Japan is an intriguing nation and many know this. Despite its limited global reach in history compared to the West and its troubled past, it has become one of the world’s largest economies and cultural exporters. But this is also a double-edged sword in more ways than one. Like the sword itself, with the katana being synonymous with the country’s historical samurai culture, Japan is one that faces many juxtapositions contrary to the stereotypes many Eastern nations have endured through their ‘orientalism’. Some see it as a nation of great beauty and etiquette alone which has been tainted by the rapid westernisation it has experienced since its defeat in World War II (a great book on this is Lost Japan by Alex Kerr which I would highly recommend). Others, and those of a more radical mind, see Japan as a once barbaric nation who’s conservative warrior culture prevented it from following a path towards civilisation. Yet what if one rejected the two or believed that both, despite their differences, could be a recipe for a much more beautiful thing that blends the sublime with death, elegance with ruthlessness, and the modern with nostalgia? Such a nihilist appreciation of aesthetics was portrayed at its finest by one of Japan’s most controversial authors – Yukio Mishima.
Mishima is infamous through his controversial views and lifestyle (David Bowie was heavily influenced by Mishima and, much to my surprise, he is the favourite author of YouTuber PewDiePie). A die-hard nationalist, Mishima’s nihilism was exacerbated by Japan’s defeat in WWII, believing that it had lost its honour and that its casualties died in vain once Emperor Hirohito renounced his divinity. He tried to reclaim it through establishing his own paramilitary, the Tatenokai (Japanese for ‘Shield Society’), which mainly consisted of disillusioned conservative students. Through it, Mishima attempted a coup d’etat at the Japanese Self-Defense Forces headquarters, seeking the support of its soldiers by giving a speech on the headquarters’ balcony. Once he realised his attempt at rallying their favour had failed, he retreated to inside the building where he committed suicide by seppuku alongside one of his followers.
Yet, despite the extremities of Mishima’s views, he also held behaviour that was controversial in his country but some of which would be seen as very liberal in present Western eyes. He was a homosexual with a fascination for Greek love and was heavily influenced by Western literature, including the works of Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman. Even with his conservative nationalism, Mishima lived in a Western-designed house once he became a successful writer. Nor was his works popular in Japan alone, having been nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He was the epitome of Japan, a paradox that had pride and nostalgia for the old but tacitly inspired by the alien and new.
Mishima, like most great writers, was evidently influenced by the events that he experienced. His second novel published in 1949, Confessions of a Mask, was a semi-autobiographical novel of his adolescence, dealing with the difficulties he faced in concealing his homosexuality whilst also desiring the very thing he knows Imperial Japan would not accept; a choice between the pride for his country and achieving the death he longs for against his fascination of St Sebastian and wishing to either become him or love someone like him. In his later novels, Mishima’s narrative remains one of longing but one more rueful; his 1963 novel The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea and its theme of the sea being a personal analogy to the Japan he loved and longed for, which had been corrupted by its modernisation.
But the strong belonging Mishima felt for Japan is not the main portion of what makes his work so great, but rather the contradictions that the person and the world he inhabits Mishima displays elegantly. As himself once described in regards to the human psyche and its several facets, Mishima details how people come between their several sides and what determines what in their persona:
“You can easily find two different contradictions or characteristics in Japanese cultures or Japanese characters. One is elegance and one is brutality. But the two characteristics are very tightly combined sometimes and our brutality I think comes from our emotions. It is never make our lives or systematised like notches brutality and I think the brutality might come from our feminine aspects and elegance comes from our nervous sides. Sometimes we are too sensitive of our definement or elegance or our sense of beauty of a aesthetic side and sometimes we’re tired of it and we need sometimes a sudden explosion to make us free from it.”Yukio Mishima in the BBC Documentary The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima
Mishima therefore resented the re-invention of Japanese culture into a more ‘peace-loving culture’ and its passive aestheticism through displays such as ikebana (the art of flower arranging) alone, hiding its ‘brutal side’ that was very much part of the nation’s original aesthetic. True beauty, for Mishima, was through showing pure character and the violent capacity that was in all humans.
Mishima was again talking from experience on the self-consciousness people have about their beauty or ugliness, having gone from a weak boy who failed to be drafted into WWII due to a recurrent fever (which was misdiagnosed as tuberculous) into a weight lifter who trained three times a week, a regimen that went uninterrupted in the last fifteen years of his life. His desire to achieve such a physique was one which he dreamt of in his teenage years, especially when his affections for his muscular classmate Omi (as detailed through the Confessions of a Mask protagonist, Kochan, the diminutive of Mishima’s real name) are described through wishing to attain a similar psyche:
“It got so that whenever I took a bath I would stand before the mirror a long time, staring at the mirror’s ungracious reflection of my naked body. It was another case of the ugly duckling who believed he would become a swan, except that this time that heroic fairy tale was to have an exactly reverse outcome.”Confessions of a Mask, p. 56
Mishima through himself shows the very insecurities people possess but constantly deny. He once got greatly offended by his female friend Akihiro Maruyama whilst once dancing together. She joked about his small height and then-thin build, responding that he found the comment “most unpleasant” and walked off. Maruyama stated that was when she realised what Mishima’s “greatest weakness” was – sensitivity. It was at that time that he started bodybuilding (Arena 1985).
One could call Mishima a hypocrite here when thinking about his comments on how sensitivity gets in the way of one’s personal satisfaction. Yet this is a elemental truth of the contradictions one often faces that Mishima describes. One example of this is Mishima’s desire for death:
“I sensuously accepted the creed of death that was popular during the war. I thought that by any chance I should attain ‘glorious death in battle’ (how ill it would have become me!), this would be a truly ironical end for my life, and I could laugh sarcastically at it forever from the grave …. And when the sirens sounded, that same me would dash for the air-raid shelters faster than anyone ….”Confessions of a Mask, p. 85
He believed in death in battle like the bushido (the samurai code of honour) had, that it was a moment of parting of one’s spirit in honour rather than one to be mourned. But even when holding such beliefs, anxiety can get the better of someone even for Mishima. But this wasn’t an anxiety of fearing death itself, Mishima had later proved this was not the case with him through his suicide, but rather an anxiety that comes with one not being able to reveal the self that lies underneath their mask. Seeing the patriotism that partly defined Mishima’s existence wither away was all too much for him, like Ryuji in The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea missing his time in the sea.
When Mishima committed seppuku in 1970, speculation had arisen that it was due to his attempted coup’s failure, a final display of art; an attempt to ‘preserve his youth’ in death; or the result of a existential crisis due to his insecurities with his homosexuality. Even after fifty years since his death, such speculation is sure to continue. But his old friend Akihiro Maruyama, once she heard of Mishima’s death and his speech, thought “well done, you did it”, believing that “he had wanted so much to die in that way”. The film director Nagisa Oshima believed he should have died in old age and “see his deterioration and ugliness for the sake of his art” (Arena 1985). But whatever anyone thinks of Mishima’s beliefs, lifestyle, or the circumstances of his death, he at least achieved a death he believed honoured his stubborn traditions whether or not it is abhorrent to our own eyes. It could not have been too blinding for most as his novels are still popular to this day. Where he could not pass on his legacy through old age for the sake of saving his youth and loyalty to Japan’s honour, he instead leaves it to be distributed through the power of his words in print.
- Arena (1985) Series 11, Episode 5, The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima [Television Broadcast] BBC Two, 3 December.
- Mishima, Yukio (2017) Confessions of a Mask. London: Penguin Books.