Many years ago, while teaching Japanese language and literature at the Australian National University in Canberra, I asked students in a seminar to conduct an experiment on campus. That was in the 1970s, when Australia and much of the rest of the world were rediscovering Japan as an economic and cultural superpower.
Back then, a week did not pass without someone writing at length about some aspect of Japanese life in the Australian press. Sushi was becoming the new food craze both there and in the United States, though it wasn’t until the ’80s that children started nagging their parents to take them to the local sushi bar for a quick meal — hardly a cheap outing for your average mom and dad.
Culturally speaking, Japan was replicating the kind of image role it had around the turn of the 20th century — that of a land of stark contrasts where the ultra-contemporary is cheek by jowl with stubborn tradition. In fact, the bulk of journalistic writing about Japan in Australia, the U.S. and Britain took on just this theme. I don’t know how many times I read articles about Japanese storefront dummies looking Western rather than Japanese; little smoky Buddhist temples nestled among skyscrapers; and the trudging office worker who sheds his daytime Western suit for traditional Japanese gear and sips green tea, not coffee, when he finally reaches home exhausted. I even once saw a film titled “A Day in the Life of an Average Japanese Millionaire,” but I can’t for the life of me remember the name of the average millionaire whose life it purported to depict.
But back to my seminar at the ANU.
One of the stories we were reading at the time was Yukio Mishima’s “Yukoku (Patriotism).” This is about a naval officer and his wife who commit ritual double suicide after the failure of the coup by zealous rightwing officers on Feb. 26, 1936, in what came to be known as the Ni-ni-roku Incident. Its themes of redemption, honor and the glorification of death for a national purpose make it representative of Mishima’s last period of writing, not to say prescient of his own ritual suicide on Nov. 25, 1970.
In 1966, Mishima also produced and directed a chilling black-and-white film based on “Yukoku,” acting the part of Takeyama, the naval officer, and visibly relishing the flow of controlled gore at the end. In the room that is the set of this film, a scroll hangs on the wall. The scroll bears the legend “shisei” (total devotion) — devotion, in this case, acted out in a truly meaningful, and presumably pure-Japanese death.
Well, I gave my 13 students 10 copies each of the short story in English. But I had blotted out all names and references to Japan. I asked them to give the story to students on campus and take down their telephone numbers. These had to be students who didn’t know that my students were studying Japanese.
About a week later my seminar students phoned those to whom they had given the story, asking them one question only: Where do you think this story takes place?
I compiled the more than 100 responses before our next seminar. We had all been pretty certain that most of those who read the story would immediately recognize its setting as Japan. After all, not only was there a mini-boom in things Japanese afoot in Australia, but also the core elements of the story — ritual suicide, total devotion to a nationalist cause — seemed to make it “very Japanese.”
In fact, most votes went to Italy! More than 50 students imagined “Yukoku” taking place there. I don’t know if this says more about the Australian students’ view of what motivates Italians than it does about how privy they are to archaic conventions followed by Yukio Mishima; but we in the seminar all had a good laugh and went out for an Italian meal that night. One student even went so far as to eat her spaghetti con funghi with chopsticks.
The country with the second-largest number of votes was the United States. France came in a close third. Japan was fourth with just 11 votes.
The results of this little assignment were, to me, very telling.
A lot of the interest in and hype about Japan focuses on surface phenomena that are identified as “typically Japanese” only because they are identifiable as being a part of Japanese life. In other words, our actions and motivations in the West may really be not so different from those of the Japanese. It is only when we see Japanese people manifesting these that we conclude they are an integral part of the personal nature and national makeup of the Japanese people.
If there ever is a coup in Italy, and a couple commits suicide out of total devotion to the state, I’m now prepared to stand at attention, face Rome and — sincerely, graciously, solemnly — yell Banzai!