Swaddling Clothes

by Yukio Mishima

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Last Updated March 18, 2024.

Introduction 

Yukio Mishima is the pen name of the Japanese writer Kimitake Hiraoka, considered one of Japan’s most essential and controversial writers of the twentieth century. He was born on January 14, 1925, in Tokyo. Following World War II, Mishima studied law at the University of Tokyo and worked for Japan’s Ministry of Finance. In 1949, after the publication and success of his first novel, Confessions of a Mask, Mishima devoted himself to writing full-time. Over his short lifetime, he would write a wealth of stories, novels, plays, and essays.

As he aged, Mishima grew increasingly politically active, rejecting Western ideals and advocating for a return to traditional Japanese values. On November 25, 1970, as an act of political resistance, Mishima committed suicide, performing seppuku at a Japanese military base. 

His short story “Swaddling Clothes” was first published in 1955 and takes place in his native Tokyo. In it, Mishima subtly critiques the Western influence on post-war Japan, foreshadowing some of the more radical ideas he adopted later in life.

Plot Summary

“Swaddling Clothes” opens with Toshiko, a young and affluent woman, traveling home alone in a taxi cab. She reflects on the events of that evening: Earlier, she had joined her husband at a nightclub and listened as he enthusiastically told a story about “the incident” to his friends. While her husband delights in telling the story, Toshiko is haunted by it.

Toshiko recalls her husband “gesturing flamboyantly” as he described the large stomach of the nurse they hired to care for their baby and how, two days ago, Toshiko and her husband heard “groans and moans” coming from their nursery. When they entered, they found the nurse in labor. Toshiko’s husband “rescued [the] good rug from the floor” and gave the nurse a blanket to lie on.

The baby, a boy, was born shortly after. When the doctor arrived, he wrapped the baby “in bloodstained newspapers…rather than proper swaddling.” Unbeknownst to her husband, Toshiko later swaddled the baby with a brand-new piece of flannel.

As Toshiko sits in the taxi cab, she continues thinking about the incident, the image of the newborn baby wrapped in newspapers sparking immense guilt and sympathy. “Those soiled newspaper swaddling clothes will be the symbol of his entire life,” she thinks, believing that the baby is fated to a life of poverty and crime. Toshiko thinks of the future, imagining how twenty years will go by and envisioning how the nurse’s grown son might one day stab her own grown son. She comforts herself with a commitment: When that day comes, she will take her son’s place before the knife.

Toshiko has the taxi stop at Chidorigafuchi Park, situated along the moat of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace. She leaves the taxi and walks through the park, admiring the blossoming cherry trees. It is late, and few others pass by. The sound of people kicking empty bottles and stepping on paper causes Toshiko to think again of the nurse’s baby, swaddled in newspapers.

An object on a park bench catches Toshiko’s attention. As she approaches, she realizes it is a person sleeping on the bench, covered with newspapers. She looks at “the man’s dirty, unkempt hair” and thinks again of the baby. As she leans closer to see the man’s face, his eyes open, and he suddenly sits up. He reaches out and grabs her wrist. Toshiko does not feel fear and does not resist. She thinks about her earlier premonition—that in twenty years, the nurse’s grown son would attack her. The story ends with Toshiko feeling that the moment has already arrived.

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