On 3 March 1977 four men walked into an office block in the business district of central Tokyo and took hostages. They had a rifle, a pistol, and a Japanese ceremonial sword.
It all began at 16:30. The block was home to the headquarters of Keidanren (the Japanese Federation of Economic Organizations), mouthpiece of Japan’s biggest corporations. The men arrived in the foyer and asked to see Toshiwo Doko, 80-year-old head of the Federation. They were politely told he was on a business trip in Osaka.
The men produced their weapons and fired three shots into the ceiling then headed up to a seventh floor office where they took twelve people hostage, including the Federation’s managing director.
As riot police sealed off the building, the leader of the hostage takers, 42-year-old Shūsuke Nomura, issued communiques attacking the corruption and business plutocracy he claimed ruled modern Japan. It all sounded left-wing until Nomura starting condemning the post-WW2 Yalta and Potsdam conferences. He accused America and other nations of having deliberately crippled Japan to prevent it reclaiming its former imperial glory.
The police realised they were dealing with right-wing terrorists.
Shield and Sword
Shūsuke Nomura was only recently out of prison. In 1963 he had burnt down the home of Ichirō Kōno in a protest at the Construction Minister’s lukewarm conservatism. He got twelve years behind bars.
Prison was nothing new to the right-wing activist. He grew up poor, shining shoes outside railways stations, and leading a gang of street children in looting raids on US military camps in the post-war years. Petty crime led to the more organised variety and Nomura became associated with the Yakuza, Japan’s tattooed mafia. The Keidanren hostages noticed he was missing the top joint of the little finger on his right hand, evidence of the ritual method Yakuza use to atone for an offence.
Nomura became aware of the ultra-right during a two year sentence in Abashiri Prison. He quickly radicalised and found his life’s purpose in their emperor worship and extreme nationalism. Nomura’s Yakuza comrades saw nothing unusual in his new friends. Gangsters had been associating with the right for the last few years, although for opportunistic reasons: new laws gave tax breaks and other benefits to political groups.
Shūsuke Nomura’s interest was more genuine and he proved it with his arson attack. Released from prison in 1975 he joined up with a new generation of nationalists to plot the Keidanren attack.
As armed police crept through the building’s corridors, Nomura introduced his comrades to the negotiators. Tadaaki Morita, 27-years-old, was a member of the right-wing Daitcjuiku group. No-one knew much about him. The remaining two men had more significant rightist pedigrees. Back in the late 1960s, Shunichi Nishio, 27 , and Yoshio Ito, 29, had been members of the Tatenokai (Shield Society), a paramilitary group formed by Yukio Mishima.
Mishima had been one of Japan’s most famous authors. In 1970 he used the Tatenokai as a vehicle for his own suicide.
The magazine photographs were grim. Mishima’s head wearing a white kamikazee band sitting severed on a bloody towel next to the head of his comrade and possible lover Masakatsu Morita. The pictures were taken in the office of a general at the Ichigaya army barracks.
Mishima was a famous author with strong right-wing views whose Tatenokai group had been formed from students opposed to the leftist demonstrations sweeping through Japan’s universities. The army saw value in the group and had allowed the Tatenokai to train alongside regular soldiers.
Generals and politicians were relieved when the leftist demonstrations failed to bubble over into the expected revolution. Only Mishima was disappointed. He had secretly hoped for a glorious death in battle down on the Tokyo streets. He chose an alternate fate and picked a select group of followers to assist him in a symbolic ritual suicide.
On the morning of 25 November 1970, Mishima, Morita, and three members of the Tatenokai arrived at Ichigaya military base under the pretext of a friendly visit to General Mashita, barracks commandant. After some polite conversation they pulled a sword, tied the general to a chair, and ordered his underlings to assemble the men in the parade ground outside. Mishima wanted to give a speech.
Most soldiers were out on manoeuvres and the confused men assembled on the parade ground were non-combatant cooks and clerks dragged away from lunch. They knew Mishima as a celebrity whose books swung from best-selling melodramas to cult art house works popular with critics; his works obsessed over blood, suicide, love, and death. Mishima’s fans shrugged off the generous helpings of homoeroticism in his writing as the literary imagination at work, unaware the married father-of-two enjoyed a clandestine life in Tokyo’s gay underground.
Mishima was an over-the-top personality, as extroverts in conventional but introverted societies often are, and many found it hard to take him seriously. They laughed at his bodybuilding, the photographs of him posing with a katana, the right-wing emperor worship that had begun to monopolise his thoughts from the mid-1960s. Now here he was in Tatenokai uniform preaching coup d’etat and a revived nationalist Japan from the balcony of the general’s office.
The soldiers began to hiss and jeer.
Mishima cut short his speech and returned to the office. He was dispirited but determined to continue with the plan. He stripped to a loincloth and cut open his belly.
Morita tried twice to decapitate him with a katana, slashing a groaning Mishima across the shoulders. Tatenokai member Hiroyasu Koga stepped in and sent Mishima’s head flying across the room. Morita knelt, scraped a knife across his stomach, and was also decapitated.
The three remaining men untied the general and surrendered. They did four years in prison, as Japan did everything it could to forget the Mishima affair. The survivors disappeared from public sight when they left prison. Swordsman Kogha would abandon nationalism and become a Shinto priest on the island of Shikoku.
During Mishima’s speech the Tatenokai had been waiting near the base, assembled on his orders but unsure of what was happening. Army officers had been supposed to usher them onto the parade ground to join the soldiers but they had been forgotten in the confusion. Shunichi Nishio and Yoshio Ito had both been there that day. The chaos and bloodshed had only cemented their loyalty to both Mishima and the ultra right cause.
In 1977 they joined with Shūsuke Nomura for another grand gesture. When Nomura announced their Tatenokai membership to the police negotiators it seemed to signal the hostage takers were set on a path of suicidal glory.
The police sent for someone the terrorists would listen to: Yukio Mishima’s widow.
A Plea for Mercy
Yoko Sugiyama was a petite, round-faced 19-year-old college student when she married Mishima on 11 June 1958. It was a meticulously arranged marriage, pushed through by Mishima’s mother, who falsely claimed she was dying of cancer to persuade her 33-year-old homosexual son to take a bride.
Sugiyama was the daughter of a traditionalist painter, an artistic connection Mishima later claimed was the reason he chose her. But there were no intimate chats about his writing between the couple: Mishima stipulated he would only marry a woman who had no interest in his work.
That was for the best. Anyone who read Mishima’s novels, with their glistening male bodies, in-depth knowledge of the Tokyo gay scene, and suicidal narcissism, might have thought twice about marriage. Although the writer’s friends predicted disaster, the marriage was fairly happy and produced two children. Yoko acted as secretary to her husband, dealing with publishers and the public on his behalf. She gradually came to understand his secret life but never seems to have thought about divorce, content to remain the apparently submissive wife of a literary celebrity.
Yuko’s own political views were mysterious and there’s no evidence she ever knew much about her husband’s various right-wing adventures. But she was the closest thing the Tokyo police had to a Tatenokai expert. They brought her to the Keidanren building and opened a phone line to Nomura. She begged him not to kill the hostages or himself.
Nomura assured her the group had no intention of doing either. In a show of good faith he released eight hostages, keeping the Federation’s managing director and three others. Nomura’s main interest seemed to be getting publicity for a 1,300 word document the group had produced about their nationalist faith.
Late in the evening they released another two hostages. Then, close to 03:00, Nomura announced the group would surrender if the police treated them ‘as samurai’. The police agreed not to use handcuffs and the four men trooped out of the building and into custody.
The Final Act
Nomura got out of prison in 1983. His fellow hostage takers slipped into obscurity, taking the last glimmers of the Tatenokai with them, but Nomura remained a well-known figure in far-right politics, forming parties, losing election campaigns, and occasionally campaigning for Yakuza groups.
On Wednesday 20 October 1993 Nomura and a small entourage arrived at the offices of the left-leaning Asahi newspaper. He wanted an apology for a cartoon that ridiculed his Party of the Wind. The newspaper had agreed, worried by Nomura’s violent reputation.
The right-winger was dressed in a traditional kimono and was as politely intimidating as always. After a lengthy lunchtime meeting during which the Asahi president repeatedly apologised, Nomura abruptly asked for the direction of the Imperial Palace. It was pointed out to him. He sat on the floor, samurai-style, and took two pistols from his kimono.
‘I and Asahi will die by the sword together,’ he said.
He shot himself in the stomach with both guns and bled to death in the meeting room. He was 58-years-old.
It was the ultimate mix of Mishima’s samurai aesthetic and Nomura’s own gangster fascination with guns. Like Mishima’s suicide, the death shocked Japan; like Mishima’s suicide, it had little effect on the political situation. There were rumours Nomura had been dying of cancer but nothing was ever made public.
‘Japanese consider taking one’s own life a virtue, you know,’ Nomura had told a western journalist a year earlier.
Whatever the reasons for his suicide, Shūsuke Nomura, like Yukio Mishima, remains a hero to the Japanese far-right and a source of puzzled embarrassment to a country that prefers its nationalist diluted and discreet.
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