Cut Off the Head of Yukio Mishima
by John-Ivan Palmer
Why--in the process of asking "why?"--do I end up being
the only one answering that question? Why did I want to go to Japan to interview,
face-to-face, Hiroyasu Koga, the man who, in 1970, cut off the head of Yukio
Mishima, the novelist expected to win the Nobel Prize?
It's important to understand that the well-known beheading incident was not only consensual, but orchestrated in exquisite detail by Mishima himself. So what we really have here is not so much an act of murder as an act of influence--with the emphasis on "act." For 30 years anyone familiar with this event has said the same thing--it was a homosexual melodrama that got a little out of hand. If anything more is said, it's usually about how Mishima was raised by his grandmother as a girl, how she shielded him from violent movies and plays, which led, by some sort of compensation, to an over fascination with blood, swords, and samurai.
Fine and dandy. But no one, as far as I know, has expressed the slightest interest in Hiroyasu Koga, the kid who beheaded the author of Temple of Dawn, Forbidden Colors and Confessions of a Mask. It's hard to assemble more than a paragraph about him. He was from snowy Hokkaido in the far north, son of a school principal, studied to be a lawyer, and had a "sensitive face," according to Henry Scott-Stokes, Mishima's biographer. Although 20 years younger than Japan's greatest living novelist, Koga was convincing enough to talk Yukio Mishima into joining a ludicrous militia called the Tatenokai (Shield Society) and becoming a right wing nut. Anyone that influential--and still alive--might have some interesting answers to questions that could only be put to him, and him alone.
After a much publicized trial in 1972, Koga and two others (Masayoshi Koga [no relation] and Masahiro Ogawa) were sentenced to seven years in prison for "assisting in ritual suicide," an act given particular leniency in Japan. Since that time there's been plenty written about on Mishima, but nothing about Koga. So in the last summer of our inscrutable millennium I became a library fruit fly, exasperating the staff who did me favors, made special calls and used their influence to bend the rules. But for all that, the only thing I found on Koga was a citation in the 1972 Japanese version of Books In Print, listing Koga as the author of Saiban kiroku Mishima Yukio jiken (Court Transcript of the Yukio Mishima Incident). In my international search for this volume nearly everyone tried to direct me to--or sell me--stuff on Mishima.
So I changed my tactics and started hanging around Japanese restaurants, pestering waitresses and sushi chefs, hoping I'd latch onto a clue, someone who knew somebody who knew somebody who was related to someone who knew Koga. My understanding Japanese wife was willing to go to Japan and translate my questions, of which there were plenty.
Then one day it happened. I nearly fumbled a squid off the end of my chopsticks when I heard that the owner of a Japanese restaurant in Minneapolis went to college with "the man who cut off the head of Yukio Mishima." Perfect. An old classmate would introduce me and I could ask the questions no one has ever asked-who had the most influence, you over Mishima, or Mishima over you? Would it be absolutely true or absolutely false to say that the seppuku incident was fallout from nuclear war? Do you see any similarity between death by seppuku in the 12th century, and death today by karoshi (overwork)?
That much excitement can be dangerous for a person. I bumped into things. I sat motionless at green lights. I walked into rooms and forgot what I went there for, I had so many questions.
But it turned out that my informant had confused Koga with Masakatsu Morita, the first participant who tried to cut off Mishima's head, but bungled the job in a most horrible way. So Koga, a kendo expert, stepped in and finished things properly. Then Koga, by meticulous prearrangement, swung the samurai sword and Masakatsu Morita's head rolled across the red carpet of Gen. Kanetashi Mashita's office in Ichigaya and came to rest along with the head that composed Decay of the Angel and Death in Midsummer.
I wasn't discouraged, though. I continued schmoozing people at sushi bars and International Clubs at colleges. I was surprised how many cooperated in sending feelers back to Japan on my behalf.
My persistence paid off when I learned that a young man's parents, who were visiting from Japan, used to vacation at a resort hotel in Shimada at the same time Mishima was there with his family and members of the Tatenokai, which included Koga. If they hung around the poolside with Mishima, then they probably knew something about Koga.
Since they spoke no English, I met them at a coffee shop with my wife as interpreter. I should have gone decaf, because as the conversation progressed in Japanese, I grew ever more fidgety to know what they were saying. After the bows and smiles of farewell I learned that Mishima never went in the water, but sat around the pool in a white bikini that attracted much attention, that he sometimes wore a fundoshi (a kind of jockstrap) in public (and his beheading), that Mishima's wife drove a red Corvette which was an exorbitant luxury at the time, and that his kids called him oto chama, an old fashioned way of saying "father." I practically stammered, any mention of Hiroyasu Koga? No, but there was some uneasiness on the part of the husband over his wife's extensive recollection of Mishima's white bikini.
When I decided to hire a private investigator, people perked up because now my project was starting to sound like television. When they asked how much the investigator would cost and I told them, there was a lot of laughing.
Philip Gatewood, an old high school friend who runs an agency in Milwaukee, specializes in internal theft interrogations and Catholic priest abuse cases (working for the church). No explanations were necessary. There was no laughing. He fully understood the importance of my inquiry. But he was swamped with cases, so he gave me the name of an ex-CIA spook, Harold L. ("Bill") Child, of Pacific Universal Corporation in Honolulu. Since the beheading took place at Jetai military headquarters at Ichigaya, and since Child had police and military contacts in Japan, Gatewood reasoned that Child could find out where Koga lived. Then I could meet him, read his gestures and facial expressions, and ask him how the incident of November 25, 1970 has shaped his life over the past three decades.
But there was a problem. To work with Child I needed a reference within law enforcement or intelligence. I couldn't use Gatewood's name because he and Child had a falling out over a past case. So I concocted a story as elaborate as it was vague, and to my great relief Child and I hit it off beautifully. No explanations were necessary with him either. He gladly took the case. On October 23 he faxed me the following message,
...I was talking with a visiting Japanese naval officer, Cdr. Fuchinoue, at a reception, and mentioned that I am doing research on [Koga]. He said he has colleagues who are very conversant with the Mishima matter, and volunteered to put me in touch with them.
A week later he faxed me again, mentioning that someone named Tanaka was sending a messenger to the city of Kamakura to talk with an attorney involved in the Koga case. After another week he faxed me again, saying,
they were unable, within the budget I gave them, to determine contact data for [Koga]. However they located a gentleman in Chiba Prefecture, Kiyoshi Honda, who was a leading member of Tatenokai, who, if contacted directly by you, is willing to put you in touch with [Koga].
There followed several pages of receipts and documentation in Japanese plus the invoice for an amount that so many people found hilarious. Child was also willing to "work further" for "a modest fee" which would no doubt be much more than the "modest fee" I was already paying.
I was now just one person away from meeting the world's greatest decapitational literatus. If Kiyoshi Honda knew Hiroyasu Koga, then why not contact them myself rather than give Child even more of my car payments and third meal of the day? I had Honda's work, home and cell phone numbers, plus his fax. So I wrote a letter to Koga, care of Honda, stating my interest in the ironies of his unique life. But when I presented the letter to my wife for translation, I was told there was no way to translate "voiceless zombie," "literary murder," "flop house of the soul," or "exile from the back alleys of history." I insisted yes, there was a way to translate all those phrases--and many more that I was composing in my head as I spoke--and so with a polite smile of acceptance accompanied by silence, she wrestled a pile of dictionaries for a full day, then handed me a page covered with wonderfully exotic-looking kanji script from her Japanese typewriter. I looked at it with great satisfaction, put it in the fax machine, dialed a very long number and pushed "send." I didn't expect a reply right away. In fact, there was no reply at all.
In November my wife and I landed in Tokyo. I began to feel as manipulative as Koga himself, as I coached my wife on what to say and do when she reached Mr. Honda by cell phone, which we did from her parents' house in the coastal town of Choshi. The conversation was difficult. Did he forward my faxes to Koga? He was evasive. Could he introduce me to Koga in person? Yes, he could get me in touch with Koga, but then maybe he couldn't. I said, "Assuming the event of 1970 was a political statement of the right wing Tatenokai, which almost no one took seriously, not even Mishima, has history, with or without irony, proven Hirayasu Koga right?" Translate please. A serious deterioration of communication developed at this point.
I sent Koga several more faxes, via Honda, stressing the importance of our meeting, that I flew to Japan specifically to see him, and that "the historical record virtually screamed for his voice." I was told this last remark could not be translated into Japanese, but I said translate it anyway and she did. We left voice mails begging Honda to use his influence before it was too late.
I waited for Koga's reply, but the reply never came. I could understand Koga not wanting to speak out in Japan, where the Mishima incident is now regarded as silly and beneath consideration. The only people less critical of Koga's head removal act are those old enough to be adults when the war went nuclear, but there aren't many of them left. Since the American occupation, which was said to have greatly affected Mishima and Koga, Japan has gone from a nation of feudal conquerors to Sesame Street, an ultra consumerist culture buried in cartoons, little stuffed teddies, smiling flowers, wide-eyed Bambi's and kittens on top of every counter and cash register, many of which play animated advertising figures for you to enjoy while waiting for your change. Somewhere in this child-like fantasyland walks the samurai, Hiroyasu Koga, carrying a burden of memory. Why wouldn't he share that burden with me? The ancient mariner would have died for someone of my eagerness to come along and listen.
On the 11 hour plane trip home I composed my final fax.
Mr. Koga, is there such a thing as secret history, or is there just one story of Japan, the one written by those who prevail? Is their truth worth embracing? In Fushimi castle 300 samurai committed seppuku in the year 1600. Their faces and hands were imprinted on the floorboards in their own blood like eerie sunprints. The floorboards containing these bloodprints went into the ceiling of the Buddhist Hosen Temple in Kyoto and are shown to thousands of tourists every year. If you were the tour guide, and you were addressing a select group of interested people, what would you tell them? Do you posses secret knowledge of an experience like no one else has ever had and what is it like to hold this knowledge unspoken for 30 years, with perhaps another 30 years of conscious life ahead of you? Do you really want to pass up the chance to tell your story to the one person in your lifetime who will search deeper, go father, risk more to express your inner soul? Do you want all the complexity of your life to be reduced to a short paragraph of superficial details and lost forever?
Once again I was told the impossibilities of translating my words, that this made no sense in Japanese, but I insisted. I politely pulled the chair back from the table and invited my wife to sit. I patted the big pile of dictionaries, and promised this would be the last translation. I gently pushed paper and pens in front of her.
This final linguistic cage match continued through the first day, then a second day. When Japanese people are frustrated, they become silent, very, very silent. By day three there was little to say on her progress except that she was having difficulty sleeping, her appetite was affected, and alcohol had become involved.
On the fourth day she reluctantly handed over the page, neatly typed in kanji, but she was not proud of it. She had given birth to a monster. I put it in the fax machine and sent it to Japan.
That night my phone rang at 3 a.m., but when I picked it up I heard only background noise, like traffic. Otherwise silence. Twenty minutes later the phone rang a second time, and there was a different kind of background noise in the silence. Twenty minutes after that the phone rang a third time and there was yet a third kind of silence. Now insomnia kicked in as my mind came up with more questions.
In Japanese, unlike English, there exists an onomatopoeic sound for absolute silence. You sometimes see it in Japanese comic books (manga) where there are so many words that resemble the sound they denote that special English translators have been hired separately to translate them. The Japanese word for silence is "sin," pronounced more or less like "sheeeen....." with the sound trailing off at the end. Like "whoosh" is the sound of a sword cutting through the air, and "gurgle" is the sound of blood spurting out the neck hole, "sin" is the "sound" afterward, when all is done, the bodies removed, everyone gone home, and only the silence remains.
Did the silence of those phone calls represent a Zen answer, one each from Hiroyasu Koga, Masayoshi Koga, and Masahiro Ogawa, or did all three calls come from Koga himself? Or was it merely three different wrong numbers in the middle of the night that just happened to be spaced exactly 20 minutes apart, disturbing my sleep by reminding me, reminding me, reminding me?
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