does this tell us of contemporary reactionaries whose goals may not be so actionable, but are perhaps more zealotic? The rise of militia culture in the US during the 1990s, open violence in the new millennium, with the possibility of civil war having more mindshare among even the most insulated corporate media consuming Americans than any time previous, it begs the question of whether or not there is truly a functioning political spectrum, or an artificial opposite extreme that falls short, leaving only sincerity, albeit seditious, in the dark corners of society extremists inhabit. Mishima once wrote, “Perfect purity is possible if you turn your life into a line of poetry written with a splash of blood.”— the absence of sincerity, or at the very least conviction on the part of the Allied occupation, even if their goals were noble, didn’t go far enough to rebuild society, but did create the perception of the new regime as being little more than a client state for the Allies; their dispassion, as Mishima might characterize it, was supposed to be their major failing in an armed conflict with a nationalist uprising (which failed to materialize when the time came).
The precedent for this is the other major US-led occupation of the latter half of the 20th century under western auspices, Vietnam; the consensus is, basically, that the war proved indecisive because the Viet Cong simply wanted their “liberation” more than American teenagers wanted to be there “liberating” the Vietnamese from Communism— this is, essentially, what Mishima’s ideology’s strategy for restoration was rooted in needing to happening in Japan to be successful, however, the situation in Japan, culturally and economically and politically, trended away from the imperial-era and towards globalization; they, after all, weren’t being occupied after ostensibly being liberated by the Allies, they were being occupied as the fallen aggressors in a World War (whatever your opinion of US involvement is, this is essentially the premise the Allies and the occupied Axis nations were operating on as a matter of state(re)craft), and for all the atrocities committed in the name of that conflict towards the civilian population, there was a case to be made for western capitalism, joining the world marketplace, and letting go of the traditions that ultimately would cause these things to fail. The occupation prolonged their suffering, but it was the empire that brought it on (in the context of Japan’s own imperial expansion in the east) in the first place, to be entirely reductive about what happened.
In Christoper Parker’s A history of American Reactionary Movements: From the Klan to Donald Trump, he posits “Beginning with the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s, clear through the Tea Party oftoday, reactionary movements are motivated by a belief that America is in rapid decline,something that is associated with perceived social and cultural change”— this is a span of time that covers the beginning of the American hegemonon in global politics through its preeminence as effectively the world custodian, and on behalf of its own interests in the affairs of sovereign nations, and commensurately, the ability of the public to be drawn into movements like these becomes dramatically simpler: how these precepts of American culture manifest in foreign policy (expansion of empire) as well as domestic policy (mass-surveillance, failing critical infrastructure, etc.), highlights very real issues, but in the absence of a real left-wing mainstream politic to create collectivist incentive or even a coherent public consciousness of itself, it leaves this public vulnerable to reactionary thinking, and at the mercy of reactionary politicians who, as we saw in 2010 (and again in 2016), simply suggest they would do something to restore the structural integrity of the United States, whether or not they had any idea how or why or even if this needed to be done, and more often than not, the problem grows, but the status quo simply trends to include more and more in the name of unity in the face of reactionaries, rather than combatting them. Parker says:
Many years ago, noted historian, RichardHofstadter (1965)offered what I believe is anorganic framework in which we may better understand the reactionary right. In hisseminal workThe Paranoid Style in American Politics, he wrote that the far right wingpractices a style of politics consistent with paranoia. For him, there was no other way toexplain the “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and the conspiratorial fantasy”associated with the Goldwater movement. He is careful to distinguish paranoid politics,or the “paranoid style,” from the clinical version. However, he cites important similaritiesbetween political and clinical paranoia in that “both tend to be overheated, over-suspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression” (Hofstadter 1965,4). The key difference, as he sees it, is that the clinical paranoid perceiveshimselfto bethe object of the conspiracy. The paranoid politico, on the other hand, perceives theconspiracy to be “directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects nothimself but millions of others . . . His sense that his political passions are unselfish andpatriotic, in fact, goes far to intensify his feeling of righteousness and his moralindignation” (Hofstadter 1965, 4).
and to this, again, I believe the response to this is obvious— you’ve left those susceptible to propaganda nowhere else to go.
Consider the prevailing conspiracies at the tail end of 2020; 5G being a prime example. This is a technology with minimal public, unbiased data available about envrionmental impact and the skepticism is warranted, but because both ends of the mainstream political spectrum are invested in the prosperity of multinational corporations like telecom providers— with one benefiting far more than the other from those willing to accept conspiracy in place of what might normally come from scientific inquiry- between blind faith that the technology is harmless and its proliferation a minimal consideration (false— this requires an exponential increase in the amount of equipment with deep implications for the future of citizen privacy, not to mention waste created by its production and installation) and the belief that its responsible for all manner of malady (roundly false), but guess which responded to the skepticism with the more believable effort to respond to the curious; it wasn’t the end of the spectrum telling you to trust AT&T and Verizon to publish a study that might drive rollout in an unprofitible direction when met with an unforeseen obstacle. Corporations have consistently demonstrate an unwillingness (not an inability) to self-regulate in matters of public interest — so, imagine you are such a person, and let’s say you know they’re both lying to you, but objectively, which seems like there might be more answers? This is how the rabbit hole gets dug.
These are all examples of the same thing— extremism isn’t often sold as-is to the vast majority of populations who indulge in it, it’s layered onto genuine concerns, using elements derived from how those concerns are not being addressed, and thus exploited. I like the Mishima example because it’s a rare time where an imperial interest is on both ends of the equation, in theory, but fails due to its oppositional nature to the true reality of the social, collective consciousness in modernity, this past no longer existed for Japan— that one side is reshaping a better version of its own idealized self-image, and admist the tenuous relief from scarcity of the post-war era brought on my western economic reforms, erasure is preferable to starvation and self-sacrifice for the divine right of kings.
In the first round of elections following the war (though, keep in mind, this was going to be unquestionably influenced by the occupation leaders), the public overwhelmingly elected politicians supportive of the new constitution. "The adoption of this liberal charter, together with other progressive measures enacted by the Diet, lays a very solid foundation for the new Japan.” said MacArthur, and at least in the meantime, the average citizen concurred. Whatever there was left of a culture war of the sort Mishima sought to have been fought was lost the moment the government surrendered in 1945:
Mishima once said, “We live in an age in which there is no heroic death” and I think this explains much about the failure of his coup; he said the quiet part loud. Part of many popular protests against aspects of the post-war alliances with western power, Mishima was positioned to do as I’ve described of many reactionaries, but failed to, and as he wrote in Temple of the Golden Pavilion, “Anything can become excusable when seen from the standpoint of the result”— the result he desired just didn’t seem worth it to even his sympathizers in the military, finding popularity mostly with right-wing university students willing to join his militia. When he gave his speech from the balcony of a captured commandant’s office, the assembled soldiers he’d hoped to drive to act out of loyalty to the fallen empire simply laughed and jeered at him so loudly, in fact, that he could not be heard.
Some things I’m reading, watching, or listening to that I am now recommending:
Occupation of Japan and a New Constitution
Thomas Sankara: Leadership and action that inspires 71 years later
Under the Influence: Barry Jenkins on Wong Kar-Wai