Mishima’s death provides an excellent and salutary occasion to look at two important phenomena: the nature of Zen culture in Japan, and the condition of the Japanese army.
Mishima was one of the main vectors of Zen culture to the West, and to the American beatniks primarily: through books like The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (probably his most widely read work in the West), he was influential on a whole generation of writers, headed by Kerouac. Since Kerouac ended up supporting Ronald Reagan and Goldwater, and Mishima died urging the Japanese army to greater violence and aggression, the connection deserves scrutiny.
It is rarely stressed in mystified Western writing on Japan that Zen was introduced from China as an essentially aristocratic and militaristic culture—in the late 12th century: ‘Because of the powerful hold which it has held over the military classes of Japan, Zen is the form of Buddhism which has most affected Japanese ultra-nationalist philosophy. It is implicit in many of the concepts of self-denial and sacrifice for the Imperial Family which are basic to the theme of Kokutai no Hongi.’footnote1 Zen Buddhism has always appealed to the Japanese warrior class, and its centre was at Kamakura, the military capital, at the height of the period of the feudal wars. Zen, although a derivative of the original Buddhist
Zen ‘culture’ was focused on a series of activities whose common characteristic is that they all involved a great deal of time—so much time that anyone who was working could not possibly indulge in them: they were confined to aristocrat warriors and monks. These were the various ‘ways’ (viz. to enlightenment), recognizable by the suffix do, as in aikido, judo, kendo, bushido, etc. All of these, from archery to karate, involved colossal expenditure of time, plus meditation—in other words demanded that the person not be working. As in all such cases, of course, this was not made explicit in its exclusive class form, but this is indeed how things stood.
With the upheavals in Japan in the middle of the last century, Zen, along with other cultural trends, was for a time thrown into a major crisis. At the time of the Meiji Restoration many of the most oppressive cultural institutions were swept away—and many of these were only reinstated by the new bourgeoisie, striving to forge an alliance with the aristocracy at the ‘cultural’ level. Thus it was that both the tea ceremony and No, which had become virtually extinct, were resuscitated by the new bourgeoisie—the tea ceremony being ‘re-vitalized’ by an elite clique of 16 businessmen, the Wakeikai, or Harmonious Respect Society (who disguised themselves as Buddhist monks). Kendo (the way of the sword) almost died out, and was only kept alive by a small group in the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Board. The absence of a bourgeois ideology led the bourgeoisie to latch on to aristocratic ideology during the stages of class imbrication. The founder of the Mitsui industrial combine, Nakagumigawa, called for a ‘bushido of the chonin’ (a ‘way of the sword of the bourgeoisie’), just as Shibusawa Eiichi, a peasant who became a leading Meiji banker, pronounced that ‘the spirit of a modern businessman should be Bushido.’
Western studies of Japan have, on the whole, failed to disentangle this complicated mixture—just as the Meiji ruling class failed to extricate Shinto from Buddhism. Mishima, more than any other figure in modern Japan, represented the contradictions of the specifically cultural legacy: a certain sensitivity, openness to modern and foreign ideas, combined with the militaristic repressiveness and violence of Zen. This repressiveness also emerges clearly in Zen’s incredibly pernicious influence on Japanese psychology, where the mondo (brief, authoritarian dialogue between master and disciple) has spawned a whole school of disturbing pseudo-psychiatry.footnote2 And the main purveyor of Zen culture to the West, Suzuki Daisetsu, was one of the members of premier Yoshida’s Education Council, set up in 1950 to prepare the reactionary rollback in education, presided over by Minister of Education, Amano Teiyu, who produced a ‘Code of National Conduct’ designed to help dragoon the
However, all this does not suffice to explain the immediate act by Mishima. The first point to stress about this is that Mishima was aiming at a very real contradiction: the contradiction between appearance (official lies) and reality in Japanese military affairs. The comparison with the 1930’s is really wrong. At that time the army was strong, and was seen to be strong.