The selfish, selfless Yukio Mishima

I’ve been going through something of a Yukio Mishima phase again recently. I did once before, many years ago, until a cursory read of his biography saw me dismiss him as deeply flawed, and in his fascination with violence, perhaps more ugly than beautiful.

But I am having second thoughts. I don’t think I will ever condone his suicide—it bespeaks to me ultimately of selfishness, and short-sightedness, and for one so enamoured of the virtues of duty, strength, sacrifice and courage—the forgotten“bushido” code of the Samurai—even of weakness.

He was a man who cared passionately for his country, and his pronouncement that she would gain little satisfaction through her headlong rush for material prosperity has been more than vindicated, yet it seems common sense to say that he would have been better placed to make his point living rather than dead. His word alone was newsworthy, and as one once connected to the wife of the Emperor and personal friend of the Prime Minister, he moved in circles that suggested a career in politics was there for the taking should he have wished.

So his death can only be seen as a waste; his desire to live his life as a poem and die by the code of bushido ultimately a vain, selfish act that more served himself than the greater good.

Still though, I find much to admire in his written and lived ideals, and it should be emphasised in Mishima’s case that they were always lived—his death the ultimate example of that. He prided himself on turning ideas into action, a form of self-abnegation in which he sought to erase, in his view, the effeminate, ineffective intellectual of his youth, by becoming a man of strength and action.

And I can’t help but secretly admire, half in horror half in awe, his final, mis-guided act, and the un-imaginable courage—or insanity —it must have taken to do such a thing. Almost completely un-heard of now, seppukku was near common-place in pre-modern Japan; Mishima’s however was the first recorded of the post-war era.

In the short excerpt that follows, some will see simply an idealisation of self-destruction, and in the tale of a pre-war army officer, a glorifying of the militarism that so led Japan astray. But that would only be a shallow reading of the story, very much incomplete.

Yes, Patriotism is a celebration of death, but not in a negative, destructive sense. Rather it celebrates the death of an army officer and his wife as the ultimate form of sacrifice—his death for belief and country; her death for him—the wife takes her husband’s beliefs as her own.

Patriotism asks the question “what if?”—what if the sacrifice of 1936 Niniroku Jiken uprising, of which this real life army officer was a part, hadn’t been in vain, if this last stand against the faction in favour of western style militarism and imperialism—forces incidentally which the “rightist” Mishima saw as negative, “un-Japanese” imports—had been successful.

With the restoration of the spirit of bushido to the army, and its spirit of sacrifice and honour, of true service to the greater good, the destructive war with America might have been averted—a war which very near totally destroyed Japan outwardly, and, in Mishima’s view, in the occupation that followed, with its enforced constitution, robbed her inwardly of half her essence—the sword no longer beside the chrysanthemum.

Mishima saw Japan as having lost her spiritual values, and in her excessive materialism, dying slowly from a “tediousness” and “insipidness” of the soul. Sadly, although largely proved correct, he left the earthly stage prematurely, and with surely much still to contribute.

It is perhaps worth saying that his criticism of Japan is hardly unique to Japan; the whole world would do well to heed this warning near forty years old against materialism unchecked.

Excerpt from Patriotism by Yukio Mishima

On the twenty-eighth of February, 1936 (on the third day, that is, of the February 26 Incident), Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama of the Konoe Transport Battalion—profoundly disturbed by the knowledge that his closest colleagues had been with the mutineers from the beginning, and indignant at the imminent prospect of Imperial troops—took his officer’s sword and ceremonially disemboweled himself in the eight-mat room of his private residence in the sixth block of Aoba-chô, in Yotsuya Ward. His wife, Reiko, followed him, stabbing herself to death. The lieutenant’s farewell note consisted of one sentence: “Long live the Imperial Forces.” His wife’s, after apologies for her unfilial conduct in thus preceding her parents to the grave, concluded: “The day which, for a soldier’s wife, had to come, has come…” The last moments of this heroic and dedicated couple were such as to make the gods themselves weep. The lieutenant’s age, it should be noted, was thirty-one, his wife’s twenty-three; and it was not half a year since the celebration of their marriage.

Those who saw the bride and bride-groom in the commemorative photograph—perhaps no less than those actually present at the lieutenant’s wedding—had exclaimed in wonder at the bearing of this handsome couple. The lieutenant, majestic in military uniform, stood protectively beside his bride, his right hand resting upon his sword, his officer’s cap held at his left side. His expression was severe, and his dark brows and wide-gazing well conveyed the clear integrity of youth. For the beauty of the bride in her white over-robe no comparisons were adequate. In the eyes, round beneath soft brows, in the slender, finely shaped nose, and in the full lips, there was both sensuousness and refinement. One hand, emerging shyly from a sleeve of the over-robe, held a fan, and the tips of the fingers, clustering delicately, were like the bud of a moonflower.

After the suicide, people would take out this photograph and examine it, and sadly refect that too often there was a curse on these seemingly flawless unions. Perhaps it was no more than imagination, but looking at the picture after the tragedy it also seemed as if the two young people before the gold-lacquered screen were gazing, each equal clarity, at the deaths which lay before them.

Thanks to the good offices of their go-between, Lieutenant General Ozeki, they had been able to set themselves up in a new home at Aoba-chô in Yotsuya. “New home” is perhaps misleading. It was an old three-room rented house backing onto a small garden. As neither the six—nor the four-and-a-half-mat room downstairs was favored by the sun, they used the upstairs eight-mat room as both bedroom and guest room. There was no maid, so Reiko was left alone to guard the house in her husband’s absence.

The honeymoon trip was dispensed with on the grounds that these were times of national emergency. The two of them had spent the first night of their marriage at this house. Before going to bed, Shinji, sitting erect on the floor with his sword laid before him, had bestowed upon his wife a soldierly lecture. A woman who had become the wife of a soldier should know and resolutely accept that her husband’s death might come at any moment. It could be tomorrow. It could be the day after. But, no matter when it came—he asked—was she steadfast in her resolve to accept it? Reiko rose to her feet, pulled open a drawer of the cabinet, and took out what was the most prized of her new possessions, the dagger her mother had given her. Returning to her place, she laid the dagger without a word on the mat before her, just as her husband had laid his sword. A silent understanding was achieved at once, and the lieutenant never again sought to test his wife’s resolve.

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