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Yukio Mishima, Yojuro Yasuda, & Fascism, Part 2

mishimapina [1]2,235 words

Part 2 of 2

Translated by Riki Rei

Translations: Czech [2], Greek [3]

6. Mishima’s Literature of Action

Let’s try searching for similarities between Mishima’s literature and fascism viewed from a literary perspective. If we use one word to describe Mishima’s literature, it is a literature of action. His later works show a particularly strong activist tendency. Even in his early works, the protagonists are still proactive. In an overall sense, Mishima’s literature is more activist than intellectual. This is similar to fascism, which also attaches importance to action.

Giovanni Gentile, the Italian fascist philosopher, advocated a Philosophy of Action. According to his theories, mankind attains self-consciousness and self-actualization primarily through action. Because of this, Fascism is also called the politics of action.

Mussolini is often compared with Lenin. Their theories of politics and party organization are supposedly similar, and Mussolini also dated a woman who had once worked as Lenin’s secretary and who explained Marxism to Mussolini, which amounted to an indirect influence of Lenin on Mussolini. Both Mussolini and Lenin thought that organizations in the hands of the few should guide the masses. But they differed fundamentally on the nature of this elite. For Lenin, it was intellectuals. For Mussolini, it was men of action.

Mussolini and Mishima share a heroic conception of man. The protagonists of Mishima’s literary works are active heroes who possess very strong characters. This is also one of the main features of Fascism. Furthermore, while Marxism and Liberalism attach great importance to material conditions and hold that humans are controlled by the economy and environment, such thinking is completely rejected by Fascism, which attaches great importance to human willpower by which we can control our environment. This also means that humans decide our destinies for ourselves.

Mishima and Mussolini also share a high regard for tradition and blood kinship. Like Marxism, fascism denies that man simply exists in the present. We carry our past inside us. Humans are products of history. What we inherit from the past, we pass down to the future. This is Mishima’s view as well. Humans are the result of the accumulation of the past and will continue into the future, albeit unconsciously. Tradition is physically embodied in blood kinship. This is why conservatives and nationalists care about tradition. The Japanese Romantic School, the literary and intellectual group that immensely influenced Mishima, was also concerned with blood lineage as well as tradition.

The concepts of tradition and blood lineage are also highly significant to individual members of a community. Traditions are the bedrock of a community without which we would be lonely and isolated beings. Therefore, we pursue our own identity within our community, and in this sense traditions and blood lineage are the source of individual identity. Mishima clearly had this issue in mind when he wrote his book On the Defense of Culture. Humans exist and function in society, and we owe our identities to the existence of traditions.

In today’s era of global standardization, traditions are likely to be dismissed as something negative. Different nations, customs, and traditions are seen as impediments to globalism and are gradually disappearing. But this also leads to the destruction of individuality. Traditions and cultures are the sources of our identity. Thus the defense of culture also means the defense of human individuality.

As for the relationship of tradition and reform, “tradition” has both good and bad meanings. Upholding traditions must not mean sticking to old habits mechanically, for this fetters and inhibits the energy and creativity of a nation. We must always be aware of the traditions immanent in the continuity from the past, strive to reform the present, and create the foundations for the future.

7. The Source of Creativity

At the beginning of the 20th century in Italy, Futurism was a leading cultural movement that called for the destruction of liberal classics. Futurism permeated literature, painting, architecture, cuisine, and all other fields and played a significant role in shaping Fascism. In fact, those who helped build the very foundation of Italian Fascism included former members of the Italian Socialist Party, former military men, and members of the Futurist cultural movement.

In Japan, Yojuro Yasuda held a similar view of tradition. He believed that conservation must lead to reform, for if we are merely concerned with preserving the past, traditions will get stuck in tedium and monotony and will eventually be extinguished.

The idea that conservation must lead to reformation can be called Fascism’s conception of revolution. Mishima valued tradition in both thought and action. But he was also a man of the modern age and lived in his own time. He was highly accomplished in absorbing the culture and literature of the West and incorporating them into the Japanese context. Mishima’s Modern Noh Plays is emblematic of this blending of Japanese and Western traditions.

Mishima’s literature synthesized the whole historical experience of the Japanese nation, which Giovanni Gentile called “national synthesis.” On the premise that the elements of Western culture that Japan had absorbed since she opened her gates and embarked on the path of modernization are also part of the experience of the Japanese nation, Mishima did more than anyone to “Nipponize” those foreign things.

Fascism too was originally an attempt at “national synthesis.” Mussolini started from the Left wing and established a new way of thinking on the basis of synthesizing the experiences of the whole Italian nation. Such a “national synthesis” emerges from a correct understanding of history.

8. The Historical Perceptions of Yasuda and Mishima

Tsuneari Fukuda[5] and Kanji Nishio[6] have written an essay about Yojuro Yasuda in which they praise how he helped readers of the Showa era, who were familiar with Western literature, to understand and appreciate Japanese classics. While Yasuda himself has been intimately informed of the Japanese classics ever since his childhood, he also received a Western education and brought this experience together with Japanese culture to form a particular synthesis.

In addition, there is an interesting anecdote about Yasuda. While he usually wore Western clothes before the War, he adopted the kimono after the War and maintained that fashion until his death. This seems to correspond to his belief that while the Japanese should have learned the Western spirit before the War, after the War they ought to give priority to the defense of Japanese culture.

Yasuda’s literature exactly reflects the history of Japan. He depicted Japan’s culture going back to before the Manyoshu[7] as a straight path and claimed firmly that this is the correct way to treat Japanese history. Moreover, he claimed to accommodate not only the straight path but also the deviations from it, as he believed that the history of the Japanese nation cannot stand if the deviant paths are simply dismissed out of hand. Both the straight and the deviant paths belong to the national historical experience. This stance of Yasuda’s can be seen as a particular form of “national synthesis.”

Likewise, Mishima was aware of history and affirmed Japan as a “country of history and tradition.” In fact, while The Forest in Full Bloom, his early work published in 1941, treated history and bloodlines as factors, his later works demonstrated little historical awareness. Mishima’s historical view mainly extends to the modern and contemporary eras. As demonstrated by The Sea of Fertility, his portrayal of history is often just the span of one generation or starts from the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which is deeply related to contemporary Japan.

On the other hand, Mishima was critical of the Marxist historical materialism that had permeated post-war Japan education. Historical materialism is based on determinism, just like liberalism, and constrains humans in a predetermined historical framework. Fascism opposes this in the sense that it regards history as the result of human free will, with which Mishima concurs. Mishima criticizes historical materialism because he believes that history ought not to be a material notion but a matter of “national spirit.”

While history has no end, it does have a beginning. The beginning of history constitutes the symbol of the source of nations. Returning to the source of nations is a common political legend for nationalists of all nations. For Japan, it refers to the founding era of the Yamato Nation; for Italy it is the ancient Roman era; both eras are spiritual utopias.

While nationalists seek their idealistic image of the future in the past — not a concrete past but an idealized one — which is based not on a deterministic model like Marxism or Liberalism, but on an idealistic value system, i.e., the power of imagination that is indisputably an important characteristic of Fascism. The past exists as a means to shape and strengthen the awareness of national identity from which communities grow. Yasuda attempted to duplicate the heavenly prototype in the human world through his praise of various Shinto symbols.

In the case of Mishima, as already mentioned, while the national history and myths of Japan appear in The Forest in Full Bloom, such matters of national origins were seldom touched upon in his works after that. In fact, his novels are about men’s endeavors to pursue ways of life free from the bridles of rationalism. What Mishima was actually pursuing was primal man, characterized by irrational instinct. His novel Kyoko’s House, published in 1951, is a landmark on the path of this pursuit.

Nevertheless, fascism values intuition more than instinct. Instinct denies rationality, but intuition transcends it. As pointed out by some scholars of political psychology, Italian Fascism stressed “intuition” while the German Nazism advocated “instinct.” While Mishima had valued Mussolini in his youth, he came to pay more attention to Hitler later on. Is this shift of personal attention the result of Mishima’s own reorientation from intuition to instinct? This is a deeply interesting point.

9. The Longing for Death

The Japanese book titled “Mussolini: Story of an Italian” by Romano Vulpitta [4]

The Japanese book titled “Mussolini: Story of an Italian” by Romano Vulpitta

One of the central traits of Japanese Romanticism is a “longing for death.” Death is also a persistent feature of Mishima’s literature. For the fascist, there is a strong longing for a beautiful death, thus the culture of fascism is also called the culture of death. There was a military song of the Italian Air Force in 1920s in which death is personified as a female, and it had such lyrics as “when we meet the death, try persuading her.” Such a positive attitude toward death was widespread in Italy.

Emotionally speaking, the longing for death is the most important common feature of Japanese Romanticism, Mishima’s literature, and fascism. However, the longing for death is by no means caused by masochism or a desire for self-destruction. Rather, it is an active and robust way of transcending death. It is a way of giving life meaning and justifying one’s existence through the act of dying. The final moment of Mishima’s life attested to this theme better than anything else.

The poet Ezra Pound, who sympathized with and assisted Italian Fascism ,said something like this at the time he was arrested by US military: “If someone is not ready to die for the sake of his idea, either he is cowardly, or the idea is worthless.” The readiness to die is the justification of one’s death. While Mishima killed himself advocating “values above the respect for life,” in Italy in 1945, around 100,000 Fascists died for their ideas, executed by Leftist forces.

Giovanni Solari, the Turin branch leader of the Italian Fascist party, left the following message in his last letter to his wife, dated April 29, 1945, shortly before his execution: “May our idea, the idea of those of us who have lived honestly and will die honestly for such idea, guide Italy to her rebirth and revival. Long Live Free Italy! Long Live Mussolini!” In this way, Giovanni Solari embraced death with dignity. I have seen his photo shortly before his execution, and I couldn’t help having a strong impression of the substantive commonality of Solari’s words and image and those of Zenmei Hasuda[8], who committed a hero’s suicide at the end of World War II.


5. Tsuneari Fukuda (1912–1994): Japanese essayist, translator, dramatist, and scholar of English literature. Member of the Japan Art Academy. Famous for being the most prominent and extensive translator of Shakespeare’s works and expert on other major literary figures of the English language. Well-known also for his staunch stance as a cultural conservative critical of Japan’s post-war pacifism and cultural decadence.

6. Kanji Nishio (b. 1935): Japanese scholar of German literature, essayist, and thinker. Noted for his extensive translation and study of Nietzsche and for being a major conservative opinion leader and commentator. He was the former leader of the controversial revisionist historical research organization the “Tsukurukai.”

7. Manyoshu: The oldest existing Japanese Waka collection (Waka is a form of traditional Japanese verse composed of 5 or 7 syllables). Composed in a period from the 7th century to the 8th century A.D. and includes more than 4,500 Waka verses written by a wide range of people from Emperors and noblemen to lower ranking officials and soldiers. Regarded as one of the most important reference materials for the study of the historical Japanese literature and language.

8. Zenmei Hasuda (1904–1945): Japanese literary critic and essayist on Japanese literature. Considered the man who has had the strongest and the most significant impact on the literary, emotional, and philosophic formation of Yukio Mishima. He committed suicide at the end of WWII as a lieutenant of the Imperial Japanese Army.