Yukio Mishima’s Ritual Suicide and Japan’s Modernization Without Westernization

The 25th of November was a special date for many, commemorating the ritual suicide (or seppuku) of Yukio Mishima (1925-1970). Who was he? Despite dying at a relatively young age, Mishima was a prolific author of some 100 books, and he is widely considered to be Japan’s best writer in the last century.

Mishima also has an audience in the West. He was the subject of a well-received Hollywood movie in 1985, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. He became even more popular recently after being recommended by the Swedish YouTuber PewDiePie, whose channel was once the most followed channel on YouTube.

But what I find to be most intriguing about the case of Yukio Mishima is that he’s basically an allegory for Japan itself, which has attempted modernization without the Westernization.

It is a formula that has fascinated most of the East, including the Muslim world. This is especially due to the fact that the Russia-Japan war of 1905 concluded with a Japanese victory. Many took away from this victory of theirs, over a “White power” in modernity, proof that “non-Whites” could in fact win wars against Europeans, even during the peak of the colonial era.

But was the Japanese experiment actually very successful?

Japan’s Ritual Suicide

While Japan is perceived today as a global supplier of pop-culture—mainly through video games and anime—and technology. For most of its history however, the country was pretty much isolated due to its insular nature.

This trait of theirs wasn’t necessarily always a bad thing though, since it’s also the very reason that they triumphed over the Mongols during the 13th century, effectively halting their expansion eastwards.

Yet this geographical isolation meant that they were not very accepting of foreign metaphysics. This can be seen with the success of Buddhism in the country, which they did not import directly from India but instead through Korea and mainly China (the Zen school that is associated most with Japanese Buddhism comes from China’s Chan school of Buddhism).

Confucianism was also respected, like in virtually all of East Asia.

These mainly Chinese imports were indigenized within Japan mainly during the first centuries CE, or what is sometimes referred to as Japan’s “classical era.”

Yet such dynamics changed drastically during the so-called “Edo period” (1650-1842).

Witnessing the rise of European expansionism and Christian missionary movements, the Japanese rulers adopted the policy of sakoku, which can be described as isolationism.

Academics will say that this wasn’t isolation in the absolute sense but rather isolation in relation to the West. During this period however, it did give rise to an ideology that would become quite impactful: the Kokugaku, i.e., “native Japan studies” school.

Basically, they argued that the Japanese should favor “their own” knowledge and traditions, such as Shintoism, instead of those that are “foreign,” which in this context is referring to the Chinese imports of Buddhism and Confucianism.

This obviously had racial undertones to it as well. The most famous of the Kokugaku scholars, Hirata Atsutane (1776-1843), popularized the idea that the Japanese race (or Yamato) descended from Amaterasu, i.e., “the goddess of the Sun,” which made the Japanese some sort of “divine race.”

This idea of a superior Japanese race, combined with a radical Shinto religious approach, would be their justification for their imperialism during the 20th century and some of its worst excesses, including the dreadful experiments carried out on Chinese civilians in the infamous Unit 731.

But between the Kokugaku and the 20th century, there was another seminal period: the Meiji era (1868-1912).

The Japanese thought that the best way to counter the Europeans was not to isolate but instead to imitate them with regard to industrialization and technology without aping their culture.

But this was always going to be nothing more than a pipe dream. For instance, being industrialized obviously demanded a never-ending supply of cheap labor, thus the Japanese rulers naturally all asked women to work for the sake of “growth.”

It of course goes without saying, but mutating women into workers directly conflicts with their more traditional roles, i.e., that of a mother and a wife. And then, even those who decide to remain at home are impacted. This is due to the fact that, within a capitalist society, the form of female education that is universally promoted emphasises a materialist, rationalist, and individualist epistemology. As such, women just can’t escape it.

RELATED: Riba, Women, and the Western Education System

Basically, the traditional Japanese woman was modernized.

But the Japanese woman wasn’t the only casualty of Japan’s so-called “modernization without Westernization.”

There was also the samurai.

In most people’s minds, the samurai is Japan’s traditional warrior par excellence, embracing the bushido way of life, centered around a moral code and traditional values.

All of this, which still makes the samurai the subject of big-budget Hollywood movies, etc., is also what made the samurai redundant during the Meiji modernist revolution. The samurai was too traditional and too feudal for the new Japanese rulers. These rulers also aimed to modernize the army on European lines. They sought to conscript soldiers instead of nobles like the samurai, who were deemed too “individualist” and “free” to be able to follow orders within the military hierarchy of an army.

Japan then began to target the samurai quite openly in order to let them know that they had become anachronistic of a bygone era. For instance, the samurai were forbidden from carrying weapons in public, something which was once their pride.

Many didn’t accept the modernist agenda of this new Japan, as is demonstrated by the 1877 Satsuma rebellion. But it was a lost battle. They were nothing more than “has-beens” in the newly modernized and industrialized Japan.

And Yukio Mishima is proof of that.

Yukio Mishima: The Last Samurai?

The relationship between Mishima and the samurai is actually a genealogical one. He claimed to have been descended from both samurai and peasants.

Mishima always remained ambiguous when it came to European modernity. He was a homosexual (which is the focus of his first successful novel, Confessions of a Mask) that loved French literature—and not only the 18th-century classics but also the likes of Georges Bataille (1897-1962) who was both a radical atheist and one of the most modernist French writers. In fact, Bataille was considered by many to be the spiritual father of postmodernism and the French Theory in particular.

RELATED: Is Jordan Peterson a Postmodernist? Only When He’s Asked about God

But Mishima did espouse some traditional ideas. This can be witnessed in essays such as Sun and Steel (easily his most-read essay) and Way of the Samurai. He offered a critique of Japan’s modernization, not so much of the Meiji era but that which followed WWII. Mishima was repulsed by individualism, consumerism and more generally, Western materialism.

Mishima himself embraced the “Stoic” ideas he wrote about, as is demonstrated by his physical transformation from a frail little man into a kind of bodybuilder.

This critical outlook of his wasn’t purely literary either. It translated into politics as well. Mishima even attempted to start a coup as he saw how Japanese communists, his worst enemies (even ahead of democrats), were active in the university campuses and gaining power through their own miniature sort of coups.

Mishima aimed to rally thousands of followers, but only a dozen or so were present to support him. Thus his coup attempt, at a military base in Tokyo, to cancel the “humiliating” post-WWII constitution and restore the full dignity of the emperor was a failure. Eventually he committed seppuku, i.e., ritual suicide.

Mishima was inspired by the 1876 Shinpuren rebellion, when the samurai had risen up against the Meiji government (one of many such incidents).

So, what can we deduce about Mishima and Japan?

Both embraced an ambiguous form of traditionalism, thinking it could somehow accommodate (some form of) modernity. Both ended up not only committing suicide, but also with this being a ritualized form of suicide. Mishima’s case is well-known, but what about Japan as a whole? What about its experimentation with “modernization without Westernization,” ultimately replacing the samurai with the otaku (basically nerds that are obsessed with videogames, anime, etc.)?

Was the Japanese industry, as a competing force against Europe’s (notably through cars) during the early 20th century, really worth the civilizational suicide that resulted from it?

Many Muslims still believe in that mantra of “modernization without Westernization,” but do they actually expect to any do better than Mishima or Japan? Do they not consider the very real consequences which will inevitably have an impact on traditional values, women, families, society, education, religiosity and so on?

RELATED: How Modernity Aborted Human Fertility

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zaheen ahmed

i do under that modernization can lead to problems. but how do then Muslims tackle problems like censorship from the kuffar for example . take you tube they censor comments and video titles about anti Zionism and pro Palestinian content . facebook works hand in hand with govts oppressing Muslims.on and on their are many example like google maps not even tagging Palestine just gaza and west bank.would the Muslims be at fault or modernizing if they aim to develop their own platforms

zaheen ahmed

iam not asking in the typical western antagonistic way.iam genuinely curious as this seems like a problem to me iam open to all suggestion and arguments.should muslims all together just quit the social media space which does not seem like vast majority of Muslims will follow.i think but if we allow the argument for social media or internet platform.people will extend it to every thing like the country needs weapons we buy from US why not build our own.we are between a rock and a hard


I’m sure the US occupation had alot to do with Westernization.

But we don’t know enough about Japanese “Traditional Culture” to be able to say to what extent it was truly antagonistic towards Wester culture.

The Japanese seem quite comfortable with displays of sex for example, and that seems to pre-date the US occupation.