Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 376

Yukio Mishima's Patriotism (published in 1961, and translated to English in 1966) tells the story of a Japanese couple during the incident of February 26, 1936, during which a group of young officers in the Japanese army revolted against another army faction (represented by more privileged officers). The rebel's coup...

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Yukio Mishima's Patriotism (published in 1961, and translated to English in 1966) tells the story of a Japanese couple during the incident of February 26, 1936, during which a group of young officers in the Japanese army revolted against another army faction (represented by more privileged officers). The rebel's coup d'etat ultimately failed as a result of increased opposition and overwhelmed numbers in the Imperial Japanese Army.

Mishima's short story details just a single vignette amid this turmoil. Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama is a young officer whose close colleagues were among the rebels, against whom he couldn't bear to fight. Instead, the lieutenant prefers a ritual suicide—an act which his wife heroically follows. He announces his suicide to her, and she requites to join him in the act. Their last moments together and suicide are described in vivid detail.

One major theme is seppuku. This is a performative ritual suicide (which involves incising the abdomen, sometimes in ritual attire), traditionally practiced by defeated samurai, but later practiced by laypeople in Japan. This act was outlawed in 1873, though many (especially in the tumultuous decade of the 1930s) continued to practice it. Perhaps one of Mishima's aims in publishing the story was to highlight and romanticize a forbidden tradition that, in practice, refused to die. The author Mishima himself publicly committed suicide after failing to inspire a coup among the Japan Self-Defense Forces.

Another theme is that of love. Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama and his wife, Reiko, are the epitome of a committed couple. In a description of a photograph of the couple, Mishima explains that, "After the suicide, people would take out this photograph and examine it, and sadly reflect that too often there was a curse on these seemingly flawless unions."

At the time of the lieutenant's decision to commit suicide, Reiko has been his wife for less than a year, and yet she unwaveringly and immediately resolves to join him. Elsewhere, Mishima explains that "a woman who had become the wife of a soldier should know and resolutely accept that her husband’s death might come at any moment." Mishima's attitude toward love is a very traditional but romantic one; men and women who were truly in love were understood to be joined in death as readily as in life.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 560

Yukio Mishima was a writer who became obsessed by what he saw as the loss of Japanese traditional values, although he led a cosmopolitan and bizarre life. He used his writing success to fund a small private army, the Shield Society, to fight against Communism and support a prewar vision of the emperor as the soul of the Japanese nation. However, he was also an exhibitionist inspired by violence and homosexuality. Sexuality and violence are combined in “Patriotism,” in retrospect perhaps the most revealing of Mishima’s works, because the author, like his protagonist Takeyama, committed seppuku.

On November 25, 1970, Mishima led a band of his private army to the headquarters of the Japanese Self Defense Forces, where he told the troops to show the “samurai spirit” to protect the “Imperial Way.” These prewar sentiments were derided by the soldiers, who saw Mishima as a crackpot. Mishima then showed his sincerity by withdrawing from the balcony on which he was speaking and disemboweling himself. The nation was shocked at this spectacular and strange death of one of Japan’s most popular writers. It is difficult to consider his writing without reference to his suicide.

In “Patriotism,” written more than a decade earlier, one can see an early sign of Mishima’s linking sex and death, or ecstasy and agony, in his version of the Takeyama suicide. The theme of this very tight story—the focus is on the suicide—is the honor and dedication of the lieutenant and his young and beautiful wife. They transcend the life-preserving spirit of most people to find peace in death. Their dedication to the nation and to the emperor is unsullied by selfishness: “The last moments of this heroic and dedicated couple were such as to make the gods themselves weep.”

Mishima wanted to restore what in his personal vision were the traditional values of Japan, values that were deeper than the materialism of the 1960’s. Many contemporary Japanese intellectuals worry that Japan’s rush to economic success has left behind any real values other than an increasing gross national product and electronic gadgets. Like Mishima, some seek answers in Japan’s military past, while others look to religion to restore a sense of values that transcend materialism.

Suicide is a sin in the Christian view, and the Western reader is likely to be repelled by the act if not by the motives of Takeyama and his wife. In Japan, however, there is a long tradition of the “failed hero,” to quote Ivan Morris, in which admiration is given to the loser in a failed but just cause. In the feudal period, the losing hero could redeem himself by committing deliberately painful seppuku to show, quite literally, that he had guts. In Takeyama’s case, he was ready to die rather than attack his comrades in revolt, who were supposedly acting in the name of the emperor, the nation, and the army.

Another theme is doing things in the proper way, even suicide. This becomes very clear as the couple prepare their bodies, home, clothes, and suicide notes in a ritualistic manner. The only new element that Mishima introduces into this tradition is the strong eroticism that describes the bodies and passion of Takeyama and his beautiful wife. Beauty and truth are seen as one, and pleasure and pain are integrated in this disturbing story.

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