It was 1976, a notable year for aviation. In Europe, Air France and British Airways launched the Concorde supersonic aircraft. In the U.S., a former Air Force pilot became the first to fly a homemade plane around the world.
In Japan, there was the first kamikaze attack in three decades. But it was not a simple dive-bombing: The pilot was a porn star who targeted a shadowy power broker with ties to organized crime.
On March 23 of that year, Mitsuyasu Maeno flew a Piper Cherokee over Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward and zeroed in on his target: the home of Yoshio Kodama, a power broker who was one of the most notorious figures in Japan’s underworld.
After making a final radio transmission (“Long live the emperor! Banzai!”), the 29-year-old slammed the plane into the second floor of Kodama’s mansion, causing a fire, killing himself and injuring two household staff. Kodama was in another part of the building, convalescing from a stroke, and escaped harm. Maeno’s body was a charred, gruesome sight, with its internal organs exposed.
Today, Kodama’s sprawling mansion in Setagaya Ward’s Todoroki (as noted by the Japan Transport Safety Board), replaced by an apartment block and a luxury condo complex. In the area, there are no monuments to the incident — but over 40 years later it lives on as one of the more bizarre in the history of aviation.
“The smell of fuel filled the air”
Only a few current residents of the neighbourhood even remember the chaos outside Kodama’s residence after the plane struck (see the video below).
“There wasn’t a big sound of an explosion but the smell of fuel filled the air,” says one elderly woman who requested anonymity. “Someone told me a small plane had crashed into Kodama’s house and I rushed to the roof to look. The property was surrounded by high, thick walls that muffled the sound and made it hard to see what was going on. Policemen soon swarmed the site. None of us understood what it was all about.”
A partial explanation for Maeno’s motivation lay in an even more outlandish incident that had taken place: the suicide by coup d’etat of Yukio Mishima. The novelist, actor and director had become a radical nationalist and formed his own personal gang of uniformed militants.
In 1970, Mishima and his followers entered the headquarters of the Ground Self-Defense Force at Ichigaya, captured the commandant and exhorted the troops to rise up and restore the emperor to power. After being jeered by soldiers throughout his speech, Mishima performed seppuku belly-cutting. As part of the ritual, one of his followers, Masakatsu Morita, repeatedly tried to cut his head off before another, Hiroyasu Koga, finally managed to finish the deed.
The writer left a lasting impression on aspiring ultranationalists such as Maeno. Born in Tokyo’s Shibuya in 1946, Maeno joined a theatrical group in his teens and appeared in his first film in 1959; he later studied drama at the University of California. After he joined studio Nikkatsu, he appeared in low-budget exploitation films such as “Stray Cat Rock: Wild Jumbo” and a number of films in the legendary genre of soft-core pornography known as “roman porno.”
Ironically enough, Maeno’s most famous on-screen moment was the climax of the 1975 pink film “Tokyo Emmanuelle” when he got a leg over with actress Kumi Taguchi while flying a light aircraft — a promo pic shows the two getting steamy in the cockpit.
An amateur pilot, Maeno had received his license in 1975 and flew planes as part of his acting work. On the day he died, he showed up at Chofu Airport to rent the Piper Cherokee, and was dressed up like a kamikaze pilot complete with headband and leather flight jacket. He had told the airport’s staff he was shooting a promo reel for a new film about the suicide squads of World War II. But why would he want to kill Kodama?
Violation of the samurai code
Kodama had been imprisoned at Tokyo’s Sugamo Prison as a suspected class-A war criminal by the U.S. occupation but was released in 1948. In 1976 he was under investigation for tax evasion following revelations that over 15 years he had received more than seven million dollars from U.S. aerospace giant Lockheed in exchange for using his influence to aid airliner sales. During this period, Kodama was teamed up with Korean mobster Hisayuki Machii. The two ran their operations from within the infamous TSK.CCC building in Roppongi.
Maeno had once looked up to Kodama, and even introduced him to Nikkatsu for a potential film project, but seems to have felt betrayed by the scandal. He saw bribe-taking as a violation of the samurai code of bushido that Mishima and other patriots espoused. Besides, Lockheed had been a major arms supplier to Japan’s wartime adversary — it had manufactured the P-38 Lightning, which downed more Japanese aircraft in the war than any other U.S. fighter plane.
“Some ultrarightists, with whom Mr. Kodama has also been associated, have called upon him to commit ritual suicide for having taken money and thus betrayed his nationalistic principles,” The New York Times reported after the attack, adding that anti-Kodama protesters had demonstrated near his home and demanded he testify in the Diet and be tried; he was indicted but illness kept him out of the courtroom.
His own demons
It was unclear whether Maeno was affiliated with any right-wing groups, but he had often criticized Kodama “as undeserving of the word ‘samurai,’” the Japan Times reported. But the young actor may have been struggling with his own demons too.
Maeno married Japanese actress Noriko Kurosawa at age 21, but they divorced a few years later. He then married again, with an American woman, and had a daughter but divorced again soon after.
Only a month before the attack, Maeno tried to kill himself by overdosing on sleeping pills. He was found lying in the snow in the hot springs resort town of Yuzawa, Niigata Prefecture, and was rushed to hospital but soon recovered. Taguchi, the “Emanuelle” actress, reportedly said Maeno told her that he was not afraid of dying, and was planning to make a film entitled “A Japanese From the United States.”
Whatever Maeno’s motives, Kodama was impressed by the bravado of the attack, according to a 2012 article in appearing in the monthly Jitsuwa Knuckles. He lived for another eight years, dying of a stroke at age 72 in 1984, prior to the conclusion of the Lockheed trial.
Perhaps Kodama’s greatest legacy was the monolithic political juggernaut he helped establish after the war: With the exception of four years, the Liberal Democratic Party has ruled Japan since 1955.
In Todoroki, he is viewed favourably. “We always remembered Kodama’s generosity with local charities,” said the aforementioned woman living in the area. “He was well-liked by the community.”
As for Maeno, the locals don’t even remember his name.