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Monday, April 25, 2005

THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK

Knight still mounted on a tethered horse


NEW YORK -- In 1958 there was a political upheaval in Iraq, which, as far as that country at that particular juncture in history was concerned, was the final rejection of Western rule. But Japan's reaction was shifty and muddled. Or so writer Yukio Mishima (1925-70) thought.

I didn't know anything about "the July 14 Revolution" until recently when I read an article by Mishima that was so quirky -- "politically incorrect" -- that a major daily for which he wrote it would not print it. How quirky was it?

To start with, Mishima commended Gamal Abdal Nasser for saying, "We warn our enemies that we aren't even afraid of atomic bombs." The Egyptian president, upon returning from Moscow, had given a speech and said that.

"I admired this super-modern version of the old samurai defiance, Ya demo teppo demo motte koi (Bow or gun, bring on whatever you got)," said Mishima. Yes, "Bring 'em on!"

Mishima then compared Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to Jean Genet after taking care to note that the French writer and poet was an embodiment of "absolute evil, absolute anti-society-ism, filth," etc.

It may be recalled that Nasser and Nehru were, in those days, the towering heroes of the Third World -- "the idea," Albert Hourani reminds us in "A History of the Arab Peoples" (Harvard, 1991) -- "of a common front of countries in the process of development, mainly belonging to the former colonial empires, keeping themselves uncommitted to either of the two blocs, that of the 'West' and that of the communist 'East.' "

So, referring to Nasser in such flippant fashion and describing Nehru in such a heinous manner were tantamount to sacrilege, especially for Japanese newspaper editors who were engaged in a rear-guard action to lessen the damage left by Japan's imperialist adventures.

Mishima wasn't, of course, being quirky for the sake of being quirky. His purpose was to point to the "limited moral" room the Japanese had for diplomatic maneuver. His admiration for Nasser was based on the realization that "There can't be a single Japanese politician who could make such a foolish declamation, but for any politico-diplomatic threat to carry any weight, you must be able to go that far."

What lay immediately behind these observations were two books he'd just read: Jean Paul Sartre's "Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr," a philosopher's take on the self-proclaimed thief, and Goro Kaigai's "Extortion," confessions of "the Ginza's first-class yakuza."

The linkage between Genet and Nehru, as Mishima explained it, goes this way: There is the old argument that "the Japanese concept of evil is ethereal because Japan lacks the Christian concept of God." The argument may be worn out, but it has a point. Japanese political thinking certainly does not include the kind of "evil that has lurked in Western political philosophy since Machiavelli, the evil that is accepted as a self-evident premise in that most idealistic [expression of] political philosophy" -- "The Prince."

By contrast, "the politicians of former colonies have learned at least the principle of evil, the wisdom of evil, from the imperialists who trampled upon them. Nehru seems to me typical of them."

Japanese political thought belongs more to the kind of limited world that Goro Kaigai, a member of the Ginza's first-class yakuza, delineated in his "confessions." Those operating in the "true yakuza society don't even deign to accord a contemptuous glance at robbers and burglars" and abhor betrayal the most, Kaigai said. But so defined, "there is no categorical difference between the morality of society in general" and that of the yakuza, the distinction between the two deriving only from "a difference in nuance."

This explains, Mishima said, Japan's shifting reaction to the Iraqi coup d'etat, in which King Faisal II and the crown prince, along with the two top representatives of the old guard, were killed -- an action that the Iraqi people cheered. The coup, which was accomplished without a hitch, was a clear manifestation of nationalism, and some Japanese called it a "progressive" coup. But the Japanese politicians, who can't even hope to "imitate" Western-style evil, can't stick to their "yakuza nature," either. They wanted to support that kind of anti-West nationalism but were fearful that doing so would offend the United States.

As a result, they changed their positions a couple of times before finally opting to "free-ride the sense of justice" that the United Nations came up with. In doing so, like the yakuza in Kaigai's world, they were able to maintain "a certain distance" between the evil and themselves, while not forgetting to leave room for "self-justification."

This "wishy-washiness" exasperated Mishima, prompting him to throw another bomb, which in some ways has proved to be prophetic: "At least Japanese politicians should be able to say, as Boss Nasser did, 'We aren't afraid of atomic bombs.' If the idea is that they can't possibly say that because Japan had atomic bombs dropped on it, it should totally reverse itself and serve as the running dog of capitalism and persecute nationalism," Mishima wrote.

"The running dog of capitalism" was, until not long ago, communist China's favorite term of condemnation of, well, anything.

Mishima the writer was as free to pronounce such assessments as the newspaper editors who hesitated to print his article were constrained. He was also free, an established writer's privilege, to incorporate the rejected article into the "diary" that he was just then serializing in the monthly "Shincho."

As Mishima the political observer was no doubt perfectly aware, though, Japan at the time had no choice but to engage in "playing-dumb diplomacy" or "wind-up doll diplomacy," to use the derisive terms of the day. Mishima was indeed more realistic when he compared Japan to "a worried knight in a corner of Asia, who, every time something happens, mounts his horse that is tied to the stable and mouths oracular vacuities."

It was a brilliant image worthy of a man who once aspired to be a poet. The situation hasn't changed much in the half century since. If anything, it may have gotten worse, even while Iraq has fared far worse.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist.


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