Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
December 3, 1970, Vol. XV, No. 49
A memory of Mishima
By Faubion Bowers
I knew Mishima Yukio very well. Now, so does the whole world, not so much for his books which are marvelous and multitudinous in their variegation, but because on November 25 he walked into the Self-Defense Agency — an American-imposed euphemism for “War Office” — and harangued the officers and infantrymen, vainly, then stuck a samurai sword in his stomach and instantly a lieutenant in Mishima’s own private army sliced off his head in a coup de grace. Mishima and his followers were dressed in uniform in the brown, shoulder-broadening concoctions of Mishima’s devising, and which always reminded me of nothing so much as the costumes Nixon wanted for his private, ceremonial guard.
Mishima first caught the eye of the faggot contingent of the Occupation of Japan in 1945. He was only 20, then quite good-looking (no goggle eyes, no buck teeth, and none of that ah so crap), spoke a sort of English, was tall then for a Japanese (now he would be taken for small again, since the average height for Japanese men has gone up a phenomenal four inches in a quarter of a century), and he had hair on his chest (and this too, then, was most unusual and a matter of much banter and display among the whites of the Occupation and their brown-skinned brother, Mishima).
Already, his first book had electrified Japan and trickles of it were being translated, laboriously, by those early pioneer translators whose Japanese was god-awful but who had excellent “sleeping dictionaries” and living ponies among Japanese youth. This autobiographical memoir which passed as a novel, “Confessions of a Mask,” as I remember, was all about going to a boy’s school, the Peers’ School as a matter of fact (Mishima was well-born, rich, and Mishima wasn’t his name), and the ich of the roman being terribly fascinated by the boy with the most hair under his arms. I’ve made it sound silly, but it wasn’t at all. In fact, it is a beautiful tale. I was even wilder about his second novel (to appear in English), “The Sound of Waves.” This was straight heterosexual, and the scene where two innocents make love in a seaweed vat was — and here I’ve gone and made that sound silly, too — really, as the cliche goes, “unforgettable.”
Early Wednesday morning (Japan’s Thursdays are our Wednesdays because of the dateline) the Japanese newspaper Tokyo Shimbun telephoned me for a comment on Mishima’s “bizarre suicide,” and the reporter sketched in the details how Mishima shouted at one of the Self-Defense generals that the Constitution is shit (kudos) and must be revised, tossed out in fact, so that Japan can do legally what she already is doing, that is re-arming. Then the Smithsonian called to ask permission to xerox a letter Mishima had written to me once (what it was doing there I don’t know) in which he recites a charming old-fashioned poem about, as I recall, a warrior in a festival flower hat instead of battlefield helmet. In that letter Mishima also thanked me for a review I had given him in the New York Times, and spoke of his translator as having “robbed his very soul.” This was his way of generously giving credit to the various people whose English had made his works successful and his name famous.
But make no mistake, Mishima was not one of those writers who sound better in translation (like Shakespeare in German or Oscar Wilde in French). He wrote a staggeringly complex, orthodox Japanese fraught Fuji-no-yama high with learning, research, and its effect on the Japanese was, to say the least, thrilling. Mishima was fantastically admired in his own country, and Japanese often asked me how, when Mishima was so quintessentially Japanese, could he be translated with such success. The answer was simply that Mishima was a genius. Since his written Japanese was totally beyond my powers, I simply took on faith what I am told by those in authority. One translator described a page-long sentence of Mishima’s which was so involuted and periphrastic that it was not only untranslatable but meaningless. He wrote Mishima about it and, surprisingly, the author could account for every word and there was at the center of it, like life resident in the heart of a grain, meaning…
Mishima gradually became something of a professional Japanese. Kabuki was “in,” because it was so heroically of the past. And he told me of his one-night stand with a Kabuki actor as being most unsatisfactory, because “it was like sleeping with a woman.” He continued his cult of the body, but it turned into Japanese martial arts instead of foreign style barbells and weights as it had begun. He published a book of self pictures, as well as other handsome youths, and called it “Young Samurai” or “Golden Samurai,” I forget which. Already you could see Mishima’s body sagging, and it must have been hard for him to grow old and lose his looks. He insisted on that crew cut of his, and fancied a hachimaki (head cloth) which, actually, is designed to keep long hair out of your eyes. He was in everything authentic, but clearly something was wrong. That genius inside him kept converting itself into gold, but where did the counterfeiting begin?
One night Mishima flew over to America just for sex. He came up and had dinner with me and described quite bluntly what he wanted and asked could I steer him to the right place. I should have been the hospitable hose and taken him on a tour of the gay bars downtown, but I didn’t, and didn’t want to, and really didn’t feel qualified. Maybe I was flat broke or something of the sort. At any rate I took him around the neighborhood, introduced him to anyone we ran into, straight, gay, or in-between. But it was one of those nights. Nothing happened. Nobody around here was interested in “Japan’s greatest novelist.” Even his meticulously expensive suit and tie didn’t impress anyone. Finally, I put him in a taxi and I felt both stupid and remiss that I hadn’t helped a friend in need. His need for a white man that night was very great, and his specifications were detailed. Afterward, it flashed into my mind that Mishima was impotent.
The same thought came to me again when I heard of the semiharakiri with the sword and the swift decapitation before any suffering. And what about that shout for the father figure Emperor? Mishima knew perfectly well that “Tenno haiku banzai” leads nowhere but to respect and national unity. But he is right that the Constitution (written by Americans) should be junked.
…For me personally, it is impossible to come to terms with the man I knew and loved in a way, to a limited extent. One time we both had articles in an issue of Holiday and the magazine arranged for us to be on the same lecture platform in San Francisco. There had been some divine foul-up and the audience was restless and had been kept waiting for a hour or so. Mishima, however, undaunted, read through his long, thorough, documented treatise. I don’t remember what it was about (maybe that grotesque and beautiful article — never a word was wasted or not printed). When my turn came, the audience was limp. For one thing, Mishima when reading out loud was almost incomprehensible. I spoke for a few seconds and sat down and the audience raced home.
Later that night Mishima went on the prowl, and in San Francisco he found exactly what he wanted…or so he told me next day as I saw him off to Japan at the airport.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]