Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 725
Scholars say that a literal translation of the title of this story is “waste newspapers.” Although the English title, “Swaddling Clothes,” is not entirely accurate, ironically, it captures a central tension of the tale. With this title the warm white flannel evoked by the English term is conflated with the...
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Scholars say that a literal translation of the title of this story is “waste newspapers.” Although the English title, “Swaddling Clothes,” is not entirely accurate, ironically, it captures a central tension of the tale. With this title the warm white flannel evoked by the English term is conflated with the dirty newspapers that first swathe the newborn child. The child in the dramatic birthing scene is visible throughout the tale in a series of tensions; the cherished child in clean flannel contrasts with the bloodied paper wrappings that declare this child trash, a piece of meat, a throwaway life.
As the pristine flannel and the soiled papers are held in tension, so are other objects and persons united. Two powerful images are conflated in the story: images of cherry blossoms and images of newspapers. To Toshiko the artificial cherry blossoms on the theater marquee are revealed to be shreds of paper; she walks down the park path beneath an umbrella of blossoming trees with heaps of waste paper at her feet, and at first the sheets of paper draping the vagrant on the bench glow in the darkness like a blanket of cherry blossoms. Both the blossoms and the newspapers suggest transience, one the transience of events natural, the other the transience of events humanmade. The blossoms evoke an entire genteel aesthetic and the most ancient traditions of Japan. The other suggests the blaring emptiness of modern Western lifestyles of conspicuous consumption. Most dramatically, the newspapers unite the bastard child born in Toshiko’s nursery with the malign force of the shadowy figure of her future destruction. This small tale of horror lifts a corner of the veneer of Japanese contemporary life and reveals the madness and violence beneath.
The conjunction of oppositions is a pattern woven in the very fabric of the story. The boundaries of familiar dualities are broken as the commonplace becomes the bizarre and the domestic transforms into the public. East and West, traditional and modern, birth and death, past and present, nature and humankind unite until inner and outer realities merge at a park bench. Doubles people the landscape of Toshiko’s life: two babies, one legitimate and one a bastard; two mothers, united in silence and powerlessness; two males, powerful forces of personal and social control; and finally the bastard and the vagrant, both swaddled in newspapers, both social discards. Two acts of personal violation mirror each other as well. The dishonoring of the newborn is the psychic seed of the impending violation of Toshiko. The horrific union of the wraithlike female protagonist and the menacing phantom embodiment of the newborn suggests Japan’s fate, an impending destruction of personal, social, economic, and political orders.
Part of the dramatic power of this tale arises in its use of point of view. The narrative voice is omniscient, yet the narrator’s power to reveal people and the world is not employed. In the tale the reader never goes outside Toshiko’s mind. One does not hear others’ words or views; one sees other people’s actions in the indistinct impressions that they register on Toshiko’s consciousness. Certainly the mode of presentation conveys the alienation and isolation of Toshiko in her world. More important still, the point of view suggests Toshiko’s alienation from herself. Lost, she bumps into her own thoughts and feelings like strangers on a crowded street. The effect of this narrative technique on the reader is profound. One cannot identify with the protagonist. She walks like an automaton into a death grip, seemingly never speaking and never being spoken to, scarcely seen or felt. As she is estranged from herself so she is estranged from the reader. An omniscience that could tell all but reveals nothing is a strategy for creating that paradoxical preternatural quality of events. The narrator can show and tell all but reveals nothing. Is Toshiko a mad housewife intent on suicide? Or is she a symbol of the fragile spirit of a nation inexorably, blindly, walking into the hands of its own murderer? In the context of the social, economic, political, and moral upheavals of post-World War II Japan, after the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Mishima sought to ring an alarm for his people, to cry for renewal of human dignity and compassion for others in both personal and social realms.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 980
Art in a Political World
The Japan that Mishima lived and worked in had little reprieve from political upheavals. As an adolescent, Mishima would have been aware of the NiNi Roku Incident or the February 26th Incident (1936), a violent resistance movement that resulted in numerous deaths including the assassination of three high-ranking government officials when a military faction attempted to resist a large transfer of their group out of Tokyo by officials whom they claimed sought to attenuate the Emperor’s power. In 1945, when Mishima was twenty years old, he witnessed the surrender of Japan to the United States which was radio broadcast nationwide by Hirohito on August 15, 1945. Japan was to be occupied by United States military from 1945-1952 and forced to accept an American written Constitution that dictated radical changes in the country’s political structure. For one, Japan could no longer have a standing military force, although they were allowed to maintain a ‘‘self-defense’’ army, the Jieitai. The previously Emperor-centered government was turned into a western style ‘‘democracy’’ and the Emperor, while being permitted to remain on the throne and given immunity from prosecution as a war criminal, was forced to renounce his rule by divine authority and declare that he was a mere functionary of the state. This announcement, the ningen singen, occurred on January 1, 1946 and deeply affected Mishima as he dedicated several of his later works to criticizing the effects of American democracy on Japan and resurrecting absolute loyalty to the Emperor.
Though literary critics debate whether Mishima was primarily a ‘‘political’’ writer or an artist writing for art’s sake, the tumultuous political context of his Japan makes it difficult to conceive Mishima as not being influenced by his contemporary environment. In Confessions of a Mask he comments that as a young boy he was deeply affected by the sight of soldiers marching by his house gate, titillated by the scent of their sweat, the physical manifestation of their patriotism. His later works, such as the short story ‘‘Patriotism’’ (1966), which dramatizes the NiNi Roku incident and the double seppeku of a fictional high-ranking military officer and his wife, and his creation of the Tatenokai certainly attest to Mishima’s overt political commitment towards the end of his life. But this is not to say that he favored political critique over aesthetic development and exploration. It would probably be more accurate to say that for Mishima the political and the aesthetic were not mutually exclusive domains. Rather, for Mishima political and aesthetic concerns were inextricably intertwined and they emerged in his works in varying proportions at different stages of his personal and literary development.
The Meiji Restoration and the Fall of the Samurai
A descendent of the Tokugawa family, Mishima spent much of his childhood and adult life interested in samurai philosophy and lore. His commitment to reviving Emperor worship may have had less to do with extreme right-wing political beliefs than was a manifestation of his desire to return to the simpler days of feudal Japan where vassals and lords lived under mutual obligation. Mishima’s understanding of samurai culture and government was highly romanticized as though he envisioned the members of the rigidly stratified class system as living in ‘‘harmony’’—the vassals offering unconditional service to the ruling class in exchange for absolute protection—he paid little attention to the oppression and exploitation that the agricultural vassals were subject to under the samurai class’s tyrannical military rule.
In 1869 the samurai class was officially removed from power by the newly ascended Meiji government and forbidden to carry swords. In 1853, American Naval officer Matthew Perry coerced Japan to open their trade ports to the West through military force and intimidation. Like in other Asian countries, the infiltration of western social, economic, and political structures resulted in profound economic and social disruptions in Japan. But unlike their Asian neighbors, and witnessing the violent defeat and devastation of these surrounding countries, Meiji Japan more willfully adopted western ideas and practices rather than struggle through escalating military conflict. Their aim was to one day supersede the West by ‘‘out-westernizing’’ them.
This strategy has made Japan one of the foremost economic powers of the world today, but also resulted in national spiritual and psychological confusion that still resonates. Was Japan its own nation, or a mere lackey of the West? Citizens were also disturbed by the destruction of traditional values and culture in favor of the adoption of western, moneymaking oriented practices. This confusion redoubled when the terms of surrender in World War II placed Japan under military supervision and regulation by America. Mishima viewed the negative effects of westernization as a direct result of the disenfranchisement of the samurai class and enviS sioned the revival of samurai philosophy as a salve to what he perceived as the degradation of Japanese culture, tradition, and conservative mores under modernizing, western influences.
Bunburyodo: The Dual Way of Art and Action
Before the Meiji Restoration, the ruling military elite of Japan were the samurai. The collaboration of politics and aesthetics is the central concept of bunburyodo, ‘‘the dual way of art and action,’’ a samurai ethic that Mishima chose to adhere to as part of his personal philosophy. To enhance their physical fitness and military prowess, the samurai were expected to cultivate literary and artistic interests. Already an artist, Mishima embraced bunburyodo by developing himself physically an d training for patriotic ‘‘action.’’
Also central to samurai philosophy was the requirement to commit hara-kiri or seppuku, ritual suicide by disembowelment in the face of dishonor. (Hara-kiri and seppuku describe the same process but some Japanese dislike the graphic nature of the former term, literally meaning ‘‘belly cut’’). When Mishima realized that the Japanese public did not take seriously his call to resurrect Emperor worship and renounce the American written Constitution, he committed suicide in this way, fulfilling the ultimate commitment to samurai philosophy.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 800
Point of View and Fragmented Narration
‘‘Swaddling Clothes’’ is not narrated in a straightforward, linear style. While the present action of the narrative is generally progressive (Toshiko leaving the nightclub and heading home in a taxi), the linear progression of events is interrupted by Toshiko’s memories and contemplations. The nurse’s delivery is also recounted in pieces and from different points of view (Toshiko and her husband’s) offering the reader a comparison of the character’s attitudes.
There are many reasons why an author may choose to disrupt a traditional, linear narrative with fragmented memories and contemplations—for instance, to use the present action as a mere premise for unearthing the past, to underscore the difficulty and painfulness of remembering the past, or to stress the discontinuity of a character’s experience. In this way, a fragmented narrative style can emphasize major themes within the story. For example, Asian-American literature that dramatizes the arduous and often interrupted and diverted journeys of immigrants across North America often uses fragmented narrative styles to enhance the feeling of discomfit and unsettlement in American culture. In ‘‘Swaddling Clothes,’’ Toshiko is afraid of the future, as the narrator comments ‘‘thoughts of the future made Toshiko feel cold and miserable,’’ because she anticipates only increased violence, bloodshed, and loss of moral values in the rapidly modernizing Japanese society. In this context, the frequent interruption of the present action by Toshiko’s memories, projections and meandering thoughts emphasizes her unwillingness to move forward in time into an inauspicious future.
Symbolism and Setting
Much of the symbolism in ‘‘Swaddling Clothes’’ is achieved through elements of setting and their contrasts. Each place or piece of the Japanese landscape that Toshiko views from the taxi window are symbols of tradition and its decay through the oppressions of modernization: for instance, the tacky entertainment district versus the solemn, stately Imperial Palace, and the organic, comforting structure of the Imperial Palace versus the cold and uninviting, ultra-modern skyscrapers in the background. The visual contrast of these structures standing together symbolizes the chaos and incongruence Toshiko feels in a modernizing society that seems to have irretrievably abjured its culture and tradition. The park in front of the Imperial Palace contains many internal contrasts also symbolic of this chaotic transformation. While the park has preserved its splendid vista of cherry blossoms, the trees are decorated by garish, colored light bulbs, reminiscent of the ‘‘pinpricks of light’’ emanating from the stark, modern office buildings, and the park grounds are littered with bottles, waste paper, and sleeping vagrants.
Waste paper, newspapers, and cherry blossoms form the central group of symbols of the story. The crumpled up trash reminds Toshiko of the ‘‘mere scraps of white paper’’ that have been crafted into fake cherry blossoms to decorate a theater, and the newspapers that cover the homeless youth remind her of both cherry blossoms and the shameful newspaper ‘‘swaddling clothes’’ of the illegitimate baby. It seems to Toshiko that the Japanese environment is no longer naturally adorned by real cherry blossoms, which represent the purity of Japanese culture and tradition, and is now instead ‘‘decorated’’ with trash and newspapers, representing the contamination of that culture and tradition. In other words, cherry blossoms have been degraded—made artifi- cial or replaced by the waste products of a careless modern culture.
Another symbol of purity that suffers degradation is the figure of the newborn baby. Conventionally, babies and births connote joy and celebration, but in ‘‘Swaddling Clothes,’’ the nurse’s delivery is perceived as a violent scene of bloodshed by Toshiko and a laughably grotesque vision of mockery by Toshiko’s husband. The nurse’s baby wrapped in soiled newspapers embodies not only the nurse’s loss of moral values, but the staining and contamination of Japanese society’s future. Toshiko comments: ‘‘Those soiled newspaper swaddling clothes will be the symbol of his [the illegitimate baby’s] entire life.’’ The figure of the homeless youth curled up on the park bench under a layer of newspapers echoes this earlier symbol, and as Toshiko imagines it, is the manifestation of the poverty and crime that the nurse’s baby will no doubt grow up in.
A Modern Parable
‘‘Swaddling Clothes’’ functions as a modern parable or allegory, a pithy moralization of general social problems through a specific and concrete story. By imbuing various objects and places with symbolism, the story not only dramatizes a particular incident in one woman’s life, but can be widely applied to society in general. In this way, Toshiko’s experience is presented as a universal truth, to which society as a whole can broadly relate. The function of a parable is also to provide a moral lesson. The lesson or ‘‘message’’ in ‘‘Swaddling Clothes’’ warns of the destructive effects of western- induced modernization.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 391
1868: Ascendancy of Meiji government, characterized by adoption of western economic, social, and political practices. The Meiji period is traditionally marked as the beginning of Japanese westernization, modernization, and industrialization. Meiji leaders justify this radical social transformation by professing its goals are to ultimately ‘‘out-westernize’’ and supersede the west. The samurai class is removed from power and public sword-carrying is outlawed.
1980s: High-technology ‘‘bullet train’’ travel is extended throughout the nation. First constructed in 1967, it is the most sophisticated form of train travel of its kind in the world. American consumer automobile production exceeded by Japanese production.
1940s: U. S. levies economic sanctions on Japan. Surprise attack on U. S.’s Pearl Harbor by Japanese airforce. United States drops atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Until this day, this is the first and only large-scale deployment of nuclear weapons on civilian populated areas during a war. Allied Occupation of Japan. Japan is forced to adopt a model of western democratic government and an American written Constitution. 1990s: After the Japanese economy becomes one of the strongest in the world, with the Japanese buying up American properties and companies in the 1980s, their economy begins to falter as their stock market drops.
1942: President F. D. Roosevelt issues Executive Order No. 9066, ordering all American residents of Japanese ancestry to be removed from the United States west coast regardless of American citizenship. They are interned inland in concentration camps to protect against ‘‘espionage’’ and ‘‘sabotage’’ to ‘‘national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national- defense utilities’’ (Executive Order No. 9066 from Roger Daniels, Prisoners Without Trial p. 129). A similar order is issued in Canada, removing all Japanese from British Columbia’s west coast.
1976: President Gerald Ford issues Proclamation 4417, subtitle ‘‘An American Promise,’’ officially retracting Executive Order 9066 and offering a national apology to Japanese Americans and their families who were interned during World War II. Proclamation states: ‘‘I call upon the American people to affirm with me this American Promise — that we have learned from the tragedy of that long-ago experience forever to treasure liberty and justice for each individual American, and resolve that this kind of action shall never again be repeated’’ (Proclamation 4417, from Daniels, p. 133).
1980s: U. S. House of Representatives votes to pay surviving internees of World War II relocation of Japanese Americans $20,000 in reparations. In 1989, President George Bush signs the 1987 vote on reparations into law.
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Ford, Gerald. ‘‘Proclamation 4417: An American Promise,’’ in Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II, Roger Daniels and Eric Foner, eds., New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.
Mishima, Yukio. Excerpts from ‘‘An Appeal,’’ ‘‘Tate No Kai,’’ ‘‘An Ideology for an Age of Languid Peace,’’ and ‘‘Yang-Ming Thought as Revolutionary Philosophy’’ in The Japan Interpreter, Vol. VII, No. 1, Winter, 1971, pp. 71-87.
Roosevelt, F. D. ‘‘Executive Order No. 9066,’’ in Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II, Roger Daniels and Eric Foner, eds., New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.
Smith, Robert J. Review of Death in Midsummer and Other Stories in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 50, Winter, 1966, pp. 380-381.
Starrs, Roy. ‘‘The Road to Violent Action,’’ in Deadly Dialectics: Sex, Violence, and Nihilism in the World of Yukio Mishima, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994.
Stokes, Henry Scott. The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima, New York: The Noonday Press, 1995.
Trumbell, Robert. ‘‘Encounters with Life,’’ review of Death in Midsummer and Other Stories in The New York Times Book Review, May 1, 1966, p. 441.
Wain, John. ‘‘Things Japanese,’’ review of Death in Midsummer and Other Stories in Newsweek, May 30, 1966, p. 438.
Benedict, Ruth. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Studies in Patterns of Japanese Culture, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1946. A sociological study of Japanese culture concentrating on its dual philosophy of cultural sophistication (the ‘‘chrysanthemum’’) and military prowess (the ‘‘sword’’). Stokes notes in his biography that Mishima read Benedict’s work and praised her for calling attention to the militaristic aspect of Japan rather than focusing exclusively on the delicacy and charm of its culture and traditions as other historians and sociologists conventionally do.
Chan, Sucheng. Asian Americans: An Interpretive History, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1982. A comprehensive and thorough history of Asian migration to North America. Brings to light the poverty and economic disenfranchisement precipitated in Asian countries by western infiltration and forcible opening of trade ports, belying the myth that Asians migrated voluntarily to North America in search of the ‘‘American dream.’’ Includes concise chronology of Asian American history and bibliography.
Hosoe, Eikoh. Ba-ra-kei (Ordeal by Roses), New York: Penguin, 1985. A luxurious collection of photos and drawings by Hosoe, the bulk of which Mishima posed for during his program of rigorous body-building. Foreword written by Mishima.
Napier, Susan J. Escape from the Wasteland: Romanticism and Realism in the Fiction of Mishima Yukio and Oe Kenzaburo, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991. A sophisticated and detailed critical analysis of Mishima’s central works, their literary styles, relationship to the literary movements of Japanese Romanticism and Realism. Compares Mishima to Nobel Prize winner Oe.
Starrs, Roy. Deadly Dialectics: Sex, Violence, and Nihilism in the World of Yukio Mishima, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994. A critical-historical analysis of the main themes prevalent in Mishima’s works. Explores Mishima’s philosophic progression from passive to active nihilism. Includes discussion of major works, links Mishima to 19th century German philosophers, particularly Nietzsche, and discusses his complex personal and literary relationship to the west.
Stokes, Henry Scott. The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima, New York: Noonday Press, revised, 1995. A personalized and intimate biography of Mishima written by a close journalist friend. Recounts Mishima’s early childhood through the day of his suicide and summarizes details of Mishima’s central literary works. Speculates on Mishima’s motivations in forming the Tatenokai and staging his seppuku. Includes detailed chronology of Mishima’s life.
Mishima Cyber Museum at www.vill.yamanakako.yamanashi.jp/ bungaku/mishima/index-e.html. An informative and interesting website dedicated to the life and literary works of Mishima. Managed by the Bungakukan Planning Committee in anticipation of the construction of the Yukio Mishima Museum (Bungakukan) on Lake Yamanakaka to accompany the Takahama Kyoshi and Tokutomi Soho Museums to complete the ‘‘Lake Yamanakaka Library Grove Trio.’’ To be completed July, 1999. Includes forum for posting questions and comments about Mishima’s life and work.