31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 11: “Patriotism” by Yukio Mishima; Geoffrey W. Sargent, trans.

May 11, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Death in Midsummer and Other Stories

Death_In_Midsummer_MishimaOn February 26, 1936, a group of young radicals in the Japanese army attempted a coup that resulted in the murders of several senior political officers. According to G. Ralph Falconeri, writing in The Journal of Asian Studies, the purpose of the coup was to eliminate what the rebels saw as corruption at the top of the Japanese political structure and to “place reformist generals in power to solve the empire’s political, economic, and diplomatic dilemmas.” Though the plot was quickly put down, and the perpetrators executed, the incident had lasting effects on Japanese society, the most immediate of them being a push toward increased militarization and entry into the Second World War.

Yukio Mishima, once considered Japan’s premier modern writer and a candidate for the Nobel Prize, uses the February 26 Incident as the springboard for his story “Patriotism,” about Shinji Takeyama, a lieutenant in the Imperial army so “profoundly disturbed” by the actions of his military colleagues that he decides to make a public display of his dissociation with them by committing seppuku – ritual disembowelment that has its origins in the feudal society of the samurais. In a show of loyalty, the lieutenant’s wife, Reiko, agrees to act as his witness, following which she too will commit seppuku.

Mishima’s story is an exercise in artistic control. From the opening paragraph, readers know what is going to happen and why: the story is narrated retrospectively, opening with a factual description of the lieutenant’s feeling of betrayal by his fellow soldiers and his decision to commit suicide along with his wife. We are given the content of the lieutenant’s suicide note (which reads, in its entirety, “Long live the Imperial Forces”), and told that it has been fewer than six months since he married his wife.

The rest of the story flashes back, first, briefly, to the couple’s wedding, full of promise and purity, then to the final night of their lives, which is described in careful, studied detail. The dutiful wife runs a bath for her husband, warms some sake (he refuses dinner), following which the two make love for the last time.

Though the scene detailing the couple in bed together is in no way pornographic – indeed, Mishima makes a point of turning away at the crucial moment – it is nevertheless highly erotic, made all the more so by the knowledge, on the part of both characters and the reader, of the couple’s imminent deaths. The care they take in their interaction, the way they run their hands over each other’s bodies, as if trying to map every minute curve and crevice, is at once sensual and heartbreaking. There is a true sense of connection here – a connection that will soon be severed by a razor-sharp blade.

The seppuku, when it arrives, is every bit as graphic as the previous scene was restrained. Lasting approximately four pages, the lieutenant’s suicide is hideously violent and frankly difficult to read. It unfolds slowly – as the act of seppuku itself does. (One reason the method of suicide was considered honorable was the time it takes to commit; the difficulty in making the requisite cuts, and the extreme pain involved, was thought to highlight the practitioner’s loyalty and dignity.)

One paragraph will suffice to indicate Mishima’s approach here:

Was this seppuku? – he was thinking. It was a sensation of utter chaos, as if the sky had fallen on his head and the world was reeling drunkenly. His will power and courage, which had seemed so robust before he made the incision, had now dwindled to something like a single hairlike thread of steel, and he was assailed by the uneasy feeling that he must advance along this thread, clinging to it with desperation. His clenched fist had grown moist. Looking down, he saw that both his hand and the cloth about the blade were drenched in blood. His loincloth too was dyed a deep red. It struck him as incredible that, amidst this terrible agony, things which could be seen could still be seen, and existing things existed still.

The juxtaposition between this passage – replete with violence and gore – and the idyllic scene of the couple’s marriage day is startling and effective. It is also typical of an author who, as a post on The Asia Collection makes clear, was “a mass of contradictions: weak versus strong, masculine versus feminine, physical versus intellectual, eroticism versus estheticism, elegance versus brutality, beauty versus ugliness, purity versus pollution, East versus West, and finally, the notion of ‘brave hara-kiri’ versus ‘defeatist suicide.'”

Indeed, the notion of “brave hara-kiri” has strong resonance in the author’s own life, and provides a disturbing real-world connection to the events detailed in “Patriotism.” In 1970, the author himself led a ragtag militia in storming the headquarters of the Japanese military. After delivering a rambling speech to more than 1,000 massed troops, Mishima himself committed suicide by seppuku. An article in the Guardian on the thirtieth anniversary of the writer’s death indicates that although Mishima was dismissed as a “crackpot” at the time, his political ideas have gained traction with particular factions in Japan in the years since his death.

“Right-wing politicians distanced themselves from Mishima after his suicide by saying it was the act of a madman, but in certain nationalist circles he is held up as a god,” said Henry Scott-Stokes, the author of a biography of Mishima. “He showed sincerity in a way that cannot be denied. He stuck a knife into the heart of today’s Japan.”

The word “sincerity” is significant: it is the word that is inscribed on a scroll, created by an army lieutenant general, that hangs on the wall of the room in which the lieutenant and his wife take their lives: “Even if it were to become stained with splashes of blood,” Mishima writes, “they felt that the lieutenant general would understand.” Certainly, Mishima the author never questions the sincerity of his character, nor his nobility. “It would be difficult to imagine a more heroic sight than the lieutenant at this moment,” the author writes, having just described the horrific scene of the military man’s intestines spilling out into his lap.

Mishima’s own death was a terrible instance of life imitating art, and continues to provoke disturbing questions about the often subtle distinctions between patriotism, heroism, and madness.