Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Yukio Mishima's "Patriotism": Japanese Fascism and Its Terrible Heritage

The three faces of "Patriotism": this essay analyzes Yukio Mishima’s notorious short story, “Patriotism," from three different critical perspectiveshistorical, psychological, and Marxist. But it's also a story of how fascism and fanaticism ruined Japan and how that evil has never died.

I composed this essay in April 1995 while an English graduate at Queens College for Prof. David Richter’s excellent class in critical theory, “History of Literary Criticism.” We were asked to analyze a literary work from three different critical perspectives, and I chose "Patriotism."

A large part of the essay is an historical explanation of how fascism overtook Japan in the 1930s, something that most American are pretty ignorant of. This essay is also a story of the sinister shadow that the past throws over the present. Mishima never left the world of prewar Japan (how well Faulkner would have understood him), and finally that fact destroyed him.

Japan’s past still exerts a powerful hold on its present, as the current saber-rattling in Tokyo attests to. (Please see my posting below, “Japan Should NEVER Be Rearmed.”) The dishonorable leaders who dragged the Japanese people unwillingly into war in the Thirties (and let them do the dying for them by the millions) have their counterparts today: the leaders who are increasing Japan’s military strength, who want Japanese soldiers to serve overseas, and who warn about war with China and North Korea (because they want it). They constantly wave the bloody shirt over the North Korean kidnappings of the 1970s and 1980s, they persist in visiting Yasukuni Shrine as a provocation to China and Korea, and they refuse to acknowledge responsibility for the fact that Japan massacred ten to twenty million innocent Chinese between 1931 and 1945 (and many more elsewhere) and made sex slaves of thousands of helpless Asian women.

The horrifying Rape of Nanking

There is hope. These vicious opportunists are grandstanding to appeal to the hard core of Japanese nationalists, who are very much in the minority. Japanese politicians are copying the Bush/Rove playbook of appealing to the most extreme right-wing elements in the society as an unshakable power base, because they hold the most fanatical and steadfast beliefs. But Prime Minister Abe and his followers are currying favor with the reactionaries because they’re unable to appeal to the broad mass of the people—and that’s a sure sign of failure, as Bush and Rove have learned.

In his short story “Patriotism,” and through his own death by seppuku, Mishima revealed what the end result of this self-destructive fanaticism is. It’s suicide.

Yukio Mishima’s Patriotism: Three Critical Viewpoints

“Patriotism” is arguably Yukio Mishima's best-known and most notorious short story. It is the tale of the ritual suicide by seppuku of a young Japanese military officer and his wife following the failure of the Young Officer’s revolt of February 26, 1936 in Tokyo, known simply as “2/26” to all Japanese. In 1965, Mishima wrote and starred in a hugely-successful twenty-minute film version of “Patriotism” under the suggestive title The Rite of Love and Death, and all over the world audiences gasped as they watched him perform hara-kiri in explicit black-and-white.(1)

A still from the film: Kenneth Anger fans, take note

After his own death by ritual disembowelment following a doomed coup attempt in 1970, many whispered that the short story and Mishima's film performance were simply overt prefigurations of his own death-wish.

Mishima preaching to the nation the last day of his life

Key questions of interpretation remain about this controversial short story. Simply put, they boil down to two issues: is "Patriotism" a glorification of fascist martial virtues, or is it an account of a terrible waste, of two people who have been brutally betrayed by an atavistic culture that willingly sacrifices human beings? By examining “Patriotism” from a three critical angles—historical, psychological, and Marxist—I hope to reveal a deeper understanding of this notorious and shocking short story.

An Historical Interpretation

Above all else, "Patriotism" is a story about history and the burden of cultural tradition. Mishima begins his story with a "Once upon a time..." fashion that pinpoints his tale with Japanese readers immediately: "On the twenty-eighth of February, 1936 on the third day, that is, of the February 26 Incident)..."(2) Although the February 26 Incident is largely unknown to American readers, to the average Japanese, it is as recognizable as the Fourth of July is to Americans or Bastille Day to the French. However, the February 26 Incident carries with it darker and much more disturbing overtones.

Of all the nations in the developed or developing world, Japan was hit the hardest by the Great Depression. In the Twenties, Japan had allowed itself to become a one-crop economy, based on silk, and when the bottom dropped out of the international silk market, Japan's economy plummeted after. The military, whose prestige had been climbing since Japan's victory in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, began asserting its authority in China with a series of carefully-contrived "incidents," starting in 1928 with political assassination in Manchuria.

By the mid-Thirties, the Army had split into two factions—the Kodo-ha (Imperial Way) faction, and the Tosei-ha (Control Group) faction. The Kodo-ha were the more old-fashioned and traditional. They were largely drawn from the ranks of the farm boys from the countryside who comprised Japan's rural lumpen. They were furious that their tenant-farmer fathers were so poor, they had to sell their very own sisters to brothels to pay the back rent. (3) For Japan's economic crisis they blamed the zaibatsu, the interlocking supra-conglomerates that had a stranglehold on the Japanese economy, and the “cowardly liberal civilian politicians,” whom they saw as doing nothing to alleviate the suffering of the common people.

These idealistic young officers followed the writings of Kita Ikki, the ideological father of Japanese fascism, a former socialist revolutionary who, like Mussolini, came to embrace militarism and imperialism. In 1923, his A Plan for the General Reorganization of Japan argued that only selfless young military officers from the countryside had the integrity to establish a military dictatorship in Japan that could, on the one hand, enforce social justice by suppressing the zaibatsu and, on the other hand, liberate the rest of Asia from the yoke of the White Man through Japanese-assisted wars of liberation and an interim period of Japanese military protection.(4) As their name connoted, the Kodo-ha venerated the Emperor and argued that they acted in his name.

Kita Ikki

Directly opposed to them were the Tosei-ha, the Control Group, the hard-headed realists in the army who had discarded romantic ideals of Emperor worship and the revival of bushido (the ancient samurai code) in favor of mechanization, practicality, and a reasonable timetable for conquering China. Hideki Tojo was their leader and exemplified the cool Tosei-ha virtues. Most Westerners' image of Tojo is that of a firebreathing anti-Western nationalist; when in fact, his stepping-stone to power was the fact that when the 2/26 revolt broke out in Tokyo, it was Tojo, as the head of the dreaded Kempetai (military secret police) in Manchuria—a volatile Kodo-ha stronghold—who crushed any possibility of a fifth-column revolt from the outset. (5) Grateful Tokyo authorities later rewarded him with leadership posts. Tojo was the consummate controlled and reliable bureaucrat.

On the snowy morning of February 26, 1936, the Kodo-ha insurrection seized Tokyo. Assassination squads murdered the lord privy seal, the minister of finance, and the inspector general of military training. The prime minister hid and cowered in a cupboard while army patriots gunned down his brother-in-law by mistake.

Before day broke, the mutineers had occupied the War Ministry, the Prime Minister's residence, the police headquarters, law courts, Diet building, army and navy headquarters, and newspaper offices. Setting up armed camps around the Imperial palace and calling themselves the "Loyalist Army,” their leaders sent signals urging other troops to join them. They issued a proclamation calling for the abolition of parliamentary government and denounced elder statesmen, politicians, and big business....

Since their declared aims were almost identical with those openly stated by many of the commanding generals, the young officers, having successfully initiated the military coup, confidently expected that their army superiors would take it from there. (6)

"And they waited in vain."(7) Shocked by this open defiance of civilian authority, Emperor Hirohito had no choice but to crush the rebellion and execute all the ringleaders. Ironically, it was the only time he ever put his foot down with the military; and it has been conjectured that the confrontation so unnerved him that after that, he never again directly intervened in affairs of state until the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

He was only following orders

The failed coup d’état was a turning-point in twentieth-century Japanese history. The Kodo-ha faction played right into the hands of the Tosei-ha. By so openly declaring civil war, the Kodo-ha discredited themselves permanently in the halls of political power. But by seizing Tokyo and assassinating half the standing government, the Kodo-ha proved that the military had become so arrogant in Japan that they virtually ruled the country, and any civilian rule was a pretense. So, ironically, the Kodo-ha insured the victory of the Tosei-ha, and the Tosei-ha went on to realize Kita Ikki's dream of a military dictatorship bent on establishing "Asia for the Asians."(8)

The ferocious Colonel Kingoro Hashimoto, Tosei-ha leader: he tried to provoke WW II single-handedly in 1937 by attacking British and American gunships in China (the U.S.S. Panay and H.M.S. Ladybird incidents)

This, then, is the complex social and political background that fills the world of Mishima's "Patriotism"; "Patriotism" cannot be understood except in light of this supercharged background. To the tradition-minded Japanese of his generation, the heightened tragedy of these fateful events is similar to what Americans associate with the JFK assassination, and as readers, we are supposed to sympathize with the gallant idealism of the Kodo-ha rebels in the same way many Southerners sentimentalize the "lost cause" of the Confederacy.

"Surely some God died when the Ni Ni Roku [2/26] Incident failed," Mishima wrote in an afterword to "Patriotism."(9)

In a March 1966 Sunday Mainichi magazine interview, Mishima declared:

This incident occurred when I was eleven and had a big spiritual influence on me. My hero worship and feeling of collapse, which I experience now, are derived from this incident.

Needless to say, I support the young officers, the so-called traitors. Therefore, I was beside myself with rage with those authors who have denounced them in their works as men who betrayed the army.

The action of the young officers could have bought about the Showa Ishin, the Showa Restoration, and was based on a belief in national salvation. But they were called traitors because the cowardly, sniveling, timid old vassals who surrounded the Emperor plotted against them. Consequently, the Emperor has responsibility; he accepted it. The Emperor should send an Imperial messenger [to the graves of the dead/brackets in original] as soon as possible, to end the dishonor of those who were bereaved. (10)

From the above remarks, we can understand that in no way are we to view the actions of the Young Officers either skeptically or ironically; we are not to view them as killers, hotheads, or bumbling conspirators out of a Graham Greene novel, self-inflated fools operating way over their heads. In Mishima's view, the accidental death of the prime minister's brother-in-law is not to be seen as a terrible tragedy or a grotesque waste; it was a surgical amputation necessary to preserve the health of the Japanese body politic.

However, not only the politics of the past haunted and motivated Mishima's writing of "Patriotism." Current events as they were taking place in Japan in 1960 also had a powerful motivating force for his composition of this particular story. "On October 12, 1960, the chairman of the Socialist Party, Inejiro Asanuma, was assassinated by a young rightist named Yamaguchi. Asanuma was delivering a speech when Yamaguchi charged headlong down the aisle of the auditorium, leaped up onto the speaker's platform, and rammed him through with a short sword, the traditional weapon of the Japanese terrorist. A news cameraman happened to record the assassination on film (very much like the Zapruder film of President Kennedy’s assassination in its effect on the Japanese), and subsequently it was witnessed by the whole world." (11)

John Nathan remarks that “it is not unlikely that Mishima was ‘inspired’ by the same incident.”(12) At a 1968 teach-in he later praised the assassin Yamaguchi: "'He was splendid. As you know, he took his own life afterward. In dying that way he was being faithful to the letter of Japanese tradition.'"(13)

This and other declarations not only confirm the popular belief that Mishima was a thoroughgoing reactionary, but also that he was totally in sympathy with the young lieutenant in “Patriotism.” As the omniscient third-person narrator declares in the first paragraph of the story: "The last moments of this heroic and dedicated couple were such as to make the gods themselves weep."(14)

Nathan mentions a wholly different response another great Japanese writer, 1994 Nobel Prize-winner Kenzaburo Oe, had to Asanuma’s assassination:

"Patriotism" appeared in the January 1961 issue of the Shosetsu Cho Koron. That same month, the twenty-five-year-old novelist Kenzaburo Oe published in another magazine a portrait of a fascist as a young man called "Seventeen," which was every bit as sardonic as "Patriotism" was solemn. In fact "Seventeen" was a brilliant and vicious attack on the values that "Patriotism" exalted. The seventeen-year-old hero is a paranoid, convinced that people need only see "the pallor of his face and the cloudiness of his eyes" to perceive that he is a "chronic masturbator." The thought fills him with homicidal rage; he wants to "kill them, everyone of them, with a machine gun." But he cannot stop masturbating, because he needs the "sense of power" he experiences on ejaculation. (15)

As we will see in the second section, which deals with a psychoanalytical interpretation of “Patriotism,” the above can be read as a veiled yet telling portrait of Mishima himself.

A Psychological Interpretation

"Patriotism” represents a field day for psychoanalytical criticism: a sensational short story about sex, fascism, and suicide, the most graphic and loving depiction of hara-kiri in Japanese literature, written by Japan's most notorious postwar writer, a gay bodybuilder and exhibitionist who disemboweled himself in precisely the same fashion as he described in his tale. With this child's garden of perversity, where to begin?

First of all, in the broader context of the samurai society from which Lieutenant Takeyama originates, his decision to commit suicide is not all that much out of place. It was an option exercised by two of the members of the failed 2/26 coup attempt: "When the rebellion collapsed on the 29th of February, two of the rebel ringleaders had claimed the ancient rite of suicide."(16) (This rite, of course, is a tradition in many military societies, not just the Japanese. Consider the Spartan dictum that you return with your shield or on it, or the Roman practice of falling on your sword or opening your veins in a warm bath in the face of defeat or disgrace. Modern armies leave a man alone in a locked room with a gun.)

However, Henry Scott Stokes captures a significant detail that escapes most critical readings of this story; Lieutenant Takeyama's method of seppuku is anything but traditional:

One other remarkable feature of the story is that Lieutenant Takeyama kills himself first, leaving Reiko to follow him in death afterward. She stabs herself in the throat with a knife, having firmly secured her skirts so that she shall not be found dead in an indecorous posture. The reason given for the husband taking precedence instead of the wife dying first, as would have been normal, is that "it was vital for the lieutenant, no matter whatever else might happen, that there should be no irregularity in his death." The point is not easy to follow. What is clear is that the officer wants to be watched as he performs hara-kiri. "Patriotism" emerges, from this detail alone, as a work by an abnormal man. (17)

After Mishima killed himself, his male lover severed his death

Mishima was a notorious exhibitionist. In some ways, his proclivity for posing and hunger for publicity fit very much into the mode of the American writer, a self-publicizing tradition that reaches back to Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, continuing to Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer in our own day. This tradition of the writer as media star is alien to Japanese culture, but Mishima learned quickly from the West.

A born actor: his irresistible and outrageous charm was legendary

Often Mishima's tendency to posture ran over into gay Camp, as in his notorious book of photographs, Ordeal by Roses, where as St. Sebastian he is tied to a tree with his arms over his head and phallic arrows protruding from all parts of his body. (18)

But in the end Mishima took exhibitionism to an extreme and felt compelled to die in a gory public spectacle. This extremism fits in well with Lieutenant Takeyama's peculiar need, as Stokes observes above, to be watched as he dies.

As a narrative, "Patriotism" gains much of its power from the inevitability of its outcome; we read the story breathlessly, knowing that the death of Lieutenant Takeyama and Reiko are foreordained, and we savor their every moment, knowing it is about to be their last. This heightened sense of intensity becomes almost unbearable in its poignancy, especially in the elaborate preparation the couple makes for their final bout of lovemaking: "'This is the last time I shall see your body,' said the lieutenant. 'Let me look at it closely.'.... The lieutenant, not without a touch of egocentricity, rejoiced that he would never see this beauty crumble in death." (19)

He didn't want to get old

And post-partum: “But already, from the dark boards of the ceiling, the face of death was peering down. These joys had been final, and their bodies would never know them again." (20)

There is also a decidedly creepy edge to this eroticism: "Gazing at the youthful, firm stomach, modestly covered by a vigorous growth of hair, Reiko thought of it as it was soon to be, cruelly cut by the sword, and she laid her head upon it, sobbing in pity, and bathed it with kisses." (21)

This morbid conjunction of sex and death is very familiar to Western readers. Death and the Maiden are a symbolic couple whose existence reaches well back into the Middle Ages, and in modern times, the pairing of Eros and Thanatos became a commonplace in Romantic literature. Leslie Fiedler writes at some length about the Freudian implications of the American fear of sex and the love of death and violence in his classic study Love and Death in the American Novel (1960).

Reading "Patriotism" and its macabre account of the doomed couple's last lovemaking bout, one is reminded of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe made a famous remark that no theme was more fraught with meaningful implications than the death of a beautiful woman; here the proximity of sex and death are made the most vivid. In "Patriotism," we see it in the heightened intensity of the couple's lovemaking before they commit ritual suicide together; procreation is joined to self-annihilation.

At first this seems like a Romantic conceit: the dying rose, etc. But in the context of the story, we can see that Mishima's treatment of this theme is not Romantic but Decadent. (He is not following Poe so much as Poe's French acolyte Baudelaire, whom Mishima greatly admired. In a letter dated November 2, 1948: "I hope to achieve a scientific accuracy, to become in the words of Baudelaire, both the condemned and the executioner [emphasis added].” (22) It is the nearness of blood that gives sex its savor to these two lovers. They are embracing not life but death.

Unfortunately, he wasn't: Mishima the movie star

Mishima dwells obsessively on their impending self-destruction, juxtaposing it with their physical vitality and passion. But in this pageant of martyrdom, this Kodo-ha Via Dolorosa, the goal is not worldly victory but self-immolation. In many ways this is in keeping with classical Christian and Buddhist concepts of martyrdom and self-sacrifice. It is not a pathological mode of behavior restricted to the Japanese; it is an attitude deeply rooted in medieval and pre-modern thought. The greater part of Christendom is based on this idea, the martyr on the cross, and the idea of self-negation dominates Buddhist philosophy. (One recalls the Saigon monks who immolated themselves to protest the Vietnam War in the early Sixties.)

In Totem and Taboo, Freud dubs this masochistic behavior. He contrasts the myth of Mithra slaying the Bull, where the Son kills the Father, with the Christian mythos of the Father slaying the Son on the Cross. As Nietzsche would say, Mithra was a religion of soldiers, of sadists, where Christianity was a religion of slaves, of people who are taught to absorb punishment because they have no other choice.

Sexually, Mishima was a notorious masochist. Concerning his death by seppuku, John Nathan has written: "A few, surprisingly few, whispered that Mishima was a masochist who might have enjoyed the pain." (23) Seen in this light, "Patriotism" can be interpreted as a masochist's self-justification. Lieutenant Takeyama and Reiko have to kill themselves (after making delicious love) because they have no other choice; it's not that they want to do it, they have to do it. All social forces are pushing them in this direction; the political situation in Japan, their own personal sense of honor, their bond for each other. Life is not an option for them—only a mutual ritual of blood where sex and death become one.

This is where self-hatred becomes an act of heroism. Pathological neurosis can be transmuted into political valor, spiritual victory, and social approval. Weakness becomes strength, and flesh becomes spirit. Just when the self is about to completely negated by outside events, the self can assert itself—but only through self-annihilation.

Mishima was holding up the behavior of the young couple in "Patriotism" as a role model of self-sacrifice for the rising generation of postwar Japanese youth. But the kamikaze ideal he was upholding had long been discredited. It was the apotheosis of a self-destructive society that blew its brains out in the Second World War and brought utter death and devastation to the Japanese people. More than that, the kamikaze ideal was a sham. First of all, the one-way plane ride was an economic necessity, not a moral choice; gasoline had become so scare that the Japanese air force no longer could provide fuel for a return trip. Secondly, most kamikazes were nominated by superior officers who held a grudge against them and wanted them to die; being selected for the kamikazes was the kiss of death, not a badge of honor. And thirdly, the kamikazes were given amphetamines before takeoff in order to give them as feeling of omnipotence and invulnerability. In other words, they didn't care about dying because they were high on speed. (24)

In "Patriotism," Mishima is offering suicidal self-sacrifice as a heroic example to others. Unfortunately, he cannot find anything for his characters to live for, only to die for. More tragically, in his own life he could not find meaning in living, only in dying. What is so heartbreaking about it is that obviously what we are seeing is a masochist's mea culpa; someone who hates himself radically is telling us that death is a triumph over life, when in fact what he is doing is screaming for help.

Mishima's masochism (and, some say, his homosexuality) clearly originated in his highly abnormal childhood. "On Kimitake's fiftieth day of life [Mishima's true name was Kimitake Hiraoka], Natsu [his aristocratic grandmother] took him away from his mother and moved him, crib and all, into her darkened sickroom downstairs. And there she held him prisoner until he was twelve, jealously, fiercely, hysterically guarding him against his parents and the outside world." (25)

In this sick, Gothic environment, half Grimm's fairy tale, half Suddenly Last Summer, Mishima grew up in a suffocating world of hysteria alternating with repression. He was obviously made the victim countless times of emotional abuse at the hands of his unstable grandmother, and since he was trapped, a prisoner, he grew to love the slavemaster. Out of this contradiction grew his self-hatred. Since birth Mishima became used to irrational punishment and intense emotional pain. Through masochism he could at least control the level, intensity, and delivery of the suffering that was being inflicted on him.

The Japanese national ethic of self-sacrifice—with its accompanying ritual of seppuku—was ready-made for his neuroses. Japan's history of political extremism provided him with a socially acceptable outlet for his urge toward self-abasement, self-sacrifice, and attacking those weaker than himself. As Nietzsche would say, he was a slave pretending to be a master.

In a very extreme form, Mishima was acting out the Japanese national neurosis, and "Patriotism" is its apotheosis. Artists are often compared to canaries in a coalmine; they're the sensitive barometers who pick up social crosscurrents in advance of the general population. Mishima was the last spiritual holdover of the medieval Old Japan, and "Patriotism" is his Tristan und Isolde.

The sensitive youth in high school during World War II

As Lieutenant Takeyama prepares for death, he experiences a soliloquy that has tremendous resonance in terms of Mishima's own death by seppuku:

But would that great country, with which he was prepared to remonstrate to the extent of destroying himself, take the slightest heed of his death? He did not know; and it did not matter. His was a battlefield without glory, a battlefield where none could display deeds of valor: it was the front line of the spirit. (26)

We can see here that Lieutenant Takeyama's suicide might not be so much a political protest as a personal one. He does not expect his hara-kiri to influence the Japanese body politic; he is doing it to please himself, to satisfy his own standards of personal honor. If the world ultimately will not please him, he will absent himself from the world. On the last day of Mishima's life, that feeling may well have been the motive that guided his sword.

A Marxist Interpretation

From a Marxist point of view, "Patriotism" is a great fascist work of art. It is written utterly without irony. As Western readers, we tend to scan this text hunting for some evidence of ambiguity or doubt, but no, there is none, and Mishima's public statements quoted above make it quite clear that he intended "Patriotism" to act as a crypto-fascist clarion call to Japanese youth. As an anti-democratic, anti-rational work of art, "Patriotism" is indeed shocking; for a modern, postwar Japanese writer to have executed such a narrative extolling the virtues of bushido and seppuku in 1960 is as disturbing as if, say, Gunter Grass or Thomas Mann penned a story after the Second World War nakedly glorifying Fuehrerprinzip and Nazi "blood consciousness," or for William Faulkner, after winning the Nobel Prize, to publish a tale in praise of lynching.

Marxist literary criticism argues that no work of art is born in a vacuum; it is the product of a clearly defined social, political, and economic environment. What forces shaped the 2/26 Rebellion and shaped Mishima as a writer?

Tojo's failed 1945 suicide attempt

In 1934 two Marxist economists, O. Tanin and E. Yohan, published a book entitled Militarism and Fascism in Japan that to this day is considered the definitive Marxist study of the subject. (27) In it they argue that a fascist military dictatorship was imposed on the Japanese people by the zaibatsu, who saw their power threatened by increasing democracy in Japan (universal manhood suffrage was introduced in 1925) and by the growing radicalism and "Westernization" of workers and students. The zaibatsu used the military as its cat’s-paw both at home and abroad. Overseas, the military carried out an imperialistic policy in order to secure fresh lebensraum, grab raw materials, and establish captive markets for Japanese goods. Domestically the military was used as a cocked pistol aimed at the head of the civilian leadership.

A Japanese political cartoon about 2/26: the military (the jackboot) crushing civilian control (the Diet Building)

Earlier in this essay, I mentioned the devastating impact the collapse of the world silk market had on the Japanese economy. Before the advent of Commodore Perry and the black ships, Japan had pointedly avoided contact with and dependence on the outside world. After American gunboat diplomacy proved this impossible, Japan was forced to link its economy with that of the imperialist West. But that meant that when the internal contradictions of the greedy West caused its own economy to explode in 1929, Japan, as a client state, was subjected to economic starvation as all outside funds were cut off. In response, Japanese nationalists vowed that never again would Japan be dragged down by its interrelationship with the rigged economy of the West, and the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere was born.

On February 26, 1936, the Kodo-ha was clearly responding to these external economic pressures. Through the idealistic Young Officers, the impoverished rural masses, driven to the point where they had to sell their daughters in order to pay the rent, were rising up against the zaibatsu and the insensitive national politicians. (28) The rebels' platform called for a socialist revolution. (This writer has seen a videotape of an amazing Japanese TV program made recently about 2/26 that features a secret Kempetai recording of phone conversations between Kita Ikki and the Young Officers, where it is clear that Kita Ikki was in touch with Richard Sorge, the notorious Soviet agent working undercover at the German embassy in Tokyo. It has even been suggested that Kita Ikki, knowingly or unknowingly, may have been acting as Sorge's agent in order to establish a Communist Japan with a puppet Emperor.)

But the Kodo-ha overplayed their hand, and they were outmatched. They were ill-prepared, they acted too hastily, they killed the wrong people, and worse, they lacked the broad-based institutional support that would have enabled the success of their coup d’état. They were crushed by the Tosei-ha, and the emperor had no choice but to move against them.

Tojo about to be hanged for war crimes in 1948

"Patriotism" is Mishima's ode to these fallen premature Octobrists and his attempt to elevate them to mythic stature. Lieutenant Takeyama chooses death rather than be forced to fire on the martyrs of 2/26 the following day. (One is reminded of E.M. Forster's dictum that better to betray one's nation than one's friend.) But what robs this story of its authentic emotional power is its extreme contrivance. Like Santiago the fisherman in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, these martyrs never think twice about trudging up the hill of Golgotha; they never experience their moment of doubt in the Garden of Gethsemane. The tradition of Greek tragedy demands that the hero become aware that he is a conscious party to his own destruction and that his choices have made him responsible for his own fate. But in totalitarian art such as Mishima's, the lemming has no choice but to plunge.

This is best exemplified in the unquestioning way in which Reiko agrees to join her husband in seppuku. One might think there might be a moment of fear or doubt, or even regret, on her part; after all, isn't it a tragedy that her beloved young husband has to die, much less herself? But Mishima portrays nothing but glassy-eyed determination; "If her husband did not return, her own decision was made: she too would die. Quietly she attended to the disposition of her personal possessions." (29) Even when her husband is sprawled out, disemboweled before her, Reiko shows no horror, no physical disgust, no terror. Only blind, idiotic joy:

In her husband's agonized face there had been something inexplicable which she had been seeing for the first time. Now she would solve that riddle. Reiko sensed that at least she too would be able to taste the true bitterness and sweetness of the great moral principle in which her husband believed. What had until now been tasted only faintly through her husband's example she was about to savor directly with her own tongue. (30)

"She gathered her strength and plunged the point of the blade deep into her throat." (30) This is Mishima's idea of a transcendentally happy ending. He has no idea that he has completed an ending fully as horrifying and anti-human as the conclusion of 1984 when Orwell describes Winston Smith's final defeat: "He loved Big Brother." Once more, the individual has been sacrificed on the altar of the State, and the individual is totally unaware that the sacrifice has been unnecessary.

Japan's crushing defeat in World War Two had a tremendous impact on its writers. It is instructive to observe the divergent paths Yukio Mishima and Kenzaburo Oe took in the postwar period. Mishima, a man of the Right, remained wedded to the past, and that self-destructive tradition destroyed him as surely as it annihilated Japan in 1945. Oe, a man of the Left, looked to the future and created a new mythos in his creative work as a means of ordering postwar experience.

As a Japanese intellectual, Mishima never recovered from the trauma of Japan's defeat, just as he never recovered from the trauma of his grandmother's captivity and abuse. In the end, he was unable to adapt his behavior to new circumstances; he just repeated the same old trope. Like many victims of abuse, he lacked the strength (or the imagination) to break the chain of obsessive-compulsive behavior, and rather than change it, he went back to the tried and true. Politically, the tried and true for him was fascism; emotionally, it was the ritual of sadomasochism. Tragically, both roads terminated in dead ends.

What makes "Patriotism" so heartbreaking is the sublime sensibility Mishima displays in the writing of it. On his way to the gallows, he constantly exposes an exquisite sensitivity to life and its joys. One reads it and thinks, If only this were not to memorialize a death trip. How this man could have described the electric pleasures of a languid afternoon spent under the cherry trees, or a cool night in the green mountains, if he chosen to, or had been capable of it.

What masterpieces this genius could have written had he chosen to live! He undoubtedly would have won the Nobel Prize (his life's ambition). His premature and tragic death was a terrible and heartbreaking waste.


1. John Nathan, Mishima: A Biography (New York: 1974), pages 198-201.

2. Yukio Mishima, "Patriotism," Death In Midsummer and Other Stories (New York: 1966), p. 93. All pages references are to the New Directions paperback edition.

3. This is not an exaggeration. Personal testimony on the behalf of Kodo-ha officers after the February 26 Revolt revealed this to be many soldiers' reasons for joining the revolution. See Revolt in Japan by Ben-Ami Shillony (Princeton: 1974), the only book-length study of the February 26 Incident in English, for details.

4. See George M. Wilson, Radical Nationalist in Japan: Kita Ikki, 1883-1937 (Cambridge: 1969) for a fascinating, detailed account of this little-known political theorist who at least in some part was responsible for World War II.

5. Courtney Browne, Tojo: The Last Banzai (New York: 1967), p. 59.

6. Ibid., p. 56.

7. Ibid.

8. Even more ironic: by attacking China, the Japanese fascists so weakened Chiang Kai-Shek, they insured the victory of the Communist revolutionary Mao Tse-Tung. Maybe not so ironic; Kita Ikki's ideal ruler was Ogotai Khan, and when one reads his description of the great Asian nationalist leader who will rid Asia of the white man and bring order to his people, one is reminded of no one so much as Mao Tse-Tung.

9. Quoted in Henry Scott Stokes, The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima (New York, 1974), p. 235.

10. Ibid., p. 237.

11. Nathan, op. cit., p. 183.

12. Nathan, pp. 183-4.

13. Nathan, 184.

14. Mishima, p. 93.

15. Nathan, p. 182.

16. Browne, op. cit., p. 57.

17. Stokes, op. cit., pp. 233-4.

18. Yukio Mishima and Eikoh Hosoe, Ordeal by Roses (Tokyo: 1985).

19. Mishima, "Patriotism," Death in Midsummer, p. 105.

20. Ibid, p. 108.

21. p. 107.

22. Nathan, p. 94.

23. Ibid., p. x.

24. “The first amphetamine epidemic occurred after World War II in Japan, when leftover supplies intended to counteract fatigue in pilots were made available to the general public. This even resulted in many cases of amphetamine psychosis. Of interest, both German and American troops used these preparations during World War II, as did Japanese kamikaze pilots.”: Michael Larson, Harvard University, “Amphetamine-Related Psychiatric Disorders,” http://www.emedicine.com/med/topic3114.htm.

25. Nathan., p.8.

26. Mishima, p. 104.

27. Militarism and Fascism in Japan (New York: 1934) was originally published by International Publishers, the publishing arm of the Communist Party, USA.

28. Contrary to popular myth, the Japanese masses have a long history of uprisings against authority, only their jaqueries are called ikkis. For an account of the famed eijiniaka ("I don't care!") movement that flared all over the country during the Meiji Restoration, see George M. Wilson, Patriots and Redeemers in Japan (Chicago: 1992).

29. Mishima, p. 96.

30. Ibid., pp. 117-8.

31. Ibid., p. 118.


Browne, Courtney. Tojo: The Last Banzai. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1967.

Mishima, Yukio. Death in Midsummer and Other Stories. New York: New Directions, 1966.

Nathan, John. Mishima: A Biography. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 1974.

Shillony, Ben-Ami. Revolt in Japan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Stokes, Henry Scott. The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974.

Tanin, O. and Yohan, E. Militarism and Fascism in Japan. New York: International Publishers, 1934.

Wilson, George M. Patriots and Redeemers in Japan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Wilson, George M. Radical Nationalist in Japan: Kita Ikki, 1883-1937. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969.

Appendix: The Attitude Toward Death In "Patriotism"

Mishima’s short story "Patriotism" has fascinated my imagination for decades, as the brief essay below shows. I originally wrote it in March 1974 while a freshman at Princeton for Prof. Karen Brazell’s class, “Ideas and Images in Japanese Culture.” Her wonderful multimedia class was in no small part responsible for my lifelong fascination with Japan and its amazing culture.

Right after I submitted this paper, Prof. Brazell won the National Book Award for translation for her translation of The Confessions of Lady Nijo, and for some strange reason, Princeton denied her tenure. But Princeton’s loss was Cornell’s gain, and she has gone on to become a leading authority on Japanese literature, especially in the field of theater.

My interest in Mishima continued unabated. After writing the essay above in 1995, in 2000, I proofread and copyedited my friend Hiroaki Sato's translation of My Friend Hitler and Other Plays by Yukio Mishima, which was published by Columbia University Press in 2002. Hiro is currently at work on a new biography of Mishima.

All page references are from Mishima’s short story collection, Death in Midsummer, published by New Directions (New York, 1966). The cover, reproduced below, is a polarized image of Mishima as the lieutenant disemboweling himself in his 1965 film adaptation of “Patriotism,” The Rite of Love and Death.

The Attitude Toward Death In "Patriotism"

In "Patriotism," both Reiko and the lieutenant know death is coming, and yet they do not fear it; they welcome it. Their attitude is embodied in the beginning of the story, where we are informed in straightforward, factual journalistic prose that they have committed suicide. Consequently, throughout the story, there is no suspense involved as to whether they will kill themselves or not; it is a foregone conclusion.

Since the husband is a soldier, according to the old Japanese samurai values, the couple lies in the shadow of death at every moment. On their wedding night, Reiko doesn't bother to answer her husband when he asks her if she will follow him into death should he die; she merely lays before him the suicide dagger her mother gave her as a wedding present.

When her husband rushes out after the revolt breaks out, "Quietly she attended to the disposition of her personal possessions" (page 96). On the following pages, she looks forward to "a welcome death.” After he returns home, when he wants her to commit seppuku after he does, she is overjoyed, because he trusts her to witness his death and then follow into death.

During the entire course of the story, they accept the fact that they are going to die by their own hand without hesitation. When Reiko is stacking dishes, "Her hands did not tremble. If anything, she managed even more efficiently and smoothly than usual” (p. 101). Before making love, they prepare their faces with great care for the next world. As the husband shaves, he considers his face in the mirror. "Just as it looked now, this would be his death face. Already, in fact, it had half departed from the lieutenant's possession and had become the bust above a dead soldier’s memorial” (p. 102)

Even while making love a last time—an act made all the more tender by its finality—they take in the practical considerations of their impending deaths. "When the lieutenant at last turned away, it was not from weariness. For one thing, he did not want to undermine the considerable strength he would need in carrying out his suicide" (p. 107).

When the lieutenant does commit seppuku, Mishima focuses on his desperate determination to carry out the gruesome act, a drive which even conquers the consuming shock of his death agony. And after he dies, Reiko is not swamped with horror. "…she saw before her only the joy of entering a realm her husband had already made his own. In her husband's agonized face there had been something inexplicable which she was seeing for the first time. Now she would solve that riddle" (p. 117). When she touches to her tongue the blade she is soon to end her life with, “The taste of the polished steel was slightly sweet" (p. 117) And as she is stabbing herself to death, “She gathered her strength and plunged the point of the blade deep into her throat” (p. 118).

What makes their attitude so striking is the way they accept death so totally as a part of life. As far as the story shows, the basis of their fundamental belief is that they are prepared to take their lives with their own hands, without flinching, for an ideal—for the Thirties Japanese fascist ideal of “patriotism,” which in this case was equivalent to violent and wasteful self-sacrifice on the altar of the nation-state.


Anonymous said...

Thorough post, but you write like you have some sort of bias towards Mishima.

Whether he is right or wrong (and you seem to be leaning towards a wrong even existing) I can only hope to one day believe in something so utterly that it literally consumes my life.

If just a fraction of the American population held such an intense dedication as Shinji and Reiko... Not to any political body, but to anything at all.

Anonymous said...

I'm marxist but I think Mishima was one of the last heroes of the 20th century. I have a different vision, I don't think he exalted fascism or holocaust or the war in China. I see him as a romantic who looks to his past with disillusion.
Not a violent or a blind idiot. He followed the Nietzsche idea of will of power, I can't reduce him as a masochist omosexual.

Avey said...

Interesting and thorough essay on the the possible mind set of a literary genius who fell into extremism.

Osaru said...

well written, i like how you broke it down, very well referenced as well

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Sam said...

Fascinating post about Mishima, the historical context of the story, and the Marxist take on "Patriotism." I wonder where I could find Oe on Mishima? In any case thanks for this; utterly absorbing....

AC said...

憂國, un film sublime, à voir et à revoir...