Japan expert’s memoir gives more tales of Mishima

by William Hollingworth

Kyodo

One of Britain’s most eminent experts on Japan has published a memoir that include recollections of his relationship with celebrated writer Yukio Mishima.

Geoffrey Bownas, 82, recalls one night when Mishima terrified him by drawing a sword and holding it aloft for three minutes, and then lamenting the weakening of Japanese traditions.

This incident happened only a few months before Mishima, an ardent nationalist, committed ritual suicide in November 1970 after he led his private army in a failed coup attempt.

Mishima, who was born Kimitake Hiraoka, despaired at Japan’s pacifism and Western drift. He wanted a revival of Bushido, the samurai code of honor.

His attempted coup and suicide made headlines around the world amid concerns about a possible revival of Japanese militarism.

Many literary critics believe Mishima was Japan’s most important writer in the 20th century. His works drew on both traditional Western and Japanese literature.

Bownas worked with Mishima on the anthology “New Writing in Japan,” which was completed just before Mishima’s death. The pair had a good working relationship, and Bownas would often visit the writer at his home.

In his new book, “Japanese Journeys — Writings and Recollections,” Bownas recounts one night at Mishima’s home, when the writer, who was in a depressive mood, changed into a loincloth and grabbed his favorite sword — the one he later used to commit suicide.

“He positioned himself in front of a full-length mirror and, with both hands clasping the hilt, lifted the sword above his head, arms full outstretched,” Bownas wrote.

“He posed his legs, trunk, arms, head, face and eyes, and locked himself into the kabuki-style freeze — “mie” — that marks the high point in the drama. He held the freeze for three theatrical minutes. They were like years. I was scared — an almost naked man with a drawn sword, no one else in the room!

“At last, relaxing the pose and lowering his arms, he said, in a calmly quiet tone, almost whispering, ‘Do you realize that Japan’s culture today faces a challenge more threatening than ever before? It is even more critical than in the 1880s and 1890s.’ ”

Mishima then changed back into his regular clothing and the two men went back to work.

Bownas is still puzzled about what Mishima was trying to show him with the strange performance, but he does not think it was to hint that he would commit suicide.

Bownas remembered his “terrible shock” when he heard Mishima had taken his own life.

After his death, “it became something of a duty to make sure that our book was to be good and worthy of his memory,” he said.

Many people have tried to give motives for Mishima’s suicide, which remains something of a mystery.

Bownas believes Mishima might have killed himself simply because he did not want to grow old. The writer, who was 45 when he died, was obsessed with his body and was an ardent bodybuilder.

Bownas’ new book details his long association with Japan, which stretches back more than 50 years.

He describes the book as a miscellany. It details Bownas’ early years in Kyoto and looks back on his own writing on Japanese literature.