Furthest Right

Yukio Mishima: A 20th Century Samurai (New Dawn)

You can easily find two contradictory characteristics in Japanese cultures or Japanese characters. One is elegance and one is brutality. The two characteristics are very tightly combined sometimes. Our brutality, I think, comes from our emotion. It is never mechanised and systematised like [the] Nazi’s brutality. I think our brutality might come from our feminine aspect and elegance comes from our nervous side. Sometimes we are too sensitive about defilement or elegance or sense of beauty or aesthetic side. And sometimes we are tired of it and we need a sudden explosion to make us free from it…I don’t like the Japanese culture just represented only by the flower arrangement or such a sort of peace/loving culture. I think we still have a very strong warrior’s mind.
—Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima, pseudonym of Kimitake Hiraoka (1925-1970), was a Japanese novelist and playwright, whose central theme is the dichotomy between traditional Japanese values and the spiritual barrenness of contemporary life.

On February 14, 1925 Yukio Mishima, one of Japan’s most significant writers, was born into a samurai family. Since youth he was brought up in the spirit of the samurai tradition and values: nobility, truthfulness, complete control over mind and body, and loyalty to the Emperor. Traditional Japanese society was imbued with the samurai spirit. “What Japan was she owed to the samurai,” observes the Japanese scholar Dr. Inazo Nitobe. “They were not only the flower of the nation, but its root as well. All the gracious gifts of Heaven flowed through them. Though they kept themselves socially aloof from the populace, they set a moral standard forthem and guided them by their example.”

The “way of the samurai” or Bushido, particularly as set out in a 18th century text known as Hagakure, influenced all of Yukio Mishima’s life and work. Drawing primarily on Zen Buddhism, the Hagakure stresses dying a glorious death. It sets out a spiritual-warrior path focusing on emotional and mental discipline, the martial arts, and aesthetics. The author of the Hagakure defines the true spirit of the samurai:

Lord Naoshige once said: “Bushido [way of the samurai] comes down to death. Even tens of people cannot kill such a person.” Great things cannot be achieved by [merely] being earnest. A man must become a fanatic to the extreme of being obsessed by death…The martial arts require only an obsession with death. Both loyalty and filial piety [the two other major samurai virtues] are included within this.

Indeed the first words of the Hagakure are: “One who is a samurai must before all things keep constantly in mind…the fact that he has to die.” Mishima said that the Hagakure is “the womb from which my writing is born.”

A man of discipline and great energy, he usually wrote from midnight until dawn and in his lifetime produced more than 100 works, including novels, short stories, traditional Japanese No and Kabuki plays, and screenplays.

Mishima’s first novel, the partly autobiographical Confessions of a Mask (1948), was widely acclaimed and successful enough to enable its author to become a full-time writer. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion(1956) portrays a young man obsessed with both religion and beauty; The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1963) is a tale of adolescent jealousy. All Mishima’s novels contain paradoxes: beauty equated with death; the yearning for love and its rejection when offered.

In Confessions of a Mask, Mishima recalls that he experienced his first ejaculation upon observing a reproduction of Guido Reni’s (1575-1642) painting of Saint Sebastian. “The arrows have eaten into the tense, fragrant, youthful flesh” he writes, “and are about to consume his body from within with flames of supreme agony and ecstasy.” A short time before his own death, Mishima posed as St Sebastian, his handsome, nearly naked, muscular body pierced with arrows. For Mishima, the ultimate aesthetic experience, as well as the ultimate spiritual experience, was to be found in the encounter of male beauty and death. As he wrote of Sebastian,”was not such beauty as his a thing destined for death?…His was not a fate to be pitied…[It was] a fate that might even be called radiant.”

A married man with children, Yukio Mishima’s homoeroticism is only fully understood within the samurai tradition. Their custom required thatsamurai marry and father children, thereby providing heirs and the continuance of the family line. Hence virginity before marriage andunsullied virtue thereafter were requisites for samurai women. But there was another important aspect of samurai sexuality: homosexuality.

Sexual relationships between older samurai and young adolescents, similar to the mentor-pupil relationship of ancient Greece, were common in Japan’s feudal Age of the Samurai. According to the authors of The Love of the Samurai:

It is especially in the 16th, 17th, and 18thcenturies that it flourished greatly under the rule of the samurai, in a period when the traditional civilisation of Japan reached its perfection… Far from being condemned, it was considered more noble and more gracious than heterosexuality. It was encouraged especially within the samurai class; it was considered useful to boys in teaching them virtue, honesty and the appreciation of beauty, while the love of women was often devalued for its so-called “feminising” effect. A great part of the historical and fictional literature was devoted to the praise of the beauty and valour of boys faithful to shudo.

The devotion of male warrior-lovers, called shudo, together with young masculine beauty were much esteemed in traditional samurai society. Thus they are integral to Yukio Mishima’s life and writings.

Mishima’s literary masterpiece the four volume epic The Sea of Fertility (1970), consisting of Spring Snow, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn, and The Decay of the Angel, is about the transformation of Japan into a modern but sterile society.

In the first novel, Spring Snow, set in Tokyo in 1912, the closed world of the ancient aristocracy is being breached for the first time by outsiders – rich provincial families without tradition, whose money and vitality make them formidable contenders for social and political power.

The second volume, Runaway Horses is the chronicle of a conspiracy, a novel about the roots and nature of Japanese fanaticism in the years that led to war – an era marked by depression, the upheaval of radical social change, political violence, and assassination.

The third part, The Temple of Dawn is a story of the pursuit of beauty and spiritual enlightenment. It powerfully dramatises the Japanese experience from the eve of World War II through the degradation of the postwar era.

The dramatic climax of the tetralogy, The Decay of the Angel brings together the dominant themes of the three previous novels: the meaning and decay of Japan’s courtly tradition and samurai ideal; the essence and value of Zen Buddhist philosophy and aesthetics; and, underlying all, Mishima’s apocalyptic vision of the modern era, which saw the dissolution of the moral and cultural forces that throughout the ages nourished a people and a world.

Mishima was deeply troubled by the changes wrought on traditional Japanese ways by Western modernisation. The Decay of the Angel, his last work, compares modern Japan to the barren landscape of the moon.

Mishima detested the sedentary life of most writers. For him, words must provoke deeds, thought cannot be separated from action. His reverence for traditional Japanese martial arts led him to take up Kendo (a type of fencing with wooden swords), karate and body-building. In an effort to revive the ancient arts of the samurai he organised the Tatenokai (ShieldSociety), a paramilitary brotherhood stressing physical fitness, the martial arts such as karate and swordsmanship, as well as the upholding of the ideals and virtues of Japanese imperial tradition. In the 1990s the ideals of the Shield Society are carried on by Issui-kai, a Japanese pacifist nationalist organisation.

True to the samurai spirit, Mishima attempted to rally his people to combat the damage being done to Japanese society by such alien forces as liberalism and capitalist consumerism. “Japan will disappear,” Mishima prophetically warned, “it will become inorganic, empty, neutral-tinted; it will grow wealthy and astute.”

At the peak of a brilliant literary career and at the age of forty five,Yukio Mishima committed seppuku (ritual suicide) following an unsuccessful attempt to re-enact successfully, in a carefully staged ‘incident’,the Young Officers’ rebellion of the 1930s.

On November 25, 1970, Mishima and four Shield Society members took control of an office at Tokyo’s military headquarters. He gave a speech attacking Japan’s post-World War II constitution and called on the ranks of the Japanese Self Defence Force to rebel in an effort to save Japan’s ancient tradition. Faithful to the samurai code he then committed ritual suicide (seppuku).

His death is regarded as his final protest against the decay of Japanese society.

“Human life is limited. But I want to live forever,” Mishima wrote in a suicide note to his wife. Loyal to the ready-for-death-at-any-instant spirit of Bushido, Yukio Mishima found in a freely chosen death the noblest and most beautiful action open to a human being.


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