Sunday Times Mishima Feature

Michael Sheridan for The Sunday Times- March 27, 2005

Mishima & Henry on the beach
Mishima & Henry on the beach

Briton let author commit hara-kiri

The role of a British man in the ritual suicide of the famed Japanese author Yukio Mishima is to be revealed in a film destined to awaken old ghosts in Japan. The script, which is with several big studios, discloses that Henry Scott Stokes, then Tokyo bureau chief of The Times, knew of Mishima’s intention to kill himself but did nothing to stop him. “That is the burden I carry and it’s something I’m still struggling with,” said Scott Stokes, now 66, who was the closest foreign confidant of Mishima and had been on holiday with the writer, his wife and their two children.

Mishima’s death by hara-kiri in 1970, after a failed coup against the nation’s post-war democracy, was a sensational act of extremism that still haunts Japan. The script has excited interest in Hollywood after the unexpected success of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and of the novel Memoirs of a Geisha, which has been adapted for a forthcoming film.

Mark Devlin, the scriptwriter of The Mishima Incident, said the story is told through western eyes “so that a western audience can grasp this idea of sacrifice and what it means”. The script is also being considered by agents for Jude Law, whom Devlin sees as the ideal actor to play the lead role of an Englishman plunged into the hedonism and cruelty of Tokyo in the 1960s.

In the year that marks the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war, plans for the film will revive embarrassing memories of Mishima’s links to nationalist politicians including Shintaro Ishihara, today the governor of Tokyo. So well connected was Mishima that as a young man he once auditioned the present Empress Michiko as a potential bride at a formal meeting arranged by their parents.

Scott Stokes struck up a friendship with Mishima, then the most famous writer in Japan, after hearing him talk of seeing a strange beauty in the the springtime fire-bombings of Tokyo in 1945. “During world war two, in his teens, he was sitting at home reading Oscar Wilde,” recalled Scott Stokes. “He’s on the edge of the city and he looks towards this inferno.” Mishima had turned out novels, plays and short stories to such acclaim that his works were translated around the world. He was talked of as a candidate for a Nobel prize.

But Scott Stokes soon discovered a dark side to his celebrity friend. The aesthete yearned to be a samurai. Mishima was obsessed with violence and celebrated the act of hara-kiri or seppuku, in which the samurai plunges a dagger into his own stomach and a comrade cuts off his head. Away from his family, he led a bisexual life in Tokyo’s gay underworld, trained himself to a peak of physical perfection and set up a private army to be drilled for a coup d’état.

Scott Stokes was the only foreigner invited to military exercises by Mishima’s group, the Tatenokai, on the slopes of Mount Fuji.He saw that Japanese army officers were present to help their training. He learnt that Mishima frequently met Ishihara and received powerful support from the conservative politician Yasuhiro Nakasone, later prime minister.

But Mishima’s aristocratic background and his exquisite manners deceived all such admirers as to his true intentions. “For the last 2½ years of his life I knew he was on the edge,” said Scott Stokes. “I knew that, because he wrote to me saying that suicide — he was advised by a friend, whom he named — would be the solution to his career failure. It was an open secret that he had crashed out as a novelist.”

Mishima's last note to Scott Stokes
Mishima’s last note to Scott Stokes

In secret, Mishima swore several of his followers to a futile but dramatic act. In the same period, he sent Scott Stokes letters that left no doubt of his self-destructive intentions. “He didn’t write to anybody else saying, ‘I’ve had it’ or ‘This is the end of the world’, which is the expression he used in his very last letter,” said Scott Stokes. “No such letters have ever surfaced if he did.”

The two friends continued to meet, drink and chat — by silent mutual consent never discussing the act foreshadowed in Mishima’s letters. When a colleague telephoned Scott Stokes on November 25, 1970, to say that Mishima and four men had entered a Tokyo army camp, the Englishman knew he had gone out to die. “I knew that he was going to kill himself that day — I mean within probably 20 to 25 minutes — and some part of me said, ‘Go and do it’,” said Scott Stokes.

That morning, Mishima had completed the final chapter of his last novel and sent it to the publisher. Mishima’s team took a commandant hostage at swordpoint. The writer stepped onto a balcony to rouse the camp’s soldiers to revolt. They greeted him with derision.

He returned inside. Mishima knelt, shouted three “Banzais” for the emperor, then stabbed himself in the abdomen. A young man called Masakatsu Morita, who may have been his lover, tried three times to behead him, using the author’s own 17th-century samurai sword. Another militant, Hiroyasu Koga, seized the weapon and severed Mishima’s head. Next Morita knelt, stabbed himself, and was in turn decapitated by Koga. He and the two other survivors then surrendered.

The news stunned Japan. Scott Stokes later heard that Mishima spoke of his children as he drove to his death. “They were on his mind at the last moment,” he said. Mishima’s widow Yoko is dead. His son Ichiro, 43, and daughter Noriko, 45, live quietly in Tokyo. Koga, who cut off Mishima’s and Morita’s heads, served a short prison sentence. Today he is a Shinto priest at a shrine on the island of Shikoku.