Mishima’s Negative Political Theology:
Dying for the Absent Emperor
In Japan, there are two views of the emperor’s divinity during WWII. According to one, the emperor was a God: the absolute and transcendental being. The other reduces the emperor to a demigod in the polytheistic tradition of Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion, or even denies the emperor’s divinity, calling it a fiction. According to the former view, the emperor as God motivated people to sacrifice their lives for the country during WWII. The latter, on the other hand, calls the idea of the emperor as God as a mere fiction made up by General Headquarters, and by both American and Japanese scholars who accepted the idea of the emperor’s divinity in the Western sense. Mishima Yukio, the Japanese novelist, embraced the idea of the emperor as God.
In this article, Kimura examines the discourse and suicide of Mishima Yukio, and his understanding of the Emperor’s divinity. He suggests that a close examination of Mishima’s interpretation of Japanese Emperor’s divine status can shed light on Japanese sacrificial deaths in World War II. Mishima spoke for those who had died for the emperor, believing he was God. By killing himself, Mishima reenacted the sacrificial death for the emperor during the war, and by so doing criticized Emperor Hirohito for betraying those who had died for him believing in his divinity.
Kimura argues that Mishima’s suicide is still regarded as a major event in the history of Japanese nationalism: an attempt to revive Japanese nationalism. At the same time, it included a criticism of Hirohito, who failed to meet his people’s need for something worth dying for. Many Japanese—Mishima among them—were shocked when Hirohito renounced his divinity after the war, feeling that they had been deprived of the war’s cause. During the war, the emperor was a divine being, although the Japanese people did not necessarily know exactly what kind.
While it is relatively easy to trace the development of the idea of Japan’s national polity in the academic writings, it is not easy to identify what kind of divine being people actually believed in during World War II. With his spectacular suicide, however, Mishima reminded the postwar Japanese of what they had believed in during the war; it was not just the emperor as a god, but the emperor as the God: the absolute and transcendental being.
Kimura suggests that, while his behavior should be criticized for its anachronism, Mishima’s theology gives us a clue to understanding the idea that drove many Japanese to sacrificial death. Just as Hitler expected every German to sacrifice their life for the country, the Japanese military government in World War II expected every Japanese to sacrifice their life for the country, and encouraged the people to keep fighting to the death. In fact, while the government hesitated to surrender, many Japanese died—among them the victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were sacrificed for the country.
More precisely, they were sacrificed for the emperor. The emperor did not have to say anything. During the war, the emperor’s presence as God was in itself an order to die. People did not have to ask why they had to sacrifice their “life and property.” They knew that the emperor himself decided on the exception, and that the emperor needed no “legal norm” to make them do so. For Mishima, too, the emperor’s presence as God was in itself an order to die. In other words, Mishima expected his death to be proof that the emperor was actually the God.