On Reading Yukio Mishima as a Westerner

I’ll pass on the seppuku, thanks.

Ok, that was kind of mean of me to start off with. It probably would’ve been better to address the fact that the title could be see as somewhat ambiguous – am I the Westerner in this case, or am I saying that I am reading Mishima as if he were a Westerner? I think its probably a bit self-evident, though, which one I mean.

I’ve begun re-reading Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy recently, starting off with Spring Snow (Haru no Yuki). In the past, I’ve also read his anthologies Death in Midsummer (Manatsu no Shi) and Acts of Worship (Mikumano Mode), as well as his book The Sound of the Waves (Shiosai). I started Confessions of a Mask (Kamen no Kokuhaku), probably his best-known work to English-speaking readers, but was unable to complete it as it was due at the library. I also attempted Kyoko no Ie, but it is one of his only works that hasn’t been translated, so I was attempting to read it in Japanese. As I have mentioned many times before, my Japanese comprehension permits me to watch shows such as Chi’s Sweet Home, and little else, so I think you can hazard a guess as to how that turned out.

I was reminded as I read the first few chapters of Spring Snow of how, frankly, <i>bizarre</i> it is to read Mishima’s work as a Westerner, or even as a foreigner, period. However, I entitled this with the designation ‘Westerner’ as opposed to ‘foreigner’ because my reaction would be different than say, that of a Chinese person, or a person of any of the East and Southeast Asian countries Japan terrorized during and running up to World War II – well, and different than the reaction of any person hailing from a different cultural context than mine, period, but I think its most worth considering why the South/East Asian perspective would be so very different. Its rather simple, though – the ideology which Mishima displays most and which he believed in fervently (enough to have attempted to inspire insurrection amongst military troops) is one which underlied the entire fascistic imperialism of Japan of the late 1920’s through WWII. So Mishima is very big on the kind if ideology which made many, many people in South/East Asia suffer egregiously in that aforementioned timespan. So I have a feeling that the people of those nations would probably have a more virulent response to Mishima than do I.

By the way, as an aside, I would like to acknowledge the fact that I find the term ‘Westerner’ to be extremely problematic – after all, ‘Westerner’ would seem to be a term one should be able to apply to Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Yet it really only means ‘western and norther Europe, North America excluding Mexico’. But the issue of vestiges of European colonialism are really an entirely different topic that would necessitate a lot of space I don’t think I can devote to it here. I just wished to raise the issue for the sake of awareness.

Anyway – Mishima. He’s kind of an interesting case if only because he ultimately espoused a very militaristic strain of nationalism, yet also believed that Hirohito should’ve abdicated the throne at the close of the war in order to accept responsibility for those killed in the war. At first glance it seems as if Mishima probably would’ve dug a return to the shogunate, yet that would be false – one of his goals in hoping to inspire rebellion amongst Japanese troops was in order to return the government fully to an imperial form.

I’m interested in his ideology and how very strange it is to read it as someone who is not Japanese. I also sort of wonder if, though, it is as alien to me as it is to current-day Japanese people, given the predilection toward pacifism displayed by the general populace there (although I do think its a pacifism that really could turn on a dime – I don’t think for one second they’d be all for a peaceful resolution, for example, if North Korea decided to launch a missile at them). However, I am not Japanese myself, so I can hardly answer that question.

Mishima presents us with worlds where things such as imperial court rituals still hold significance to a good number of people, to worlds where courtly loyalties and politics still hold sway, to worlds where it makes perfect sense for someone to kill themselves for having lost a practice match in judo. But most of what we see is window-dressing, in a sense – yeah, so we don’t do the whole tea ceremony thing, but does that really make the tea ceremony totally esoteric to us? Hardly; we can get to the core meaning of it fairly easily, although it may require some effort on our part. The tea ceremony is also something we can more easily relate to because it doesn’t seem so foreign with just a bit of quick consideration of it. Whether it is true that it isn’t so terribly foreign or not is kind of moot here – what really matters is the perception we have of it.

So these little bits and pieces – tea ceremonies, royal kimonos, Japanese gardens, samurai swords – while all foreign to us don’t quite strike us as alienating. I bring this up in order to draw attention to the fact that what does seem so strange is Mishima’s ideology itself, and not the pieces surrounding it.

Mishima’s way of thinking and his set of beliefs reflect the attitudes and beliefs of the old guard, so to speak – the kind of people who ushered Japan towards its fascistic imperialism and the kinds of people who went along with it. And it isn’t one that is easy to relate to from a Western perspective; the central importance of bushido may be the most indicative of that, as feudalism died out in the West many centuries before it did in Japan (except for in Russia, but its a bit of a mistake to really classify Russia as being truly Western, honestly), and even during its heyday the notions of knighthood were, while vaguely similar to the notions of samuraihood, not a lot like them at all. So this devotion to bushido, around which everything else is built, is culturally quite alien.

Mishima’s ideology is also very much tied to his time period; younger authors might attempt to mimic his style, but its difficult to find any that mimic his conception of the world and how it ought to be.  While this matter of time period potentially makes him as different to his modern-day Japanese readers, too, it has more of an affect on a foreign reader because they are also divided by what their education has deemed as relevant – and most basic educations outside of Japan don’t really consider Japanese modern history terribly relevant. So the matter of time period serves to heighten our cultural disconnect with Mishima.

There is also the simple fact that Mishima wasn’t writing for any audience other than a Japanese one. Yes, the same can basically be said for anime and manga, but the fact that a. much of the anime and manga out there comes from our own time period, and b. much of anime and manga is made solely to entertain and not to air ideological points makes the process of viewing anime and reading manga less complicated than reading something like Mishima.

I suppose what I’m really trying to get at is that while Mishima’s works are certainly worth reading and are well-written, it feels a bit strange to read them out of context in a way that one wouldn’t get were they reading, say, something by Haruki Murakami (I know – apples and oranges! but that’s kind of the point). Actually, Murakami is probably a bad example because his stuff just is strange, regardless of the reader’s culture.

For whatever its worth, while I disagree with Mishima’s ideology, I do find him to be a very tragic figure. The situation of his early life was kind of crappy, and his homosexuality definitely made things a lot more complicated given the expectations of males at his time (hint: homosexuality was not one of them).  He was a deeply conflicted man, and it seems that he wasn’t a terribly happy one.

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10 Responses to On Reading Yukio Mishima as a Westerner

  1. I had only read the short story “Swaddling Clothes” back at uni, and I’m afraid I remember nothing from it. I’ll read him this year.

  2. Shinmaru says:

    I’ve read a bit about Mishima, but I’ve never read any of his works, myself, so I can’t comment much about them except to say reading about his ideologies and convictions is pretty strange for someone like me who has only a basic understanding of Japanese history and culture.

    Have you seen the movie Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters? I watched it about a month ago and liked it a lot. The movie tells Mishima’s story by mixing his final day (the attempted coup), his childhood and excerpts from four of his stories to construct the ideal image of himself that Mishima wished to present in his writing and how he lived. You’d probably get even more out of the movie than I did, given your familiarity with Mishima.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      I have heard of the movie, but I’ve never seen it – although I do own the soundtrack, which was done by Philip Glass. The soundtrack is great, so I guess I should probably watch the movie it accompanies!

  3. 2DT says:

    The oddity of Mishima, to me, is how his works are so vastly different from each other but so appropriate for who he was. I would never think that the man who wrote Spring Snow was the author of Confessions of a Mask, except that I obviously do know. And somehow it all makes sense together.

    Most Japanese are as far from Mishima’s mindset as we are… Not all, though, unfortunately. I witnessed a demonstration in Osaka where a man on a loudspeaker was calling for Americans and Chinese to get out of the country, to bring back the military and defeat North Korea. Following him was a crowd, mostly old folks, but also children.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      Yeah, I’ve gotten the definite impression that his personal views aren’t ones held by very many current-day Japanese, but I didn’t want to necessarily come out and say it in a definitive manner since I’ve only spoken with few Japanese people before, and never about politics. (Or anime! I don’t want to be one of those irritating types who assumes all Japanese people watch anime…)

      I’m in the process of re-reading a bunch of Mishima’s stuff because I feel that I didn’t really get a lot of it the first time ’round. I think I was just a few years too young to have – I read Acts of Worship as a freshman in college, and while I sort of appreciated its structure and underlying themes, I found it difficult to read.

      • animekritik says:

        The majority of Japanese today don’t have a political “view” at all. At first I thought it was a matter of being shy at discussing it with a foreigner, but in the end I’ve become quite sure that they do not want to think politically..they’re just not interested. Same goes for religion.

  4. animekritik says:

    Mishima’s cool. I liked the second book in the Fertility series (Runaway Horses) the best. That book is GOOD.

    You hit upon a lot of interesting points there. The fact that he was critical of the person on the throne is really easy to miss, and yet it’s so important!! I don’t think he preferred a shogun so much as a different sort of person on the throne..

    Mishima is amazing because he had total mastery of the Japanese language/culture complex AND probably the deepest understanding of Western culture and its roots any major Japanese author has possessed. That’s why his oeuvre is thematically and stylistically speaking all over the place.

    I myself read Shiosai in Japanese (it was torture) and managed about 100 pages of Confessions in the original before I put it down. Murderous kanji…

    • adaywithoutme says:

      I can’t say at the moment which of his Sea of Fertility installments I like best, as I am re-reading it all. I can say that I’d forgotten how thoroughly irritating Kiyoaki was!

      I got about… oh, ten pages into Kyoko no Ie. The kanji truly was deadly.

  5. odorunara says:

    I loved Spring Snow, but I haven’t read it in almost five years. The translation I read at the time (when I could barely read Japanese at all) was really amazing, though, but I’m scared to tackle the political discussion chapter in Japanese…

    Regarding Mishima’s sexual preferences, there are many, many ways of expressing one’s sexuality within the generalized preference (gay/lesbian, bi, straight) we write on surveys. Mishima’s homosexuality was that of the “men who HATE women, and so it is manlier to love men” camp. (Versus how we in the US and other Western countries currently tend to view gay men and women as allies and the best of friends.)

    For more on this, check out any of Marc Mclelland’s research:
    Genders, Transgenders, and Sexualities in Japan (2006)

    Queer Voices from Japan” (2007)

    Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan (2000)

    There’s a lot of writing out there on this, and Mishima is a favorite example of the women-hating-men-who-love-men type.

  6. Graham Evans says:

    Odorunara – it’s a bit strange of you to discuss Mishima’s sexual preferences and attitudes without mentioning Forbidden Colours and if you haven’t read it then you’ve neglected the primary source. Educate thyself and don’t believe what you’re told second hand by theorists. A lot of the modern Western views on homosexuality, let’s say many ‘progressive views’ and the views from within ‘the scene’ are prefigured by Mishima in this book. It would be hard to find a theorist who has understood gay male misogyny at a deeper level than penetrated by this book. Without too much imagination the book makes the theory redundant. What do we have critics for again?

    His writing in this book totally transcends his own apparently flawed character – a phenomena not unknown amongst artistic geniuses it seems.

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