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Mishima : The Samurai ethic and modern Japan

Author Theme Reads

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Edited: Dec 22, 2012, 11:23am Top

I finished reading The Samurai ethic and modern Japan by Mishima on October 31, but haven't time to write a review.

Dec 10, 2012, 2:01pm Top

Whenever you end up writing that review, or even if you just post your thoughts in an unpolished manner, I'd be interested to see it. Since I'm currently reading Musashi I'm learning a lot about the period in time of Japan where the major wars had just ended and samurai are without work.

Dec 22, 2012, 11:22am Top

130. The Samurai ethic and modern Japan
Finished reading: 31 October 2012

In 1970, Yukio Mishima committed ritual suicide after a failed coup. The intentions of the coup, and Mishima's political views at the time, are hard to understand to Western readers, who have interpreted Mishima's actions as those of an irrational madman.

The Samurai ethic and modern Japan bring together four, rather disjointed essays or collections of notes, which may provide a cultural or philosophical underpinning for Mishima's ideas in the years leading to his death.

The book has the subtitle "Yukio Mishima on Hagakure. Hagakure refers to a compilation of commentaries published in Japan in the early Eighteenth Century as The Book of the Samurai. It seems that this book is predominantly associated with the warrior code, known as "Bushidō" or "the way of the warrior" with special emphasis on the warrior's readiness to die.

The meme of willingness to follow a lord in death originates in China, and was also found in the earliest annals of Japanese culture. The ancient tradition of xunsi (殉死) following a lord into the grave was outlawed in Japan as early as the Seventh Century BCE, but retained its fascination.

However, this "warrior code" must be seen in a much broader context of a practical and moral guide of the samurai. Over the centuries the class of samurai developed into a veritable form of aristocracy, and the Hagakure came to encompass a must broader life philosophy, similar to The Book of the Courtier.

The Samurai ethic and modern Japan are not a translation of the Hagakure, which is described as a much larger work in eleven volumes (p. 36). The four "essays" of very unequal length and scope, one of which merely indicated as an appendix, consists of notes which Mishima made for several undisclosed occasions. There is a lot of overlap between the four sections of the book, some repeating observations or ideas in exactly the same words. Rather than a volume of essays on Hagakure, the book should be seen as a scrapbook.

Yukio Mishima was a very well-read author, very well-versed in Western literature, as well. The scrap book forms a testimony to his long dedication to understand and apply the moral principles of the samurai code to his own life, to shape his life as that of a Japanese traditional gentleman. The code stresses dignity, appropriacy and honor. There are many references to links with Western culture, such as epicureanism, hedonism and nihilism. There are aphorisms and sections prescribing proper conduct with other people and on a variety of occasions. There are also many references to Chinese and Japanese culture, and references to other works interpreting Japanese culture, such as The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.

The Samurai ethic and modern Japan only contains Yukio Mishima's reflections on the Hagakure Analects, but offer no interpretations. Thus, while the book apparently tells the reader a lot about Japanese culture, by the end of the book one is no wiser as to Mishima's motives, or how elements of the books connect with episodes in his life and work.

The Samurai ethic and modern Japan seems mainly very interesting to the reader who is seeking to understand the Japanese Mind in general.

Other books I have read by Yukio Mishima:
The sailor who fell from grace with the sea

Jan 2, 2013, 4:31pm Top

A very nice review of this book. You make it sound quite interesting. I have Mishima's Sun and Steel which I wonder if it might not be that final insight on Mishima's motives as you mentioned lacks in the book you read.

Jan 2, 2013, 10:29pm Top

> I will definitely read more of Mishima and other Japanese authors.

A year ago, I was very ambivalent about Japanese literature, and you might say I avoided it, rejecting it a priori on the grounds that you cannot read everything.

I had a vague interest in Japan, as it is so close to China, but I had only read The sailor who fell from grace with the sea.

I have only been a lurker, observing the discussions about Japanese literature this year, and more or less unconsciously bought 1Q84, and read that at the beginning of last year.

Reading that, and reading all reviews here, I was struck by how modern Japanese literature is, and how well Japanese authors have picked up Western ideas and blended them with their cultural background.

There is no comparison with Chinese literature. The Chinese talk extremely much about "reform-and-opening up" but they only want to limit that to economic reform, while mentally they are firmly entrenched in feudalism, and one sometimes wonders whether or not they want to get out of that. The Chinese have a great fear that modernization means Westernization, and most are opposed to the latter.

I started buying more Japanese literature, my colleague donated his whole collection of Murakami (no joke, it's a half-metre pile of 16 novels), and I got started with Forbidden colours and The temple of dawn.

Yesterday, while writing up the review for Forbidden colours, I realized even more how deeply Mishima is influenced by Western philosophy, in particular Greek aesthetics.

I will continue reading Mishima, and Sun and Steel seems essential reading in understanding him.

Jan 2, 2013, 10:46pm Top

I'm happy to read that your interest in Japanese literature has changed for the better (better isn't the exact term I wanted to use but couldn't think of a better word). It's why I wanted to do a year long author theme read focused on Japan. There is just too much glorious literature from that country that really shouldn't be overlooked.

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