Yukio Mishima: Thymos between Aesthetics and Ideological Fanaticism

Article excerpt

Abstract: This study attempts to explore the possible motivations, both obvious and problematic, behind the ritual suicide (seppuku) committed by the Japanese writer in the name of the Emperor at the Eastern Headquarters of Japan's Self-Defense Forces in 1970. History does not seem to be a coherent or intelligible process, as man's struggle for nourishment is most often replaced by thymos, the desire for others to recognize his value or the value system of the ideals or noble purposes he is ready to sacrifice for, ignoring the basic instinct of self-conservation. Yukio Mishima was extremely pessimistic about pragmatic and materialistic contemporary Japan. History brought along increasing consumerism, thus disturbing the harmony of traditional Japanese spirituality. The technological ability to improve human existence seemed to alter inevitably the moral evolution of contemporary Japanese. Against this background of ruling "costs" and "benefits", the Japanese writer seems to believe that it is only the thymotic man, the "man of anger", who can fight for the recognition and salvation of the Japanese soul (yamato damashii). Believed for centuries to be the true art of dying, Yukio Mishima's seppuku turned from a "beautiful" gesture into one of protest and accusation: the Japanese society had begun the transition from a closed society to an open one, governed by anxiety, in which individuals faced personal decisions.

Keywords: thymos (desire for recognition), seppuku (ritual suicide), aesthetics, ideology, bushido (the samurai code)

"Dress my body in a Shield Society uniform, give me white gloves and a soldier's sword in my hand, and then do me the favor of taking a photograph. My family may object, but I want evidence that I died not as a literary man but as a warrior."

Yukio Mishima, Letter to Kanemaro Izawa, 24.11.1970

Yukio Mishima - the last samurai

On 25 November 1970, the Japanese television broadcast live from the Eastern Headquarters of the Self-Defense Forces the death by seppuku of the writer Yukio Mishima. The entire world bore witness to a terrible and imprevisible drama. Through his ritual suicide, Yukio Mishima's destiny became History. The personal biography of the author of the famous novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion became for a moment one with the history of contemporary Japan, to which he had just brought the supreme sacrifice.

"We see Japan reveling in prosperity and wallowing in spiritual emptiness... We shall give it back its image and die in doing so. Is it possible that you value life, given a world where the spirit is dead?... The army protects the very treaty [between Japan and the USA] which denies its right to exist... On October 21, 1969, the army should have taken power and demanded the revision of the constitution... Our fundamental Japanese values are threatened. The Emperor no longer has his rightful place in Japan..." 1

These were the words of the Japanese writer to the 800 troops gathered before him that morning, as he tried to explain his having taken the General Commander-in-Chief hostage - a testamentary public speech for the soldiers and the mass-media he had called to witness this event he had meticulously prepared for the past year. He probably believed that these last words, which indirectly spoke of humility, hatred and solitude, could become topics of debate for his contemporaries.

However, through an irony of fate and without necessarily realizing it, the Japanese writer changed the notion of ritual suicide by seppuku: the samurai no longer died within his shell of silk and steel, but openly exposed himself to a public death. It had been seen for centuries as the true art of dying, but Yukio Mishima's seppuku or ritual death could no longer be appreciated as a mere beautiful gesture. It proved to be the path to death that an intellectual had searched for his entire life and inevitably adapted to the time he lived in. …