A city always keeps part of itself back.
If Tokyo were a clock, then the hours between ten and midnight—the arc running from Shinjuku through Ikebukuro to Tabata—and I were strangers.
These are the northern wards, in what was the old High City. The gardens of Rikugi-en and Koishikawa. Remnants of the great estates owned by temples and the nobility: now university enclaves and “soaplands”—red-light districts—and apartment blocks for salarymen.
In Ichigaya, I passed concrete office block after drab office block—Sumitomo Insurance, Snow Brand Milk, the Salvation Army, the Vogue Building—when suddenly the landscape cracked open. I came to a halt on Yasukuni dōri and rocked backward, as if I had almost tripped at the edge of an abyss.
A natural amphitheater. A circle that drew the sky down and threw the earth upward. A place for performances, for high theater, for cinema.
What it was, I didn’t know, and my map was blank, showing only a few scattered rectangles and unnamed roads that looped into each other and out again.
I crossed the wide stretch of Yasukuni dōri and found a district map engraved on a metal signboard. The atlas’s empty space was Japan’s Defense Ministry.
On November 25, 1970, the writer Yukio Mishima took a four-star general hostage here. Mishima then stepped out of the general’s window onto a parapet to address the base’s soldiers, thirty feet below. He threatened to kill the general unless the soldiers were assembled to hear him speak.
Mishima called on the men to rise up and overthrow the constitution that the Americans had put in place after 1945, the peace constitution that “renounced war forever” and made the emperor a symbolic ruler, a ruler without any real powers.
Mishima was heckled and jeered, with the soldiers shouting at him to quit acting like an idiot, to shut up, to get down from his impromptu stage. Three helicopters clattered away in dizzy arcs overhead; between the rotors and the yelling, the audience could hear almost nothing Mishima said: he had miscalculated the acoustics of his stage.
Mishima began: “Japanese people today think only of money! And politicians don’t care about Japan: they’re just greedy for power!” He had planned to speak for half an hour, but gave up after just seven minutes (“True men and samurai … Will no one join me? … Rise and die! Rise and die! … ”). Finally, he climbed back inside the window of the general’s office. Then he knelt, drawing a short sword, and stabbed himself in the gut, slashing downward and to the left. The general, still gagged and bound to a chair, watched in horror. One of Mishima’s acolytes cut off Mishima’s head, and then was himself beheaded by another conspirator. It was a medieval death in the late twentieth century.
I looked at the silent ring of buildings curving around the Defense Ministry’s gatehouse. The avenue was quiet as if it were late at night, not almost noon. Standing on Yasukuni dori, I knew: it was not Mishima the would-be warrior, but Mishima the artist, actor, and director, who wanted to die in Ichigaya. He imagined a death broadcast live after he had addressed crowds scattered across the concrete fan below.
There was space for thousands of listeners.
The thirties building where Mishima addressed soldiers of the Self-Defense Force still exists; its broad parapet and wings are titanium-white, and overshadowed by the ministry’s newer, reinforced-concrete blocks and a telecom turret studded with satellite dishes.
The poet James Kirkup described Ichigaya in the mid-’60s as a district of “willow-hung streets of neat shuttered houses, small hotels, and gardens round the little fox shrine.” There was a coffee shop dedicated to the French writer Jean Cocteau; musical instrument repair shops for shamisen and shops selling go boards. Grilled chicken restaurants and blowfish restaurants and “girlie bars” with names like Pleasure and Chanel. Akebonobashi, the Bridge of Dawn, which spanned a river that now flows beneath concrete. On one bank stood the Hon-jin, a love hotel rigged up like an ancient Japanese castle. Its tiered eaves were “strung with electric lights and its horned roofs outlined in delicate white and green neon.”
On the bridge’s other bank were the Ichigaya Barracks, which during World War II housed the Imperial War Ministry. After Japan surrendered, the victorious Allied powers used the site to convene the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. The Tribunal, a military court, prosecuted individual military and civilian leaders on counts of crimes against peace; murder; and crimes against humanity.
The trials were conceived primarily as history lessons for the Japanese public, an arena for disclosing facts about the war. The prosecution stated: “This is no ordinary trial; for here we are waging a part of the determined battle of civilization to preserve the entire world from destruction.” The underlying symbolism of the trial’s staging in the old War Ministry was blunt: Japan’s old order was finished. Defeat was real.
James Kirkup, who lived in Ichigaya during the sixties, claimed that the trials still haunted the district. Over this part of Tokyo hangs a dismal aura of perpetual execution. The court sat from 1946 until 1948, while Mishima was a law student at Tokyo University. He would have followed the judgment and sentencing of prime ministers and generals, admirals and diplomats.
It was victory as spectacle, victory as theater. As a stage, Ichigaya was unrivaled.
What was wanting, Mishima might have thought, were different actors. And another script.
There are various theories about why Mishima chose that particular death, from the purely political (it was a right-wing protest against the post-1945 constitution) to the aesthetic (he wanted to die at the height of his physical and intellectual powers, before any decline set in), or the psychological (one of the coconspirators was his lover, and it was a double suicide). Mishima burned his diaries, and after his suicide people who had thought themselves closest to him realized they had known only what he allowed them to see. Mishima was a man of parts that added up to more than one whole.
The decade before Mishima killed himself was an era of ferment. In 1960, Tokyo was rocked by massive demonstrations against Japan’s security treaty with the United States. In May and June of that year, the capital’s streets were crowded with protesters every single day. In 1968 and 1969, university students took over their campuses, sometimes taking their professors hostage. The disputes were, in essence, over Japan’s post-1945 values and the intellectuals who defined those values: what was the “peace” constitution worth if the country’s prime minister, Nobusuke Kishi, was a rehabilitated Class A war criminal? And did Japan have no future beyond blind economic progress on the American model?
Mishima’s contemporary and sometime adversary Shūji Terayama responded to Japan’s cultural crisis of the sixties by arguing that only art could transform the world. The only real revolution, he said, was in the imagination. Mishima disagreed with this view profoundly. To back up his ideas, he formed a private militia—which he called the Shield Society—made up of university students who shared his right-wing values and his vision of a prelapsarian Japan. At the end of his life, Mishima claimed that writing had little value for him: he wanted to leave the world of words for a world of action. Mishima left instructions that he should be buried in his Shield Society uniform “with white gloves and a soldier’s sword in my hand. Then do me the favor of taking a photograph. I want evidence that I died not as a literary man but as a warrior.”
The suicide embarrassed the Japanese political establishment, especially the right-wingers. It came just as the country was being recognized as a modern industrial power that could compete with the West on its own terms.
Nor did Mishima’s death please the artistic establishment. The screenwriter Nagisa Oshima complained that Mishima’s suicide “failed to satisfy our Japanese aesthetic” because it was “too elaborate.” The writer and film director Shūji Terayama’s only comment was, “He should have killed himself at cherry blossom time.”
Not everyone got the joke.
A year before he died in Ichigaya, Mishima began saying goodbye to his friends, though no one understood what he was doing until after the spectacular public suicide.
The writer and film critic Donald Richie remembered his last meeting with Mishima, at the Tokyo Hilton a few months before the latter’s death. Mishima, Richie wrote, talked about “purity” (a subject that bored Richie), and then mostly about how much he admired the nineteenth-century general Takamori Saigō. Saigō had wanted to reestablish Japan’s ancient virtues by deposing the shogunate and restoring power to the emperor; he killed himself after coming to believe that the revolution he led had failed, because the new Japan was full of rationalizing, pragmatic, conciliatory ways.
Saigō’s suicide was, Mishima told Richie, “beautiful”: a single superb gesture in response to a country that was drunk on its postwar prosperity. The country was rich, yes, but had fallen into spiritual emptiness. Mishima told Richie that Japan in the late nineteenth century and Japan after 1945 were the same:
— Japan, Mishima said, has gone, vanished, disappeared.
— But, surely the real Japan must still be around, if you look for it?
Mishima shook his head sternly.
— Is there no way to save it, then? I asked, probably smiling.
Mishima looked past me into the mirror: No, there is nothing more to save.
East of the Ministry of Defense, the waters of the palace moat flowed silent and unseen, muffled by the great cherry trees that overhang the canal banks. The buildings around Ichigaya were anonymous, interchangeable: built to be wrecked, built to be ephemeral.
Hachimangū, shrine to the Shinto god of war, rose abruptly from the flat spaces around it. The hill was so steep that it might have been a perfect cone. In Japanese medieval towns, temples often stood as defensive lines around castles: Hachimangū guarded the western approach to Edo. Looking down from the highest stair, the stone lanterns on the first step below appeared close and distant at the same time, separated only by a vertiginous drop. One leap and the distance would close very fast.
Under the Tokugawa shoguns, Ichigaya was crowded with tea shops and food stalls, a sumo ring, and Kabuki stages. During the great festivals at Hachimangū, there would have been fire-eaters, dragon dancers. Performing monkeys, acrobats, conjurors.
In the office at the top of the stone stairs I met Kenji Kaji, a priest of the Hachimangū shrine. He looked like an extra from an old black-and-white film about wandering samurai.
“Yes, there was once a bell here,” Kaji said. “Its tower was right where we are standing now. But during the early years of Meiji, an edict separating Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples came into force and we gave up the bell then. I have no idea where it is now.”
Kaji showed me around the grounds of the shrine. A stone celebrating the accession of the Taishō emperor in 1912. A stone memorial for the great sword-makers of Edo, men whose blades were so sharp that they could cut leaves falling through the air.
“So what was around Ichigaya, back when your bell tolled the hours?”
Kaji glanced over my notes, reading them upside down. I had scribbled, Red Light District. Brothels.
He laughed. “Not much. This area was like the places you find in Ikebukuro now. Or Shibuya. There were many soaplands, it’s true … ”
“I read that the shrine had a sign that said, When you enter the precinct, all your ills will be taken away.”
Kaji shrugged. “We probably lost that during early Meiji.”
When the last Tokugawa shogun left Edo, and imperial forces took over the city, Hachimangū suffered more than almost any place except for Ueno. The shrine’s Noh stage was ripped apart, its new belltower torn down; the Buddhist temple beside Hachiman’s shrine was razed. The new imperial authorities made it clear that the Tokugawa’s time was finished: temples were forbidden to sound the hours. There would be the noonday cannon, fired from the palace, instead. And by 1862, for only five ryō, anyone could have his own pocket watch. No one needed the melancholy notes of temple bells, lyrical but imprecise, like the world that had just passed away.
The raucous spectacle around Ichigaya disappeared almost overnight. The area was replanted with trees.
Time fascinated Mishima.
The world was like a leather bag filled with water, he once wrote, and at the bottom of the world was a puncture: time seeped out of it, drop by drop.
Time was like a whirlpool.
Time could be stopped if you stood between the sun and a sundial.
The present moment could be sometimes like the Mekong or Bangkok’s Chao Phraya: a vast river. The past and future were tributaries that sometimes overflowed their own banks, and spilled into each other.
Time was like a palace’s great hall, with partitions that could be taken away. Every instant that would ever be, or had ever been, might be seen all at once.
Sand pouring from a woman’s shoe: the most enchanting hourglass in the world.
Kaji and I were standing under Hachimangū’s copper torii gate, the metal streaked and weathered to green, looking toward the Ministry of Defense. The torii was inscribed with the names of people who had given money to rebuild the shrine in 1804; the copper has survived every fire, every earthquake. During the 1945 fires, it would have glowed white-hot.
“Yukio Mishima,” I said. “Was he here before he died … ?”
“The Ministry of Defense is just next door: lots of soldiers visit us,” Kaji said. “Mishima came here, too. I still remember all those helicopters making a great racket overhead the day he killed himself.”
“Did you understand what had happened?” I asked. “You must have been very young then.”
“My parents explained … ” Kaji looked down at me, smiling faintly “ … that Mishima had slit his belly open.”
Silent, we both looked off toward the screen of cherry trees and the backdrop of buildings that hid the place where Mishima had died.
“He was a beautiful writer,” I said at last.
In his novel Runaway Horses, Mishima writes about a young extremist who is planning a coup in the thirties. “He himself had become a character in a romance. Perhaps he and his comrades were on the verge of a glory that would long be remembered.” The man prays but has no revelation as to what he should do; the gods will not speak to him, and provide no indication of the date or time he should choose. It is as if “the gods have abandoned the decision.” The would-be assassin decides to act anyway.
Mishima planned his own coup in a Roppongi sauna bathhouse called the Misty. He acted with four young students who belonged to the Shield Society, the group that he had formed on the pretext of guarding the emperor from left-wing radicals.
The Misty was an odd setting for Mishima’s plans to restore “purity” to the Japanese state: somewhat louche, based in what then and now was a district of nightclubs and hostess bars. But it was at the Misty that Mishima asked his coconspirators, on his signal, to swear that they would cut off his head. And it was here that he drafted the Manifesto that he distributed to the Ichigaya soldiers and the press the day he died: “We will restore Japan to her true form, and in the restoration, die. Will you abide in a world in which the spirit is dead and there is only a reverence for life? In a few minutes we will show you where to find a greater value. It is not liberalism or democracy … Are none of you willing to die by hurling yourselves against the constitution that has torn the bones and heart from that which we love?”
At the bathhouse, Mishima and his students precisely choreographed their movements for November 25, 1970:
10:50 Arrive at the Eastern Army Headquarters.
11:20 The base commandant gagged and bound.
11:35 Soldiers told to assemble below commandant’s office.
12:00 Address Self-Defense Forces.
If the Self-Defense soldiers agreed to join him—though he privately told his Shield Society acolytes that he didn’t expect any to—Mishima planned to march on Japan’s Houses of Parliament at twelve thirty. But no one could hear what he was saying, or if they heard, no one agreed with his vision, and at 12:07 Mishima abandoned his speech.
By twelve twenty, he was dead.
For some, nothing is written. Mishima wrote his own story, and he wrote it in blood.
Anna Sherman was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. She studied Greek and Latin at Wellesley College and Oxford before moving to Tokyo in 2001. The Bells of Old Tokyo is her first book.
Excerpted from The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City, by Anna Sherman. Published by Picador, August 13, 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Anna Sherman. All rights reserved.