The following text is the transcript by V. S. of Jonathan Bowden’s New Right lecture in London on December 10, 2011. I want to thank Michèle Renouf for making the recording available.
Mishima’s life was dedicated to a return of the spirit of the samurai and a belief in Yamamoto Jōchō’s book Hagakure, which is partly the 17th-century bible of samurai morality whereby life is transfigured by death, and the notion of a warrior who is also an intellectual and a literary figure as well as a spiritual crusader, a priest who kills, is paramount.
Japanese culture is distinct from almost all others on Earth and is still difficult to understand and conceptualize for many Westerners. One of the more glaring things about Japan is that material which is banned in the West is widely available, particularly in terms of pornography, over which there are very little restrictions at all. Even in manga, or Japanese comics, which are often amazingly hardline and hardcore in Western terms.
Japan is a strange society, because the dialectics which move within it are oppositional and highly differentiated to those of the West. It’s probably true that people who are self-identifying in the Western tradition have often admired elements about Japan, particularly imperial Japan. There’s a degree to which there’s not so much a symmetry as a meaningful asymmetry by which the Japanese are perceived as a people who wanted to be themselves in their own way.
Japanese thought is influenced by Confucian, Shintoist, Buddhist, Zen Buddhist, and Taoist ideas and a medley of these finds itself as the basis of what it is to be Japanese. One of the cardinal views is that life is dominated by the spirits of the ancestors, and there is the notion of ancestor worship, which makes the family and the line of a family’s inheritance extraordinarily important. These spirits are called kami and there’s the notion that they can intervene in one’s actual life. These are supernatural ideas, but one of the tricks of Japanese culture, which is very similar to ancient Greece in this respect, is that all orders of opinion can accept these beliefs because there are secular and atheistic interpretations of these belief systems as there are purely religious ones. As in ancient Greece, a woman could kneel or lie before a statue of a god, and yet rationalist intellectuals in the same civilization could regard the divine stories as entirely metaphorical. And yet they would all be accepted as Greek. And they would all be accepted as different definitions of what it was to be Greek or to be a member of a Greek city-state. Mishima, for one, was obsessed by Greece, particularly ancient Greece, and incorporated quite a few Grecian odes and ethics into his books.
Mishima was born into an upper middle-class family in Tokyo and was separated from his other siblings by his grandmother at an early age. A weak and rather effeminate child who was divorced from the company of boys on the order of his grandmother who was obsessed with death and had a rather morbid outlook and was herself quite closely related to key members of the Japanese aristocracy. Mishima had a strange, rather twilight childhood up to the age of 12 when his grandmother died and he was reintroduced starkly to the rest of his family.
Modern and somewhat psychoanalytical interpretations of Mishima’s later conduct and ritual suicide as a political gesture at the end of his life concentrate on these early years as the foundation stones of the cult of living death that his adoration of the samurai was to perpetuate.
Now, Mishima started writing when he was about 12 years of age, possibly when he was 6 years of age, and had his first novel produced when he was between 16 and 18, which was published on war rations paper. The first book was called Confessions of a Mask, but there was a book even before that which is largely forgotten today and which concerns nature worship.
Mishima wrote a wide number of books. He wrote plays, which are both modern and classical in the Japanese tradition. Noh theater, as it’s called. Kabuki theater is a classical tradition in Japan. There’s also a puppet theater in relation to the second city other than Tokyo, Osaka, and the provinces. The tradition being external to Tokyo, the puppet is used instead of the body. In Tokyo, the body is used instead of a puppet. He also wrote two modern plays. One of which was called Madame de Sade, which is about the Marquis de Sade’s long-suffering wife in the early years of their life. That’s Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, who lived between 1740 and 1814. He also wrote a play called My Friend Hitler, which is quite controversial and was published in English, I think, in 1966.
His most famous work, which is widely regarded outside Japan, is a tetralogy at the end of his life called The Sea of Fertility and is about the increasing meaninglessness of Japanese civilization, as he saw it, dominated by an excess of materialism which was alien to it.
Japan began to modernize from what Westerners would call a feudal type of life or pattern of existence in the 1860s and underwent extraordinary modernization. So much so that it is the first hybridized, Westernized Eastern society or Occidentally-oriented Asiatic society, seen in Western terms. I say “seen in Western terms,” because Westerners can only ever see things in their own terms. It’s extraordinarily difficult to step out of one’s own culture and view another culture which is highly advanced and technocratically proficient as well as having an artistry that stretches back centuries, if not a thousand years plus, into the past and yet is based upon axioms which are fundamentally different to one’s own.
To give one example, there is a species of violent comic book, manga as they’re called in Japan, which is extremely sadistic and erotic, and one of these publications is called Rapeman, rather like Spider-Man or Superman, and it’s aimed at a similar audience. The incidence of rape in Japan is extraordinarily small in comparison to other advanced meritocratic and post-industrial societies like the United States, because the Japanese view is that you exteriorize dangerous fantasies by demarcating their existence rather than repressing them. The idea being that life is so ordered and structured in accordance with the social organicism of Japan based upon Confucian ideals that you have to let off some steam from the pressure-cooker eventually and one of the ways to do this is with material that will be regarded as suggestive, extremist, anti-familial, or highly dangerous in Western terms. So, you have a culture of extreme restraint and the possibility of radical violence co-existing in the same continuum because a lot of Japanese ethics and super-abundant ethics, the meta-ethics of a society are about the holding together of contraries in a dynamic state of force.
Much of the Western world became aware of the growing militancy of the Japanese imperial nation-state in and around the beginning of the 20th century when Japan fought the first successful war against a European or a Western society when they essentially defeated the Russian Empire. This was in the Russo-Japanese War, which led to the scenario of a European power (Russia would be regarded as a greater European power in these circumstances, its landmass stretching over into Asia) defeated by a non-occidental rival. This was the first intimation of the modern prowess of Japan that it was prepared to take on major occidental societies in the struggle for world hegemony.
The doctrines that have ruled Japan are essentially those of imperial monarchy, but this was always vitiated by the idea of the shogun or shogunate whereby essentially militaristic feudal lords representing samurai clans drawn from different parts of Japan exercised the imperial advisory role underneath a monarchical overlay. The monarch was seen as appointed by God and were seen as divine. It’s important to understand that for most Japanese until the middle of the 20th century following the defeat the divinity of the emperor was sacrosanct and was no negotiable and was not subject to discussion.
In extreme Right circles in Japan, one of the many reasons why Mishima is a controversial figure is because he’s criticized the Emperor Hirohito at the end of the Second World War when in fact he didn’t abdicate and agree to the American proposals that the Japanese constitution be fundamentally changed.
It’s difficult to imagine a human being who is worshipped as a god in Western terms. Roman emperors were worshipped as gods, but only outside Italy proper and only often in the more backward and remote parts of the empire. Even totalitarian leaders of Western nations in the 20th century who developed around them an anima or aura which could be said to be spiritistic in type have never been worshipped as gods in the formal sense.
The de-divinization of the leadership of Japan in the post-war period was part of the American recasting of Japan so that it would never be a threat again. Japan has one of the largest standing armies in accordance with its population in the world, and all it does is guard the territory of Japan and steam around the various islands that constitute that landmass. There’s a degree to which the Japanese Self-Defense Force, as it’s called, never intervenes in the rest of the world, and you will notice that, UN proscriptions aside, America has not been able to coax Japan out into the various escapades and forms of adventurism which have characterized both the Cold War and the immediate last 20 years after the destabilization of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the Russian Federation in its stead. Japan takes no role even in the Vietnam War. The Americans would have loved Japan to have fought in the Vietnam War, because of close proximity, but they refused to do so.
There’s a strong culture of civic pacifism in Japan rooted in the nihilistic despair and vaporization of the atomic weapons that we used. There’s even a form of revisionism in Japan which is partly state-induced and which is not compatible with other forms of historical revisionism elsewhere in the world. This is the idea that certain official sources and channels and mainstream media in Japan downplay the actual sort of ferocious and horrific events of the atomic weapons use, because they don’t want to draw attention to the war of annihilation struggle and imperial dominion and the desire to carve out an enormous socio-economic empire in near Asia that Japan was engaged in. This means that the victims of the bombing, and there were an enormous number of survivors in both of the cities, blame their own government for perpetuating the war against the United States and its Western allies and in alliance with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. This is a Western ideology which has been seized upon by the victims of the atomic strikes and is often very powerfully used inside Japan. So, you have this paradoxical idea that revisionism is state playing down of Hiroshima and Nagasaki so as to defeat the neo-pacifism of a largely Buddhist movement that seeks to hold the Japanese government as being co-responsible for the use of the atomic weapons when in actual fact in all logic the Americans used the atomic weapons. This is part of a device which is used in Japan to regulate and moderate anti-Americanism, which is still a latent and powerful force in Japanese society given the re-writing of the constitution and the creation of a new civic Japan after the war.
Basically, Japan was changed by the advent of the Second World War and its nuclear-laced aftermath far more than Germany was in the period of Adenauer’s succession between 1945 and 1948. West Germany largely was built on the basis, somewhat rudimentarily, of Weimar Germany, which could be said to be its natural precursor. There’s also a degree to which the norms of West Germany and its domination by the Christian Democratic and Social Democratic power structure alternating with periodic elections and a federal system based initially in Bonn prior to reunification was such that it ramified with many of the states around Germany in Europe. Japan had to chart a totally new course after the Second World War.
You’ll notice that Japan is dominated or has been until relatively recently by one political party. Despite numerous elections, despite numerous attempts to import the Western model into Japan, two party democracy has never really taken off.
One party, somewhat meaninglessly called the Liberal Democratic Party to appease American sort of neo-imperial tastes, has dominated the country since the nuclear explosions and the de-divinization of the emperor and the resulting capitulation of the armed forces, most of which did not commit ritual suicide on the event of Japan’s defeat because the emperor ordered them to stand down.
Mishima represents the culture of the imperial officer corps who fought the war in imperial Japanese’s stead first against China and then against the Western powers. It’s important to recognize that Japan initially thought about attacking the Soviet Union – Russia in a sense – rather than the United States. This is partly because Japan fought a war successfully against Russia in the early part of the 20th century, but it’s also because a significantly Right-wing part of the samurai-based officer corps wanted to attack the underbelly of the Soviet Union. Don’t forget, we have a situation in the 1930s where large sections of China are occupied by Japan, particularly the industrial area of Manchuria. There was also in Western and humanist terms extreme brigandage and ferocity and what is called atrocity in those areas committed by Japanese troops.
If Japan had invaded the Soviet Union’s softer underbelly and gone up into the Asiatic republics of what was then the Soviet Union at the time of maximum tension in the Soviet Union and during a period where the Soviet Union was under extreme attack at the point of near defeat by the forces of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union possibly could have been defeated and destroyed, and the whole history of the world would have been different. Indeed, in 1934 or 1936 there was a rising by 4,000 officers, all of whom were accredited samurai, which took over Tokyo and demanded that the imperial general staff orient Japan’s would-be offensive effort against the Soviet Union both for patriotic, geopolitical, and historical reasons. Also because Communism was seen as a great threat to the imperialistic and dynastic system that ruled in Japan.
The samurai are a type of soldierly elite that has existed in other cultures in the world but rarely has been concretized to the degree that took place in Japan. At times in Japanese history 10% of the population were accredited samurai, including women who were married into samurai clans. The samurai were meant to be learned warriors who were steeped in the Buddhist tradition, which is in some ways in Western terms a mildly pacifist tradition, but the hard edge of the tradition is the martial arts which the samurai learn in their initial training.
Samurais are accredited, unless they’re independent of all lords, to a lord or to a feudal baron in Western terms, and they formed clans or inter-ethnic enclaves or forms of identity which identified with particular feudal lords as against others. You then built up into a shogunate whereby an imperial leader and his wife or wives, because most marriages at the upper end of Japanese society were arranged . . . You had relationships with wives, you had possible relationships with geishas of which there were different types, and you had the possibility of multiple wives and multiple families for some men of the Japanese ruling class and upper class.
One important thing to remember about Japan is that Japan is the society that rejected Christianity formerly and in an extreme way. There is a degree to which few societies on Earth have partly begun a conversion to Christianity and then reversed and negated it involving the massacre of many Christians and Christian missionaries. Exposed to the Portuguese and the Spanish Empires, Japan hesitated over the adoption of Christianity and whole samurai clans in various parts of Japan converted to the Christian faith. This was later undone by later shogunates who returned to Shintoism or to innate Japanese paganism.
This faith system believes that the Japanese are uniquely chosen on Earth and are the children of the sun and are represented governmentally and institutionally and metaphysically by a living sun god who is their emperor.
The duty of the samurai is to kill with love and understanding and in accordance with complete serenity in a semi-religious way on behalf of this divine autocrat or leader even if his will is interpreted by a Bismarckian figure such as a shogun. Again, one strives for Western metaphors to understand elements of the Japanese mindset, because it is rare for this formulation to exist in Western culture.
Simulacrums of the samurai in the Western tradition might be said to be the Templars and the Hospitalers in the Middle Ages or elitist Christian warriors reared to a patriarchal standard of ascetic masculinity, those who believed ideologically in Crusades against Islam, for example, on behalf of the faith and genuinely seemed to believe in them at the time when they professed those views. One possibly also has elites in all armies, such as the Praetorian elite in the Roman legions, the Spartan courage and system of land-based fighting, the corollary to the Athenian naval-based prowess which provided the balance in Greek military warfare that enabled them to resist Persian invasion and elsewhere. But the cultivation of a priesthood that is also a killing machine, which is what the samurai were, is difficult to understand in Western terms.
In the Hagakure, the samurai must never show weakness even at a point of weakness and never speak in such a way that undermines his sense of self or his loyalty to his lord and master. Samurai should strive for this odd combination of fanaticism, steeliness, clearness of thought, and serenity of temper. The samurai should feel no guilt over killing, but the flip side of this is that the samurai is always ready to kill himself in relation to a system of honor.
In the Japanese traditionalist belief system, suicide is morally meritorious, which is something that the Western mind finds difficult to comprehend. This is because Shintoism preaches the notion of direct reincarnation as a fact rather than just an idea that can be spiritually postulated. In samurai rhetoric and law, and these ideas have the force of law for this pre-existent military elite inside Japan, if you were killed or if you committed ritual suicide you were immediately reborn in a mother’s womb 40 days later as a new human being. This meant that in their conception of self-suicide was not the end. Most of the greatest and most glorious figures in Japanese culture have committed suicide and have been praised for this both in their own time and afterwards. All suicides have to write a poem before they die which is called a death poem and is often in the form of a haiku, this minimalist, condensed type of poetry often dealing with themes of gentleness and forgiveness prior to the ultimate form of death.
Mishima believed that this is what Japan was and is and could be, and he believed that the spirit of the samurai, both male and female, fluctuated in Japan and should be brought back in a period where it had been relaxed to a point of semi-oblivion in the late 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and up to his own seppuku in 1970 when he ended his own life on the 25th of November 1970 in a way which caused consternation.
There is no parallel in the West for this sort of thing. If you like, the most prominent post-war British Western novelist is somebody called William Golding who wrote The Lord of the Flies. It’s like William Golding committing suicide on the steps of Downing Street after having demanded a change of course by a post-war British prime minister drawn from either the Labour or Conservative tradition and also having spent his entire life getting physically fit to a point of military perfection rather than being a sort of flabby Guardian aesthete, which essentially he was.
It’s also redolent of a man who owned his own private army, which Mishima developed for his own use. This was a society called the Shield Society and consisted of military trainees and conscripts about 100 in number that were run as a quasi-paramilitary force by Mishima and were allowed to train in Japanese army camps after 1966. Mishima’s ritual suicide took place in an army camp in 1970.
The liberal Western interpretation of Mishima’s life is a failed attempt to return to the samurai verities of old which remains concurrent with the literary output that is highly revered in the West and outside Japan. Westerners as well as Easterners put Mishima forward for three Nobel prize citations in the post-war period, yet he never won, partly because another Japanese writer who was very much his literary sponsor won the prize in 1968, and Japanese culture is so difficult to understand from many mainstream Western perspectives that it was felt that in that generational era another Japanese wouldn’t win the prize after it had been adopted to one of their own number. So, Mishima became gradually aware to the fact that he would have to wait for that. It’s widely believed that he deserved the prize as a number of other major writers in the Western world have done but have not received it.
Mishima’s literary output is divided into two halves, one of which deals with, if you like, quite decadent themes in certain respects. Mishima is drawn to extremes, and in Confessions of a Mask he’s drawn to extremes of auto-mutilation and sacrifice of self and the wearing of masks as part of social identity. The concept of the mask is cardinal to what it is to be Japanese. So frightened are the Japanese of giving offense which will lead to extreme violence between individuals and/or between groups that a culture of extremely formal politeness is institutionalized whereby no one wants to lose face in relation to a rival, a family member, a competitor or somebody they’re associated with in business, commerce, or state practice. This is quite opposed to the post-1960s belief in the Western world of emotional authentication whereby people are professed to express their emotions particularly in public. Otherwise they will be belaboring under false consciousness or will be internally divided or troubled. In Jungian psychoanalysis or analytical psychology there is the belief that all people have a shadow which is their more negative, ferocious, adversarial and barbaric side and to be a whole human being this has to be integrated into the personality. In the Japanese way of thinking, this is already integrated into the personality and doesn’t need to be shown because it would lead to conflict of a very barbaric manner.
There’s an extreme tension in Japanese society and there are strong sado-masochistic features from a Western viewpoint in a society that holds itself taut and rigid almost like a man in archery who is just about to release a longbow. And yet at the same time there is a softness and a gentility and an aesthetic decorum especially about traditional Japanese attitudes which strike a Westerner as a belief in perfection and stylization. This ability to slip from stylization – the tea ceremony for example, which is a key samurai ritual copied by the rest of the culture and which has to be separated from just tea drinking in an English sort of 4:30 in the afternoon way — and the possibility of extreme violence, which is always the legacy of the samurai tradition and which lies at the heart of a lot of Japanese notions of themselves.
The culture of the manga or the film on paper which is the comic book, which in the West is essentially regarded as a form for children and adolescents which has to be outgrown when one transfers to proper books and the adult version of which is the film rather than the comic or graphic novel. In Japan, some of the most senior artists and senior political figures in the society are people who write comic books, which are regarded as a major cultural form and are sold in their millions if not their tens of millions.
An enormous subculture within manga, which deals with every topic on Earth from cooking to romance to war worship, is the samurai genre which spills over into television, film, and books. Many of the samurai novels and plays and films strike Western audiences as stereotypical, but a Western parallel would be the fantasy of the western in the United States. Everyone has probably seen A Fistful of Dollars with Clint Eastwood and has seen The Magnificent Seven and these sorts of westerns, all of which are based upon Japanese samurai films and cultural abstracts of that sort.
One of the most remarkable samurai films of all time is by the greatest Japanese director, as many conceive it inside and outside Japan since the Second World War, a man called Kurosawa who did a film called Ran, which means “chaos” and is the samurai version of King Lear, which with Hamlet is Shakespeare’s preeminent play possibly next to Macbeth, Othello, and many others. This Japanese King Lear, which is an extraordinary piece of work and lasts for about 4 hours, is an attempt to distill the samurai ethic using a Western story. This is still controversial in Japan. Although many Japanese artists have been famous outside Japan, the belief in cultural and ethnic exclusivity is very extreme in Japan by Western standards even to this day.
Kurosawa was heavily criticized for using a Western model in order to transmute Japanese meaning and form. It is still controversial even to use extra-Japanese forms in classical Japanese usage even in modernity.
Mishima got around this partly by transmuting Japanese forms in ways that Westerners could understand. In his novel called The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, he deals with a burning down of a Buddhist shrine by a psychopathic eccentric who was a classical outsider in terms that both Western and Eastern audiences could understand but not necessarily sympathize with. The book caused consternation in Japan and was based on a true case. The nearest parallel I can think of is Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, which is about the murder of a Kansas family by two mid-American drifters whose internal psychological torments and anxieties are dealt with at extreme length by Capote prior to their judicial killing by the federal American system in, I think, an Iowa penitentiary in the late 1960s.
Mishima believed that a culture should be exclusive and that Japanese life and circumstances were unique and demanded unique answers inside Japan that were purely Japanese. Like all artists, his form of nationalism was one that did not necessarily appeal to Right-wing nationalists inside Japan.
Paul Schrader’s film, which is a very famous Hollywood film, and for a Hollywood film it’s a very good film,called Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters . . . Schrader’s most famous for his extremely violent, excoriating film about the transgression of American values called Taxi Driver, a film which many people will have seen or at least heard of. Now, in his film about Mishima, three of Mishima’s novels, one from The Sea of Fertility tetralogy, are reconfigured as stories external to Mishima’s life but which he gives literary value to by virtue of his own biography. The fourth quadrant of the film is biographical/autobiographical and deals with Mishima’s own life.
In Schrader’s piece, Mishima’s seen as a man whose death is foretold by the nature of the ideology he adopts. One which is both an emotional, a literary, a speculative, a martial and an intellectual ideology. The sort of ideology that Mishima proposed in his novels and plays was similar to that put forward by D. H. Lawrence in the West and yet different with similar elements to Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought at the end of the 19th century and yet distinct.
There was something also irreducibly “other” and Japanese about it which no Westerner could completely grasp. I think there is something in the Western tradition, which although not frightened of suicide, regards it with a degree of disrespect. Certainly the idea that a suicide can be beautiful and is the apotheosis of a life and of a moment of religious intensity is not alien to the West, but it is relatively alien in the West and has attracted few ideological adherents in most forms of Western history.
The main Western group that preaches suicide at the moment is the Italian-American Sicilian Mafia whereby a Mafia don who is cornered by his colleagues and has nowhere to go is meant to open his veins in a warm bath as certain senators and other leaders of the Roman republic and empire did in the Western world. But the Western view of warriorship is always to try to survive so that you can fight on. Western terrorists rarely ever kill themselves no matter how violent or fixated or paramilitary the logic of their own language and being might be. IRA men, UDA men, whatever they might have been would inflict pain and violence but always sought to get away afterwards, and this is very much the Western ethic in battle. The idea of a deliberate sacrifice of self, which will occur in slaughter anyway, because soldierly rearing and military training is partly being trained for death as all people in military command structures understand, because military life is where emotions are heightened to a degree which civilian life can no longer cope with the exertions, particularly the moral exertions which are required.
The nearest Western version to a man like Mishima, who in a way superseded him because he had a military background that Mishima couldn’t boast and because of the feebleness of Mishima’s body when he came to be commissioned in the Japanese Imperial Army at the Second World War couldn’t ascribe to, is Ernst Jünger. Ernst Jünger is probably the supreme example of an artist, a literati, a secular spiritualist, and an extreme soldier who fought in the First World War for four years from 1914-1918, was awarded two Iron Crosses as well as the highest medal for valor, the Pour le Mérite of the Prussian Imperial Army, and was wounded fourteen times at the front to which he returned and only stood down with the surrender of the German imperial forces at the armistice at the end of that conflict in 1918. If you read books like Fire and Blood, which only exists in German, or Battle As Inner Experience, which is likewise only available in German or the two versions of his four-pronged wartime epic, which are available in English, The Storm of Steel and Copse 125, you come across a man who has a spiritual view of warfare and could be described as a Western samurai.
The samurai tradition basically believes that the potential of a soldier has to be high rather than low. It’s the combination of a university professor, a martial arts bodybuilder, and an extreme warrior. This is an unusual combination which in most societies has only been restricted to tiny little militaristic elites or elites that guard an imperial or quasi-divine figure. The Praetorian Guard, the Immortals in the Persian court, an organization that was partly reinvigorated by the Shah of Iran during his period of power, the SS to a degree, and similar organizations that would now be called special forces are the closest you get in the Western tradition to the samurai ethic. But even then your average SAS man could hardly be described as an intellectual or a literati. Nor is that insisted upon. However, the degree of physical courage, hardness, rectitude, and readiness for martial conflict which Delta Force, the Navy SEALs in the United States, the Spetsnaz forces in the post-Soviet Russia, the Special Air Service Regiment and Special Boat Service Regiment and the elite squads of the German and Italian army, and probably the elite of the French Foreign Legion as well could be said to carry out and do carry out in Western neo-imperial missions all over the Third World to this day are the nearest you get to the sort of endless military training and subservience to authority that the samurai had to evince.
There’s also the combination of a degree of individualism as well, because these are warriors who are bound to have to fight on their own often behind enemy lines, and it’s noticeable in the enormous literature which prevails in modern Britain, or post-modern Britain, of the SAS warrior, the Andy McNab subcultures and all their endless spin-offs and various media whereby SAS men and their equivalents are sort of worshipped because of the yearning for a heroic and the yearning of a return to elements of heroic masculinity which are shot through with individuality. But again, despite all the courage and military preponderance that such individual warriors, and individualistic at that, will show there is not the culture of a refined ethic of beauty, the religious sensibility, or the cult of intellectuality, which although a small minority of samurai would actually have evinced in their own era was nevertheless the guiding ideology of this type. The combination of the warrior and the aesthete is not uniquely Japanese, but the ideology that pushed them together was and to a certain extent still is.
After Japan modernized its society in the 1860s, the Japanese imperial ruling class went for a national conscript army along Western lines, but the whole officer corps and the whole elite of the Japanese army after the defeat of the shogunate, which involved a monarchical restoration in conceptual terms after the 1860s, was samurai in order and orientation. This in turn gets us into a very controversial area which most studies of Mishima, which tend to be purely literary in form, tend to reject. This is the treatment of Western prisoners by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second World War.
Many Westerners still remember hideous disfigurements, malnutrition, and mistreatment of prisoners both Western and Eastern by the Japanese Imperial Army. The Mishimas of this world never really commented on this because their system of moral ethics in this is in some ways different to a dualist, a Manichaean, or a Christian or Christianized or post-Christian system. In Mishima’s conception of the world, without speaking for him unduly, although it’s there in texts such as The Way of the Samurai and Sun and Steel and “the pathway of the samurai is death” and books about the heroic martyrs of the Japanese Imperial Army is that pain and cruelty is part of life and are on a continuum with peace and benignity, so there’s a degree to which there is not a moral soul searching about what is regarded as evil in other spiritual trajectories although there would be no denial that evil can exist and that men in battle will perpetuate it.
The important thing about the sort of pagan morality the samurai evinced is that it was hierarchical rather than dual. Rather than behaving well or badly, a society such as this or a caste such as this drawn from a society, which it probably was quite unrepresentative of as such elites always are, has a hierarchical notion of morality whereby honor and the esteem that one is held in by one’s warrior colleagues is more important than dualist preparations. So, a samurai who has disobeyed an order or has been caught in a cowardly act or has retreated before the enemy will be demanded to commit ritual suicide instantly. Instantly! Just like that, with little preparation. Just has to be mentally prepared for this. Traditionally, samurai would cut the tops of their fingers off for minor indiscretions and for minor infractions of various rules in their honor-based system which is called bushido. There is a sort of cultivation of the masochism of the flesh as well as the extremity of externalized violence which is a Japanese tradition and which essentially effects their attitudes in all areas aesthetic, literary, poetic, religious, and sensual and sexual as well. So, Japanese culture contains some very extreme metaphysical postulates which are openly avowed whereas in most societies such tendencies are often hidden or glossed over or regarded with a certain degree of discretion.
The radicalism of the Japanese army during its expansionist phase and its ferocity towards enemies as well as its deep sense of discipline and self-control was commented upon by many people at the time. Indeed, in the Rape of Nanking, for example, the German ambassador in a society with which Germany was then at that time moving towards alignment with, West and East, described the conduct of Japanese troops as bestial viewed in traditional Western terms. And this was a German cultural attaché at that particular Chinese embassy which had been invaded from without by the Japanese Imperial Army.
There’s a degree to which Mishima, like Jünger about the excesses that the Prussian tradition can go in for on occasion, remains silent about these sorts of matters much to the extreme anger of humanistic and moral Western critics. This is because their view of life is aesthetically different and super-charged in relation to what is currently part of present civility.
One of Mishima’s remarks about his own civilization was its feminization, which was something that a large number of Right-wing criticizers of their own societies have put forward in the post-war period. It is quite true that the army and the military tradition has completely vacated the civilized and civic space in nearly all Western societies, including the United States. Armies are purely professional and are no longer conscript. The bulk of the population never comes near armed force or the utilization of that force. Young Westernized men never go in for military training. One of the last Western countries to get rid of military training for the young was France. Always done on the lines of cost and because the military don’t want a large number of the conscripts that they regard as very substandard troops that they have to lick into shape for sociological reasons and wouldn’t be much good martially. This is why you have a confluence of cost-cutting, neo-liberal politicians, and army and navy and air force technocrats who wish to get rid of conscript armies. Interestingly, in France’s case, the last two political parties that voted for the tradition of mass military conscription were the Front National and the Communist Party of France. All of the parties in between them, in the middle if you like, center Left and center Right, voted for a paid, patriotic army of volunteers who were not going to interfere with the business of military life.
It’s always true, of course, that armies constellate around elites, and even a professional vanguard army of people who wish to fight in such a force on behalf of their own nation-state or confederation form an elite in relation to the mass of the citizenry, but never before has the citizenry been so disempowered in relation to military life.
Mishima didn’t preach the militarization of Japanese life, which is something that someone like Ernst Jünger preached for interwar Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. There is a degree to which Mishima’s belief was that the army should once again become the template of Japanese civilian life and should become the model for a post-war Japan that related to the pre-war Japan that went down in atomic defeat.
After writing the better part of a hundred novels and plays and non-fiction works, at least 40 of which stand alone as literary items – the West will quickly run off items for money – Mishima proposed a solution to the dilemma of post-war Japan. Japan has been politically crucified in certain respects since the Second World War as has Germany. A very powerful country economically and yet a country with almost no military resource outside or external to its own borders and a country where people are afraid to summon up any foreign policy that can conflict with American global prerequisites.
There’s a degree to which the Japan of the post-war era is a politically humiliated society and a militarily humiliated society which is also an economic super-power. Germany, certainly in relation to the rest of the European Union, is in much the same situation. Both countries have internalized their massive defeats in the second global conflagration of the 20th century. Both have related to those defeats in different ways. Both have engaged in an endless politics of apology and absence of self-defense in relation to what hostile Western historians tend to call the unmastered past.
Don’t forget that although it’s regarded as obscure by most Westerners, the entire Japanese military leadership, often in a symbolic way, was put on trial after the Second World War. Massive war crimes trials were conducted along the Nuremberg patent despite the fact that atomic weapons had been used in order to finish the conflict on the Japanese peninsula. The Japanese elite has internalized the idea that the use of atomic weapons was justified because of the possible several millions of deaths that would have accrued when samurai-based warriors on the Japanese mainland fighting for a god-king, as they perceived the empire cult at that time, would have wreaked havoc and would have killed an enormous number of Americans and other Western allies and paid the price in terms of body count themselves. In this way of looking at things or point of reference, the Western historiographical tradition regards the use of atomic weapons, the only time they’ve ever been used in anger by one nation-state against another, as justified partly because it saved so much chaos and rancor which would have been occasioned by a conventional invasion of Japan. Although there is deep anger in Japan about the use of these weapons, in typical fashion a lot of that has been turned inwards inside Japanese culture in relation to pacifist usage, possible feminization of life seen in masculine, traditional samurai and martial terms and in terms of the Buddhist tradition.
There’s little social anger towards the United States in a publically affordable way, and this is because the United States has completely dominated and morally and mentally invaded post-war Japan to a degree that most Westerners cannot configure. It’s only because Japanese culture is so distinct and freestanding and resistant to Westernization in some of its own terms that Westerners don’t realize how much post-war Japan has been Westernized in America’s image.
Now, the belief that one author, rather like Ezra Pound in relation to Fascist Italy as regards the governmental structures and economic power of the United States, could change this is part of the fantasy of what it is to be an important literary writer, particularly one who believes in the bardic tradition. The idea that writers speak for a whole people or writers speak for something more important than themselves. The liberal conception of the writer is of essentially a lonely creature scribbling or tapping away on a computer now in a room whose products are bought and sold as any other commodity by those in the cultural marketplace. But the bardic tradition holds that the artist creates on behalf of a people and at least attempts to speak for large proportions of that people in key moments.
Mishima’s struggle with himself and with literature came to an end with The Sea of Fertility trilogy in the late 1960s which talks a great deal about small conspiratorial groups of Right-wingers who contrive with elements of the post-imperial Japanese military and general staff to overthrow the business, corporate and political elite of liberal, democratic Japan and reinstitute emperor-worship. In one of his essays, Mishima asks, “Why did the emperor have to become a human being?” because traditionally the emperor was not regarded as human in Japan up until about 1945, 1946, and thereafter.
Mishima made his last stand and his last statement in an East Tokyo army base on the 25th of November 1970 where with either three or four acolytes from the Shield Society and dressed in largely pre-1945 and imperial Japanese military uniforms designed by himself and with messages which were pithy statements of martial intent which Japanese warriors traditionally wear on their body. If you notice, in many Asiatic houses there are often slogans or pieces of Buddhist scripture that are written calligraphically on the wall as either banners or forms of art, and they essentially adopt the position of a painting on the wall. Sometimes Japanese warriors write a slogan such as “Death is the Cardinal Reality” or something like that from the Hagakure and fold it around their head with the imperial emblem of Japan, which is the sun.
The Shield Society, which was Mishima’s own personal militaristic little society numbering around a hundred persons, all of whom were supremely physically fit, all of whom were male, all of whom were invested with martial arts, had as its symbol two imperial Japanese helmets from the 17th century cast in red and facing each other.
Mishima prepared banners and a proclamation which would be read out to the soldiers. He met, under a pretext of political falsity, General Mashita who was in command of that particular East Tokyo army base. Swords and daggers – traditionally the samurai has a very long sword, he has two of them and he has two short or stabbing swords. In samurai warriorship, the culture of modern war, killing from a distance, is disprivileged even though, of course, in modern warfare the Japanese army is highly organized and mechanistically capable and is as fully prepared to use modern weapons as anyone else. But interestingly they dovetail these ancient and modern ideas with the cult of suicide and reckless personal death for an imperial and popular mission. The cult of the kamikaze pilots, for example, who would dive their planes into American ships causing massive explosions in their internal organs and workings and disable them and often destroy them in the Pacific theater of war was part and parcel of that particular endeavor.
Mishima and his colleagues strode into Mashita’s office, disarmed him, tied him up, produced some slogans on banners which they then draped from windows which led to a balcony outside this particular general’s office, and then marched out to address the troops. About 1,000 Japanese troops were lined for some internal Japanese army matter and it spread like wildfire that Mishima or somebody was acting in a strange or possibly terrorist manner in relation to this base. By the end of Mishima’s speech to the troops, which was relatively short, helicopters were flying overhead in an attempt to disrupt what he was saying.
In his speech to the troops, which apart from its initial phase when the troops stood in shocked silence was received by jeers and hoots by the majority of them, Mishima demanded a return to the empire of the sun. He demanded a return to empire-worship and to imperial worship of the majesty of the emperor. He demanded that the post-war emperor would be declared Tennō, be declared a god again and be declared the god of the Japanese people. He also argued that the army cease to be American mercenaries, as he called it, and return to their traditional mission as the soul of Japan. He basically argued for a restoration of the Japanese war dead and implicitly that the Japanese Emperor Hirohito at the time of the surrender in 1945 should have never denied his divinity or been forced to do so by American license and should have accepted his responsibility as in Buddhism for the war dead. He was essentially demanding revisionism, the revision of the past and a sort of moral statement of victory in defeat which would allow the traditional Japan to resurface and to claim a form of spiritual conquest even after the bankruptcy of physical defeat in the atomic weapons used against its cities in the mid-1940s.
Mishima was really asking for the impossible and asking for demands that the whole of contemporary Japan with the exception of certain fringe far-Right and samurai groups had set their face against.
Why did Mishima ask for these impossible demands which, to invent a term or a neologism, could be describe as impossibilist demands? Many Western historians and literati believe that Mishima wanted to die and wished to commit suicide at this time and used the call to arms of a renascent imperial Japan based upon god-emperor worship and the kami of the past as his excuse to commit hari-kari or seppuku in either Western or Japanese terms. This may have some psychological truth to it. Mishima was obsessed with death and with the morbid undercurrents of life and with the samurai cult of self-extinguishment from a very early age. He certainly had planned his suicide and his will and his testamentary deposits over a year prior to the act. Every element of the act was thought through aesthetically.
After his speech was rejected by the body of the troops, he went back into the room and said various Shintoist prayers with his three or four colleagues. He then knelt down and ripped open his belly with one of the shorter of the samurai knives, which is the beginning of the ritual suicide in Japanese warrior culture. At the end of this act, your head is literally severed by another samurai who stands behind you. The head is then held aloft and then prayers are said over the head. His colleague committed ritual suicide in a similar way.
There is also a degree to which, as also happens in real life, the chosen associate of the suicide who later committed suicide himself couldn’t go through with the act and the stronger hand of a third samurai had to be used in order to inflict the beheading. The two heads were then placed beside each other and ritual Buddhist and Shintoist prayers were said over the dead. This is because in their belief system, of course, you are reincarnated as new life after 40 days and so this is not the end. It is a perpetuation of a prospect of a new beginning.
It is true to say that his ritual suicide and his demand for cultural revision and national reemergence caused a consternation in Japan. You have to understand that he was the darling of the Eastern Western media in Japan for quite a long period. He was also widely translated in an era when Japanese writers were not particularly widely translated. He was also widely popular inside Japan despite being a self-consciously literary writer. It literally caused consternation that he had done this. His revision and interpretative re-issue of the Hagakure, the Bible of the samurai from three to four centuries before, became a best-seller in Japan after his funeral. Ten thousand ordinary Japanese, not associated with Right-wing groups or associated with nationalist caucuses or associated with samurai undercurrents inside or outside of the Japanese army at the time or associated with literary circles, attended Mishima’s funeral, which was an event unheralded in the culture of the Japan at that time. It basically caused an enormous civic and psychological shock in Japan.
Was Mishima on a trajectory of his own? Did he represent the soul of his people as he believed? Was his act a lonely and masochistic one totally contrary to the post-modern and Westernized wiles of contemporary Japan? Or was it in a sense a return, as he would have configured it, to fundamental verities about what it was to be Japanese as against any other nationality on Earth?
Nobody really can come up with an answer. Possibly an answer is a medley of all of those questions put into one statement. A Westerner, certainly, is outside the remit of force and fire and the circle of the sun which is necessary to ponder such questions.
But there is a degree to which most of Yukio Mishima’s major works have been translated into English, including Confessions of a Mask, Sun and Steel, Madame de Sade, My Friend Hitler, On the Heroic War Dead of the Japanese Nation, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Forbidden Colors, The Sea of Fertility trilogy, and many others. The interesting thing about them is they often deal with a decadent violence and an amorality, such as in The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, unless the samurai ethic is put underneath them and those sort of yearnings for violence and for order which he sees in traditional pre-modern, pre-Second World War versions of Japanese society are re-institutionalized.
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