Patriotism (Yukoku) by Mishima Yukio, 1966

views updated

by Mishima Yukio, 1966

Mishima Yukio committed ritual suicide, or seppuku, on 25 November 1970 in an attempt to restore Japan to what he saw as its history and tradition. As late as 1960 Mishima had described himself as a nihilist, but the beginnings of his nationalism and emperor worship may be traced back to stories like "Patriotism" ("Yukoku"), written in the same year and inspired by the army rebellion of 1936.

On the morning of 26 February 1936, 21 young officers in the Japanese Imperial Army attempted to overthrow a government that they considered traitorous. The rebels meant to restore the emperor to supreme command of the armed forces, and they executed three of his ministers in their homes. Refusing the advice of his counselors, Emperor Hirohito himself declared the officers "mutineers" and refused to issue an imperial command demanding that they die in his name. They were executed by their fellow officers on 28 February. "Patriotism" concerns itself with events of this same day. In the story Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama discovers that his colleagues were among the insurgents, and he realizes that he will be unable to join the attack against them. He has been kept from the conspiracy because he is newly married. He decides to disembowel himself in the traditional samurai manner, and his wife Reiko decides to die with him—she stabs herself in the neck with a dagger.

The patriotic impulse that the story describes is more than a love for one's country. For Mishima it becomes a religious devotion to the ideals of the Japanese spirit that transcend particular national circumstances. The story reinforces the insulation from society and never moves beyond the walls of the young couple's house: "this house rose like a solitary island in the ocean of a society going as restlessly about its business as ever." The lieutenant recognizes that what is at stake is his individual integrity, and it is his dedication to his personal moral ideals rather than a political interest that makes his decision necessary: "His was a battlefield without glory, a battlefield where none could display deeds of valor: it was the frontline of the spirit." Reiko's devotion to her husband involves her in his commitment, and the couple finds themselves "encased in the impenetrable armor of Beauty and Truth."

A detailed description of the couple's last night together blurs the boundaries between erotic desire and death. Their suicide pact stirs sexual desire in both husband and wife. The lieutenant experiences a "healthy physical craving," and Reiko's senses are "reawakened" in every corner of her body. As the lieutenant waits for Reiko in the bedroom, he asks himself, "Was it death he was now waiting for? Or a wild ecstasy of the senses?" While they make love, they are constantly aware of death's presence, and the descriptions of their actions foreshadow their end. Reiko's throat "reddened" beneath the lieutenant's kisses, and the lieutenant's face "rubbed painfully" against Reiko's breast, "digging into her flesh." Death offers the couple a superior consummation, and their awareness of the "the last time" serves to heighten their physical sensitivity: "Not that joy of this intensity—and the same thought had occurred to them both—was ever likely to be re-experienced, even if they should live on to old age." Separation seems impossible during sex, but it is only through death that Reiko can truly enter "a realm her husband had made his own." The anticipation of death fuels erotic desire, until they become what the lieutenant describes as "two parts of the same thing."

By the final section of story only Reiko remains. She serves as her husband's witness and feels separated from him by his pain. Throughout the story she is described as "following" her husband, and her obedience is repeatedly emphasized: "Ever since her marriage her husband's existence had been her own existence, and every breath of his had been a breath drawn by herself." The lieutenant is repeatedly described as the sun, "about which her whole world revolved." She is troubled by the disposition of her small china collection, but the small animals looking "lost and forlorn" are overshadowed by "the great sunlike principle that her husband embodied." But it is in Reiko that the lieutenant finds his strength and determination, and her "heroic resolve" is repeatedly emphasized. By the end of the story, through her dedication to her husband, Reiko is able to become his spiritual equal. She releases the bolt on the door, which initially prevents her reunion with her husband, and moves beyond her obedience to a transcendent ideal:

Reiko sensed that at last she too would be able to taste the true bitterness and sweetness of that 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.

In the story the physical reality of seppuku serves as a direct contrast to the purity of the couple's mental determination. A trail of blood "scattered everywhere" and a "raw smell" prompt the narrator to remark, "It would be difficult to imagine a more heroic sight." The detailed graphic description of the lieutenant's disembowelment causes the reader as well as the lieutenant to ask, "Was this seppuku?" The gulf between spiritual devotion and body that Mishima explored throughout his work and life is emphasized in "Patriotism."

—Mary U. Yankalunas