Patriotism and death

Suicide in the form of seppuku or hara-kiri as the tradional means, or locking yourself up in the car with your whole family and letting the toxic fumes from the exhaust pipe blow your candle out as the contemporary one, is an integral part of Japanese culture. Nobody expressed it better, both in the field of literature and real life, than the writer Yukio Mishima (1925-1970). A traditionalist and supporter of the emperor and his divine ordinance in post-World War II Japan, a practitioner of kendo and bodybuilding conveying an image of masculinity and soldierly demeanor, but at the same time openly bisexual (he came forth with his sexual urges towards men in his first book, Confessions of a Mask), Mishima (real name Kimitake Hiraoka) was a fascinating and controversial figure. His attempted coup d'etat, followed by his ritual suicide in 1970 shocked the world and made for a spectacular exit from the world of the living of one of the best Japanese writers in the 20th century.

Throughout his novels you may find examples of the uniquely Japanese mindset, dark and perverse, forever wandering in the serpentine labyrinths of the human psyche, so alien to our logical and linear Western minds. Whether it be the peculiar ideals of honor among the sadistic youths in The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (there is a 1963 film version starring Kris Kristofferson) or the dark take on Buddhist and Zen proverbs in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Mishima's novels are bound to shock and perplex you. In his short story entitled simply Patriotism we come across a succinct overview of what it means to save face and keep your honor intact. The story is quite simple: a young Army lieutenant, Shinji Takeyama, becomes involved in political upheaval following a rebellion of his comrades and decides that to continue living would be disgraceful. His wife, Reiko, is to assist him in the act of seppuku and follow him afterwards.

During his lifetime Mishima was deeply disappointed with the way in which the Japanese mentality was changing. After the defeat in the war and two nuclear blasts that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki there came an age of subservience to America and capitalism, followed by a transformation of national identity. The spirit of the samurai, the Shinto religion, imperial ambitions in Asia, and most of all the traditional outlook on life and death, that preferred purity and integrity to living at all cost, were all left behind. What came was the hollowing out of the average human who became entirely oriented towards materialist values and the life of a salary man. Mishima would talk critically of the whole phenomenon in his public speeches and write about bright examples of past bravery in his books and newspaper articles. In that sense, Patriotism is something of an ideal that people fell miserably short of in his time.

In his description of the ritual suicide Mishima doesn't paint a rosy picture. He knows it's a messy act but doesn't shy away from it regardless:
''By the time the lieutenant had at last drawn the sword across to the right side of the stomach, the blade was already cutting shallow and had revealed its naked tip, slippery with blood and grease. But, suddenly stricken by a fit of vomiting, the lieutenant cried out hoarsely. The vomiting made the fierce pain fiercer still, and the stomach, which had thus far remained firm and compact, now abruptly heaved, opening wide its wound, and the entrails burst through, as if the wound too were vomiting. Seemingly ignorant of their master's suffering, the entrails gave an impression of robust health and almost disagreeable vitality as they slipped out smoothly and spilled over into the crotch. The lieutenant's head drooped, his shoulders heaved, his eyes opened to narrow slits, and a thin trickle of saliva dribbled from his mouth. The gold markings on his epaulets caught the light and glinted. Blood was scattered everywhere.''

Not only is the graphic nature of the passage and the writer's relentless insistence on the nobility of the act despite of it all - shocking, even more so is the categorical imperative that the wife Reiko is faced with. She is to see all of this, endure it stoically, and then follow suit. The fact that her husband trusts her enough to go first is the biggest testament to his strong faith in her unflinching morality. It is this sort of writing that led many Japanese, disillusioned with the values of old as they were, after the carnage and destruction that was World War II, to accuse Mishima of being a reactionary madman. His life story and philosophy were immortalized in Paul Schrader's master-piece - Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, a film that masterfully presents the writer's dilemma of being faced with the discrepancy between art and physical action, a contradiction that recognizes death as a higher principle that reconciles the two and finds its solution in suicide as an aesthetic expression.


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